If you think the current anti-war movement camouflages an anti-American sentiment, you’re only partly right. Rent or buy FTA, the 1972 Vietnam War protest documentary just released on DVD after a 37-year absence. It’s the best example of an anti-war brigade which set out to blast America right along with its hawkish foreign policy. And it’s headlined by — big surprise —Jane Fonda. FTA captures Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and lesser known artists traveling throughout U.S. military bases, both here and abroad, to protest the war — and just about every facet of American life.
And yes, the letter “F” in the title does stand for what you think it does, even though the tour regulars merrily shout out “Foxtrot … Tango … Alpha …” in some of their song and dance skits.
The film makes for a fine historical document, even if its entertainment value is hopelessly dated. Clearly, releasing the film anew wasn’t mean to reintroduce cobwebbed protest songs to popular culture, and the political skits require plenty of background reading to fully appreciate them. And they’re not always worth the effort, although one bit involving a battle being described like a sports game is inspired. But anyone looking to tell their child or grandchild what the Vietnam War protests were all about need not bother. Just pop in the DVD and let them see for themselves. FTA combines musical numbers, political speeches, heartfelt ballads, and interviews with U.S. soldiers lined up staunchly against the war. It’s a pastiche that’s sloppily arranged but still effective. The message comes through loud and clear, and it’s rarely dull.
“We are waging a genocidal war in Vietnam,” one balladeer tells the crowd. And that’s only scratching the surface of the anger directed toward the U.S. This country is imperialistic, bullying, racist, sexist … and too many other flaws to list here. Oh, and we never should have gone into Vietnam to kill the “yellow man.”
We’re also treated to a short segment on the effects of radiation on those who survived the atomic bomb drops in Japan to end World War II. No context is given for the U.S.’s actions. Context often kills whatever mojo the anti-warriors hope to ratchet up. Just ask the Rev. Jeremiah Wright about how subtracting context helps your rail-thin arguments against America.
What sharpened Fonda’s anti-war crusade back then was that it had kernels of truth to it few on either side of the debate could deny. Blacks railed against the war, in part because their country didn’t always stand up for them to begin with. They were right — at least about the unfair treatment part of their argument. And it’s hard to defend aggressive measures like dropping chemical weapons on Vietnamese societies as we did with Agent Orange.
The war was also an optional conflict, much like the current Iraq War. That kind of battleground is always open for debate, as well it should be. But it’s hard not to doubt the sincerity of some of those marching, singing, and shouting throughout FTA.
Fonda and her Hollywood peers stayed on the sidelines years later when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and, years later, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The film’s extras include a modern-day chat with Hanoi Jane herself. She talks about how the tour was meant to be the antidote to Bob Hope’s efforts to entertain the troops, only he inadvertently did much more than that, she claims. “Bob Hope was a cheerleader for the war,” she says.
In recent years, Fonda has expressed some regret for her war protests, in particular that iconic picture of her on the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery. But here, talking up an old project, her only regret is that she didn’t deconstruct her Barbarella image to those brave soldiers expecting to see a tarted up version of herself on stage. Fonda also bemoans how she adhered too closely to her old PC roots. “Except for the times Dick Gregory would join us, we were all white,” she says of the original FTA tours, adding in her defense, “I was going through my humorless pedantic PC phase.”
The anti-war movement, no matter the conflict, always has a seducing element to it. Who wants war in the first place? It’s easy to sidle up to Fonda — striking without movie star makeup — when she speaks of the dismembered bodies and displaced lives wrought by the Vietnam War, or any armed conflict for that matter. But some wars need to be fought. At times a country, a leader, a group, cannot be swayed by talking or other diplomatic pressures. It should be avoided at all costs, but to drape oneself completely in the pacifist banner is to deny reality.
FTA epitomized the era’s anti-war template, and at times the film rises to the level of the best protest battle cries. Just don’t bother asking the antiwar protesters of that era, or today’s, about what the Communists were really up to. They’ll likely change the subject back to imperialism or the evils of capitalism. Maybe both.