December 16, 2007

Little Dieter needs to Fly

Teddy Roosevelt once said that in order to govern, any senator or congressman or President ought to serve in the United States armed forces. Watching the documentary, Little Dieter needs to Fly, one realises why TR had that view. Dieter Dengler was a naturalised American who came to the US in order to fly planes- he came from Germany after the war where there was no airforce or commercial airline and ended up joining the US navy and flying missions over IndoChina. Dengler was shot down and captured by the Vietcong- he was taken through the jungle to a prison camp and held there with eight other prisoners, including one other American, till he escaped and by chance, heroism and endurance managed to get himself rescued.

Dengler's story is amazing- his grandfather was a resistor to the Nazis in Germany- paraded through the local town where he was the only person not to vote for Hitler in national plebiscites. He grew up in postwar poverty- beaten by a local blacksmith to whom he was apprenticed. When he arrived in the States he began by peeling potatoes and eventually hauled himself through night school and a variety of military jobs, until he reached the planes. But of course it was the planes that were his real love- and one of the things that instantly strikes you is the way that Dengler found his exhileration in the skies above Indochina. He talks on the documentary about the way that to him the bombing of Vietnam was an exercise- it was dislocated from what was happening below. After he returnhed to his base, he found he couldn't sleep save for in the cockpit of a plane- that was the only place where he could find peace from the horrors of war.

And there were horrors aplenty. Dengler's stay in captivity should disabuse anyone who thinks that the Vietcong were some cuddly sixties protest cause. Whatever the rights or wrongs of American presence in Vietnam, Dengler and his fellow prisoners were treated horrifically by the Vietnamese. Before getting to the camp, Dengler talks of being dragged behind water buffalos, kicked on the ground, hit with rifle butts and various other indignities. Placed in a camp, shackled together, allowed only two minutes a day to go to the toilet (in an exercise that involved Vietnamese soldiers shooting at them for fun), effectively sitting in each other's dysentry and diarhea for six months, with nothing apart from rotting meat (with lice crawling over it) to eat, the prisoners were treated abominably. Dengler tells stories about the way that the Vietcong behaved in villages- it reminds you of stories from Apocalypse Now, only the casual brutality happened. Dengler's escape was owed to errors by the guards- they left the prisoners unguarded for two minutes and the prisoners fled.

Dengler and his friend Duane Martin ran off together, attempting to find a river and escape to Thailand. Conditions again were awful. They had one shoe between the two of them and their feet were cut to ribbons by the jungle floor. They escaped drowning several times. Duane was eventually killed by a villager, Dengler was fortunate to escape and eventually was rescued by a keen eyed US pilot who saw him signalling SOS from a river bed. He was emmaciated and haunted by dreams of the horrors he had seen. For Dengler, the death of his friend Duane who whom he had shared the experience of escape and who was closer than his wife, than his mother and family touched him to the quick. You get a tremendous sense throughout Dengler's account of that standerd emotional reaction of people serving in the armed forces to conflict- the bond that they develop between each other and particularly from the living to the dead. Asked by Werner Herzog whether he feels a hero, Dengler responds that the only heroes are the dead.

In 1982, when Margerat Thatcher prepared to go to war to recover the Falklands, she turned to the two men in her cabinet who had previously served in the military- Lord Carrington the Foreign Secretary (who resigned over the war eventually) and Willie Whitelaw. Their experience proved vital to the Prime Minister over the insuing weeks. Roosevelt's statement about war and the neccessity of service is of course wrong- in that there are great politicians and great leaders who did not in any way serve their nation in war- but even so it captures something important. Too often we are too blase about the positives of war, that it creates a good situation, forgetting the costs to people, costs which endure long after the wars are over. This is not a pacifist point at all but a prudential one- in order to order troops into combat, you have to be aware that there will be Denglers, there will be those whose lives are ruined completely by the experience. Being too keen on war as it promotes the muscularity of a generation is a cowardly posture: in order to properly comprehend what you are doing in ordering troops into battle you have to understand what Kurtz calls the horror. You have to see the viciousness of the combat and the terror that you are committing young men to experience.

Sometimes that is neccessary- but its always worth remembering that war has massive costs. Dieter Dengler's story reminds us of that constantly.