America’s military industrial complex and multiple presidential administrations have funnelled several generations of soldiers through unwinnable wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq seemingly without qualms. What has emerged from these tragedies are thousands of traumatized young Americans bringing home wars and leaving behind millions of innocent civilians killed, wounded and forced to become refugees. But some of these former soldiers also came home with an urgent new perspective to share with their compatriots. That is the case of the two veterans on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” episode: Oscar-winning film director Oliver Stone and journalist Maj. Danny Sjursen.
Although they served in the U.S. military with very different ranks and decades apart, the two share one important commonality: dissent. Before pursuing a career in film, that ultimately would win him many awards and accolades, despite often tackling controversial topics, Stone worked first on a U.S. Merchant Marine ship in 1966, and later joined the U.S. Army and requested to be sent into combat. Sjursen took another route, becoming a military officer at the prestigious West Point Academy before being sent overseas for several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and recently retiring after nearly two decades of service.
Stone’s new book, “Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game” coming out soon, and Sjursen’s new book, “Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War,” to be published in September, the two dissenters sat down with host Robert Scheer to discuss the concepts of patriotism and American exceptionalism in the context of their own life experiences as well as the film director’s career.
“When we talk about exceptionalism,” says the retired Army major, “through these terrible movies that are made post-9/11 about combat, it strikes me that perhaps your dedication to showing reality, to showing the brutality, is often misunderstood [by critics] as liking the violence or fetishization of violence when the reality is you hate violence so much. Perhaps you’re trying to demonstrate that through a refusal to whitewash it. Has that been an aspect for you throughout [your career]?”
“As I said in the book, it’s in me too,” responds Stone, reflecting on the violence he internalized while fighting in Vietnam. “There is an aspect of that ugliness in me. Charlie Sheen comes out of that war [in my film “Platoon” and] he says, ‘I’m the stepchild, the child of both [sergeants] Barnes and Elias.’ You take in the poison. You have to, to survive, I suppose. You can’t be an idealist in a war. You’re on site. It’s a very dirty situation.
“So I came home a darker strain of myself,” he concludes. “And I saw it in myself. So when I did these movies, I said, ‘Let it out, show it, man. Show it in all its ferocity, and let them fucking realize.’ That was what was misunderstood, and thank you for saying that. That’s been constant in my fucking life, just constant.”
Sjursen pins the conversation back to Stone’s book, which details the first four decades of the film director and screenwriter’s life, throughout the discussion, insightfully linking Stone’s many films, from “Platoon” to “Salvador” and “The Untold History of the United States,” to the political events that not only shaped the two veteran’s lives, but also the America we all know and live in today.
Tying the two careers together, Scheer concludes, “Oliver Stone’s movies and Maj. Danny Sjursen’s writing are ultimately attempts to hold us accountable. For our apathy, our indifference. We send people like Oliver and Danny to war. We all do; we pay the taxes. Most people didn’t protest, most people think it’s just hunky-dory, right. And you guys witnessed evil by your own side.”
Listen to Stone, Sjursen and Scheer grapple with what it means to be American, the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing police brutality and the upcoming presidential election.
Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Host: Robert Scheer
Producer: Joshua Scheer
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And, also, experience; in this case, experience with war. And I’m timing this to our celebration of the Fourth of July, when most people are not thinking about war. In fact war is now, for many Americans, nothing more than a video game. We don’t have a draft, we have a professional army with great destructive power. But nonetheless the casualties, the death, are mostly others.
And I want to raise this subject with two people of vast experience, quite a bit apart in age. And one is Oliver Stone, who’s written a new book called Chasing the Light, about his life until the age of 40. And the subtitle is Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game. And the movie game is something that Oliver did a lot to change. And he got the movie industry to deal with war not as a great action video in which nobody you care about dies, but reality. And Platoon saw Oliver get the Academy Award, one of the three he’s won, for his accounting of his own experience in Vietnam, where he was wounded, and was part of a trilogy.
The other guest is Danny Sjursen, who’s 36 years old, Major Danny Sjursen, and he spent the last 18 years as an active duty soldier. He went to West Point, he also has taught at West Point. He’s quite a historian and writer, and is publishing now his second book on patriotism, called Patriotic Dissent. He’s got a work of history coming out. And he’s written a book called Ghost Riders of Baghdad about the surge of Baghdad, and he’s been fighting America’s wars and forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And so we have two soldier-scholars of different generations, [who] basically have emerged as two of the main people willing to challenge a certain notion of mindless patriotism, unquestioned patriotism. And I’m going to turn this discussion over to them. So Danny, take it away.
DS: You know, I watched every war movie ever, right, and every Western. But I did watch all of Oliver Stone’s movies, or most of them, especially Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. So Oliver, you did not stop me from signing up and going to West Point. So I think I should hold you directly responsible for that. [Laughs] And you know, obviously I’m fooling around; I was young, and had a very different view of what I was looking for in those movies.
So, Oliver, if you’re OK with it, I mean, I’m going to kind of touch on what Bob brought up, and just give a little bit of concept and scope before we jump into the first questions. And you know, we had an opportunity to talk briefly last week. But overall what I’d like to do–with your permission, and we’ll see where it goes–is three things, you know, in the concept and scope. Which is first to cover some aspects, themes, and vignettes in the book, specifically the ones that struck me–and it really is an excellent book, I say that quite honestly. Two, to sort of tie in the film work you describe, your screenwriting, and just describe the life experiences with your sort of political and social evolution, and its connections to the seemingly pivotal present. And then finally, tie some of this in with my own experience, without overpersonalizing–and that of my generation of veterans, and just Americans in general. Comparing and kind of contrasting with your own, call it intergenerational combat and post-combat experience–wherein, you know, the book that Bob mentioned that I wrote, which has really informed much of my work and I think, dare I say, much of yours. You know, the emphasis on the cultural depictions of, and sort of the personal and popular conceptions of patriotism, in all its complexity, and of course all-too-often paltry patriotism, dare I say. So throughout, of course, we can be flexible and go places you want to, wherever you want to emphasize, and then build on what’s organic, or piques our joint interest. How does that sound?
OS: Sounds ambitious for an hour.
DS: [Laughs] Well, we’ll–
RS: I should have mentioned that you were an instructor at West Point, in addition to having been a student, so you have the habits of scholarship. And so take it from there. But you’ve also been an activist, I should have mentioned. And just a few days ago, you were one of the people that Donald Trump condemned in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for being so threatening when you tried to change the American flag. So you might discuss that also, in this context.
OS: Mentioned you by name?
DS: Ah, no, no, I was just one of the many, I think he said “lowlifes,” was how he described us. Which I was actually proud to be, if he said it. No, I was just part of a direct action with a group of anti-war vets working with some Black and indigenous Oklahomans. So yeah, we just got tossed out, and a few folks got arrested, but just kind of part of the movement, you know, in the broad sense.
OS: Did you ever see the movie I made called Nixon?
DS: Oh, yes. Yeah. And I know that Bob and Chris were involved, as well.
OS: Bob and Chris were involved. But just because Nixon used the same terminology to describe the protesters. He called them bums and lowlifes, and we had a scene in the film like that…that tradition of attacking the protesters.
DS: Yeah, absolutely. And even as, you know, as I was reading your work and just history in general, it seems that there’s always a connection between the foreign enemy and the domestic enemy. So if you’re anti-Vietnam War you’re a communist, or if you’re a Black nationalist you’re a communist, and then you’re a terrorist, and so now we’re antifa or domestic terrorists. Or just, like Nixon would say, and now Trump, you know, lowlifes or bums, or folks who don’t have a job. This theme is obviously threading throughout.
So let me start with this, if you don’t mind. Bob mentioned that I, you know, I’d followed your work previously, and that we both volunteered, albeit I was on the officer side, which I thought you pretty accurately described as only tangentially in your world, in many ways, when you were a foot soldier enlisted at the lower end of the platoon. But I first watched Platoon with an uncle who no longer speaks to me, based on politics, a former cop and fireman, when we lived together in Staten Island in 1989. So I was six; I was born just a year before your son Sean, I believe. At the time, it was a war movie to me, obviously. And then even the first four or five times after that, that I watched it, it was more about the action, and I did enjoy some of the character development. But I saw what I wanted to see, in many ways. So it was the combat scenes, and the gore, and you know, just that aspect of it, which tends to dominate in most other folks’ Vietnam War films, but not yours.
Other connections, vaguely; you know, I was a New Yorker too. But of course in class and experience and culture, you know, I was probably vaguely wedged between yourself and Ron Kovic, who I’ve gotten to know and speak on the stage with. And I was also a volunteer for war, who probably had other opportunities and expectations, but of course was an officer. Although choosing, you know, the light cav and all that, even when I could have been intel–so like you choosing the infantry.
But I think the key concept here is that my experiences in self-education, which really is throughout this book, for you seemed to gradually–and then quickly, and then gradually–lead to a path of dissent, sure, but also a public and personal sort of disavowal of conventional patriotism and masculinity. So you know, in the end, Platoon stayed with me. And when I came back to it, it remained sort of a touchstone in my life. And then of course, I broadened to your other work in later years. It kind of spoke to me differently at different points. At all different points of experience in my life, it meant something different. As has your work on Latin America, which I’ll bring up; the Ukraine, and then the whole Untold History series; and of course recently, I fell back in love with Salvador.
So I have plenty of more linear and standard sequential questions, but you know, forgive my amateur narrative arc tool, but I like to kind of come in sort of strong and deep in the story to start. But toward the end of the book, you said at the height of your success and the buzz around Platoon, you discussed kind of your complicated feelings about that popular rise and its connections between your public and private life. So soon after describing this dream in which your father appeared to you, you said it, you know, gave you chills and guilt. And you wrote that, quote, “Inside me was the demon, waiting to go back out to sea, hating this hoopla of meeting people, selling them, justifying myself.” And it really jumped out at me. And it almost reminded me of Kerouac describing Dean Moriarty in On the Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones.”
So my first question, Oliver, is would you say that this demon self, this outsider or misunderstood feeling, or yearning for the sea or the jungle, did it reflect in your films and your own life? And has it been a net positive in your work, or relationships in general?
OS: I think that’s a very deep question. It is a net positive. And as you can see, throughout the life has been the taking of risks, very important. And I didn’t see it until I wrote the book, that there was a pattern of risk-taking. For example, my parents were divorced, and that was the end of my family life. That was at the age of 16, that was just over. We were a tightly knit, three-person family which ended in acrimony. So I was on my own, in a sense like an orphan. And I went to Vietnam for the first time as a teacher, and as a merchant sailor and traveler, and so forth. And my eyes were opened to the East in a way that had never happened before. I went more from a Western way of thinking into a slight beginning to introduce myself to an Eastern way of thinking.
After that, as you know, I wrote a book about my feelings; for the first time in my life, I dealt with my feelings. And I was about 19. The book was rejected, and in pain, I left college a second time and went into the military. I wanted to go to the bottom. I wasn’t interested–I wasn’t so much–of course I was a patriot, because I had never thought about it; my father was always a Republican, and I was inducted with those values. And I’d seen all the movies you probably had seen, and believed it very much like Ron Kovic. But not really. And my demon was–my demon was inside me, was asking for punishment, I suppose, for having been so narcissistic as to write a book, and wanting to be judged in a realistic, outside-myself way. Going into the army, going into the bottom of the barrel–and I said this in Platoon: the bottom couldn’t be lower than what a private PFC in the jungle is.
And I wanted to go right to Vietnam, I wanted to go right to combat. I didn’t want to fuck around. I wanted to get through training as quickly as possible and go over there. And if I was going to be killed, so be it. That was–that would be the right, that would be the–I was ready for it, you know. So that was my state of mind. And of course, as you may know, when you’re in combat, when you’re in a jungle infantry outfit, you learn very quickly that it’s a brutal existence in the jungle. And you’re always kind of worn out and tired and sleepless. And it was wet, too; it was the monsoon season, mosquitoes, all that stuff. And constant small firefights. And I got wounded twice, pretty quickly, in the first three months. And it wakes you up, you know.
But I can’t say–and then I went on to do, I was in four different combat units. Each one had one pattern that remained the same: there was a civil war, a split in the units. There was like a blue element and a red element. There was a rebel element, and a law and order element. And I saw that everywhere in Vietnam. We can talk about that in more length. Officers, Class 2, but above all the Master Sergeant Class were my nemesis. The Master Sergeants were running the military. I ended up in the 1st Cavalry Division up north, and I got the Bronze Star in combat action and so forth. I also saw a significant human wave attack on the night of January 1, ’68, when I was in the 25th infantry, which I write about in the most strangest way. Because you’d think in a human wave attack, you’d deal with the enemy; I never saw the enemy that whole night. And it was an interesting, ghostly experience for me. But I did see the enemy in many other encounters, generally pretty close. I’m going to get–I don’t want to get sidetracked.
I came out of Vietnam alienated. And unlike Ron Kovic, I did not protest. I thought both sides were full of shit. I thought Nixon was full of shit. I thought, he’s going to just continue this thing. And he did. And, you know, actually, I was thinking about wanting to, you know, do violence. You know, get rid of Nixon. I was pretty out there. Took me a year to get back into a civilian mindset. A woman helped me, and I went back to film school after about a year. And film school brought me back into civilization, in one sense of the word. Films helped me a lot in my life. As you know, I had a rough time. I wrote Midnight Express, but also wrote Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July; both films were rejected over and over again. It was a humiliating 10 years in there, ’76, ’78 period. They would make Rambo films, but they would not make Platoon and they would not make Born on the Fourth of July. It was heartbreaking to go through this. And I talk about that in the book, and how close it came to Born on Fourth of July being made, and so forth. Bob knows that story. It was heartbreaking.
But risk-taking is where I started. So that’s the theme. And I think the biggest risk after the Vietnam experience, and going out into a business–I had no training for, I mean I had no proven ability as a writer, but I believed in myself. And I was rejected time and again, taking the risk of just having nothing in my life. At the age of 30, I’d come to a place where it’s a fork in the road, and I say, I can’t–my grandmother dies, and I make a big thing out of my grandmother, because it ties into the concept of family. And she’s French, and the heritage I came from, which is a split heritage, my mom being French, my father American.
So what happened is after 30, I had some success with Midnight Express. And it’s a great story, what happened. But the truth was, I also had [unclear] failure still. And after I kind of got thrown back down by the fate of one of my films, The Hand, which I liked, I ended up at the age of 39–which is a long, now I’m getting along in my life–how old are you now?
DS: I’m 36.
OS: Thirty-six. Well, at 39–
DS: It’s interesting, I’m sort of closer to the point you end the book.
OS: I think you know the kind of risk I took at 39. At 39, I took the limited amount of money I had, and I said I’m going to make this crazy movie with this crazy Irish journalist I love, Richard Boyle, about Salvador, the Salvadoran Civil War of 1980. I went for it whole hog, and I was so crazy and so desperate that I wanted to make it for as little as 300, 400, $500,000, whatever it took. And Richard and I went down to Salvador because he had contacts there. And his plan–just this crazy plan–was to con the Salvadoran military at the highest level into supporting our plan, and giving us the choppers, the helicopters we needed to make the Salvadoran military look great in wiping out the rebel element in Salvador, the FMLN at that point. It was amazing that we thought like this, we thought we could get away with it.
And then we thought, after that, they’ll give us everything we need for 50 grand, 100 grand, we’ll make it, and then we’ll move up to Mexico and we’ll shoot the rebel side of the thing in Mexico. It didn’t–it was destined to be a disaster that way, but I was willing to sink my last dollar, my mortgage, everything I had into this movie. And thank God, it would have been a disaster from beginning to end, there was no way. Plus, Richard Boyle was going to act in the movie. You understand how–that’s a risk, at the age of–to wipe yourself out. I had a new family, I had my mother to support, I had a new boy, I was married. Ah. And I–I just wanted–you know, that’s how desperate you are to make a movie. And you’ll cut any corner, you’ll sell your mother, they say. I don’t know that I would have, but basically anything to make this movie.
So that’s also what the book is about. It’s about making a movie at any cost, to make your dream happen. And I was very, very lucky to have an Englishman come in and finance the film, John Daly. John Daly of Hemdale, who’s a hero in this book, and a buccaneer, a real Captain Blood type. I’m going back to your theme about being the wild man and going back out into the world. And then I had that huge, huge amount of success with it. I mean, unbelievable. The whole world flipped with Platoon, and Salvador was belatedly recognized, and my career after 40 went to another place, into the stratosphere.
However, in me was the demon still. And I say that throughout the book; you can see there is a mother side and a father side. I say my father side is rational; he was the writer. The director was my mother; she was the outgoing type, she loved people. And a director has to do that; a writer works alone, a director works in a larger sphere. So I combined those two elements, and at one point in the book, I think you saw it, I said I became double-minded. I realized I was double-minded; double-minded is an expression from Homer about Odysseus and his travels. Double-minded: it means consciousness, to have a consciousness that is beyond what you started with. And in that consciousness is always this desire to get away from who you are, to be the double. In other words, I’m here; I have a family, I have a life, I’m rational, I have income, I have to pay taxes. But there’s another side of me that wants to be out there in the world, like a young buccaneer with his pirate ship, undergoing all kinds of adventures, experiencing the world again. That was in my–even at 40 I had that feeling, and that’s what drove me on Salvador. So I’m talking about a different spirit. You call it the demon, but maybe it’s not the right word; maybe it should be the wild man.
DS: It’s, uh, it just was really interesting throughout the book, picking up on that aspect of–you know, you described it at one point as the demon, or as this like yearning to be out there or take the risks. And I can’t help but wonder, perhaps it seems obvious, but that must have set you apart when you first walked into the Hollywood world. I mean, I cannot imagine that very many folks your age in that business were Vietnam veterans, or had experienced what you did. Even in the kind of Merchant Marine, and you know, teaching and writing the novel before. And some of what came after, with some of your radical feelings and pent up violence, was it–you know, was it difficult to break into that core? And now as you’ve done more and more controversial things, and the polite liberals don’t necessarily buy into all of it, how has that kind of changed and stayed with you throughout your career in that world?
OS: Oh, man, this–you’re going into another whole field. I mean, my feelings are very ambivalent. I don’t know that I can answer the question in full, because it’s–you’re asking about a whole subset of people. You know, Hollywood is filled with enormous talent. Very creative people, some of them unbelievable, far more talented, more creative, better writers than I am. And everyone has their own view of the world based on their subjectivity. And it’s true, many of these people have not experienced war; most of them have not, so they don’t know. So when they call themselves liberal, and they say we’ve got to go beat up Venezuela, or we’ve got to go beat up Iran–it’s incredible to me how stupid they are, and short-sighted. And even Joe Biden, as much as we–many people appreciate his running against a man they’re fearful of, Joe Biden talks like a hawk, even an uber-hawk. He’s to the right of Mr. Trump when he talks about Russia or he talks about China. Even China, and Iran and Venezuela, and North Korea–oh yeah, North Korea, let’s not forget that. So it’s another world. And that–it’s evident in Hollywood, that that’s going on. And that’s–I don’t belong here, and I never felt like I was an insider. I always, believe it or not, even with three Oscars I never felt one of them. And I’ve always kind of had an outsider status, I suppose, which is okay with me. Because as you know, I’m a writer too, and I can live in my head. I don’t have to have the necessary approval of this bourgeois audience, of this bourgeois class that I’m in. It’s just the way it is. I long ago realized that I was one of those people, like, who was going to be a pirate in his life. And frankly, I can’t complain. I don’t have the same energy as I did when I was younger, but I have to live with myself. And that’s one of the good things when I–this book, by the way, I just got a hardcopy today–
DS: Oh, wow, great.
OS: Can you believe it? Yeah, just today, first–
DS: I love that cover choice.
OS: A real book, Bob. Like, you know what I’m talking about? A book–
DS: It’s a great feeling, it’s the best feeling.
OS: You know it too. So anyway–ha, and I’m on the cover. Can you believe it? They chose that.
RS: Yeah, you’re the guy on that cover.
OS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. When I was better-looking.
RS: No, come on. Danny, that registers with you, doesn’t it?
DS: It does.
OS: Actually, it’s not too much difference. It’s about 50 years, right? Yeah, about 50 years ago. What do you think, 50 years later? Not bad. OK–
DS: Not bad at all! No, I mean, that does resonate with me, seeing you on the cover. And I think as I got older and started to get more complicated views of war through education, but then of course, you know, Iraq and Afghanistan, I think one of the things about Platoon that was–I don’t know, just so different beyond just the artistic aspects and of course the mythology and the Christology and the other symbolism that really is apparent, not only in that, but throughout your memoir here, and then also some of your other films. But that you had been there, and that there was an experiential analogy, some of it quite literal, from what I read. Because I found that a lot more about Platoon was true, in the literal sense, than I had even thought.
So it’s been a powerful aspect of that, and raises a bunch of questions which are interesting to me about where we are now. Because something profound has changed. And it’s the elimination of the draft. I mean, one of the great cynical Nixon moves. And you know, I’ve read a lot of the declassified documents surrounding it. But, you know, there was this time I remember you mentioning in the book that after Platoon’s success you went to the Harvard Club, I believe, and had like an interesting and very complicated experience there, interesting questions from the crowd. And as I was reading it I was thinking to myself how, you know, only 30 less Harvard graduates died in World War II than West Point graduates. And I mention that a lot in some of my talks. And then, of course, no Harvard graduates, right, have been getting killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the actual stats for the Ivy League are incredibly low.
And so I can’t help but wonder if even your own decision, complicated as it was, unique to you as it was, to leave Yale and volunteer for all kinds of reasons, not solely political by any means. That sense of duty, or that sense of experiencing the real, right? Not having to fake it, as you say in Platoon, and be a fake person. I mean, has that ideal–is it lost? Is that a lost ideal, with the elites now completely, really, opting out of service? And, you know, do you have any general thoughts about how getting rid of the draft has changed warfare for Americans?
OS: You know, we’re jumping around to big conclusions about–you have to realize the book ends in 1986. I had come to a certain place in 1986. And a lot of the things that I’ve developed into, evolved into, came later. But the very key paragraph here in the Platoon experience is at the very end. Before I get the Oscar for Platoon, I talk about–I say, “So I’d come to this moment in time, success was a beautiful goddess, yes. But I was being seduced by this vindication, this proving myself to my father. Was it the acceptance, the power? What did I really believe? I’ve made it a moral issue that America was truly wounding itself in Vietnam with our struggle between pro-war, anti-war, right, left…Was I avoiding the larger moral issue of the wholesale slaughter of 3 to 4 million Vietnamese people and all that implied? What had really happened to America? It was no longer just about Salvador or Vietnam. My mind was still scared of this confrontation. It was a mind that would have to evolve further, assume greater risks. One baby step at a time.”
You are 36 years old and you are further advanced along that scale than I was. I was still scared. Ron Kovic was much more radical, but at the other hand, I thought he had missed something that–of course, I came from a very conservative background. So it took me, like you perhaps, it took me some real nail-pulling to come over, to understand the world in a larger–and I kept growing. That’s the whole point. You can’t be at 19–at 40 years old, you can’t be who you are when you grow as you grow. I just grew a little late. You know, when I went to Vietnam, one of these critics said, you know what, this guy is an idiot. What, does he believe everything he hears? Didn’t he read Mad Magazine? That’s what she said about Ron Kovic. Well, Ron Kovic never read Mad Magazine. And if he had, and I had, it didn’t change it. This was a real situation. This was real. We thought it was a war. I really thought they were communists, and I thought they were threatening the United States. I did. Maybe I was stupid. I was 19, 21.
So I wanted to be authentic. That was the bigger issue. And I wanted to go to the bottom; I had to see the bottom to know. And I think that’s an experience that young people still have. They may not do it the same way, but some people want to go out into the jungles of Bolivia or whatever, and work on some NGO or nonprofit, or be a medical person, or just be on the front lines. This is important. I think that’s still there in the environment. I think there’s no sea anymore, you can’t go to sea as a merchant sailor, at least in the American Merchant Marine. But, you know, I think there’s still a desire to experience it. By going to the bottom, you get a very important view of the world, how bad it is for people and how tough it is, and how ugly it can get. Ugly. And whatever they say about the bullshit, I mean, I hear many officers talk about the spirit of the men and all that–no, what happens in combat is much more gruesome. And people can be really ugly, and they can also be noble too, at times.
So I, you know, I didn’t have any illusions after I came out, and I tried to put that real violence into the movies. And of course, I paid a price for it. I could never get around that. I mean, people don’t understand that I hate violence, and the violence in the movies is heartfelt. The only movie I ever did that was not, that was a joke in terms of violence, was on purpose, was Natural Born Killers, because it was satiric. But everything else, Salvador, Platoon, Born on the Fourth, Heaven and Earth, was based on hating violence, and just showing it.
And what people forget is that violence is underplayed. It’s overplayed or underplayed. People don’t understand in America because we have all these stupid cop shows. I took a stance against cop shows back in the seventies, which show bad guys are always getting caught, good guys are catching them, the guns go off–you know, it’s ridiculous what they show, because people get hurt when you have a gun go off. So the real meaning of one bullet in Ron Kovic’s movie, going to his spine, has a tremendous lifelong meaning. It goes–that bullet goes from here to eternity. And I wanted to drive that point home, and I fought for it, and it’s been lost. Nobody gets it. I go to the Press Club, National Press Club and I talk about it, they look at you blank. They don’t know what a bullet can do, until it does it.
And that’s what’s going on with this George Floyd business, too. Because you know, it’s–let’s say that Black people are much more aware of violence. They see it, they live with it. The police are on top of them. Well, I’ll tell you the truth, the police scare the shit out of me, too. I still have the rebel in me. I mean, when I’m driving around, you know, I’ve been arrested a few times. But you know, it’s horrible to get a bust. The cops talk to you, they took this guy in Atlanta, they talked to him for 30 minutes or something, and then it turned into a shooting. That’s the way they do–you know, they talk to you until they unnerve you, they scare you. This is, these people live with it, they know what they’re talking about.
And I learned a lot about this when I went to Vietnam. And I just want–this is a side story, I talk about it in the book, how important Black soldiers were to me. That’s my first experience with Black soldiers. I had no experience of it except here and there. But I was scared of them. Because that’s what I was taught to be. Their attitude, they were hostile. And in Vietnam, it was a whole different ballgame, because everybody was tough. It was a tough, mean existence in the platoon. We can talk about officers later. But there was a group of Black men in each of these platoons. And finally, towards the end of my tour, the last six months, I really started to mingle with them, smoke dope with them, listen to their music, talk to them, and go to their hooches when we were in the rear, and were relaxing. And I tried to show some of that in Platoon; I think it’s important.
But from those men, I learned to keep, to keep a hold of something inside myself that I was losing touch with. I was becoming tougher, more callous, much more callous. And you see it in many troops over there. You saw it constantly. There was not only racism, but there was just callousness to the Vietnamese, the indifference to killing civilians, to hurting people, to destroying their homes. It was evident. It was in the Agent Orange they dropped all over the jungles. It was the constant overflights, the bombings; they were just blowing up people. You know, that attitude of wasting the place was prevalent, and I was living in it every day. Ah, I needed a–I needed a release, I needed refuge from that. And in those hooches with those men, I found it. And I tried to pay homage to them. His best friends in the movie are Black soldiers. And of course, there were some Black soldiers who hated the white–who were just racist too, and they didn’t want to deal with a white guy. I didn’t know those, because they avoided me, I avoided them. But then there were some rotten apples not in both, you know, no matter what race you are, there are rotten apples. We know that, we don’t have to talk about that. But anyway, that really makes–that has a huge role to play in later developments in my life.
RS: Can I just ask you a question, both Danny and Oliver. At the core of this, and this notion of patriotism that Danny challenges in his book, is a notion of American innocence, virtue, and a contempt, really, for the other. You know, when you went to Vietnam or earlier we were 6% of the world’s population. Now we’re about 4%. We’ve had a tremendous footprint on the world. When you did, it was in the name of stopping an enemy, communism, which we didn’t understand, it was gibberish, and it was cynical. Danny has been fighting this enemy of terrorism–terrorism–but he still has to go into those villages. They look different, they’re arid and so forth. So Danny, you know, you’ve been through a hell of an experience here that parallels Oliver’s. And even though he says, well, you’re an officer–you were out there. So why don’t you talk about it a little, have a little meeting of minds here about the enemy.
DS: Well, sure. I mean, I try to be humble in these situations, because I didn’t much like officers myself. And I clearly was one, and I mean, a West Pointer at that, which carries its own connotations and stereotypes, some of which are true. And there’s a lot of sociopaths in their ranks. But you know, I think some of it was contrived, but I made like a real effort to believe–I think I started to believe that I was more like my soldiers than the other officers. And some of that was fantasy, because I thought, like, from a class perspective, I had more in common with them. I had a very skeptical view, even early on. And you know, I just–I spent, I was, one of the things, I always had very good evaluations, but one of the things that I was constantly critiqued for was that I was too close to my soldiers, too close to my soldiers, you can’t be close to your soldiers, and all this. But I will say that the idea of the other in the enemy is striking. Because Oliver, you’re talking about Ron Kovic, and one of my soldiers–actually the first seriously wounded soldier, on December 14, 2006, was Ty Dejane, who I’m still very close with. He was the E-5 Sergeant and was shot in the spine, and he is also wheelchair-ridden. And I, you know, we visit each other a few times a year, and it’s a mess and all that, of course, involving, you know, the usual partying and stuff. And but, uh, so that was affecting to me, because every time I see him, and that was now 14 years ago, it’s very real.
And so I don’t need to tell you about that, but I think we share that notion of this is not the movies. And if it is the movies, in your case, and when you choose to present it, it seems that you do have this authenticity relationship, and the refusal to sort of sanctify or play it down in any way. And then finally, and this will bring me to–I’ll let you weigh into Bob’s question, but this will also bring me to something I want to talk about regarding Salvador and also your trilogy, is–and I know you saw this too. In Iraq, we walked into a civil war. Well, we created a civil war. And then we picked up the pieces; literally every morning, we would pick up the bodies left, you know, tortured and murdered, or sometimes beheaded in the soccer fields, and we would count them. And, you know, in many ways, that’s what turned me against the war more than losing my own soldiers.
And so when we talk about exceptionalism, we talk about the way Americans view it, whether it’s through their cultural touchstones like film, and the Rambo movies and these terrible movies that are made post-9/11 about combat, it strikes me that perhaps your dedication to showing reality, to showing the brutality, is often misunderstood by the Pauline Kaels of the world, or any of the other critics that you mention throughout, as you know, misunderstanding it as liking the violence or fetishization of violence. When in reality, because you hate violence so much, perhaps you’re trying to demonstrate that through a refusal to, you know, to whitewash it. Has that been an aspect for you throughout?
OS: And also, yeah, as I said in the book, it’s in me too. There is an aspect of–that ugliness is in me. Charlie Sheen comes out of that war in the movie, he says I’m the stepchild, the child of both Barnes and Elias. You take in the poison, you take in the–you have to, to survive, I suppose. You can’t be an idealist in a war. You’re on site. It’s a very dirty situation. So I came home a darker strain of myself. And I saw it in myself. And so when I did these movies, I said let it out, show it, man. Show it in all its ferocity, and let them fucking realize. That was what was misunderstood, and thank you for saying that. That’s been constant in my fucking life, just constant.
The last really violent film I did was Savages, which I tried to make as fucking ugly as possible. But before that was World Trade Center, which is interesting, because it’s violence that is natural…you see the whole cave-in, you see two men trying to survive. These are real men, based on real stories. We tried to really stick to the details, and their family life, and how they were affected by the men in the hole for that amount of time, I think it was 36 hours or something. The violence in that movie is very real. It’s close to death. And I mean, people–the film did very well, but it was misunderstood. And it was all, it became, what, about Oliver Stone suddenly cracking the government point of view, or something? That’s crap. It wasn’t about that. It was about men surviving under the most difficult conditions. I’m sorry, I went into another thing.
Violence is important to show. Very important. And part of the problem that these Black Lives people are having is that people don’t realize what it’s like when a cop pushes you around and bullies you and scares the shit out of you. Even when you see him, you don’t–you just don’t want to talk to a cop, because even if it starts under the best of circumstances, as we just saw in Atlanta, it can end on the worst. Because he has control. He has the gun. And if you fucking start to slip up after 10 minutes of conversation, he’ll be on your case, man. These guys are bloodhounds. That’s what’s scary. These guys are overtrained to kill. They’re warriors, they’re trained to be us against them. And that’s what’s wrong about this thing. And that comes from military thinking.
RS: Can I just interrupt for one second, guys. Because you’re both historians, in your filmmaking, in your books and so forth. And there’s, again, a conceit here that this is the city on the hill, this is the great experiment; America, we don’t do evil things, we make mistakes, OK? And the reality is, this war that your movies are about, Vietnam, had no rhyme or reason, no moral purpose. You can’t even defend it as a good economic thing. It was rank stupidity. The same with Danny’s wars; what the hell were we doing in Afghanistan, Iraq? It was mindless, it was stupid like this–you know, now he’s our hero because he attacks Trump, but then he said no, we’ll win, and we should fight Korea, and we should fight everything, right? I mean, the heroes now on MSNBC and everything are the same–
OS: Let me make another point about Biden. Because I think it’s interesting. To me, Bob wants to talk in the big picture, I’m talking about dramatics. It is so dramatic. This is a–you ever heard of Greek tragedy? Here is a father–this guy Biden is in such denial of himself, as is Trump. I mean, his son–you probably know the story, Danny.
DS: Of course, of course.
OS: He’s in Iraq, and he happens to be an officer and all that, and his work is around a waste pit, they call them, right?
DS: The burn pits, they call them, yeah.
OS: What do they call them?
DS: They call them burn pits, yeah. There’s a lot of lawsuits.
OS: They’re burning all this shit, right? They burned rubber, they burned everything.
DS: Mm-hmm, batteries, yeah.
OS: Very carcinogenic. I mean, there’s chemicals in there. And guess what? The war ends, the kid develops brain cancer. He’s a young, healthy man. Brain cancer. And he dies. And does Biden know? Does he fucking recognize it? He acts like he doesn’t. I mean, don’t you think that’s Shakespearean?
DS: It is. If I may, Oliver, not to cut you off, but this is so important, what you’re mentioning. Because, well first of all, whenever I criticize Biden on any level, I’m just shouted down by the liberals. But like when you personalize it, and the Shakespearean and the Greek aspect of it, one of my fellow anti-war veterans from an organization I’m part of, Veterans Against the War organization, confronted him about Iraq, and asked him about why his foreign policy, you know, is kind of to the right of Trump. And Biden said–it’s on video, on YouTube–Biden said to him, because this friend of mine started like listing the number of soldiers we’ve lost, and how many we’ve killed over there. And Biden’s response–it’s really actually worth watching 30 seconds–is, well, I lost a son too, so I don’t have to apologize for anything. And my friend was blown away, and was like no, no, I understand that, I’m not underestimating that grief, but your son did not die directly in combat. I’m talking about the war that you championed in Iraq. And he just would not engage, and you know how he gets very angry when he’s challenged. And it was very striking. It was unbelievable. He went straight to his son, but without understanding what you brought up, of course, which is that the burn pit and all of that may have had serious effects.
OS: I don’t think it may have, it is. I mean, you don’t die of brain cancer at a young age.
RS: Where I was going with my question is there’s a connection–you are both historians, all right? You’re not, Oliver, as familiar with Danny’s work as I am, because he wrote a–I don’t know what, 36-chapter history going back to precolonial, you know, the Native American wars and so forth in the United States. And he’s really quite expert on this, and taught this; he taught history at West Point, OK. And what really is at issue here with Donald Trump–
OS: They let him teach history at West Point? They let him?
DS: They let me, but luckily they didn’t come in my classroom more than once a semester. They gave me a teaching award, Oliver, but if they could have seen what was in my classes–I’m sorry, Bob–but it was shocking what I taught.
RS: Yeah, but your superior, a colonel who I have had also speak in my classes, supported you. And as you pointed out, at West Point there is good teaching, and a high standard. OK, but I want to get to what your history is all about, and it’s very similar to what Oliver has been pursuing. Which is not the loss of American innocence, but challenging the notion that we were ever such a special people, such a special experiment. And we use that as cover for really–we’re not the only people who have committed awful acts, and some have committed much worse acts. But there is a persistent notion of American innocence that is really corrosive. And it allows us to do anything we want. We have totally messed up the Mideast, that you were involved with. And there’s no accountability. And your history book, and your patriotism book, really are a questioning of why there is no accountability, just as Oliver’s movies were.
DS: Well, definitely. And in fact, Oliver’s Untold History, which I first watched pretty early on when it came out, is not dissimilar, in a way. I mean, the scope is temporally a little shorter, but it’s not dissimilar to the project. You know, and I think both probably pull to some degree from Howard Zinn and things like that. But I think this does connect also to what Oliver is talking about involving Black Lives Matter and the cops and the experience of violence in the streets that’s more familiar to the Black community. In a visceral sense, it seems that for example the indigenous and the Black local groups that invited my veteran’s group to Tulsa are familiar, even if they don’t have the, you know, scholastic attainment at the university. They understand what you’re describing, this mythology of innocence, this mythology of exceptionalism, in a way that I think your average white, and especially white middle- or upper-class person does not.
And I also think this links–and I’ll ask about it–to many of Oliver’s movies, with particular attention to Salvador, which is the inability of Americans to recognize or even have a capacity for empathy for the other, the foreign, the victim of war, the feminine that, you know, Oliver, that you boldly put in the forefront in Heaven and Earth, and then of course as well as in Salvador. And that strikes me, because we are reaching a point in our wars, for example, where maybe 11 soldiers will die a year now in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, altogether, but you know, tens and hundreds of thousands are still being killed by American machines, militias, and all this. This to me is interesting, because you chose to do Salvador, and as you mentioned, you mortgaged basically your entire financial life to do it, right. And took this risk in the interest of what, at least what I saw, and correct me if I’m wrong, was a commitment to demonstrating the effects of decisions made in distant capitals, including Washington, to humanize the victims of these wars and these systems, and to not shy away from showing the dark side, whether it’s a nun being raped or a soldier’s face being blown off, and all the criticism you receive for that.
But what strikes me is that you chose to do that, knowing that El Salvador was not really in the news anymore, most Americans didn’t care, and that we perhaps have this empathy block. So this is tied, Bob, to American exceptionalism, patriotism, sense of our own unique, messianic mission. And so I would direct it for Oliver by asking, with that provocative statement, that I will say, is it possible–and I think it might be–that in some ways, America writ large, or many Americans and their leaders, are incapable of empathy for the other, whether that be the domestic detritus of empire, the Native Americans and the Black communities, or especially Yemeni children or Salvadoran women. Oliver, I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that as it relates to your decisions on which projects to pursue.
OS: I certainly do have thoughts on it, and I think empathy is the key word. And I think I ended Untold History, five years of work, with a call for empathy, which was unheard. The problem is–the problem, I think, is human nature. It’s true all over the world that you empathize with your own, the people you know around you. So it tends to be, it’s a human nature issue. Buddhism says a lot about this, but we–you know, so they say the opposite. They say, your enemy can be your best friend. Your enemy can teach you. And sometimes your friends can be your worst enemy. And they have many examples of that. So the question is, in our lifetime, are we going to be conscious? Are we going to become more conscious? And this is my particular journey; maybe it’s yours, I think it may be. The only reason we’re here is to learn more, to be conscious, to know who we are, and to learn to be kind and gentle to others. This is a huge lesson, and I think to some degree America is absorbing it with this Black Lives Matter movement. People are paying attention to the pain of other people, from slavery. It’s a big point, and it certainly has a positive effect.
But on the other hand, you can see the resistance to it already, huge and growing–don’t defund the police, how can they talk like that, and all that kind of stuff. They miss the point. And there’s going to be a fight about this, it’s going to be that civil war I saw in Platoon all over again. It’s Barnes versus Elias, and Barnes will kill Elias if he has to. He will. They’re not going to give up. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a violent streak. It’s that lawman streak, still; it’s the old West. This is not going to go down easy. It’s not going to go down easy. I worry, you know, these next four, five months could be really ugly. But there’s good people, and they’re learning. But it’s a hard game we’re into, because these people are resisting. They don’t want to think about empathy.
DS: Well, certainly, this pivotal moment–and I think it does tie to your interest in the War on Drugs, and your decisions to even controversially bring that up at the Golden Globes in I think ’78. So I mean, you’ve been on the forefront of this on a number of levels when it was unpopular.
But you brought up Black Lives Matter and the protests, and it also links to Bob’s broader point of, you know, this police violence and this civil war at home. This is not about me. I’m a small member of a broader movement trying to–the violent response to the police in these communities is such that when we were down in Tulsa, my anti-war veteran’s group–we sent 12 folks, I wrote about it today on Bob’s site–we were invited by the local Black community to protect their Juneteenth celebrations. They asked us to provide security training and sort of be security, and that was of course ridiculous in a number of ways, because we don’t, we won’t–we don’t carry weapons, and you know, there was only 12 of us. But it shows this palpable fear in the community.
And I think if there’s a benefit to the number of white people in the streets, right now, it’s–at an anecdotal level, what I’ve seen in Kansas City in the streets every day is, you know, I watched us get tear-gassed and rubber-bulleted in a park. You know, we were peaceful. And I watched people pick up strangers’ kids, children, and run them away from the tear gas. And you know, the experience of the cops brutally taking us down when we dared touch their flagpoles two days ago, and throw us–you know, some of my friends were thrown on the ground, and it was very vicious. And then also petty, in the sense that one of the Native American women who was [arrested], when she gathered her gear, they had put a Washington Redskins hat in her bag.
And so why do I bring all that up? I think it relates to what you’re saying about this pivotal moment, the experience of violence, and the fear of the police, which is becoming realer for me than it has ever been, and has been there forever for other folks. But this civil war within America. The empire comes home, is something I read about. And it seems that you describe that very well about the post-Vietnam generation, and sometimes there’s the delay, but it seems that the empire, in the form of militarized police and all this–it’s home today, right. I imagine you’re seeing the same thing.
OS: Imagine I’m seeing this–yeah. It’s–you know, is the revolution going to be in my lifetime? It’s going to be bloody, and America–Bob’s question is a good one. Does America have to bleed like a civil war in order to learn? The biggest problem in the Civil War–Lincoln got killed, OK. Lincoln was a better, could have been a much–was the right leader, maybe, to lead us out of it. But Andrew Johnson was not up to that. And you know, this horrible thing set in where the South never gave up. And we see it constantly, I’m sorry to say it, in our politics today. Much of the legislation, the obstruction to most of the progressive things, is still from the South. Remember Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, going way back. Lyndon Johnson, George Bush. These two presidents got us into horrible wars. Lyndon Johnson because he couldn’t back down, his dick had to be bigger than the other guy’s dick. And I can’t forgive him for that. He was a Southerner. You know, there’s something about it. I sometimes think that Lincoln made a mistake, he should have let the South go. Because I think slavery would have ended naturally over maybe a few years more. But if they had been–and we’d cut off and become like a Canada, more northern, more–less caveman race, I think that the North would have had a whole different situation, and we’d be in a whole different world today. Now, that’s pretty radical what I said, but think about it–
DS: Well, sure.
OS: –not done us any favors, naming all those forts after idiot generals. Oh, God, I used to look at–I’m sorry, I really–it’s so frustrating to see. In other words, if you win a war, at least you should make sure that they play by the new rules. And they didn’t.
DS: Right. Well, it seems like the North won the battles, and then the South ended up winning the war culturally and politically, up to this day.
OS: They still affect our culture today. They’ve killed off so much good legislation, and also created wars.
DS: Yeah, and if you look throughout American history, even before the Civil War, every single American [unclear] in this war found most of its support in the South. And today, when we get rid of the draft, the military, the all-volunteer, right, “volunteer” in quotes military is more skewed toward southern and rural than it has ever been. And this has been extraordinarily dangerous. I mean, so much so that at West Point when I taught there, I used to leave the Lee housing area, drive on Lee Road past Lee Barracks to my office. And the soldiers from the South, in my experience–and some were wonderful, and all this–but overall, the ones that I had to keep an eye on, the ones that were most likely to get angry, out of control, and treat the other poorly, and even commit war crimes, invariably were skewed towards the Deep South.
OS: I know. I agree with you. And that’s the problem. Bob, what do you have to say?
RS: Well, I just want to sort of tie this all up, because–and it’s trite to say, the more things change, the more they are the same. But that’s the value of history, to see what are the patterns. And I can’t get over the statistic, we are so–the four percent, or whatever, four and a half percent. We are so important to the human experience, whether for better or worse. I mean, it just wipes out all the oxygen on the planet, you know, what America does.
And so now, I want to end this with a consideration of what Trump represents. Because this is the caricature that lets everyone else off the hook. You know, he’s ill-mannered, he’s crude, he lets us in on how grotesque it is. But what he’s letting us in on was already the norm. It was just being concealed. And he’s stupid enough to say the wrong thing at the party–to fart at the party, is really what Trump does, you know, where you’re supposed to keep it hidden. But your war, Oliver, was fought by Democrats. Created by Democrats, constructed by Democrats, lied about by Democrats, OK. Danny’s war–
OS: Wait a second, I don’t quite agree with that. You know my position on John Kennedy, and I have the facts as to what Kennedy did. He was pulling out of Vietnam.
RS: OK, but after Kennedy, certainly–
OS: And Eisenhower was part of that, Eisenhower supported the French, and did–
RS: OK, I wasn’t making a partisan remark, I’m just trying to show that it’s bipartisan. And you’re absolutely right. Now, Danny’s wars were fought, created by moderate Republicans. It wasn’t Donald Trump. In fact, Donald Trump actually has the temerity–
OS: You called him a moderate? You’re calling Bush a moderate?
RS: George W. Bush, who you went to Yale with. Wasn’t he your classmate at Yale?
OS: Yeah, but he’s an example of a degenerate gene in our culture…love of war, love of phoniness.
RS: OK. But when people now are thinking about the good old days before Trump–
OS: Oh, give me a break.
RS: –they’re thinking of George W. Bush. And they’re thinking of–Harry Truman. Your movie exposes the cynicism of Harry Truman dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and everything else. Now, in this election, it’s not just the lesser evil that we’re asked to defend. What we’re seeing is this is a battle between virtue, right, and evil. And so like in the last election, when Donald Trump stupidly said he’ll make America great, you know–like, wow, what do we mean by great–Hillary Clinton said it’s always been great. So where do you debate?
OS: I voted for Jill Stein. Third party. How can you support two interventionists? Well, how can you support the Democrats now? How? They are so–they’re hawks, war hawks. They were asking Trump to bomb Syria, to go into a Syrian war. It’s ugly, Bob. It’s so ugly, and we’re so lost. We’re so, our moral compass is gone, it flipped out. And George W. Bush, I disagree with you, has much to do with it. I think he is the lynchpin on which a lot of this new century turns. That 2000 election was stolen. I watched that night, I knew we were in for something. And then 2001, my God, everything changed. So in my book, George W. Bush has a lot more to pay for right now.
RS: Finally, so let me ask you about the importance of manners. Let me ask both of you. Because clearly, I mean, Trump is–you know, I think Trump is a neofascist, in the sense that he’s playing the chauvinist card, and anti-immigrant, anti-people of color. Well, I mean it’s the scapegoating that we associate. And yet he’s really carrying water for the superrich, and getting the trade deals that benefit them, and demonizing anyone in the world who challenges that. But the fact of the matter is, most of the discussion is–movies challenge that. And you know, the whole thing of who is really violent. You know, Natural Born Killers: is it the media that really wants more of this violence so they can get ratings, they’re totally cynical, right? You know, a very, I think very much misunderstood movie, by the way. U-Turn had a lot of that feeling, examination, that manners can conceive–you know, this is the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt talked about. The Germans actually had manners. They could quote Goethe, you know–right? The Germans were well educated, they kept good records, and so forth.
OS: Yeah. What are you getting at, though?
RS: I’m getting at that manners is a disguise. It’s a cover. And you keep up an air of civility, and this boob comes along and he’s the bully, created by mass media, honored by mass media because he was a bully, you know. And yet he takes it over, rallying the South that you have described, and this jingoistic view of American innocence and virtue and so forth. But really, on the fundamentals of what are we doing in the world, and how are we using resources, and do we care about human rights–you know, you’re hard-put to find such a clear difference. You know, that’s the tragedy here.
I mean, there’s no–OK, let’s end with this. Your movies and his writing–where are you, Major Danny–are attempts to hold us accountable. For our apathy, our indifference. We send people like you and Danny to war. We all do; we pay the taxes. Most people didn’t protest, most people think it’s just hunky-dory, right. And you guys witnessed evil by your own side. OK, there’s other evil in the world, but you witnessed it, both of you. Right? You witness innocent people having their lives totally disrupted, who didn’t even know where the hell we were coming from. Who are these people–really, wasn’t that the common experience you had, whether it’s Iraq or Vietnam, Major Danny?
DS: Yeah, I mean–yeah, I’ll take that, and then because you know, this is sort of our culmination for today, I’ll pivot it towards I think an important closing question for Oliver that’s related. So yes, I think that manners is problematic. I think making things only about character is problematic. At the same time, I do find Trump abhorrent on just about every level, and of course think there are unique aspects to his domestic scapegoating, or at least the overtness of it.
However, I agree with you, Oliver. I think that George W. Bush–you said that you can’t forgive Lyndon Johnson, I think for my generation I can’t forgive George W. Bush. And so I think that that’s a valid point. But so is your point, and it relates to Bob’s, about how can one vote for the Democrats now. How can one support the DNC flavor of Democrat. And it is interesting, as we talked earlier, how the pejoratives will be flung if you vote for Jill Stein, right, like Oliver did. Or if you question, like I do somewhat regularly, Biden’s record–all factual, no one ever disputes me on the facts. I’m regularly–and this will certainly, I imagine, resonate with Oliver–I am regularly referred to as a Russian asset, or a useful idiot, or a Putin stooge. And that’s the go-to. And it’s not new; it was used, it’s McCarthyism brought to bear by, you know, the polite corporate media.
So, yes, I think this is important. But I keep in mind the real victims of these wars, and not to make them into a platitude. Because it is true that for a Yemeni child, the manners of Barack Obama didn’t matter a whole lot, did they. The reality–you know, war may have been abstract for the suburbs of northern Virginia, but they were not in, you know, northwest Yemen. And so of course there are limits to manners, and policy has to matter.
You mentioned, however, as I close here, that Oliver and I both served; we’re sort of the, we ended up on the tip of the spear, so to speak, and most Americans don’t like to look at that or realize their own complicity in it, right, just by paying their taxes, or that this is done in their name, ostensibly. So that brings up questions about the role of the veteran or the person who decides to dissent after seeing what we saw. And I mean, Oliver has made a career of it, and in many ways, in an artistic way that I can’t imagine, in a certain sense. I mean, there’s a beauty in the art rather than the nonfiction.
So, Oliver, it’s very much quoted, but you said that you got a lot of letters after Platoon about that last monologue, or that last almost soliloquy on the helicopter on the way out, and that a lot of people would stay in the theater crying. And I did, many times in my life. And last week when I told my son that I was involve with you, he suddenly got interested and thought I was cool, and we watched Platoon together, and then a few others since then. And he’s 11, and he’s named after three of my soldiers who died in Iraq. And he liked the movie, and he saw me get emotional at several parts, including that one, and then for Father’s Day he made me a card with Elias’s death scene on it, because I told him it was my favorite scene. And nevertheless, the soliloquy of course, as you know, those of us who did make it have an obligation to teach to others what we know, and to use what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and meaning in this life.
So I guess my question is, and of course you can answer Bob’s broader one, how do you define, and has it changed over the years, you know, both that obligation to teach to others, and how one finds that sense of good in the world, and peace. And you know, now it’s been 50 years since Vietnam; have you seen changes in how you view that, or define those terms so eloquently laid out?
OS: Do you remember the scene in the book when I come back, and I’m at NYU, in the class with Professor Leahy, Tim Leahy, who’s yelling at the class about Odysseus. And on the blackboard he draws consciousness, the word consciousness. And he says, you know, what is the difference, why does Odysseus survive, and why does his crew not? Why is he the only one who comes back? Consciousness, people, consciousness. He points out again and again, in detail, where Homer points to this man who’s special because he’s listening, he’s watching, he’s hearing. He doesn’t put the wax in his ears [against] the sirens, because he wants to hear what they have. But he ties himself to the mast, the crew does, in order to keep him restrained, because otherwise he’ll jump overboard and try to join the sirens.
It’s a very telling tale, and it’s what–it’s the obstacle, the challenge we all face as individuals. We all have that temptation. We want to hear the siren call for war, whatever it is, and at the same time we have to resist that call. We have to be very strong in ourselves, not to fight back, not to be angry, not to look for revenge, not to look for an enemy. It’s very important. And I think without it, there’s no restraint on the human animal in us. So the goodness and meaning to me is very much about consciousness, it’s about getting your consciousness–that is the meaning of life, in my mind.
RS: Well, on that note, and for this session, maybe we’ll have other sessions and follow this if you guys are willing. But I want to recommend Oliver Stone’s book. It’s coming out in a couple–well, actually, when this is shown maybe in a matter of days. It’s called Chasing the Light: Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game. I tell you, it’s a joy to read. I read it in a single sitting, actually lying in bed. And everybody knows Oliver is a great screenwriter, but this is really a beautifully written book. It’s a coming-of-age book, and it’s really a great story about how mass media, particularly Hollywood, works in America, and its relation to the issues. So thank you, Oliver.
The other book, and the other author we have here is Daniel Sjursen. The book is Patriotic Dissent. See, Oliver, I can hold one up also. And this is coming out, I think in about a month, Danny, Major Danny?
DS: No, September 8th, actually, yeah.
RS: September 8th. And again, Patriotic Dissent. And I didn’t give the publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Oliver’s book and Heyday for Danny Sjursen. There are still books, and now when you’re sheltering in place it’s a good time to read it. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Christopher Ho at KCRW, the NPR station, is our engineer there. Natasha Hakimi Zapata writes the introductions. And Joshua Scheer puts the program together and is the producer in charge. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. But I hasten to say that these podcasts would not be possible were it not for a grant from the J. W. K. Foundation in honor of Jean Stein, the late Jean Stein, who was a terrific writer and journalist, and was very instrumental in supporting the Civil Rights Movement and opposing the Vietnam War. So on that note, that’s it for this edition. See you next week.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book,Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War(Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Robert Scheer