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Pushing Buttons: The 'What's Going On?' show features a collection of buttons and patches by Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

A State Of War

A new exhibit looks back on how the impact of the Vietnam War was felt in California

By Richard von Busack

CARE TO VISIT a tangle of history that gets only more snarled as the years go by? It's waiting at the Oakland Museum of California, at an exhibit titled "What's Going On?—California and the Vietnam Era." Outside the door is a mosaic of images: men lined up at the induction center, police officers in riot gear and the obsidian wall in Washington, D.C., engraved with the names of all the American soldiers slain.

At the opening reception, the show's organizers stressed that the exhibit had been five years in the making, long before Iraq. Our state was the last American landfall for so many soldiers and the first stopping place for thousands of Southeast Asian immigrants. The museum's executive director, Dennis M. Power, claims, "Everything that happens to America happens to California first," and thus that the museum had a special duty to teach about the Vietnam War.

At the beginning of the exhibit, the visitor sees dictionary definitions of "Communism" and "Democracy," setting the ideological grounds for the Vietnamese civil war. Surely, it's capitalism that communism opposed, not democracy.

We see objects from Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign, including tin bicycle license plates with the chemistry-class joke "AU-H20." Nearby are the first mimeographed antiwar pamphlets, passed out at Sather Gate at UC-Berkeley.

Perhaps the eeriest exhibit consists of graffiti preserved from the Oakland Army Base and the undersides of canvas bunks from the mothballed USNS Nelson M. Walker. Sometimes, the comments are protests: "FTA" and "Fuck You, Lifer." Sometimes, the scribbles are memorials. "Bob was here/ With Plenty to Do/ Be Back from Nam/ in '72."

If the museum was on fire, I'd run out with the letters collected by Maj. Loyal E. Burton, a member of the draft board in Oakland who kept the pleading, furious and sometimes psychotic correspondence he received from young men. Getting out of the draft was an art, an art the 18-25-year-olds of 2005 are likely going to wish they'd studied harder.

A glass case contains Country Joe McDonald's guitar, perhaps the very one on which he composed "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." Antiwar buttons, posters and banners are exhibited near psychedelic album covers. The finer arts have their place among the historical odds and ends. Most touching is the work by Stanford MFA candidate Binh Danh, who uses the sun to print negatives on dead leaves. His source material was abandoned photos he found near a Malaysian refugee camp, where his parents were interned on their long journey to California.

There's a very necessary recovery room, with journals for writing one's reactions. Here, one can take a break and listen to recordings of those touched by the war. San Jose's Bonnie Baird is one of the interviewees, telling, in words broken with sobs, of the afternoon in 1967 she got the news of the death of her brother Spec 4. Jimmy Berard.

The exhibit spares you the bloody side of the war in favor of innocuous souvenirs. Tiny things: Zippo lighters, commemorative crafts the refugees made in the camps (a spoon engraved with the words "To My Dear Little Hao") and even a nail-file kit, representing how many Vietnamese women took up the manicurist's trade.

Right before the coda—memorials and items from the Little Saigons of California—hangs Ronald Reagan's face, representing the end of the main part of the exhibit. Only a blinkered idiot like Reagan would have thought the war was buried for good. All summer, we have learned what a fallacy that was—with Kerry's and Bush's service records still argued over.

Our new debacle is continued for the same ideological reasons behind Vietnam. The losses are sweetened with the same rhetoric. We fight for freedom vs. tyranny; pulling out will be a failure of will power. Need more evidence why James Joyce wrote that history was a nightmare from which we are trying to awake?

What's Going On? runs through Feb. 27 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. Admission is $9/$12. (510.238.2200)

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From the September 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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