Now Playing: Vietnam

by Marilyn B. Young

Many veterans of Vietnam will tell you they went to war with images of John Wayne and the Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) in their heads. They have probably forgotten that Wayne played a depressed, angry alcoholic in the movie and that he dies in the end. The intended hero of the film is not even Wayne at all but the gentle John Agar, who would never want his son to grow up to be a Marine. Not very long after the release of the movie, the men who fought in Iwo Jima, or their younger brothers, went back to war in Korea. Their sons came of age in time for the television reruns of Sands of Iwo Jima and service in Vietnam.

The manifest content of the war movies of the 1950s, whether set in World War II or Korea, was prowar. Every service in the military got at least one feature film celebrating its exploits: frogmen, submarines, aircraft carriers, close air support units, the service academies ( West Point Story in 1950, Air Cadet in 1951) the Coast Guard, the Marines (several times) even the exploits of the former enemy ( Desert Fox , 1951). The pull of World War II, film historian Thomas Doherty has written, "wasn't merely the attraction of adventure romance, or high melodrama but the consolation of closure and the serenity of moral certainty. For Hollywood and American culture the Second World War would always be a safe berth" (1). But many of these films, including Sands of Iwo Jima , contain a powerful undercurrent that pulls the other way, towards a recognition of the futility of war. The movies set in Korea protest against its renewal so soon after what had seemed a conclusive victory. William Styron was one of those recalled for service in Korea. He observed bitterly, "War was no longer simply a temporary madness. . . . War had at last become the human condition" (2). No one went to Vietnam cherishing images of the Bridges of Toko-Ri (1955).

Vietnam War movies reverse the pattern. The manifest content of almost all of them is antiwar, but according to Anthony Swofford that is not how they were viewed by young men on their way to the battlefield. At a Marine Corps base in the Mojave Desert in 1990,waiting to be sent to war in Iraq, Swofford's platoon drank beer and watched Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). Civilians might leave the theatre weeping over the inhumanity of war, Swofford observes. The men in the Mojave were "excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man . . . ." A young man "raised on the films of the Vietnam War," Swofford wants his "ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers"(3). I am not certain what movies young men and women are raised on these days, but it is important for those of us who teach the history of the war in Vietnam to understand the shifting resonance of movies whose meaning we may have thought constant.

The coda to many courses on the Vietnam War is a discussion of the war in memory. Sometimes the war in memory is the course taught, whatever the intention of the instructor. Novels, memoirs, and feature movies are all available in abundance to help make the war vivid to undergraduates, for whom it is increasingly remote. Of course, the movies the faculty may have experienced as fresh renderings of the recent past are themselves now to be seen only on late night television or in college classrooms. Teaching the history of the war in the late 1970s or 1980s meant classrooms filled with students who felt they had been there. They were 18 and 19 year-old Americans who went to movies about Vietnam as if to the country itself and remembered the movies later as one would a trip to another country. Young Americans had little difficulty inserting themselves into these movie memories because, like most of the novels and memoirs of Vietnam, the movie was mainly populated by Americans at war with an unseen enemy. Vietnam was an unchanging jungle stage set, a faraway place where bad things happened to Americans who regrettably did bad things in turn. It is still the case, although these days it is an old movie, seen on a small screen or in a scratchy print which enhances its verisimilitude for student viewers (4). For that reason, it is essential, now, to teach students that the films of the war have a history; they are not the history of the war.

One could begin a history of Vietnam War movies with Samuel Fuller's China Gate (1957), in which one of the characters explains that, having fought in Korea, he had now joined the French in Indochina because there were "still a lot of live Commies around." But a more reasonable starting point would be The Green Berets (1968), John Wayne's explicit effort to sell the war to the American public. The packaging was familiar. As producer Michael Wayne explained: "We're not making a political picture; we're making a picture about a bunch of right guys . . . Cowboys and Indians . . . .The Americans are the goodguys and the Viet Cong are the bad guys. . . . Maybe we shouldn't have destroyed all those Indians, but when you are makinga picture, the Indians are the badguys" (5). What is particularly interesting, however, is the effort the film must make to explain why the Indians are the bad guys and why they must die. In the old days, movie goers could tell the good guys from the bad guys without a scorecard. Now, the justice of the cause must be explained--and at considerable length. Very early in the film, the upstanding men of the Green Berets answer the hostile questions of an aggressively liberalpress corps: why is the U.S. fighting sucha useless war? Is it not a civil war? Do the Vietnamese want us there? Is the Saigon government not dictatorial? Patiently, one by one, their questions are answered. It falls to a black master sergeant to describe how desperately the Vietnamese desire U.S. intervention: "If this same thing [the NLF insurgency] happened in the United States, every mayor in every city would be murdered. Every teacher . . . every professor. . . every Senator, every member of theHouse of Representatives and their families . . . . But in spite of this, there's always some little fellow out there willing to stand up and take the place of those who've been decimated. They need us . . . and theywant us." "It's strange that we never read of this in the newspapers," a housewife complains. "Well, that's newspapers for you, ma'am . . . ," one of the officers responds (6).

Nor did one see such things in the films that followed The GreenBerets. The movies made during the war and in its immediate aftermath did not try to justify or sell the war. They, not John Wayne, set the initial terms of many of the myths of the war: returning veterans were filled with homicidal or suicidal rage ( Welcome Home, SoldierBoys, 1972, Tracks , 1976, Taxi Driver, 1976, Deer Hunter, 1978 ) ; the war was about American loss of innocence, lives, purpose, working class solidarity ( Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, 1979); the war was without cause, context or meaning, though individual salvation was possible ( Deer Hunter , Coming Home, 1978). In all of them, powerlessness, anger, and guilt--though towards whom is never very clear--are at the heart of the matter. All take the American dilemma as central, most definitively rendered in the conclusion to Platoon (1986): "We didn't fight the enemy in Vietnam," the hero declares at the movie's end, "we fought ourselves, and the enemy was in us." With the exception of movies that fantasize a surrogate victory, such as the Rambo series, Hollywood filmmakers seem to agree with RichardNixon: only Americans can defeat America. The movies ask few questions and provide no answers.

Two movies break this mold and they remain exceptional in the canon of Vietnam War films, from the earliest to the most recent: Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977) and Go Tell the Spartans (1978). Both briefly appeared on the movie circuit and then disappeared into videoland. The first remains singular. Itnot only asks but also offers an answer to the question, why were we in Vietnam? Twilight's answer is political: because those who ruled the country believed it was essential to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that the "United States meant business." The New York Times panned the film. "All of the characters," Vincent Canby scoffed, "whose minds are so tiny they've totally forgotten the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, are convinced that [the revelation of this fact] would result in the collapse of the American way of life and death" (7). But Watergate, as Canby well knew, was not about Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers were hardly an official admission of guilt. Indeed, at the time the movie was released, no senior U.S. official had come close to acknowledging Twilight's hard truth.

Spartans is set in a period when the war was, at it were, already Vietnamized (1960-1964). The movie is based on a novella by Daniel Ford, Incident at Muc Wa (1967), and portrays the graveyard Vietnam had been for the French and would soon become for the Americans. The Vietnamese guerillas in Spartans are nameless but not faceless. In a sense, Spartans is an anti-Western: there are some noble cowboys, but the Indians will have the last word. Young and old, male and female, they are the eternal enemies of foreign intruders, as comfortable in the jungle of Vietnam as on the plains of North America.

Pat Aufderheide has named the subgenre of the Vietnam movies of the late 1980s-- Platoon , Full Metal Jacket , Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties of War (1989)--the "noblegrunt movie." The war, she writes, is seen from the viewpoint of the American soldiers . . . . [It] is confined to the years in which the most ground troops were present. The battlefield has been internalized, and the enemy is not so much the Vietnamese as the cold, abstract forces of bureaucracy and the incompetence of superiors (8).

No matter how searing the footage, how morally ambivalent themessage, in these movies the Vietnam War is distilled as an American tragedy. "We are on our way, in the movies, to forgiving ourselves not for anything the U.S. government and forces did in Vietnam but simply for having felt so bad for so long . . . . It is a profoundly personal matter rather than a political or historical one, emotionally predicated on a sense of loss and propelled by a therapeutic tone of self-help" (9).

This is a persuasive analysis. Yet at the same time, the war movies of the 1980s mark an unraveling of the American war story. They do not end in total victory; the cause for which the troops fight is obscure and probably unworthy; and honor and courage can be salvaged but only by abandoning patriotic rhetoric. In the aftermath of U.S. victory in the Gulf war, President George H.W. Bush was optimistic that the country had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome." But the syndrome continued to manifest itself in the popular imagination of war. The Rambo series had tried to reverse the verdict of defeat, but it left standing the public conviction that Vietnam was not a good war. Despite a victory intended to vanquish the memory of Vietnam, the only notable movies made about Desert Storm-- Courage Under Fire (1996) and Three Kings (1999)--were haunted by it. The first, in its insistence that post-Vietnam America must have heroes, underlined their absence. Three Kings opens with black and white text informing us that the war is over even as a soldier shouts the question: "Hey! Are we still killing people?" No one seems to know the answer. The soldier peers through the scope on his gun, sees an Iraqi on a distant hilltop, white flag in one hand, weapon in the other. Before either the audience, or the soldier, can tell whether the man intends to shoot or surrender, the American fires and the man falls dead. "Congratulations,"his buddy says, "You got yourself a raghead. I didn't think I'd get to see anyone shot in this war."

The movie explicitly links Iraq and Vietnam in a press conference that mocks both the press and the soldiers who perform for them: "They say you exorcised the ghost of Vietnam in [this war with its] clear moral imperative," the reporter informs the soldiers, who readily agree: "We liberated Kuwait." The rest of the movie makes deadly fun of this answer. "I don't know what we did here," George Clooney's Special Forces officer bitterly complains to a friend, "just tell me what we did here." "Do you want to occupy Iraq," the friend answers, "and do Vietnam all over again?" But in effect, the Gulf War, as Three Kings presents it, is Vietnam all over again. There is no clear moral imperative; on the contrary, Shi'ites and Kurds are cynically encouraged to rebel against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned to their fate. Even the bad guys drive the point home: "Do [sic] your army care about the children in Iraq," one of Saddam's Republican Guard soldiers, pausing in the act of torturing an American captive, asks. "Do your army come back to help the people? . . . My son was killed in his bed. He is one year old. He is sleeping when the bomb come . . . . Can you think how it feels inside your heart if I bomb your daughter?" Individual Americans, like Clooney, through their honesty, virility and disregard for authority, redeem the country's honor, but only in opposition to, or apart from, the government, never in support of its stated aims. In this, Three Kings is a sardonic retelling of the "noble-grunt" Vietnam War movie (10).

To erase Vietnam, something profoundly to be desired as the country was ordered to gird itself for an endless war against terrorism after September 11, 2001, Hollywood would have to go back to Vietnam. In 1941, in an effort to take the bad taste out of World War I and the powerful antiwar movies which dominated the interwar years, Hollywood released Sgt. York (1941), a moving tale of a pacifist turned war hero. "We can sit in the theater and see [York] go fight a better World War I for us," Jeanine Basinger has written. Films like Sgt. York , she explained, "wipe out earlier images and replace them with new ones, appropriate for the times" (11). To create a "new mythos" for World War II, Thomas Doherty wrote, "Hollywood had to recast the Great War as a reasonable national enterprise, not as the crazy slaughterhouse depicted in literature and film for the previous twenty years . . . . Outright obliteration was a prerequisite" (12).

To fight the new war against terrorism, the films, literature and histories of Vietnam would have to be obliterated. We Were Soldiers (2002), in what may be the first of many returns to Vietnam, is the twenty-first century's Sgt. York (13) . It was released ahead of schedule and Paramount was pleased with the test screening: "The movie has very, very patriotic American values. The audience embraced those values." Joseph Galloway, who, with Lt. Col. Harold Moore, wrote the book on which the movie is based, was delighted. As he explained to a reporter, "audiences would be drawn to the story because it is not defeatist about what eventually became the misadventure of Vietnam." The book, like the movie, is relentlessly patriotic. "This," the prologue reads, "is about what we did, what we saw, what we suffered in a thirty-four-day campaign in the Ia Drang Valley of the Central Highlands of South Vietnam in November 1965, when we were young and confident and patriotic . . . ." It was a "love story," about men "proud of the opportunity to serve [the] country . . . ." It was also a story about the "far more transcendent love" that comes to men "unbidden on the battlefields . . . . We killed for each other, we died for each other, and we wept for each other. And in time, we came to love each other as brothers. In battle our world shrank to the man on our left and the man on our right and the enemy all around" (14). The film version makes it also a story about family values, a manly reporter ready to pick up a gun, and worthy enemies.

As it happens, Moore's unit, the lst battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Division, was also Custer's and in the movie, before leaving for Vietnam, Moore is shown thoughtfully leafing through an illustrated account of the battle of Little Big Horn, along with a French book describing what is called the "massacre" of French troops in a battle along Route 19, near where he will soon find himself fighting for his life. Mel Gibson's brow furrows as he contemplates the fate of the French--a brief scene shows Vietnamese soldiers slaughtering French prisoners--and of Custer's men (15). The domestication of the Vietnamese enemy, common during the war itself, strikes an odd, discordant note. After all, the Indians, in the last couple of decades of films and novels, have been victims, which would make Moore and his men the executioners, and that cannot be right. Still, the scene is crucial, the first of many reversals of the images of the Vietnam War. The victims of massacres in Vietnam, it turns out, were white men. My Lai disappears; there are no burning villages but instead well-armed, uniformed Vietnamese regulars; napalmstrikes burn Americans and Vietnamese alike--the B-52 sorties crucial to the battle are never shown; the American commander is everywhere in the midst of the battle, barely protected and always in danger; and the Vietnamese commander gives his orders from the safety of a clean, well-kept, underground tunnel complex (16). Americans die in great numbers but are still victorious over the far more numerous Vietnamese and a soldier's last words express gratitude that he has sacrificed his life for his country.

Vietnam has become a war of which Americans can feel proud (17). The pride derives from the demonstration of courage and the memory of suffering, irrespective of the cause in which the one is displayed and the other endured. Both are proof that the nation, if it would only embrace its heritage, now explicitly including Vietnam, has not gone soft.

The men in We Were Soldiers sacrifice their lives only for one another (18). "In the new metaphor war movies seem to be presenting," Neil Gabler wrote, "Americans are no longer distrustful of authority and no longer doubt the cause. Rather, we trust each other and see the cause as us" (19). The legitimacy of the state, incarnate in the nation-at-war, is vested in the wars the U.S. has fought and the new ones the Bush administration plans to fight, all of them justified by the way they are fought for the "man on our left and the man on our right and the enemy all around."

Hollywood is a sensitive barometer. The Disney Corporation, for example, ran trailers throughout the fall of 2003 for a new movie on the Alamo. The music and the voice-overs featured a small band of heroic Americans pitted against one of the world's strongest standing armies. The movie was intended to "capture the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotism," but as the war in Iraq began, linguistically at least, to resemble the war in Vietnam--quagmire, hearts and minds, friend from foe, Ramadan Offensive--the studio seemed to have lost heart. The release date was postponed. Frank Rich speculated that Disney thought "it would be financially prudent to delay until there's another surge" (20). Perhaps the capture of Saddam Hussein freed Michael Eisner to release the movie in April 2004.

The ultimate Vietnam War movie is Fog of War (2003) , Errol Morris' two hour distillation of twenty-three hours of interviews with former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. McNamara is by turns sentimental, defensive, contrite, meditative and self-serving. But the context in which he puts his role in the Vietnam War will surprise most viewers and some historians--the fire bombing of Tokyo in World War II. Air Force General Curtis LeMay had famously said that if the U.S. lost the war "we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." McNamara agrees and asks: "What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" He does not answer the question. It is a good one on which to conclude a course on the history of the Vietnam War (21).  


1. Portions of this essay appeared in my essay, "In the Combat Zone," Radical

History 85 (Winter, 2003): 253-64; Thomas Doherty, Projections of War:

Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York: Columbia

University Press, 1993), 271.

2. William Styron, "The Long March," in This Quiet Dust and Other Writings

(New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 334; the essay appeared in the Norwegian

translation published in 1963 and in English for the first time in The

Mississippi Quarterly 28 (Spring 1975). See James L.W. West, William

Styron: A Descriptive Bibliography (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1977).

3. Anthony Swofford, Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other

Battles (New York: Scribner, 2003), 7.

4. New York University students taking a course on the Vietnam War in the

fall of 2003 consistently referred to the films they viewed as "accurate."

5. As quoted in Julian Smith, Looking Away: Hollywood and Vietnam (New

York: Scribner, 1975), 129.

6. As quoted in ibid., 132. On a trip to Vietnam, the screen writer, James Lee

Barrett, was told by an army officer: "These people don't want to be free,

but by God, we're going to make them free!" Barrett found the view "a new

and exciting concept." Ibid., 99-100.

7. Nor since, with the exception of former Secretary of Defense Robert S.

McNamara. As quoted in Vincent Canby, "Hollywood as Social Critic:

We Were Soldiers (2002) is the most recent movie set in Vietnam.

Reducing Our Ills to Absurdity," New York Times , February 20, 1977, 67;

"'Twilight's Last Gleaming:' No Star," ibid., February 10, 1977, 48.

8. Pat Aufderheide, "Good Soldiers," Seeing Through Movies, Mark Crispin

Miller, ed. (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 84.

9. Ibid., 111.

10. Warner Brothers gave the director, David O. Russell, funding to film a

documentary on the current war in Iraq to accompany the re-release of

the movie this fall. But when they screened the result, they refused to

distribute it. The company's spokeswoman explained: "This came out

to be a documentary that condemns, basically, a war. This is supposed

to be a special edition of 'Three Kings,' not a polemic about war." Sharon

Waxman, "Citing Politics, Studio Cancels Documentary," New York

Times , September 2, 2004, p.B1.

11. Jeanine Basinger, The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (New

York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 100.

12. Doherty, Projections , 100.

13. The passage of time has made the displacement easier. For example,

Coming Home , a 1978 antiwar movie, was summarized in the February

25, 2002 New York Times TV Late Movie listings this way: "Jane Fonda,

Jon Voight, Bruce Dern. Strong, stinging triangle of wife and Vietnam

vets," ( New York Times , February 25, 2002, E7).

14. Harold G. Moore, Joseph Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once--and Young: Ia

Drang, the Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam (New York: Random

House, 1993), 3-4.

15. See Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza, The Bridge

at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War (New York:

Henry Holt, 2001). The history of the 7th Cavalry includes several

massacres going the other way: the Battle of the Washita, in 1868, when

the 7th Cavalry ordered a large group of Indians into a constricted area

and then slaughtered them; Wounded Knee, in 1890, when the 7th

Cavalry massacred 370 Sioux, many of them women and children; the

massacre of Korean villagers in July 1950.

16. The ABC documentary, Vietnam: They Were Young and Brave , produced

in 1993, is very clear on this point: air power was the deciding factor in

the battle. A Vietnamese colonel describes watching, unprotected, as a

"sea of fire" engulfed his troops--"if you saw it you would think we all

died." Forest Sawyer, They Were Young and Brave , VHS (New York: ABC

Video, 1994).

17. This is in direct contrast to the documentary, in which some of the

survivors of the battle returned to the Ia Drang along with their Vietnamese

counterparts. The mood is elegiac, sometimes bitter, and the overall

effect is of the terrible waste of lives, however bravely sacrificed. Moore

and Galloway both accuse the military of stage-managing the post-battle

assessments of Ia Drang. "You can almost date the rot at the heart of the

American effort in Vietnam to that week," Galloway insists. By depicting

the battle as a victory, the ABC narrator explains, the military "pulled an

unsuspecting nation further into war." Post-battle newsreels described

the Ia Drang as proof that the "best of the enemy's forces could be

stopped dead in their own territory." Survivors were expected to join in

a ghastly charade--clips of which are included--in which Westmoreland

congratulated them on their victory. The men are unsmiling and many

of them look away, refusing eye contact with the general. The battle itself

is brilliantly depicted, using both North Vietnamese and U.S. Army film

footage, and the critical commentary of Moore, Galloway, and other

combatants is far more stark than anything in the movie.

18. This is also the case in Black Hawk Down (2001) and Saving Private

Ryan (1998).

19. Neil Gabler, "Seeking Perspective on the Movie Front Lines," New York

Times , January 24, 2002, section 2, 1.

20. Frank Rich, "Christmas Will Be Bloody This Year," New York Times ,

December 14, 2003, section 2, 1.

21. Quoted in Samantha Power, "War Means Never Having to Say You're

Sorry," New York Times, December 14, 2003, section 2, 33.

Marilyn B. Young teaches history at New York University. Author of The

Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 , and a recent Guggenheim Fellow, she continues

to work on the Korean War.

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