Exploding The Myths; Exposing The Truths

By Jennifer Lyons

For almost a decade, the United States government deployed American soldiers into the jungles of Southeast Asia. As America's involvement increased, the nation's emotions intensified. The Vietnam War provided a unique opportunity to witness the horrors of war via an onslaught of media coverage. A clash of ideals divided the nation as the public questioned American participation. Was this war more gruesome than previous ones? No. Were Vietnam soldiers subjected to greater atrocities than veterans of World War II or Korea? No. Then what provoked the American public, cinema, and literature to develop such a fixation with Vietnam? Conceivably through the power of television, the veil of honor and glory in war was pierced, revealing the somber reality of a soldier's experience in combat.

Almost immediately following the end of the war, Hollywood flooded the industry with portrayals of Vietnam. All too many Americans draw their historical knowledge from cinematic interpretations. Unfortunately, many screenplays and directors have taken great liberties with historical facts in order to provide ultimate entertainment.

In 1986 director Oliver Stone released his critically acclaimed film Platoon. The film powerfully influenced patrons and critics alike. Stars such as Tom Berenger, Willem DaFoe, Charlie Sheen, and Forrest Whittaker contributed to an eminent cast. In a semi-autobiographical fashion, Stone loosely based the narrating character, played by Charlie Sheen, on the director's experiences as an infantryman in Vietnam. As a young, middle class college student, Stone dropped out of school and enlisted in the Army in 1967. He was assigned to Bravo Company in the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry of the 25th Infantry Division. Arriving in Vietnam in September 1967, Stone's naivete quickly disintegrated as he stood witness to human destruction.

Platoon, therefore, depicted many events as seen through the eyes of a young Oliver Stone. Shown from the point of view of an infantryman, the story is riddled with conflict not only with the enemy, but between the men of Bravo Company. Sergeants fragging one another, massacres resembling the My Lai atrocity, excessive drug use, and racial conflict between soldiers are all deppicted in the two hour film. To the director's credit, Stone strayed from the conventional choreographed battle scenes so typical of earlier war films. In an attempt to capture the disorientation of guerrilla warfare, the audience is often unsure who is the "good guy" and who is the enemy. There is never a clear mental map that allows the viewer to grasp where the Viet Cong are in relation to the Bravo Company. The result is an atmosphere of heightened anxiety, uncertainty, and fear of the unforeseen situation.

Although Platoon does a solid job of leading the viewer into the mindset of a soldier in Vietnam, historical discrepancies are prevalent. The director incorporates every war crime and inhumanity perpetrated throughout the war into one military infantry division. In reality, no sergeant fragged an officer in Bravo Company, nor did the Company commit atrocities in civilian villages similar to the massacre at My Lai. Throughout the movie, the various platoons have daily engagements with the enemy. Although this approach generates greater audience excitement, it is a manipulation of reality. Contrary to Stone's representation, life in the jungle often consisted of mundane searches of empty villages and trudging through thick foliage. The dull routines of platoons were only periodically interrupted by deadly engagements with the Viet Cong.

The superlative problem stems from Stone's failure to address the platoonís involvement in the 1968 TET Offensive. A significant portion of the film involves fictional events, yet it ignores one of the most vital and influential contemporary battles of the war. Platoon superbly captivates the emotions of soldiers and the internal changes one undergoes as a result of war. However, it is lacking a historical backbone.

In 1999, Robert Hemphill, captain of Bravo Company from September 1967 to March 1968, published his accounts of the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry in Platoon: Bravo Company. Hemphill wrote his book in part as a response to the film as well as to set the record straight about popular misinterpretations

The book received tremendous praise from literary as well as military critics. Hemphill was captain of Bravo at the same time Stone enlisted in the 2nd Platoon. Unlike Platoon, Hemphill's publication is told from the perspective of an officer rather than an infantryman. Platoon: Bravo Company offers supplemental information to the film in an attempt to give the viewer a more complete account of what transpired in Vietnam.

Written in story form, the book masterfully paints a picture of the day to day existence of one company. The author intricately explains the various roles of platoons, platoon leaders, sergeants, captains, and other higher ranking officials. It makes vividly apparent the importance of the chain of command and delegation of authority that was so essential to the successful completion of military initiatives. The actions, whether successes or failures, of each individual component directly influenced the Division as a whole.

Hemphill considers the film to be strictly for entertainment purposes and cautions readers that it should not be taken as the true story of Bravo Company. The author refutes many of the events portrayed in the film stating, "the troops never had enough free time to get into that much trouble." Hollywood's various renditions of Vietnam are shown all too frequently through a colored lens which revises facts, replacing them with fiction. Hemphill feels the soldiers of Vietnam actually have been misrepresented on screen to the point of persecution. His book is an effective antidote and through his story, he brings honor and credit, long overdue, not only to the Bravo Company but also to those who served in Americaís longest war.