Prescott’s War

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RAYE: “Goodie, I’ll get my grenade launcher and go along with you.”

WAYNE: “No, you stay here. I’m just gonna blow up a few bridges and oh yes capture General Giap.”

RAYE: “But lover boy, you’ll need help.”

WAYNE: “Aw hell, no, I’d rather do it myself. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

East Meets West, is one of those moments that look as if they were created out of Prescott’s imagination. In fact, such wonderful visual contradictions were around every corner in Vietnam. I wish he had omitted the caption and just left it with the bold-faced “Armor.” The monks seem to be getting a greater sense of security from their saffron robes than the GIs are getting from the armor plate on their M-60 tank.

 
East Meets West looks as if Frescott drew it from his imagination, but in fact, such wonderful visual contradictions were around every corner in Vietnam.
 
 

The two sketches of GIs, Angry and How Did I Get into This? are reminiscent of Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe characters of the Second World War. The Eternal Grunt, the kid who answers his country’s call, fights, bleeds, dies or survives, and beyond some quiet grousing never complains. Every soldier in every war must have asked, “How did I get into this?” Generally speaking there were answers. Perhaps not wholly satisfying, but at the least a man could rest his head at night and drift off feeling some small moral or philosophical justification for the filth and the peril around him. In Vietnam there was no answer, and the genuine tragedy is that so many are still asking the question, still facing the invisible peril.

In all my time in Vietnam I did not see a figure like the woman soldier depicted by Prescott. I would have thought most Vietnamese women would have been too modest to sport themselves in quite the way she does. But forget Vietnam. This could be one of Manet’s studies for Olympia as modeled by Madonna.

 
“How did I get into this?” In Vietnam there was no answer, and the genuine tragedy is that so many are still asking the question, still facing the invisible peril.
 
From this altitude there was no way of knowing friend from foe. In fact, on the ground there was no way of knowing friend from foe.

Vietnam was the first helicopter war. They were everything; ambulances, firing platforms, hearses, even taxicabs. Two of three on these pages are Hueys; the third is an observation chopper, and Prescott’s notes indicate the pilot checking on two suspected Vietcong cyclists at dusk.

 

From this altitude there was no way of knowing friend from foe. In fact, on the ground there was no way of knowing friend from foe. Another of the absurdities of America’s Vietnam experience. And yet another absurdity: the vacation from war. Prescott calls this Going Home, but in his notes he explains that the young captain is simply getting ready for R & R, the one-week break from the war offered to every American. R & R meant rest and recuperation. The grunts called it rape and run.

 

Prescott tells us that this young captain is a little more domestically inclined. He’s arranged to meet his wife in Tokyo, and he’s got a load of stuff for her to take back home—including, if you look carefully, the requisite ceramic elephant that every soldier brought back from Vietnam. It was meant to bring luck.

This last painting depicts the silliness of the whole adventure, with something approaching affection. That extraordinary technology we brought to the jungles of Southeast Asia, the well-oiled firepower, the superbly trained aircraft commander, nervously checking over his shoulder to see his cargo hadn’t shifted. The door gunner on full alert, flak jacket in place, ready to fire. All to give a fella a week with his wife and air conditioning. All for a lousy ceramic elephant.