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Voices Fall-Winter 2004:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “War Stories: Vietnam Experiences Retold in Plastic, Dirt, and Paint” by Varick Chittenden with photographs by Martha Cooper here.
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Volume 30

War Stories: Vietnam Experiences Retold in Plastic, Dirt, and Paint, by Varick Chittenden and Photographs by Martha Cooper

It’s hard for [veterans] to tell the story, but they want the public to know what happened in Vietnam. And that’s basically what I’m doing, telling the public,“Hey! War sucks!” There is no good in war. Both sides lose. My scene must be real to the Vietnam vet when he or she looks at it. And it is. The only thing is, it don’t have the sounds, the heat, the smells of the vegetation, whatever. But whatever you see in plastic, dirt, and paint is a story that happened to a Vietnam vet.>

When he was 17, Michael Cousino left Gouverneur, New York, for the U.S. Marine Corps and after training was stationed near the DMZ in Vietnam. A battle injury ended his thirteen-month tour of duty as a “grunt,” or ground soldier, and he returned to the United States for rehabilitation and discharge. For the next several years he struggled with his injuries, both physical and emotional. Shortly after returning to St. Lawrence County, he joined a veterans’ group for counseling.

Michael Cousino

Search and destroy mission - diorama
This is the first piece I ever did... It shows a patrol whose mission is to search for and destroy the enemy. Here they have found weapons in a small village. One American was wounded, then died of those wounds. They also interrogated the VC [Vietcong] who did it. In this scene you’ll also see the enemy, a North Vietnamese soldier, wearing a helmet. I’m in the scene carrying a machine gun with two belts wrapped around my chest.

Checkpoint Charlie - diorama
Checkpoint Charlie — It was typical of every military base in Vietnam, you always had a checkpoint, the main entrance for going on and off that base. Checkpoint Charlie at an American fire base depicts a bunch of grunts, infantry. Their job is to look for weapons, check ID, make sure that the picture that’s on the ID resembles the person that was holding it, to stop the Vietnamese from infiltrating onto American bases.

Agent Orange - diorama

Agent Orange — Agent Orange is a story which depicts the jungle foliage—the trees, the grass—no longer there. You see dirt, dead things, brown things that are not supposed to be there. You can see the punji stakes, the Malaysian gate, the skeleton of an American or possibly of the enemy that fell in the trap. Agent Orange was sprayed heavily in Vietnam. I later found that it was sprayed by the U.S. Marine Corps in every area that I served.

Michael Cousino
Cousino modifies commercial plastic figures for his 1:32 scale scenes.
When he had difficulty talking about his experiences in Vietnam, a friend suggested that he use his hands to make dioramas of specific incidents. What followed was a flurry of activity as he modified plastic kits of models of World War II–era men and women and machines and fashioned scraps of plastic, wood, and metal from around his house. Since those days, he has made nearly three hundred scenes, many inspired by painful stories shared in confidence by new buddies and fellow veterans. The artwork has become therapy for Mike and his friends, as well as a way for him to teach younger generations about the experiences of the ordinary soldier.

The details of his dioramas reveal his natural storytelling talents. He relies on memory to illustrate military topics, like the use of Agent Orange, as well as recurring nightmares of being surrounded by the enemy, encounters with Vietnamese locals (friendly and unfriendly), and some hopeful examples of healing in the years since that conflict, such as group counseling and visits to the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, D.C.

My Hootch
My Hootch — My Hootch at Red Beach, or An FNG’s First Impression of Nam, is what I first saw of Vietnam. The scene depicts me with a seabag and pack on the boardwalk of my hootch, the Vietnamese word for small house. In the countryside, the hootches were very primitive structures, made of bamboo or like that, but we called these American military structures hootches anyway. The other guy is hollering ‘F-N-G!’ He’s saying ‘Your FNG is here!’ And I didn’t understand what FNG meant. I soon learned: Fucking New Guy. Or we called them Cherries, meaning brand-new guy in Vietnam. So this was my first impression of life in-country. It looks very peaceful. In fact, I still have a picture of myself by a hootch in Khe Sahn in ’68 which I sent home to my family.

Mike says that every one of his pieces, large or small, is a story, sometimes his own, sometimes that of a fellow veteran, sometimes a generic experience of the period. Telling these stories—blending horror, humor, boredom, fear, and fun—seems to have helped his own progress from confusion and despair and, say many who have seen them, helped other vets and their families, too.

Don't Forget Us, the POWs
Don’t Forget Us, the POWs — Don’t Forget Us, the POWs is a very special scene, because I made it after I received an anonymous phone call at home after some of my stuff was shown on a local television program, shortly after I got started. Some vet in our area called me to say I was not talking about POWs or MIAs and went on for an hour and a half to describe some of his experiences. Being a prisoner of war is no picnic. You’re tortured daily, you’re beaten daily. They drag you through a village, from village to village, and try to break your morale, try to go against what you believe in, try to show you that you are wrong, killing kids and women, things like that. As the survivors of a Viet Cong ambush, these two men were subjected to inhuman treatment. They were beaten, stripped naked, and paraded through the streets of North Vietnam. The idea was to strip the soldier of his morale, leaving him with guilt. This treatment either strengthened him or broke him. Vets experience great psychological anguish when attempting to describe such experiences because we feel deeply for each other.

Christmas in Vietnam
Christmas in Vietnam — Christmas in Vietnam, 1968 depicts me when we were out setting up, and I heard this noise and a six-barreled tank came through the boonies and turned out to be a Marine Corps Ontos, which is a Greek word meaning six-armed, like an octopus. These guys were coming through and, since it was Christmas, they threw me a pack of cigarettes. In any of my stories that you look at, if you see a pack of Marlboro cigarettes whether on a helmet or close by, it depicts me.

In the years since his return from combat, Mike Cousino has completed a college degree, worked as a job counselor for the New York State Department of Labor, and raised three children with his wife, Patti. He and his work have been featured in museum exhibitions, including one-man shows in Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton, and Canton, and in newspaper and magazine articles. He is the subject of the book Vietnam Remembered: The Folk Art of Marine Combat Veteran Michael D. Cousino, Sr., by folklorist Varick Chittenden (University Press of Mississippi, 1995). Our First Meeting
Our First Meeting — Our First Meeting: Folk Artist and Folklorist depicts the first time that Varick Chittenden came to my house to see my artwork. I guess when we first met, we didn’t know where this would go. He called me a folk artist or storyteller. I just called myself a diorama builder. Eight years later [1995] we are still doing shows, etc. Varick is a friend who has made a difference in my life, my family’s lives, and veterans.

This photographic essay is a small selection of Mike Cousino’s dioramas, accompanied by transcriptions of the stories of each piece, in his own words. Original photographs and recordings are in the TAUNY archives.


Varick A. Chittenden and Martha Cooper are the authors of Vietnam Remembered: The Folk Art of Marine Combat Veteran Michael D. Cousino, Sr. Copies signed by Cousino and Chittenden are available from Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. $12.95 paperback, $24.95 cloth, plus tax and shipping.

When he had difficulty talking about his experiences in Vietnam, a friend suggested that he use his hands to make dioramas of specific incidents...The artwork has become therapy for Mike and his friends, as well as a way for him to teach younger generations about he experiences of the ordinary soldier.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 30, Fall-Winter 2004. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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