Two and a half million Americans served in Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand were killed in action. Three hundred thousand were wounded. Over three million Vietnamese died in the war. Perhaps two million of those were civilians. People are still dying, blown up from unexploded ordinance or born deformed from Agent Orange toxins in the soil and water or in the blood of American Veterans and their kids. I believe that America as a culture has never truly reckoned with the issues engendered by the Vietnam War.

It is difficult to imagine what America would be like if the Vietnam War hadn’t happened. The war shaped America. It changed the way we think about war, the way we think about government, the way we talk, the way we dress. Perhaps our defeat in Vietnam was the seed that spawned a movement to “remasculinize” American culture with Rambo leading the charge. This has led to the fetishization of the gun, a reversal of progress on women’s rights, a reactionary media, and a number of other socially regressive effects. Some pundits are trying to re-write the history books, saying that an unwinnable war was winnable, and that politicians under public pressure decided to withdraw rather than fight to the finish. It is important to keep the real history of the war alive in the cultural memory. It was, as Bobby Kennedy said, America’s most prolonged foreign policy error and a great tragedy. As we approach the U.S. government’s fifty-year commemoration of the Vietnam War, Ghost Money will be the much-needed cultural crossfire to the narratives being fabricated by institutional apologists.

Ghost Money will reveal a side of the war rarely seen in films: the bars, massage parlors, and social world of a REMF (Rear Echelon Motherfucker, a common pejorative military term referring to soldiers who have no frontline or combat experience). These young men were cut loose in the fleshpots of Saigon where a private’s paycheck could get you just about anything you wanted. The military’s encouragement of prostitution (along with drinking and drug-taking) went far beyond mere tolerance. According to Nick Turse, “sexual violence and exploitation became an omnipresent part of the American War.” Ironically, despite racial and gender-based subordination, some Asian prostitutes and bar girls enjoyed a freedom that would have been impossible in their home villages. They supplied a kind of camaraderie otherwise unavailable to soldiers seeking relief from the war. GIs formed strong attachments to Vietnamese sexual partners (as I did), and they returned to “the world” full of anger, guilt, and resentment.  The divorce rate among Vietnam veterans is above 90%. I’m one of them.

The Phong, author.

Another rarely seen aspect of the Vietnam War is the Vietnamese people themselves. American masters of the historical narrative have rendered the Vietnamese into two-dimensional puppets, caricatures, and faceless exotic moral lessons. Ghost Money’s personal story will take you into the homes of Larry’s companions during both the war and his present-day engagements in Vietnam. We will experience their funerals, celebrations, myths, and idiosyncrasies. In this narrative nexus of particulars, we are face-to-face for a moment with multi-dimensional human beings, that in the absence of cultural-historical contrivances, allows for a long-awaited conversation—a conversation that can close some of the loops across the barren expanse of presumptive language and perception.

Still from Ghost Money

In a way, this film is also about the American male in the post-Vietnam era, with myself as an experimental proxy. The audience, like the filmmaker, will find themselves inside a house of mirrors and what they will see is a quintessential personal and historical story of American passion and greed, adolescently drunk, fallen over and splayed across a dinner table set by strangers; a reoccurring collision of conservativism and liberalism, hopeful and damning, brutish and loving.As America is reaping the catastrophic consequences of Afghanistan and plunged yet again into another crisis with Ukraine, what will we have learned from the brewing storms that rumble in the wake of immediate destruction to life and property? Can our vision extend deeper into the suffering that war afflicts in every area of social and personal life for generations?

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