Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Path to War": HBO drama by Frankenheimer shows how LBJ, McNamara fell into the trap of war in Vietnam; recalling my draft in 1968

Path to War” (2002) is a studied dramatization by John Frankenheimer, for HBO, of the lumbering momentum of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the War in Vietnam, which started in earnest in early 1965.
Michael Gambon is not exactly a clone of LMJ, but Alec Baldwin makes for a reasonable facsimile of Robert McNamara, who authored the book “In Retrospect” explaining how insidious the road to war in Vietnam really was.  Donald Sutherland is a little bit comical as Clark Clifford, and at one point, after McNamara has been awarded the Medal of Freedom, Clifford says that McNamara is no “ostrich”.  That may have inspired the use of “animal names” when I was stationed at Fort Eustis in 1969; one of the lieutenants was called “The Ostrich” just as I was “Chickenman”.

The Tet Offensive occurs near the end of the film. It happened just before I entered the Army myself on February 8, 1968, to arrive at Fort Jackson and the Reception Station at Ft. Jackson, SC in the wee hours of the next morning.  Despite a stint in Special Training Company because of physical backwardness, I managed to use my education to remain stateside and avoid getting sent to the meat grinder.  But this was a dangerous time to go in.

Johnson comes to a realization of the quantity of men needed very early in 1965.  He computes at one point that he could need a million men.  He quibbles in public about the need to ask for families to sacrifice their young men.  Later, when one of his own young staff complains about the war, Johnson threatens to fire him and get him drafted by the Marine Corps.  Yes, it was possible to get drafted by the Marines in 1968.

The film shows the gradual evolution of LBJ’s understanding of the nature of this war. His administration, as McNamara wrote in his book, fully believed in the domino theory, and top brass meetings showed a real concern about China's entering the war and using nuclear weapons if the US didn't nip this on the bud on the ground first.   He gets angry that Ho Chi Minh won’t give up, especially in one scene at Camp David.  By 1968, Johnson has come to grasp the asymmetric nature of guerilla war and that brute force from a superpower won’t compel surrender.  The film ends with his March 31, 1968 speech (link) when he says he will not run for reelection. I was in Special Training Company, at my lowest moment, cleaning the grease pit while on KP.  But I think I recall hearing that speech on the radio. Later, after I had returned to Basic, I recall hearing on the radio that peace talks had started while I was cleaning ammo in the rifle range.

HBO no longer seems to have a link to a site for this specific film.  It is available from Netflix on DVD only. 

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