“The earth outside is covered with snow and I am covered with sweat. My younger brother calls me a killer and my daddy calls me a vet.” So the Vietnam veteran appears in a popular song recorded a few years back by Charlie Daniels (written by Dan Daley). The Vietnam War is over, but the matter is not settled in my mind, and more importantly, in the imagination of the American people. Officially, the consensus on the war is nearly complete. “Everybody knows or else should know” what editorial writers and college professors tell their more or less captive audiences: the evil of the war, the careless blundering of the Washington technocratic elite, the glorious victory of the Vietnamese people as the justice of their cause was presented on television to the American people. Yet in the rag and bone shop of the heart that provides the themes for popular art and entertainment, questions echo and re-echo that editorial writers do not address: How could such a strong and wealthy nation lose a war to a small and weak one? What happened to us in those days? What happened to our soldiers, the ones who hurried back and the POW’s who came later and the MIA’s who never came back?
The Received Version of the War is a Märchen, Jack the Giant Killer or David and Goliath, with the pleasingly simple folkloristic motifs of brave young warrior defeating his bulky, conceited, but vulnerable foe. In this case the giant’s fall not only restores the promised land to the people, it is one of many steps on the way to the establishment of the true Messianic kingdom over the entire earth. Despite its folkloristic roots, no popular art has been built on the foundation. This is a fairy tale published in editorial pages and college poli. sci. courses and on Public Television.
Whittaker Chambers was able to discern little sense of tragedy in the American people. As a criticism of the intellectuals among whom he spent his younger days, the insight hits the mark. If the state was a tree for the Romantic poet, for the 20th century intellectual history is a train, subject to delays and strange detours, no doubt, but moving steadily towards one far-off secular event. In this inevitable, mechanical progress, there may be backsliders and there will be martyrs, those who die for the cause. But the Tightness of the cause and the inevitability of its triumphs are assured.
The American people live in a different sort of fairy tale—the world of Vergil’s Aeneas. Aeneas loves his home, Troy, and fights to prevent its fall to the brilliant and tricky and ruthless. He moves into the future and Italy, losing wife and home, to win a new home for his people where, at least for a little while, they can be safe to build and grow again, until they must once more defend themselves against violence and trickery in themselves and from the outside. He can never console himself that the losses are not real losses but so many Lenin-esque eggs broken for the glorious omelette of the future. Italiam non sponte sequor. I am not going to Italy because I want to, he tells Dido. The deaths of brave young men represent real and irreparable gaps in the new state Aeneas is founding.
The modern intellectual is, like Hazlitt’s Iago, a tragic poet in real life, who cannot feel the desolation in the departure of each individual sacrificed for a future that is and must remain an abstraction. America’s commitment to Protestantism and individualism has many negative sides, but it does make loss and sacrifice real. Whether he knows it or not, the typical American has had his mind formed on the hero who feels the loss and yet goes on to create. He is Aeneas, and he stands opposed to the martyr of the inevitable future, Ché Guevara, say, or Martin Luther King.
Around Vietnam the American popular imagination has played with themes that involve real loss and real sacrifice. It began early. At the height of the war, John Wayne decided to make a movie modeled on the conventional epics that flowed out of Hollywood during the Second World War. The Green Berets is not a typical World War II propaganda film, however. True, there is an enemy in Southeast Asia who is easily assimilable to the cold, barbarous Jap who was a staple of the older films. There is also an enemy at home. He is no second generation German, compromised into collaboration by a youthful indiscretion with the German-American Bund. He is a newspaper reporter (David Janssen), and he sneers at the good, blunt Sergeant trying to explain political realities. He is honest, though, and he accepts Wayne’s invitation to see what Vietnam is really like.
In World War II the refugees huddle in Casablanca, waiting for the chance to go home. In Vietnam, the farmers and hill people defend their own homes, and then in the night the Cong come to slay their leaders and teachers and parents. We see an orphaned Vietnamese boy who loses first his family, then the honest South Vietnamese officer who tries to protect him, and finally, unexpectedly but with seeming inevitability, the young American officer who has taken him under his wing. Played by Jim Hutton, the officer is returning from a mission in which a young Vietnamese girl has sacrificed her virtue to trap a North Vietnamese general when he is caught in a trap and swung horribly into a grill of pungie sticks. The boy waits vainly for his new father to emerge from the landing helicopters. Then he and John Wayne walk off together along the beach. “After all, you’re what this war is all about.” One reporter converted, one general captured, but the best are slain, and there is little hope that the horror of emptiness will ever be erased from the young soul who has looked into that abyss.
The Green Berets was to prove prophetic in its themes, but it had little influence on the many antiwar movies of the 70’s. The question was not what was the war like—the evening television news was answering that question graphically. What, rather, was happening to the men who were serving in Vietnam. Jane Fonda’s Coming Home set a pattern. On the one side we see Bruce Dern, ruined by the war as man and husband; on the other, the compassionate paraplegic, Jon Voigt, driven by the war not into despair but into the conviction that no war is worth dying or killing for. He is even made a more satisfying lover by his antiwar conversion, and he converts college students and Miss Fonda, not by a rugged John Wayne trip to Vietnam, but by the power of his tongue.
At the end of the decade, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, confused as it was by the director’s change from antiwar partisan to admirer of Nietzsche and power, still concentrated on the wildness, the craziness of the war. Martin Sheen is sent on a bizarre literary mission to assassinate a renegade U.S. officer, who is also Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Kurtz is Marlon Brando, stewing in an Orson Welles-like obesity, worshiping power and death. Sheen himself is haunted and broken by the bloodthirsty climax of his successful mission. Competence has become as crazy as Brando’s berserker death camp. (Earlier in the movie we see Robert Duvall as a cavalry officer ordering a helicopter raid on a coastal village so that his new recruit from California can surf) Duvall’s bravery in the midst of the whistling and exploding bombs is impressive, but we feel that it is an insane bravado.
The original filming of the scene included Duvall manifesting compassion as well as war-lust, when he dashes through the shelling to rescue a deserted baby. Coppola cut the scene, to Duvall’s publicly expressed disgust. Compassion would have spoiled the one dimensional powerworship that now dominated Coppola’s weird version. The public was told that the effect of serving in Vietnam was to make the soldier a dangerous nut. On TV, the stock villain, the greedy businessman, was being replaced by the outwardly normal and patriotic soldier who was inside an uncontrollable killer, broken by his participation in a criminal war.
While TV scriptwriters and movie reviewers applauded one vision of the Vietnam vet, the popular imagination was fostering another. Few serious reviewers noted Rolling Thunder, starring William Devane as a POW returned to a hometown no longer his. His wife is bra-less (“No one wears them any more”) and wants a divorce to remarry. Attractive young women are his for the asking. Then hoodlums break into his house and brutalize him, although they cannot break him. He has, after all, been tortured by the best, the Vietnamese Communists. They do get to his wife and son and after robbing them, shoot them. Devane loses his family not to divorce and the new morality, but to violence.
When he recovers, he goes hunting with a fellow POW. His lover discovers that he wants revenge more than sex and cries out, “Why do I always get stuck with the crazy men?” His answer is, “That’s the only kind left.” The final debacle, the annihilation of a Chicano whorehouse where his attackers are reveling, leaves no doubt of his disgust at the sexual revolution and the new open society of the 60’s. Some have seen in Rolling Thunder another movie about a Vietnam vet who turns into a psychotic killer, but this, surely, is to miss the gravamen of the movie’s charges against America. Those who bore the brunt of fighting and suffering return to find the country they fought for gone. It did not desert them technically. Nixon and Kissinger got them out, all right. But it is no longer their country. The way of life they fought to defend is gone.
Violence and selfishness and sex have created a new way of life. Many Vietnam movies are concerned about betrayal by the leadership, the government. The American people are all right, but they need to hear the facts that were kept from them. In Rolling Thunder it is the ordinary Texans who have sold out, betrayed what the vets fought for. The melting pot of America is a whorehouse and the heroes limp off, embracing, at the successful completion of their mission, the destruction of that whorehouse and its violent, degenerate inhabitants.
There are two angers in Vietnam movies. One, more easily assuaged, is anger against THEM, the ones who sold us out, whether in fighting a criminal war or in not letting us win it. At the heart of Rolling Thunder, however, boils the deeper resentment against the people who used the years of the war to betray, to let slip from their hands in some cases, the ideals for which the soldiers fought. This resentment surfaced again in a spectacular fashion in Sylvester Stallone’s surprise hit, First Blood, Stallone’s Rambo is a Special Forces veteran, but he looks like a hippie or a biker. The small Oregon town where he gets into trouble with the law treats him first with contempt and then hunts him down like an animal. When he turns on his tormentors, he wreaks a horrible revenge.
The fury of his actions is awesome, but no more so than the rage of his final tirade to commanding officer Richard Crenna: “Who are they to protest me?” This wrath is not directed particularly against the elite. It is a small town in rural America that is blown away in Sly Stallone’s vision. The rot in America is deep, and no superficial balm will quiet the throbbing cancer. The financial success of the movie was a surprise, but reviewers gave conventionally negative responses and chose to ignore the meaning of its popularity. They did not pause to ask themselves the question: Why would people, especially younger people, pay money to see such a picture when they stayed away in droves from such artistic successes as Costa-Gavras’ Missing.
The overwhelming financial success this past summer of Rambo: First Blood II awoke many, news commentators and editorial writers as well as reviewers, from their dogmatic slumbers. When I saw the movie on Memorial Day, every teenager in the audience got up at the end and applauded. The older viewers looked on in impotent amazement. Rambo, however, is a rather different movie, in tone and themes, from First Blood, and the difference is due to another and very different movie, also a sleeper.
Gene Hackman starred in Uncommon Valor, and that billing alone attracted notice. An aging officer whose son never returned from the war, he is convinced that his son is still alive there, held as a slave by the Vietnamese. No official will listen, so he rounds up a group of Vietnamese vets, many of them bizarre misfits, made that way by their wartime experience, and rescues his son and other POW’s and MIA’s. The movie is moving, sensitive, far from abrasive, and the industry was caught by surprise at the audiences it attracted.
The success of Uncommon Valor did not escape the attention of Chuck Norris, a karate champ who had parlayed the early death of Bruce Lee into some moneymaking karate movies. Norris saw himself as the true successor to John Wayne and seized the chance to succeed where Wayne had failed. His Missing in Action was a blockbuster. Norris played a POW who had escaped from an illegal Vietnamese prison camp and had now returned with an official U.S. delegation to uncover what the Communists had been doing. There are some effective verbal confrontations, much action, some revenge, and a finale in which he breaks up a self-righteous Vietnamese media event by crashing in with a number of rescued POW’s. Norris followed up MIA with another film on how his hero had escaped.
This was the context in which Stallone did his own MIA. Rambo is freed from the prison where he was sent after First Blood to go into Vietnam to examine a carefully chosen empty POW camp. Our bureaucrats, who had arranged this charade, fouled up. The camp was not empty, and Rambo actually gets a soldier to the rendezvous point, whereupon the bureaucrat declares the mission aborted and leaves Rambo and the rescued prisoner stranded. Tortured and alone, Rambo escapes and brings our men back, in the process killing an estimated 75 Vietnamese and Russians. Oh yes, Russians, too. The audience is left in no doubt about who is running the show in Southeast Asia.
Rambo is a good-hearted movie, after all, with all kinds of fantastic slayings and shootings and just a little romantic sadness. A nice Vietnamese girl who helps Rambo is killed. At the end, when Crenna asks Rambo not to hate his country, Rambo shrieks that he loves America, he would die for her, but he would like to see the affection returned. He stalks off, having frustrated the bureaucrats and freed our men. In Rambo, Stallone has taken the hard-hitting motifs of earlier Vietnam movies and made them palatable for a mass audience. The American people are not to blame. Bureaucrats did us in. Given a chance, our men can stand up to torture and beat Charlie and his Russian master. For all its violence and movement, Rambo is ultimately a consoling film.
It did not console the media powers that be, of course. They have been picturing us as recovering from the brutality and learning the lessons of Vietnam. The American people had been lied to, but they were learning their limitations and were wiser now. Suddenly appeared this overwhelming proof that the brats had not learned their lesson, that they were not even studying seriously. Here was an America unwilling to pay money to see Costa-Gavras’ picture of American duplicity in Chile, despite the attraction of stars like Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon, but eager to flood theaters when the enemy in the last war was portrayed as a sadistic torturer defeatable by resolution and intelligence. For crying out loud, hadn’t they seen the PBS Vietnam series?
It would be wrong to pass over the more complex figure of Michael Cimino. Cimino has many contacts with the more popular aspects of the film trade and has worked with Clint Eastwood, but he is committed to making artistic or “quality” films. In The Deerhunter, he focused on the healthiness of ethnic, working-class America, shaken, tortured, and, in some cases, tragically broken by the Vietnam War. The war is seen as a kind of national suicide, and the theme of Russian roulette appears several times in the movie to underline this insight, from the gambling halls of Saigon to the POW camps of the North Vietnamese. The American Way of Life is, through it all, presented as a positive good—working, loving, and hunting. At the end, the remnants of the cast gather to sing “God Bless America.” (Compare here the more somber and understated ending of The Green Berets.)
The defense of the American Way of Life against the enemy from the East is also the theme of Cimino’s latest offering, The Year of the Dragon, in which Mickey Rourke plays a graying Vietnam veteran out to destroy a Chinatown drug lord with close and explicit ties to the drug traffic in Southeast Asia. Few reviewers missed the movie’s direction, and they were as angry at it as they were at Rambo. The point is made again and again by Rourke himself and his closest friend that he is obsessed with the defeat in Vietnam, a defeat caused by cowardly and self-protecting bureaucrats. This time he is going to win, he says, almost in the very words of Stallone to Crenna at the start of Rambo.
Rambo‘s crusade kills many Communists but does not involve serious loss to America. Even the treacherous bureaucrat survives. Rourke’s victory, on the other hand, is costly, almost Vergilian. The bravest and truest of those around Rourke suffer: a brave young Chinese policeman, Rourke’s wife, both brutally slain; finally, even the beautiful Chinese-American TV reporter that he has lured into the investigation (and into bed) is brutally raped. Cruelty and viciousness cannot deter Rourke. Now, this is a fantasy, as much as Rambo, but it represents a much more mature fantasy. Virtue will triumph, but we are not allowed to shirk the cost of that victory. As in Vergil’s Aeneid, a better society will emerge from the conflict, but the cost in human suffering and loss is real, and we must face it. In a world where easy and cheap success is promised from every TV screen and full-page ad in magazines, this insistence on the cost of victory is as needed by Americans as much as the enthusiasm and patriotism of Chuck Norris and Sly Stallone.
Movies are fantasies. A nation’s fantasies are also statements about itself. The fantasies of a few filmmakers, rewarded with devotion and money, have now seeped down into the television industry. In Stephen J. Cannell’s lighthearted Riptide, serving together in Vietnam is a shorthand for masculine loyalty and achievement. On the much abused A-Team, it is somewhat more. The A-Team is a group of 20th-century Robin Hoods, helping the downtrodden against the wealthy and the brutal. Why are they on the lam from the U.S. government? You have to listen carefully, but the reason is, in a word, because they invaded North Vietnam without (or is it against?) orders. The invasion of the North is the great hidden, unspoken American fantasy. We could have won the war if they had let us—the thematic thread that unites most of the movies we have discussed. Its role in the success of the A-Team‘s appeal to the American psyche is important, and TV critics would rather talk about anything else.
More explicit and often impressive is the role of Vietnam in Glen Larsen’s Magnum, P.I., where Tom Selleck and his friends are Vietnam vets who have never really recovered from that experience. The three American buddies are successes in their way, and they love one another and are loyal to one another, but their careers and personal lives are stunted by the war, its disorienting horror touching them when they least expect it. In one episode, a Vietnam medic has devoted his life to caring for the family of a friend who was killed in the war (by drug dealers, not by Charlie). His friend’s wife has grown to love him, and so does his son. He, however, is committed to revenge and in the end assassinates the drug dealer at the cost of his own life. Selleck finds it hard to explain to the now doubly widowed widow why she had to lose two men she loved. “You see, we shut our eyes and we forget. He shuts his eyes and he remembers.” This past season Magnum returned with his whole crew to Cambodia to rescue the leader of the democratic resistance from the Vietcong. Here, too, the bravest—a young man, a wife, an old soldier—die, but when the others get back, they all agree that freedom is worth fighting for. They were right to go back.
When did the American people begin to realize that it was us against them? I wonder if the turning point in movies did not occur about the time of Walking Tall. Buford Pusser was a tragic hero. They took everything from him, pride and family and wife, but he never gave up until they killed him. Our POW’s returned from North Vietnam with a similar lesson, real heroes like Rear Admiral James B. Stockdale and Senator Jeremiah Denton. Courage and ingenuity can triumph over brutality. They can torture us and kill us but they cannot make us give up.
The rational response to the totalitarian torturer and the liberal social engineer is to give up, keep quiet, and do things their way. Out of a deep courage and commitment to their way of life, however, the American people are finding new heroes in the men who went through the frustration and defeat of Vietnam and will not be fitted into their mold. For Americans, heroes are where you find them. Surely no other people ever took policemen as their heroes as we did in the 60’s and still do. Now we are admiring the battered veterans of a lost war. Some, like Jim Stockdale and Jeremiah Denton, were real soldiers. Many are fantasies of Vietnam warriors. Under their banners, the war continues.
T.S. Eliot thought that we fight for lost causes “because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory.” If the films that appeal to the popular imagination are evidence, the war is not over for many Americans. More, they are willing to see abusive portrayals of the leadership that lost the war and brought on so many of the fruits of the 60’s. This you will not learn reading “important” magazines or public speeches. The American people have discovered in the darkness of the movie theater and the privacy of their homes what they want to applaud. The security of the voting booth has begun to proclaim the same message. The liberal Bourbons, who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, are beginning to stir uncomfortably in their couches. The cries for equality and compassion that blare from the loudspeakers are being drowned out by a mob crying for excellence and victory, both personal and national. As yet, only popular art reflects this resurgence, but a satiated and sleeping elite may awaken one morning to discover that their cynical Vietnam misadventure was the harbinger of the great popular revolutions of our time. “Sir,” Rambo asks Richard Crenna, “this time, can we win?”