Apparently, the Vietnam War only gave us one story. It was the longest war in U.S. history, unfolded in a fantastical foreign land, killed 58,000 American soldiers (more than 5 million people total) and warped countless lives. Yet we got only one story out of it? Looks that way, and they're telling it again at Stages Theater.
It seems kind of cruel to criticize Tracers,if for no other reason than the play is part of the sad and worn, but sincere and vulnerable, obsession it chronicles. It is another element of the insatiable need for Vietnam vets—once again portrayed as homeless, drug-addicted, angry, weary, crazy, wise, resigned or on the edge of some dangerous pathology—to be understood by people who will never be able to fully understand the horrors of fighting a pointless war for ruthless leaders and ambivalent countrymen.
Tracers is pitched as "an insider's view of the Vietnam War, written by the men who were there." It follows a platoon from boot camp through Southeast Asia to their inevitable fate. But although often quite detailed—interminably so during scenes depicting fresh-faced recruits in basic training and jaded grunts shooting heroin—the subjects aren't new, and fresh insights are few.
The problem with Tracers, like just about every other telling of the Vietnam story, is that it feels compelled to tell the entire story. Covering such a massive canvas, even in two and a half hours, is impossible without painting in broad strokes. Why not focus on something small, something a real insider might know, and extrapolate larger truths from there? Does anybody yet dare a Vietnam comedy? Hogan's Heroes and M.A.S.H. showed up 20 years after World War II and Korea, but almost 40 years after Vietnam we're still waiting grimly.
Tracers' author, John DiFusco, says he hopes that "by showing the sacrifices, pain and suffering our soldiers endure, we will be reluctant to send them off to another war." Right—like we're not already inanother war. It's exactly that brand of clueless platitude that reduces Tracers to another collection of clichés. The play begins with people posing insensitive questions to returning veterans, flashes back to their first day of basic training, and from there we can practically check off the predictable list of their painful losses—innocence, sobriety, humanity—before the 1960s-rock soundtrack winds everything up with, naturally, "Won't Get Fooled Again."
Of course, we have gotten fooled again, over and over, and the new bosses are doing the same as the old bosses—Bush, Kerry and McCain come from the generation that went through the Vietnam era themselves. If they don't understand the story after so many tellings, what chance does Tracers have to get through to the rest of us?