On-screen: Santana – INCIDENT AT NESHABUR. Santana’s tropical sound and the unrelenting Santana signature guitar sound early in INCIDENT AT NESHABUR seems to portend the desperation of America’s Southesast Asian “domino theory” DRIVEN foreign policy as it was violently played out in tropical South
Vietnam. Santana’s rapid drumbeat captures the martial rhythm of the U.S. draft machine that moved GI’s through training and onto the ground in Vietnam.
Santana‘s guitar riffs, midway through INCIDENT AT NESHABUR, and Santana’s intensity at that point, suggest a swarm of angry helicopters and rockets that instantaneously blast ground positions into enormous fireballs. The urgency of American troops in combat, hand to hand, or via flame-throwers and artillery, is matched to that of enduring emblems of the Vietnam War: street executions of Vietnamese and the nine-year old Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing naked in the aftermath of a napalm attack. With its intensity unabated, Santana’s guitar shifts to a pained tone as we see cargo-net lifts of Vietnamese and Vietcong dead. Relief from Santana‘s instrumental frenzy arrives in the form of incredible aerial ballets over Vietnam by American planes spraying Agent Orange, and dropping propaganda leaflets and bombs.
The last melancholy notes play over a sweeping pan of Arlington National Cemetery and perfectly orchestrates the INCIDENT AT NESHABUR’s finale.
Soundtrack Notes: The DOMINOES version of INCIDENT AT NESHABUR, is the original – released in 1970 on ABRAXAS by Columbia Records. INCIDENT AT NESHABUR reappeared when Santana re-released ABRAXAS in CD form on Columbia/Legacy in 1998. Santana’s live performance of INCIDENT AT NESHABUR in Japan was released as an import on LOTUS in 1975 (CBS Records).
Context: In May, 1954, the French were defeated in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu by the predominantly communist Vietminh. On July 21, 1954 at the Geneva Conference, a peace treaty was signed that called for general elections to be held in Vietnam in July, 1956 under the supervision of an international control commission. The elections were never held. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, backed a rigged referendum in Saigon that put Ngo Dinh Diem, a friend of the Eisenhower administration, in power. Instantly, Diem postponed the elections and began imprisoning all political opposition. Back in the U.S., Eisenhower summed up his position: “I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indo-Chinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held in …possibly 80 percent of the [Vietnamese] people would have voted for the communist Ho Chi Minh.” He raised the specter of the so-called “domino theory,” and concluded that, if the elections had not been prevented, “our ability to get certain things we need from the riches of the Indo-Chinese territory and from Southeast Asia” would cease, because a Vietnam free to choose its own fate would cause all the other Southeast Asian states to fall like DOMINOES. By the time John Kennedy took office in 1961, there were 150,000 political prisoners in Saigon jails. Ho Chi Minh appealed repeatedly to the signers of the Geneva Conference for general elections to be held, but the European signatories turned their backs – giving the U.S. military the green light it had been waiting for. The draft was activated, and a million draftees were told it was time to stand up for freedom and democracy!
The late folksinger, Phil Ochs summed up the position of his generation: “It’s always the old who lead us to war, it’s always the young who fall.” And fall they did. Only the privileged, the lucky, and those who discovered the Big Lie in time escaped the draft. Like a macabre Pied Piper, the selective service led young Americans – mostly poor, disproportionately Black, the majority not old enough to vote or drink beer – away from their homes in the inner cities and along the back roads of America. In sixteen weeks, they would step off planes eight thousand miles away to face a hell they had never dreamed of in a country they had never heard of. The wounded would be scarred for life, the dead wrapped in plastic before the lush green wall of the jungle, like bags of leaves on suburban sidewalks.
After 15 years of horror, 14 million “relocated” peasants, and 40 million deforested acres, it ended with a lone U.S. helicopter departing a Saigon rooftop under a fusillade of smoke bombs. For the first time in their lives, the Vietnamese had control – for better or worse – of their own destiny. Seven million tons of bombs had fallen, 1.9 million people (including 58,022 Americans) had fallen, but the DOMINOES never fell.
In their collective amnesia, politicians are calling the Vietnam war a “noble cause,” the military chiefs are calling it a war they could have won (if only they were permitted another 7 million tons of bombs and another 58,022 soldiers’ lives), but for thousands of American and Vietnamese veterans and their families the nightmare will never be forgotten and the Big Lie will never be forgiven.