“I think what you’re saying is that for the first time you really understand what happened over there,” writer-director Oliver Stone told the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last month as he accepted an Oscar for his stunning movie Platoon. But acclaim for the film is not universal. Wallace Terry, a black journalist who covered the Vietnam War for TIME, wonders if Stone himself really understands what happened there. He says the filmmaker “blew it” in his portrayal of blacks in combat, ignoring some of the war’s most significant truths. “Hollywood had the chance to right the big lie about black soldiers, but it only succeeded in perpetuating it,” says Terry, 48, a former editor at USA Today and author of the 1984 best-seller Bloods: an Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (Random House, $17.95). “Platoon shows blacks as lazy, implying that they have to be pushed to fight or that they lack leadership ability. That is contrary to the war I covered for two years and have studied and written about for 20. It’s a slap in the face.” Born in New York City and raised in Indianapolis, Terry graduated from Brown and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. He produced the award-winning record Guess Who’s Coming Home, about black soldiers returning from Vietnam, and has worked as a TV and CBS radio commentator. He and his wife, Janice, his co-editor, have three children and live in Mt. Vernon, Va., where he spoke to correspondent Maria Wilhelm.
What omissions in Platoon do you find particularly offensive?
Nowhere do you see blacks in any kind of heroic or leadership situation. You don’t see any black officers in the film, and only briefly is there a black sergeant. What you do see is a black soldier fall asleep while on watch and later spray his feet with a chemical to escape combat; another, after surviving a firefight, stabs himself so he won’t have to fight again. Another flees his bunker, runs smack into a booby trap and dies from the explosion. Platoon captures the horror, terror and trauma of the war like no other Vietnam film, but sadly it still barely rises above the age-old Hollywood stereotypes of blacks as celluloid savages and coons who do silly things.
What was the black soldier’s real status in Vietnam?
I’m not suggesting that blacks weren’t cowardly. Some were, as were some whites. But we had our commanders and heroes too. Brig. Gen. Frederic Davison commanded the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and in the same 25th Infantry Division in which Oliver Stone sets Platoon we had a battalion commander by the name of James “Ambush” Bradley. Then there was Capt. Riley L. Pitts, the country’s first black officer to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. He died saving his men, both black and white. Altogether, 20 blacks won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam.
Were blacks more visible in Vietnam than in earlier wars?
It was our first fully integrated war. It was democracy in a foxhole—the same mud, the same blood. So many blacks died in the first two years that the front lines were forever dubbed “Soulville.” From 1965 to 1967 blacks represented only 11 percent of the U.S. population but roughly 23 percent of the war’s combat casualties. That number dropped to about 18 and finally to 14 percent as the war expanded, but the death rate for blacks was still disproportionately high.
How about racism on the battlefield?
The Marines say there’s only one color and that’s Marine Corps green. But if you’d been there you’d know there were light green and dark green Marines. Blacks were the last to get medals, get promoted and get assigned to the safety of the rear. They faced cross burnings, Confederate flags, KKK costumes and racist graffiti like “I wouldn’t compare a gook to a nigger.” Sergeants, black or white, would say, “Don’t worry about that. They’re just good ole boys a long way from home.” But by 1967 a new breed of black soldiers emerged. They called themselves “bloods” and defined their manhood in terms of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton. They raised their fists in black power salutes, had their handshakes, flew red, black and green liberation colors in battle and protected each other against racism.
Did this lead to violence?
The atmosphere in which the civil rights movement had grown was spilling out into Vietnam. It was American against American on a double battleground, a war inside a war. People were murdered. Blacks burned down the Long Binh Jail, called the L.B.J. It got so bad the command had to develop Watch and Action Committees, the forerunners of a race relations program that still exists today. But most of the trouble was confined to the rear areas. On the front you found brotherhood, sometimes born of real feeling and other times of intimidation. One black told me, “Nobody calls me a nigger when I’m carrying a grenade launcher.” Of course I wouldn’t say anything funny to a white guy holding a bazooka either.
Did blacks and whites behave differently in the field?
Being in the elite frontline units was a macho thing. For blacks it was a test of manhood they could not get in civilian society. Communist soldiers told me through interpreters that they could tell when blacks were in battle because there seemed to be more firepower being thrown at them. Blacks had a passion for battle and would fight with great abandon. In those days, [AFL-CIO President] George Meany might say you couldn’t be a plumber, but in Vietnam you could be anything. On the front Uncle Sam was an equal opportunity employer. Blacks also had a special style. There was one mostly black company that would go into a dance routine and sing the line, “I know you want to leave me” from a Temptations song. Then, after firing their weapons, they’d continue singing, “I refuse to let you go,” then fire again. Their commander, who was white, kept shouting, “Sing faster, guys, sing faster!”
Was there any positive aspect of black involvement in the war?
I’m convinced part of Martin Luther King’s dream came true in Vietnam. In his famous 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial he said he had a dream that one day the sons of former slaves and sons of slave owners would sit at the same table. That dream came true in only one place, the front lines of Vietnam. I’m not talking about Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson playing on the Celtics together. I’m talking about thousands of Americans who found their common humanity on the front, where they shared the last drop of water, where they gave their lives for each other. Certainly putting on a uniform doesn’t wipe away racism, but despite what I’ve described, the Armed Forces during the war and even today is the most successfully integrated institution in our society—except perhaps the National Basketball Association and some of our prisons.
How have black veterans reacted to Platoon?
They’re furious. I’ve been all around the country since its release and everywhere they say, “We still haven’t had our story told.” Nobody wants to see an all-black Vietnam War epic. It didn’t happen that way. But black people have always been among the first to put on uniforms whenever the nation called—ever hopeful that their service in war would be honored in peace and that their full rights to citizenship would not be withheld. That’s why it’s so terribly important that America understand the truth about black participation in all our wars.