Interview with John Baky, Director of the Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam War Collection at La Salle University
[John Baky and I talked for a few minutes before I started recording. We talked about two books, on the table we sat down at, about Zippo lighters from the Vietnam War]
B: You know the tricky thing about collections like this is that everybody who sees it, particularly scholars, graduate students, whoever’s interested in it—in this case, about Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam War—all immediately recognize the utility of a collection that’s related, like these Zippo lighters, but there’s no way to value it. These essentially are worth whatever somebody paid for them, but yet this collection is probably going to be appraised probably at more than a million and a half dollars. But if you were to take it out and sell it, you wouldn’t get a hundred-thousand dollars for it.
[at this point the recorder was stopped to record at a slower speed to get as much on the tape as possible. Unfortunately, about half an hour expired before I realized that it wasn’t recording. The interview resumes with Baky mid-answer to the question: What was your experience of the experience of the Vietnam War? What outfit were you in? I scribbled down “MP, lieutenant, Americal,” to remember the beginning of his answer, once recording resumed.]
B: It’s at least a very active part of it and an early part of it. Originally they were fairly close to the Veterans for Peace, which is a relatively old organization and strong in
I: What role do you think art plays in interpreting and remembering the Vietnam War?
B: Well, I think the most important thing that art—whatever that is—does, is allow for versions of the truth to be seen. What they prove is that there is almost never a single truth about things. And you can do things with artist media that you can’t do any other way. There is an aphorism that descried novels or fiction—which we can just use as another name for art in general—that fiction is the lie that speaks truth. And, what that is saying is… it’s hard to have an artistic expression without the use of imagination, and integrating that with memory. And neither of those is tangible. So you could make the case that when you do a painting based on a dream, let’s say you had, you’re not doing anything but telling a lie. It’s all made up. But anybody whose been moved by a piece of art knows that that’s not—even if that is true, that it’s made up—it does more, with less, than any straight history ever, or piece of reporting does. I think that’s the importance of that kind of expression. And that’s not to say that artistic expression is infallible, because it is a fact that there’s a lot of expression in the guise of art that’s junk. It’s either badly executed, badly conceived, dishonest, without context, and just because it’s an expression of some imagined reality doesn’t make it, necessarily, useful or good or true. People do end up, as you know, art schools particularly, are full of the discussion if art is “honest.” And for non-artists that’s sometimes a difficult… you can’t even get your mind around that discussion, because how could something you imagined either be honest or not honest? It’s what you imagined, but it’s how it’s contextualized, and used and developed that matters. Art is nothing if not manipulative. One exercise I’ve done with students is have them watch a film once without any sound, and then watch it with sound, and then just listen to the sound track without images. And talk about manipulative—as soon as you overlay music to visual images, you’re, in reality, being told what to think. And it either works or it doesn’t work. It either effective or not, but that’s what’s happening. And if you think that is what happens with art, all of the sudden it doesn’t seem quite as idealistic as it might have been. People start out, and say, I just want to tell my version of the truth… well half the time your version is manipulative. Otherwise, you don’t get to say what you want to say. I think that artistic expression is neither good nor bad; it’s a version of the truth. It could be wrong, stupid…
I: Now, if you were to zoom out a little bit, what do you think art’s role is in a democracy?
B: I’m not sure it would be… unless it’s something like socialist realism, it’s hard for me to see how the role would be different [pause] according to the political system in which it exists. You know, I tend to see it as an individual expression, and unless youre working for the state or working only for money, it seems to me that art, good art, useful art, is going to function the way it needs to function no matter whether it’s a democracy or some hybrid or some socialist form of government. You know, artistic expression, things like socialist realism from the Soviet era, you know, you look at that stuff… we have quite a few examples of it in the collection in the form of poster art—propaganda poster art—and it looks identical to the stuff from the Soviet era, with just a Vietnamese cast to it, and it’s clearly propaganda. Some of the design is interesting, but it has no interest in… informing—an expression of trauma… it’s highly intellectualized. So, whether it has a role or not, I guess I see it as highly individualist and therefore it does what it has to do. You can’t make a living at it, often. That’s an answer to your question, too, the role of art, at least in western democracies, is another profession, because if you can’t make a living off of it, you’re going to do less of it… or you might change it in order to make a living out of it. So many artists become, or so many people that go to art school anyway, end up in graphic design or working for a marketing ad agency, something like that. The explanation for that often is, “well, you know, I have to make a living, and I’ll do my real art when I get home, or in the summer, or something like that.” How many people actually do that?
I: I feel like you probably answered it more when you were just talking about your collection and why you started it, and why you think it’s important to collect all that stuff. I had read an interview with Dale Ritterbusch, and he had started to talk about the role of literature in a democracy, and it was more what you were saying, like a version of the truth; it’s just one more angle to make some sense of what’s going on.
B: Yeah, and it’s a way to hold people’s feet to the fire. If the press isn’t going to tell people what’s going on, you have to find another way to do it, and one of those other ways is an artist’s representation of what they think is going on, or what they’re told is going on and translated through their vision. I think the large questions like, the role of art in a certain society, are in a way, dangerous questions, because they suggest that there is an answer. And probably there isn’t. What’s the role of kindness in society? [chuckle] well, you kind of need it, it’s nice to have it, you better have it sometimes, and if you don’t have it, you have an awful mess.. And if you substituted the word art for kindness in that case, all of that would probably be true. Our existence would be less rich. But that’s awfully hard to quantify. And yet, if you apply it to an event like a war, over time a society’s collective memory of what a certain historical event was like, I think it’s at least as dependent on artistic remnants as it is on historical or journalistic versions of it. I think people tend, again in western societies, if you can’t readily make a living off it becomes suspect as an endeavor. How many people get tired of hearing from their parent “well, yeah, we’re really glad you’re going to art school, but can’t you like learn a trade at the same time?”
I: I would say the opposite—that once you’re trying to make a living at it, then it becomes suspect.
B: Oh, I see… well, make a living… you may mean…
I: Make money off of it.
B: Profit from it.
B: Yeah, and if you set out to profit from it, it is all of the sudden, one of those things, intellectually dishonest, and way too manipulative, and I think that’s true, but it’s important, the difference between describing it as profitable as opposed to… There isn’t really another term for it, I was going to say useful, but utility is not the best way to describe it either, but the same thing gets said to students who are English majors. Well, you know you don’t want to have the counting at the same time, so you don’t starve to death. Well that’s why we don’t have teachers because people are afraid to be English majors anymore. And to produce, for a major part of your life, to be devoted to making art is a full contact sport. You can get yourself in real trouble if that’s what you do, because you have to live somehow. And it’s often said, “He’s just an artist.” Well, how many people risk their lives to do what they think is important. Not a lot of people do that. There’s a certain courage in making your existence dependent on expression. Most of the artists I know, like Jane Irish, everybody’s got a second job in order to do their real job, which is making art. It’s a question that doesn’t have an answer I don’t think. And like versions of the truth, you’ll probably change your mind about it. And art—the conception of art—is so idealized in a population, particularly by people who don’t do it or have no talent. They see it as a locus of idealism, but the artists that I know who see their expression as the most important part of their lives don’t think of it as being particularly idealistic. They’re doing their art because they can’t do anything else. They have to do this. It’s not like an alternative to doing something else, you have to do it. In Western democracies—Capitalist forms of government—allow all sorts of artistic expression because in many ways you can pretty much say what you want. And that devalues it sometimes. If everybody can say whatever they want, nothing they say really matters. Nobody pays attention. The way politics are practiced in the
I: Well, unfortunately, I made a lot in the beginning of this semester that turned out to be tests—I would not consider them firsts. And because I’ve only been sending out the crème of the crop, I just ran out of tiles—good ones. But I’ve sent out about, as of last Monday, two-dozen.
B: I ask that because I wonder what effect it has on the people who get them. That’s kind of an answer to the role of art in a society—how it affects somebody as the subject of somebody else’s art. I think one of the troubles is that the word art is such a weird concept in society. It’s all at once idealistic, worthless, valuable, important… political… it’s everything and nothing… I remember talking to a combat vet at one point, I was talking to him on the phone, he was from the South, and I kept referring to the Imaginative Representations of the war, and it was kind of interchangeable with artistic representations. He couldn’t get it his mind off the notion that anything described as art could be anything other than as he said, “a pretty picture.” Because in his head, an art museum, lets say, or paintings—he was talking about paintings—the highest idea that you could hold for a painting, the highest expectation, was that it be somehow attractive in a pretty sense. And I think that’s a very common perception on the part of any given population. They see so much bad art, or they don’t see any art at all, that the only value of it is when it is aesthetically pleasing in some way—soothing. Which is almost the opposite as what most serious artists will describe as the locus of their life. You know, when they’re trying to make an expression, it’s not unusual to report that you can’t sleep, you don’t want to eat, you’re upset, because it’s an attempt to externalize the most difficult psychological states you can have. But that’s not what the general population thinks of. What was that guy’s name who makes those horrible, pastel looking…
I: Bob Ross? Is that who you’re talking about?
B: Yeah, [chuckle] I think of that stuff as like visual vomit, and yet this guy is a billionaire. And that’s what people—it’s in every mall in the country—if you say art to very many people, that’s what pops into their head, that’s the kind of the pre-packaged notion of it, it’s what that guy had in his head. But it’s really the opposite of that. When people say novels and the first thing they think of is the novels that people read at the beach, but that’s not what they are. That’s not a literary novel. Or poetry, you know—mention poetry and somebody thinks, “Oh its got to rhyme and be a limerick and that’s it.” No Ritterbusch point of view there. Maybe another answer to that question about the role of art in a Western capitalist democracy is that it can’t have a role as long as the general population has no need of it, and no real experience of it. It’s hard to know what you need if you don’t know what you need. [chuckle] On the one hand, no one wants to spend a red cent on teaching art at the secondary school level, but at the same time a government will wire-tap somebody to keep them from having paintings shown in public. Is not worth a penny to teach kids to do this? On the one hand, and on the other, put somebody in jail for it? There aren’t a lot of artists in jail, unless you go to
I: That’s so funny that you say that, because I’m becoming so conscious of that in my own… vision. It’s almost humorless right now, and I realize how much… I don’t know… its one of my goals.
B: And it’s hard. Humor might not be the right—what you’re really talking about when you’re talking about humor, is irony. Things that are not what they seem. That’s the thing that’s lacking often. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not. The other problem is that people use the word, or the concept of humor, when they really mean funny. And we’re not really talking about being funny, we’re talking about some sense of irony in your expression, and if you don’t have it, it’s all serious. When you focus the sunlight on the table through a magnifying glass you end up burning the table up—and it’s really dramatic, but it’s not the right thing to do. Some people say the true test of intelligence in humans is the ability to sense irony, because it’s such a difficult concept; it’s many thing wrapped into one. It’s self-awareness; it’s the ability to carry two opposite thoughts in your head at the same time—two or more—to be paradoxical. It’s an important way to separate effective and ineffective art, is that sense of irony. And you have to practice it, and a lot of times people think if they’re practicing something they are being too artificial, and that’s not correct. For some reason you think of it more in music, like a concert pianist—what they do, they don’t create stuff, they practice twenty hours a day. And somehow that’s clearer in a musician, for some reason, because practice looks and sounds a certain way among musicians. But if you don’t do that in your own art, you’re going to run into the same problems. What you do technically isn’t going to be good, or it’s not going to be effective, if you don’t practice it. What abstract artist, if you look at the drafting phase—this is sometimes true anyway, I’ve seen evidence it—the drafting phase of their education for abstract artists is often the most exquisite drawing that you’ve ever seen—in the first part of their artistic life, but they become abstract artists. It almost goes away, it completely subsumes, and yet, starting out, all of that practice and technical expertise, I think, has to be mastered at some level, then you get away from it—past it. When you have time to practice, you want to make the expression, not practice the thing. I have written and know writers, and a number times—I’ve talked to a poet, somebody like Ehrhart—and the number of times that they revise a poem is almost ludicrous sometimes. But if it has struck you that your seriousness of vision is getting in way of the vision, you’ve got to be on the right road—the right trajectory, to realize that. It’s those who don’t realize that that are in deep trouble…
I: Let me kind of shift gears here a little bit while we still have some tape, going back to a question I’ve been asking veterans that I send tiles to—what was your experience of Dewey Canyon III? How did you experience it/how did you hear about it/were you there?
B: You know personally, I’ve never been—at least early on, and I think I’m still particularly not—I don’t approach these things from a political point of view, and so much of these events are all political, and so I’m weary of them. And what ends up grabbing me is the overall long-term effect of political statements, like the fact that Rusty’s image is almost an iconic image among Vietnam War related material. That becomes very interesting to me, and wouldn’t exist without
I: You know, that’s interesting, I found an interview with Rusty Sachs and Terry Gross on NPR, and it was done in 2005 I think,
B: Oh yeah? Really? I didn’t hear that.
I: Yeah, and I found this out after I’d been pretty invested in this project, and I found out they weren’t his medals that he was returning and it’s not a Bronze Star, it was actually a Silver Star, according to this interview almost forty years later. Apparently, he was three people back in line to the microphone and returning his ribbons—he already given his medals to the set of Boston’s theatrical American tribal lovelock musical Hair [laughter], and so he didn’t have any medals, he just had his ribbons, and then—three people back in line, some guy comes up to him, hands him a Navy Accommodation Medal and a Silver Star, and Rusty talks about how he had this serious moral conflict, like “What do I do with these? I can’t claim that their mine.”
I: And he said that he dedicated them to a couple guys that had received those medals and had died because of careless mistakes recently. It’s just really interesting—I’m not even sure where I came under the impression that it was a Bronze Star. I emailed Bill Ehrhart when I found out, and I was like “What do you think I should do?” I mean I had seen that image as a sort of icon in the swamp. It was this rock-hard thing to look at when everything else just seemed to fall through, and then that, like everything else was as equally soft and penetrable.
B: Yeah… its why I’m so skeptical about a lot of this. You know the initial—it’s one of the huge controversies that turned people off of—have you ever seen the film Born on the
I: I don’t think so.
B: Tom Cruise plays the protagonist in it, and he played a marine, Ron Kovik. In fact I met him a few times. He lives on
I: Yeah, Michael Uhl sent me his memoir, Vietnam Awakening, and there’s a lot of that in there, and it’s really interesting how much personal politics is involved.
B: This guy by the name of Gerald Nicosia wrote a kind of institutional biography of VVAW, called Home to War, and it’s the history of VVAW. He has 700 hours of taped interviews with all of these people that were at this 40th anniversary, and Ehrhart’s all over it and he is [gestures towards the tile]… the folks still in print—but what you see in it is these incredible egos competing with one another. And on the one hand, it is in the service of whatever the group is trying to accomplish, whether it’s anti-war or whatever it is. The power struggles within it based on ego, take over everything, and it replicates the larger society. If you read about the Weather Underground during the ‘60’s—if you read some of the accounts by some of the women in the movement, they ended up being treated as badly in this revolutionary, so-called feminist-supporting organization, as they would have been in the greater society. They ended up being treated badly by the men, in the same ways. And that happens so often in these things. I know some people in the Iraq Veterans Against the War, and I’ve been trying to get some of them to read some of these accounts, because when you’re in the heat of the moment with these political struggles, the tendency is to not look inward and see what’s really going on with how things operate…
A: One of the things I’ve been trying to do with this project in talking to veterans, is get a better understanding of what returning a medal means, like what is the definition of that political statement? I’ve been able to formulate a couple sentences over months of thinking about it, and to me it’s a blaring, incontestable message that the
B: Well so much depends on—it’s the same notion of when it happened makes a big difference. In the Vietnam War particularly, the inflation that occurred over the award of medals in general was pretty scandalous.
I: What do you mean?
B: Well, for example, with the Bronze Star—more than half of a million Bronze Stars were awarded to,
B: Troops. Well, a half a million of anything isn’t very valuable. Well, as it turns out, Bronze Stars are awarded in two different categories—one is for service and the other one is for valor. If you’re awarded one for valor, that seems to be more meaningful. Someone recognizes a notable act of physical courage. Well, at the same time, three or four-hundred thousand guys get a Bronze Star for service—what does that mean? If folks are throwing Bronze Stars around—most of them aren’t worth that much to begin with. So many medals that end up in the case of this, you don’t know what those medals were—you don’t know if they’re Army Accommodation Medals, which were a dime a dozen, Vietnam Service ribbons, which everybody got, there was a National Defense Service medal that’s given to anybody that’s serves in the Armed Forces during a time of war. I think they started to give that in the Second World War. When you finish your basic training, before you’ve gone anywhere, you’re authorized to where the National Defense Service medal, that’s often referred to the “I’ve been in the Army All Day medal” [laughter] and versions of that. How often were the medals being given back?—cast back or cast at the government—how often were they those sort of meaningless medals? You know—a hollow gesture.
I: Do you really think that it’s a hollow gesture?
B: I don’t think so. I mean I don’t think that in this case it was, like that day. Over time I think it gets diluted as a gesture. Well, you know, I don’t know… How sincere a gesture was Kerry? There’s no way to know. I’m just skeptical about it. What means a lot to a lot of Army veterans at least, is something called Combat Infantryman’s Badge, which is not an award of valor, that’s an award of a certain experience, and you can get it, qualify for it, if you’re an infantryman for—I don’t know what the regulation is—but if you’re in a documented combat setting for six or more weeks, I think it’s something like that, you’re qualified to wear a CIB. That means much more to most veterans who have it than any set of medals they’ve ever got. And I often wonder how many of the items that were thrown up on the steps that day were CIB’s. I’ve never seen—there have been some pictures of stuff thrown over the fence.
I: I found two different pictures of the pile, and most of it just looks like letters that were attached to a ribbon or a medal or whatever.
B: So it wouldn’t have been a CIB. The only reason I say that, Jump Wings—people used to call them scare badges sometimes—they mean much more, in terms of traumatic experience, than medals do. It might have been a lot easier to throw a handful of these medals that many men didn’t have that much respect for in the first place. I say “hollow gesture,” it sounds wholly negative, but it’s more like a futile gesture than a cynical one. It’s just hard to know. Medals are such a sensitive item. Especially from the Vietnam War-era because they were so devalued at the time. Many officers essentially got medals as a matter of course. It was kind of a cheap award for things. And many combat veterans will express that. And at the same time, here are these guys who didn’t respect a medal using them to make this gesture of defiance, and gesture of revulsion at the government. Ehrhart will talk about medal at the drop of hat—in the way that I’m saying—he’ll immediately talk about how common medals were and how they didn’t mean anything, and people used them in phony ways, and that they’re hollow gestures. At the same time, in his books—we’ve had this discussion—in his books, every book he’s ever published mentions his medals. Or have pictures of them. He’s got one, where actually the entire cover is based on him holding his medals.
B: Yeah, Busted, and it’s a funny story how he had to get that photograph himself. He had a friend who had the handcuffs and everything, because the publisher didn’t want to pay for it and everything. But the point is, it’s both things at once—it’s the use of these medals that were given to him, that are also a symbol of exactly what it is that he’ll always claim was the worst part of war—the nonsensical, cheap award of things that didn’t really matter, and those who should of gotten them didn’t, and those who got them shouldn’t have gotten them. It’s a conflicted point of view. Now he’ll say, “Well he doesn’t put that stuff in the blurbs.” Well, maybe not, but if you said take it out of the blurbs, they’d take it out of the blurbs—it wouldn’t make the point of the medal. So is it important or not? Medals are extremely sensitive in the Vietnam War. You see veterans from the Second World War, you almost never see medals. People didn’t get medals—just didn’t get them. There were Silver Stars and Medals of Honor and Distinguished Service Crosses and things like that for valor, but it didn’t exist in anywhere near the numbers that they did in the Vietnam War. Up until a very few years ago, the Israeli Army—there was no army on Earth as deadly as the Israeli Army—they didn’t give any medals for anything ever, because the understanding was that if you fought in the Israeli Army between 1947 and 1973, the mere membership in the Israeli Army meant you saw some shit, and you don’t need a ribbon, nobody needed to see a ribbon to know that, and so they were just deaf on military awards—you don’t see them. What you see is Moshe Dayan with a patch on his eye, and his medal was that he lost his goddamn eye. Now, apparently that’s changing a little bit in
I: I’ve read that.
B: And that’s the cover—of that photograph. And people look at it and,
I: Is that the cover? I thought it had a different picture, because I remember that the cover and even the pictures that are inside The Spitting Image, I noticed, some of those pictures aren’t in The New Soldier. When I was trying to look up images of the veterans returning their medals, it was interesting that whoever the photographers were in The Spitting Image were not in any kind of collaboration.
B: Well, we can look at it. It’s back there.
I: Because the one guy is leaning really far back.
I: Yeah, that’s a good one. That’s one of the other really good images.
B: You know what I might be confusing that that guy with… I’m going to see Bill tonight, I need to ask him about that, because I could swear that he told me that that picture—that one where the guy’s really back—that that was him, he’s got a long mustache and everything. The caption on the photograph never identifies him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the person identified in one of those photographs. I could have sworn that Bill said that that was Sachs. I got to ask him that.
I: Yeah, I’m pretty sure that it’s not. Just because,
B: Because it doesn’t look like that, for sure.
I: And definitely didn’t grow a mustache in the course of a day.
B: Not that mustache. I got to ask him about that… That’s pretty interesting. Does it give a credit?
I: Oh, who took that picture? The guy who took that picture of Rusty Sachs was Bernard Martell. I still got to get on contacting that guy.
B: Want to take a walk into the back?
I: Yeah, sure.
[End of recording. Baky then showed me the Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam War Collection. We checked for the guy’s name on The Spitting Image, but it wasn’t given.]