China Beach: A Voice for Women Coming Home From War
Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to see books and TV and movies that represented me. I grew up reading books from the library that were for boys because there were few books for girls, and what there was consisted of nurse romances. If a girl was in a boy story, there was often only one girl, and the rest of the characters were boys.
Even today, the problem still exists. I can buy a book with a woman protagonist, and she’s the only woman in the cast — and it’s written by a woman. Clive Cussler writes a book with a cast of 100, and maybe there’s 1 or 2 women.
Many TV shows are like this as well, with women being added because the network told the producers they needed to (Law and Order) or one woman who feels almost like an afterthought. Even Star Trek, which was about using diverse people, ended up with a cast of 9 for Next Generation and only three were women. One was for eye candy, and the other two got frustrated with the development of their roles and left. One returned, but the other did not.
But when I came home from Desert Storm, I had an intense craving for something that represented me, and not just something that appealed to men.
And I wanted one more thing: It to be about war.
China Beach Ties to Desert Shield and Desert Storm
China Beach was a unique TV series in that it was about women and war. It was set in a hospital during the Vietnam War and boasted a cast that was pretty close to 50-50 on the gender scale. The show had premiered in 1988, two years before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and every military woman I knew was watching it.
But it was almost like the show’s timing framed our war. When we deployed in October of 1990, we stayed our first night at a truck port (like a car port, only a lot bigger) at the waterfront. Things were very confused at chaotic. We had no sense of place, of exactly where we were. This was just somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and we were like “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky” in Airwolf. We didn’t have amnesia, but we knew someone was going to be trying to kill us–though how, we didn’t know, or when.
It was as if our connection to the world had been snipped.
At first light, we got up. After the long flights and long nights, we were like zombies marching off to the showers. A friend and I followed the crowd down to the waterfront, and we stopped dead in our tracks when we saw the showers.
Then we both turned to each, forming exactly the same thought, and exclaimed, “China Beach!”
It that moment, it solidified the fact that we hadn’t just stepped off into the Twilight Zone and vanished.
Other things soon popped up. We didn’t have the internet in those days, and TV was limited to CNN in a tent. So our only connection to the outside world was the mail (which I wasn’t getting anything of) and the radio. The military radio station struggled to find music that would appeal to us and ended up playing songs from the 1970s, and from the Vietnam War.
I remember sitting in a cargo container we used for an office and listening to Janis Joplin as we marched ominously toward the ground war.
Coming Home to China Beach
Maybe the ending of Desert Storm had contributed to the cancelation before the series could finish it up its final season. But by the time I returned from Saudi Arabia, it went into reruns locally, so I could see it every night. The timing for me couldn’t have been better.
I devoured it. I couldn’t get enough of it. I even taped the episodes and watched some of them over and over again. When I did a driving trip, I bought a China Beach audio tape and listened to the music. I’d heard nearly all the same music during Desert Storm.
I don’t know. Maybe watching China Beach in reruns was like a decompression of sorts from Desert Storm that I wasn’t getting anywhere. Maybe it plugged into the underlying anger that I felt when I came back. Maybe it helped me pull back from the extreme of war back to business as usual.
Over time, the show disappeared from the airwaves entirely, and all I had left was the videos. I don’t recall when, but I gradually stopped watching the videos. I guess I didn’t need them as much.
But after video tape went away, I started to want the show again. It would be 24 years.
China Beach Today
While other shows came out in the “new” technology of DVD, China Beach remained elusive. One of the major pieces of the show was the music, but music rights have waylayed many shows and movies. But it also turned out to be the most requested show people wanted on DVD, so it was released earlier this year with most of the music intact. I know that cost a fortune!
I wasn’t really sure what I expected when I got the first two DVDs (I was cheap; I didn’t buy the full set for $200. I waited until they came out individually for $20). But time has changed me from 24 years ago. I’m not devouring it. The writing is still top notch, but I can only watch one episode, and then I have to stop for a while.
Perhaps that’s the way it should be now. War is a very strange things. There’s nothing like it.