Monday, January 11, 2016

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano. . .

There are certain things in life that are predictable. The swallows returning to the mission at San Juan Capistrano, politicians citing the need to spend more time with their family when tanking poll numbers force them to drop out of a campaign, Oprah Winfrey announcing yet another weight loss/get back in shape plan. . . and haters crawling out of the woodwork whenever Jane Fonda is involved with a new movie or television project. Netflix started streaming "Grace and Frankie" and suddenly a couple Hanoi Jane screeds were once again wandering the Internet waiting to gull the gullible.

It's bizarre. First, I've never understood why Fonda wound up as the prime target -- was it simply a matter of her being unlucky enough to have gone from sex symbol to activist? Pete Seeger and Joan Baez both visited North Vietnam and spoke out against the war; I don't recall any garbage wandering the Internet recently about them being traitors. Even when the divisions in society over the war were the most heated, I don't think either Baez or Seeger were actively hated the way Fonda still is. Back at the time she was involved in the anti-war movement, Fonda was hardly alone. Hundreds of Americans visited North Vietnam as part of the effort to protest the war, but to see some of the garbage that floats around the Internet now you'd think she'd chartered a private jet and arrived in Hanoi solo instead of being part of a group tour. She did do some dumb stuff, like allowing herself to be photographed with a group of North Vietnamese soldiers at an anti-aircraft battery, but most of what she's accused of never happened. And some is flat-out stupid.

The prime example: one of the claims made in the emails and web posts denigrating Fonda is that the POWs she met with gave her their Social Security numbers so she could get word to their families that they were alive. The claim is either, depending on which version you read, that she then handed those numbers over to the North Vietnamese or that she personally shredded them. This is nonsense for multiple reasons, but I'll mention just two: First, the most blatantly obvious to someone who actually is a Vietnam era veteran and can put their dislike of Fonda on hold long enough to think the claim through: If you were in the military you never thought about your Social Security number as a form of identification. You thought about your serial number, which was a totally different number at that time. My USWAC serial number bears almost no resemblance to my Social Security number. In addition, those numbers would not have been some deep dark secret from the North Vietnamese: they're on dog tags and they're what military personnel are trained to recite if captured by the enemy (name, rank, serial number). It's been almost 50 years since I enlisted, and there are still days when that serial number comes to mind more naturally than my Social Security number does. Update: The S.O. tells me that the military switched to using Social Security numbers for serial numbers in 1969, after I was discharged, so I never experienced that. The point still holds, though, The North Vietnamese wanted to use the Hanoi POWs for propaganda purposes so never made a secret of who they were holding. They wanted the families to know where their men were so the families would put pressure on the U.S. government to end the war.

Second, in any case, this particular line of saying see how horrible she was really falls apart in view of the fact she hand carried letters home that POWs gave her. She trashed social security numbers but carried real letters? That doesn't make a whole lot of sense -- it says, in fact, that the story about the notes getting shredded is nonsense. And why would the North Vietnamese allow Fonda to carry letters? At the time, there was no mail service between North Vietnam and the U.S. so it was common practice for foreign visitors (journalists, activists, diplomats) to accept letters to put into the mail elsewhere. The anti-Fonda screed says she tore up half a dozen notes; the reality is she carried out over 200 letters. But that's the reality -- and reality is always so boring compared to a melodramatic lie. And, despite whatever mythology some people might like to believe, the North Vietnamese had o problem whatsoever in letting the U.S. military and the U.S. public know who they were holding as POWs and where they were in Hanoi. There were POWs held in isolated areas, especially in Viet Cong controlled areas in South Vietnam, who were listed as Missing In Action for months or years, but the ones who were in or near Hanoi? They were human shields -- or so the North Vietnamese hoped. They wanted the U.S. to know that if they bombed the city they might be bombing U.S. personnel. It was in their interests to advertise how many POWs they held and who they were. Did it work? Good question. . . and one of these days I'll see if I can track down a book or two that takes a good look at the whole conflict from the perspective of what was happening in the North to see if I can find an answer. Most of the books I've read look at the mess happening in the South. (Want to thoroughly depress yourself? Read A Bright Shining Lie.)

I don't know. . . the whole Fonda obsession baffles me. Are people annoyed that despite their dislike she's had an extremely successful career, including winning two Academy Awards for Best Actress in a feature film (Klute and Coming Home)? Or are they annoyed that despite being 78 she still looks drop dead gorgeous? Is it simple misogynism, i.e., she's a woman who had the nerve to express her opinions? Who knows. But then a lot of stuff baffles me. Like why anyone who was a Vietnam vet would be more pissed off at a powerless movie actress than they would be at the politicians who led the U.S. into a war we couldn't win. If I were to waste time hating anyone involved in that war, I'd hate people like General Westmoreland, who kept demanding more cannon fodder even though he knew the war was unwinnable, or Richard Nixon, whose sabotage of the peace talks in 1968 is well-documented. He didn't want to the war to end before the election because he could use it against Hubert Humphrey in the campaign. Then he dragged stuff out for another 4+ years so he could use the war again in 1972. There was a lot of blood on Nixon's hands, but I don't hear many Vietnam vets railing against warmongering politicians. 

Or, if they wanted to aim a little lower in the power hierarchy and they're still pissed about being treated shabbily when they returned from Southeast Asia, how about aiming some scorn at the ancient codgers at the VFW. Today the Vietnam veterans are the backbone of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, they've become the old dudes running the organization, but back in the '60s and '70s the "greatest generation," the World War II vets, didn't want Vietnam vets to join. They didn't think Vietnam was a real war anymore than they thought Korea was a real war. The only war that counted was the big one, WWII, the one they fought in. It wasn't until the VFW as an organization realized it had to recruit new members or die that suddenly they were putting out the welcome mat for guys who had been sent to Vietnam. It's definitely more than a bit odd. Guys in my general age range who bitched back in the 1970s about what a bunch of dicks the old guys at the VFW were are now super happy to be part of that group. When did they get co-opted and become the dicks themselves? It's a mystery.

A slight digression: anyone who allows their dislike of Jane Fonda to cause them to forego watching "Grace and Frankie" is missing a good show. The S.O. and I are almost done watching Season 1 and were quite happy to learn there's going to be a season 2. It's one of those rare shows where I find myself thinking about actually going back and rewatching it from the start to see what I missed the first time through.


  1. In 1969 the military switched to using SSN instead of a military serial number. I had to get new dog tags with my SSN on them.

    I never have been able to understand the vicious hatred for Jane Fonda. I channeled mine towards McNamara.

  2. Okay. So it would actually have been their Social Security number, but the main point still stands up -- they didn't have to be sneaking their numbers to anyone; the North Vietnamese weren't trying to keep the POWs' presence or their identities a secret.

  3. I never got the argument with and against her either..and I love Frankie and Grace.


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