- Dispatches from the Drug Wars:Ishmael Reed, Oscar Zeta Acosta, and the Viet Cong of America
Weeks before the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) launched the Tet Offensive, setting the United States and its South Vietnamese allies back on their heels, John Steinbeck IV asserted in a Washingtonian article that some seventy-five percent of American combat soldiers were getting stoned on a regular basis (34). The feature article, "The Importance of Being Stoned in Vietnam," caused a stir when it arrived on newsstands in late 1967. It was the first time most Americans had heard of an alleged drug crisis in the armed forces, and it wouldn't be the last. The son of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Steinbeck had volunteered for the US Army in 1966 and served one tour in Vietnam, where he wrote for Armed Forces Radio and Television. The war had, Steinbeck admitted, transformed him from a hawkish conservative into "a veritable Turtle Dove" (Steinbeck IV and Steinbeck 109). He became a vocal critic of the war, converted to Buddhism, and, aided by his famous name, received invitations from news media to comment on US involvement in Southeast Asia. He described Vietnam as "that huge garden [the American teenager] has always dreamed of" (34), where cannabis is easier to find than "a package of Lucky [End Page 79] Strikes" (33). The drug was not regulated by the local government, he added, or distributed through a central market: "It is simply a way of life" (34). It didn't take long for the naive American to realize that "for all intents and purposes the entire country is stoned."
Steinbeck's account of the Vietnamese drug trade, he later acknowledged, was overstated. He thought he could accelerate the withdrawal from Southeast Asia by exaggerating the prevalence of drug use among its soldiers. Instead he fueled domestic concerns about narcotics, their effect on the counterculture generation, and their role in the country's looming defeat in Vietnam. The image of stoned Americans in uniform raised fears of national decline. In the next four years, narcotics would be blamed for everything from declining morale among soldiers to the antiwar movement to the My Lai massacre.
Steinbeck's article suggests why. He describes how fighting while stoned alters one's senses so that war becomes beautiful, granting the soldier "a detached and esthetic vantage point" from which to observe the fighting (35). Steinbeck recalls how he and twenty of his comrades had gotten high on "Papa-san's grass" during a nighttime firefight. On a mountain overlooking the South China Sea, the men watched flares and machine-gun fire light the darkness around them, causing them to break into a chorus of "ohs and ahs." "A sigh of 'did you dig that?' whispered past the shuffling of grenades and ammunition," Steinbeck wrote. "The clatter of the machine guns was like a Stravinsky percussion interlude from 'La Sacre Du Printemps.' There isn't a psychedelic discotheque that can match the beauty of flares and bombs at night." This sensationalized account of soldiers oohing and aahing at the destruction surrounding them contributed to the emerging figure of the debauched Vietnam veteran and motivated a crackdown on illicit drug use in the armed forces, both in Southeast Asia and across the United States. Steinbeck's own story demonstrated for some how narcotics had derailed the war effort. Once a clean-cut Army volunteer fresh from basic training who, thanks to his famous father (himself hawkish on the war), had shaken hands with Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office, he returned from Vietnam a dovish druggie.
Not every American soldier had been so transformed by his tour, though. Steinbeck writes of the "average soldier" who, like himself, matured from sober newcomer to streetwise stoner (34). He uses the term "average" to mean white. Whereas the white soldier returned from war a changed man, the black soldier, he suggests, needed no acclimation to Vietnamese drug culture. His black comrades "brought [End Page 80] [with them] the implements, effects, and customs of what, for the most part, might have been a predominantly shabby environment … by the white soldier's standards," he...