February is Black History month, regardless of how much a bunch of whiny entitled racist assholes grumble about there not being a "White History Month". (Hint: It's because every fucking month on the calendar is "White History Month")
Generally I like to feature someone in my Forgotten Men of Black History posts who has overcome incredible odds, who survived an actively hostile society, who had the pluck and the righteousness and the zeal and the determination to rise, in spite of how badly the deck was stacked against him.
And sometimes not. This is one of those times.
Dwight Johnson is not really a household name any more, but he was on everyone's lips in the spring of 1971. Dwight Johnson was a Vietnam veteran who was awarded the Medal of Honor (sometimes erroneously referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor) by President Lyndon B. Johnson himself in November 1968, for actions in Vietnam in February 1967. (That long gap of time between the time of the action and the award of the medal seems significant to me -- but I don't know what it signifies*...)
The media ate it up. Black war hero turns armed robber! And what was a deeply personal tragedy for Johnson and his family became a lasting meme of the Vietnam veteran. Suddenly the media had an immediate shorthand stereotype of Vietnam veterans: We were all crazy, walking time-bombs just looking for a place to explode.
It didn't take any time at all for Hollywood to pick up on it. By 1976 the idea of the psychopathic violent loner Vietnam vet was so ingrained in the national consciousness that all Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle had to do was deliver a kind of throwaway line about having been in Vietnam and the audience immediately knew all that it needed to know about him.
The release of both Coming Home and The Deer Hunter in 1978 permanently glued the Disturbed Vietnam Vet into everyone's consciousness. Coming Home was particularly egregious in this, since it presented a false dichotomy -- Vietnam vets are crippled emotionally or else they are crippled physically. There is no in-between.
And by the time John Rambo came along, people were beyond eager to believe him, even down to the part about people spitting on him when he came home from Vietnam (and you all know how I feel about that -- see also this month's Book of the Month).
But we are what we eat, as the saying goes, and we've eaten this shit for so long that we think it tastes good.
So it was kind of "fitting" that the first person to suffer a state execution in 2015 was Andrew Brannan, a Georgia Vietnam vet with PTSD. The only good thing is that we are all now getting so old that the whole psycho-Vietnam-vet meme will die out with us.
Or not. A hundred years from now, "spitting on Vietnam vets" who were "psychotic loner time bombs looking for a place to explode" will be all that history will remember about Vietnam veterans.
Back to Dwight Johnson: It was Dwight Johnson who became the apotheosis of the psycho Vietnam vet and cemented that into the national subconscious. It's sad that if he is remembered at all, it will be for this. Dwight Johnson, I never knew you buddy, but this brew's for you! You deserved better.
- Veterans and Allegories on the Film Reference site
- Hollywood and Vietnam on Film Comment
- From Villain to Hero: The Transformation of the Vietnam Veteran in American Cinema from 1976 to 1988
- Rambo as America: An (Over-the-top) Inter-textual Analysis of America’s Greatest/Worst Film Series
- List of Medal of Honor recipients from the Vietnam War -- especially the Transportation Corps' William Seay, whom I knew slightly; I rode "shotgun" in a convoy over that same highway the day before the ambush.
* Footnote: I suspect that politics may have had something to do with that. Even though the Medal of Honor is supposed to be "above politics", that hasn't always been the case. For example, Theodore Roosevelt conducted an active -- some said unseemly -- but unsuccessful campaign for it after the Charge up
San JuanKettle Hill. And surprisingly, the one United States "battle" that resulted in the highest number, per capita, of awards of the MOH was ... the Battle ofMassacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.