This past Nov. 11, my colleague, UW professor Craig Werner, and I were the keynote speakers at the “Official State of Minnesota Veterans Day Program.” More than 600 veterans and their families listened to a few stories and songs from our book "We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War."
Given that this was the “official” Minnesota Veterans Day event, we were joined on the program by several members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, among them congressional Reps. Betty McCollum, Tim Walz, Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis. Plus, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar . . . and Al Franken.
Craig and I were honored, and pleased, that every one of the Minnesota elected officials made some reference to the power of music to help soldiers/veterans connect, survive, and heal. But given the swirl of allegations that would unfold less than a week later and would eventually result in Franken’s decision to resign his U.S. Senate seat, I now look back on the day for any indication that this would happen. What did I miss, if anything?
All the Minnesota elected officials who spoke that day were sincere, compassionate, and appreciative to the veteran audience. I was especially impressed by Sen. Franken’s honesty when he opened his remarks by admitting that he had never served in our nation’s armed forces. “I was of draft age during the Vietnam War,” he explained, “but the Selective Service people felt, in their wisdom, that it was more important for me to complete my undergraduate education so I could prepare for my chosen profession — comedian.”
Then the senator dispensed with the joking and spoke powerfully of his visits to U.S. service members stationed overseas during several of his USO tours. He even referenced the infamous 2006 tour and, while not mentioning Ms. Tweeden by name, spoke eloquently that “we go to show that we love and support our troops."
As he spoke, I recalled the Bob Hope USO tour to my Army base at Long Binh, South Vietnam, over the Christmas holiday in 1970. Hope was joined on stage that day by Lola Falana, Gloria Loring, Bobbi Martin, Miss World (Jennifer Hosten), and the Goldiggers singers and dancers. All female, all attractive, and all seductively clad. Lots of skin, lots of sexual innuendo, lots of staged “foreplay.” It became the model for Al Franken and others to follow.
Regrettably, this is how USO tours have “entertained” our troops overseas for decades, Bob Hope chiefly among them. In a way, they reflect an unpleasant side of America. They objectify women but also soldiers. They are based on the notion that young men have a primal need to lust and to kill. Is this kind of behavior appropriate? Acceptable? Not in 1970 and not now. But it’s the ugly reality of how entertainers believe soldiers away from home should be amused.
And it needs to change.
But until it does, entertainers and comedians like Bob Hope and the Al Franken will go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam and wherever, along with models and Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and Miss Americas, to laugh and kibitz and take liberties. That’s the culture we need to change, comedian by comedian, politician by politician.
And it might help, too, if we stopped sending troops overseas to fight needless wars.
Madison-based Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of "DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches From the Air-Conditioned Jungle" and co-author with Craig Werner of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War," which was named Best Music Book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine. He is a UW-Madison academic staff emeritus and a distinguished lecturer with UW-Madison's Integrated Liberal Studies program.
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