By InPEC Contributor, 7th June, 2012
Who won the Vietnam War? Who lost it? These questions are barely touched up in films about the conflict. Instead we see a very different picture: troops rallying together against adversity of poor leadership, difficult terrain and uncharacterised enemies. Does this tell the real story of Vietnam? Were class, race and gender equality the realities of 60s and 70s America? No.
Popular culture played a key part in reconstructing the narratives of the Vietnam War for the United States of America. It constitutes a unique form of memorial in which the reality is secondary to the story. Stories frequently circulate stating that x per cent of children don’t know who Winston Churchill or Neil Armstrong were but what of the rewriting of history? In these films South East Asia becomes a setting for a collection of films not so much about the history of the war as the re-assertion of American masculinity.
These manifestations carry greater cultural significance now as they reach mass audiences of younger generations who may have little prior knowledge of the war. For instance, at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial visitors frequently flock to take rubbings of one name in particular: John Rambo[i]. At the end of Rambo, the eponymous character asks his commander, ‘do we get to win this time?’ The commander responds, ‘this time, it’s up to you’.
Losing is for Losers: Winning Makes You Popular
The films didn’t necessarily have to depict reality in order to be popular, a point proved by the one of the first major films about the conflict. When The Green Berets debuted in July 1968 there were half a million US troops in Vietnam and the Tet Offensives in January of the same year made the film’s implication of inevitable victory look ridiculous. At the premiere of the film in New York it was picketed by protesters and denigrated in the New York Times as being ‘vile’, ‘insane’ and ‘dull’. Despite this it grossed nearly $11 million domestically in its first year making it one of the most successful films of 1968[ii]. Reality was not important
Such retellings of the war simplify its narrative and allow a site for healing of wounds. The largest of these wounds was defeat. The realities may be unpopular with viewers and by reconstructing narratives it allows for a different outcome to be created. Michael Herr, reflecting on his time as a war correspondent in Vietnam, claimed ‘If people don’t want to hear about it, you know they’re not going to pay money to sit there in the dark and have it brought up…So we have all been compelled to make our own movies’[iii].
The construction of narratives involves a process of unification, omission and specific amplification to determine what is perceived to be the status quo and the positioning of gender within this status quo would enable the narratives of the Vietnam War to be rewritten.
The Myth of Unity: Rewriting Race, Class and Gender in 1970s America
John Del Vecchio describes the U.S. soldiers in his 1982 novel, The 13th Valley, as ‘The restless infantrymen in the trenches and their clustered sergeants and lieutenants and captains on the landing strip represented a collective consciousness of America. These men were products of the Great American Experiment, black brown yellow white and red, children of the melting pot’[iv].
This ‘collective consciousness of America’ is a prominent motif of the films and novels that focus on the Vietnam War. The implication is that the war was a binding experience for those who fought and that social and racial boundaries were removed by the more important value of survival. Even when the tensions are openly acknowledged they are usually concluded with an act of brotherhood when fighting. In William Eastlake’s The Bamboo Bed (1969) ‘Black Sergeant Pike’ claims that ‘there is no greater honour on this earth to a black man than to hand white men to yellow men for killing’ but reassesses his views after a white soldier sacrifices himself to save the Sergeant. His process of change is completed in his realisation that ‘a man can’t help being born the colour he is born’[v].
As with race, class barriers are also forgotten as an accident of birth. The eradication of class divisions can be seen in Taylor’s letter to his grandmother in Platoon (1986) in which he creates an apotheosis of the ‘grunts’, the working class soldiers: ‘a grunt can take it. Can take anything. They’re the backbone of this country grandma, the best I’ve ever seen, the heart and soul’.
This concept of the unifying nature of war is a recurring theme in the novels and films about Vietnam but it should not be mistaken as the primary narrative of the pieces. The emphasis is instead the constructions on which this unity is based and what it unifies itself against.
Losing is for Girls
The unity that is depicted in the popular fiction is based upon the universalism of masculinity. Women can never included as a part of this collective. The differences between the men can be overcome as a result of this masculine bond while the differences between men and women are accentuated by it. Dissimilarities between men are perceived to be circumstantial and these social divisions are overcome by the ‘collective consciousness of America’. However, gender, unlike the other social constructs, remains static.
The selective depiction of women can be found in one of the most famous films about the conflict, Apocalypse Now (1979). The unity of the eclectic soldiers on the Naval Patrol Boat is juxtaposed with the fleeting appearances of individual women. The first is a seditious, Vietnamese grenadier who is disregarded as a threat due to her gender; the second characterisation is of U.S. Playboy models at a U.S.O. show; the third is of an innocent Vietnamese woman who is killed for attempting to protect a puppy. All three of these depictions rely on gender stereotypes to display the homogeneous construction of the female worldwide. This implies a biological unity amongst women compared to the circumstantial divisions between men.
The difference is that the social divisions between men can be overcome while the biological differences between men and women are portrayed as being incommensurable. War is reduced to being an entirely male experience in this respect while women play passive roles. The unity of the soldiers therefore plays a crucial role in the narratives of Vietnam War films due to the groups that they align themselves against as the opposition to the ‘grunts’ were feminized.
Vietnam as a Little Girl
Vietnam itself is the most obvious opposition to the unified U.S. troops in the portrayals of the war. The discourse of race can be detected in the lack of Vietnamese protagonists inVietnam. This is worth considering for a second. There are shocking few Vietnamese characters in films about the war in Vietnam.
Those that were represented were often deprived of dialogue such as Co in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) who speaks to U.S. soldiers in English but any interaction with other Vietnamese citizens is untranslated.
Instead, the Vietnamese are portrayed with feminine characteristics as they are not seen as victorious but passive and violated. The brutality against the Vietnamese people in films such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket (1987) casts the inhabitants as victims of U.S. aggression. At the conclusion of Full Metal Jacket the squad surrounds a female sniper who has killed several soldiers. The absurdity of the war is demonstrated by the director, Stanley Kubrick, not only due to the fact that so many U.S. soldiers could be killed by one person but that the one person is a woman[vi].
The killing of the innocent Vietnamese woman for protecting a puppy in Apocalypse Now further supports the portrayal of the Vietnamese as merely effeminate and therefore undeserving of victory or indeed characterisation.
The victimization of the Vietnamese means that they are not presented as the principle enemy. If they are not presented as the principle enemy they can not take an active role and can therefore not be seen as the victors of the war. Thus, the feminization of the depiction of the Vietnamese in the wars about the conflict helps to remove one of the most damaging realities: the fact that the Vietnamese won the war.
When Losing Doesn’t Mean Losing
The depiction of the Vietnam War is one of a war that the U.S.A. lost rather than a conflict which the Vietnamese won. Those identified as the causes of this outcome change in character from baby-killing soldiers to career-orientated bureaucrats but their identifying features remain the same: unpredictability, weakness, indecisiveness and dependence.
These characteristics are all traditionally perceived as feminine characteristics in American culture against which the unified masculine character is defined. The films about Vietnamcan then be perceived to be a way to regenerate the victimised American masculinity from the defeat in the war and the recent feminist challenges to patriarchal structures[vii]. In order to accomplish this, the veterans of the war must first be absolved of their association with the loss of the war. The way in which this is accomplished is the portrayal of the veteran as the victim of the mismanagement of the war.
The Veterans as the Victims
The portrayal of the veteran as a victim followed their persecution for their role in the war. During the war there were some protests that marked the return of Vietnam War veterans to theUnited States. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song ‘Universal Soldier’, released in 1964, reflects the antimilitarism of the period by claiming that every soldier is ‘really to blame’. The first ‘television war’ had produced images of endless bombs falling on forest landscapes and soldiers laden with guns walking through burned-out villages thus projecting the soldiers in a negative light. Such images were important in the portrayal of the veterans as victims of opposition from within theU.S.A.and the rehabilitation of the masculine veteran.
The subsequent victimisation of the veteran can be found in the punk music of the 1980s in songs such as The Ramones’ ‘53rd and 3rd’ in which the veteran has become ostracised in his home town by the police and resorted to homosexual prostitution, the antithesis of the projection of masculinity. This victimisation of the veterans would be used in the regeneration of the soldiers and of the masculinity they represented.
You Had to Be There, Man
In Rambo’s speech at the end of First Blood (1982) the blame is on ‘those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting, calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap’. The catalysts for the loss of the war are therefore those who did not fight. War is seen as a classic male experience in much the same way that having children is seen as feminine. In Eastlake’s The Bamboo Bed this gendering of life and death is articulated: ‘Every soldier hears death ticking off inside him…Not only every soldier…but every male human male being. Not every female human being. They don’t hear death ticking off inside them because they feel life ticking inside them’[viii].
Only those who are masculine and have experienced the war are then allowed to legitimately comment on it. The ‘warrior’ had become the only role in American society that was now exclusively men’s and the apotheosis of this function meant that all opposition would be portrayed as feminine[ix]. The rehabilitation of the veteran and the primacy placed on experiencing the war meant that those who were seen to personify the attributes of masculinity would triumph over their enemies: the feminine characteristics within the U.S.A.
The concern with defeat and the blame on the feminine anti-war protestors and authorities is best summarised in the finale of First Blood. Rambo’s concluding speech is polemic against those on the home front who opposed the war with emphasis on the need to experience the war in first person. He laments ‘Who are they to protest me? Who are they unless they’ve been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about?’. The prerequisite of experiencing the war is also depicted in the revisionist film, Hamburger Hill (1987) when a sergeant insists that ‘You don’t have to like the war, but you have to show up’.
Once again it is posited that the only way to understand the war is to have participated in it meaning that only the masculine soldiers can be the victims of the war. The enemy to masculinity was not the Vietnamese but the American public and theU.S.government that would not let the soldiers succeed. The victimisation of the united veterans and the accusation that those who did not fight were responsible for the defeat is vocalised in Rambo’s cry that ‘Somebody wouldn’t let us win’.
The charge that an element of the home front was the reason for the defeat in Vietnam absolves the men fighting the war of any responsibility and implies that if the war had been conducted by men such as Rambo the outcome would have been different. The masculinity of the ‘collective consciousness of America’ is thus absolved of losing the war while creating an unbridgeable gap between the victimised veterans and the selfish protest movement that denies the fact that many veterans protested the war[x]. The implication is that once the unmasculine elements are removed from theU.S.A. the wounds of the Vietnam War will be healed and the nation would be united again.
At the end of Platoon, Taylor claims ‘we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves’. The central conflict is between the masculine troops and feminine authorities,Vietnam is merely the setting. The ‘grunts’ become the true victims of the Vietnam War films as they are portrayed as the paradigms of masculineAmerica. Their initial naiveté is followed by disillusionment with the upper echelons of the administration and ultimately their betrayal. This victimisation of the veterans would be used in the regeneration of the soldiers and of the masculinity they represented.
In Rambo: First Blood Part II the veteran is forced to work against his own government in order to rescue his comrades that are still held captive in POW camps in Vietnam. The authorities react out of fear of negative public opinion in theU.S. and lie to hide their own reluctance to free the prisoners themselves. The authorities in the film are portrayed as being protected by their comforts of air conditioning and advanced computer technology to display their unfamiliarity withVietnam and their ignorance of the requirements for succeeding there. Their shirts and ties are juxtaposed with Rambo’s masculine bare chest and when confronted with the image of masculinity at the end of the film they acquiesce quickly to his demand, ‘Find them (the POWs) or I’ll find you’.
The lonely veteran at the end of First Blood that is marginalised and pacified has become a symbol not just for the victimised veterans but for all of the U.S.A. at the end of First Blood Part II: ‘I want what they all want, and what every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had wants. For our country to love us as much as we love it’. The accusation is that the ‘grunts’ have been abandoned by the feminised government hierarchy, the real reason for the defeat. The masculinity itself is not a system but rather an emphasis on the individual. When Rambo asks ‘Do we get to win this time?’ Trautman demonstrates the ideology of individualism by responding ‘This time, it’s up to you’.
If the masculinity itself is not institutionalised within the system it is not responsible for the failures of these establishments, such as the loss of the war. The representation of Rambo in First Blood Part II therefore absolves those who embody the values of masculinity in the U.S.A. and places the blame for the defeat on the feminine characteristics of the U.S. authorities[xi]. The solution to the problems of the Vietnam War is therefore constructed to be the removal of these feminine characteristics by a new administration that embodies the masculinity of Rambo.
Reagan Wins Vietnam
The historian Susan Jeffords has claimed that the masculine ‘hard body’, such as that of Rambo, is intended to stand as an emblem for Reagan’s philosophies as opposed to the soft, feminine years of the Carter administration[xii]. Reagan’s America is portrayed as strong in its bid to battle ‘evil empires’ and therefore needed to distance itself from any semblance of the defeat to the small and comparatively weak nation of Vietnam.
In First Blood, at the beginning of the Reagan Presidency, Rambo is the sole victim of Teasle’s victimisation whereas by First Blood Part II, following the re-election of Reagan, the victims are the anonymous and collective body of soldiers that Rambo is determined to save. The image of the masculine body becomes a projection of the national body itself with a capacity to control their environments, immediate or geopolitical. The feminine Carter administration is therefore the final government to be burdened with guilt of the defeat as the strong Reagan administration is victorious and the unity of masculinity puts theU.S. self-perception in a position of global strength once again.
The representations of the Vietnam War reinstate the privilege of the American white man following the failure of foreign policy and the success of the women’s movement on the home front. Political motivations for the war are removed as the audience is rarely engaged with what the soldier is doing but instead with how he is doing it. The gender narrative glorifies the unified masculinity against the factors that are seen to be the reasons for the initial defeat.
Vietnamese participation in the war is seemingly removed as the conflict becomes one of masculinity against the feminine characteristics that corrupt the home front including the administration. The gender narrative in the popular culture about the Vietnam War therefore enables the rehabilitation of masculinity in theU.S.A.following the damaging impact of the feminist movements and the Vietnam War meaning that the white American male ‘gets to win this time’.
Del Vecchio, John, The 13th Valley, Bantam (New York, 1982).
Eastlake, William, The Bamboo Bed, Avon (New York, 1969).
Herr, Michael, Dispatches, Picador (London, 1978).
The Ramones, ‘53rd and 3rd’, The Ramones, Sire (1976).
Sainte-Marie, Buffy, ‘Universal Soldier’, It’s My Way, Vanguard (1964).
Apocalypse Now (1979)
First Blood (1982)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
The Green Berets (1968)
Hamburger Hill (1987)
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Beattie, Keith, The Scar the Binds. American Culture and the Vietnam War, New YorkUniversity Press (London, 1998).
Jeffords, Susan, ‘Debriding Vietnam: The Resurrection of the White American Male’, Feminist Studies, 14 (1988), pp. 525-543.
Jeffords, Susan, Hard Bodies. Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, 1994).
Jeffords, Susan, ‘Things Worth Dying For: Gender and the Ideology of Collectivity in VietnamRepresentation’, Cultural Critique, 8 (1987-1988), pp. 79-103.
Ryan, Michael, and Keller, Douglas, Camera Politica. The Politics of Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, IndianaUniversity Press (Indianapolis, 1990).
Shaw, Tony, Hollywood’s Cold War, Edinburgh University Press (Edinburgh, 2007).
Sturken, Marita, Tangled Memories. The Vietnam War, The AIDs Epidemic and the Politics of Remembering, University of California Press Limited (London, 1997).
[i] Martin Sturken, Tangled Memories. The Vietnam War, The AIDs Epidemic and the Politics of Remembering, University of California Press Limited (London, 1997), p. 86.
[ii] Tony Shaw, Hollywood’s Cold War, Edinburgh University Press (Edinburgh, 2007), p. 221-222
[iii] Michael Herr, Dispatches, Picador (London, 1978), p. 188.
[iv] John Del Vecchio, The 13th Valley, Bantam (New York, 1982), p. 145.
[v] William Eastlake, The Bamboo Bed, Avon (New York, 1969), pp. 61-69
[vi] Sturken, Tangled Memories, p. 115.
[vii] Susan Jeffords, ‘Debriding Vietnam: The Resurrection of the White American Male’, Feminist Studies, 14 (1988), pp. 525-527.
[viii] Eastlake, The Bamboo Bed, p. 249.
[ix] Susan Jeffords, ‘Things Worth Dying For: Gender and the Ideology of Collectivity in Vietnam Representation’, Cultural Critique, 8 (1987-1988), p. 86.
[x] Keith Beattie, The Scar That Binds. American Culture and the Vietnam War, New YorkUniversity Press (London, 1998), p 123.
[xi] Michael Ryan and Douglas Keller, Camera Politica. The Politics of Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, IndianaUniversity Press (Indianapolis, 1990), p. 215.
[xii] Susan Jeffords, Hard Bodies. Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, RutgersUniversity Press (New Brunswick, 1994), pp. 24-32.