Volume 5 Number 1-4
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History and Subjectivity, Part II:
What We Won't Learn from the Hollywood-Style Vietnam War Film
Michael Selig, Mass Communication, Emerson College
The Hollywood Vietnam war film's reliance on a melodramatic Oedipal narrative determines the historical exclusions these films practice. The perspective on the war provided by a naive participant-subject leaves little room for the details of history. Further, the conflation of the subject's moral position with national identity precludes the representation of aspects of the war that would make problematic the (re)creation of that identity as fundamentally democratic, moral, and just.
The threat to this identity, then, is never posed in terms of the historically specific actions of a developing post-World War II United States. The fashion in which democratic principles were corrupted by US economic and political interests in Southeast Asia is never explored.17 Even where specific military strategies patently not in the interest of the Vietnamese are broached, they are treated as exceptions. The "pacification" of the villages is generally treated as an aberration, as is the burning of villages by confused and scared troops in the midst of chaos; the massive bombing of the North is ignored altogether.
In simpler terms, the subjugation of history to the constitution of the film's subject forecloses consideration of US politics and practice as primary constituents of foreign policy in Southeast Asia. As a consequence, each film's antiwar position is characteristically moral, rather than political and historical. Like earlier antiwar films, they focus on individual cases of corruption and bureaucratic blundering (cf. Paths of Glory) or on the horrors of war and the threat posed to the film's subject (cf. The Big Parade).
Even more disturbing, the threat posed to the film's subject, and by extension to national identity, is displaced in varying degrees from the morality and politics of US intervention in Vietnam to the people and landscape of Southeast Asia. Racist stereotypes of Asia and Asians are employed to represent a mysterious and unfathomable Other who imperils a precarious subject. Thus, the moral confusion of the war is characterized by a landscape that seems to preclude any proper orientation as well as an enemy who holds to no well-demarcated front. More significantly, the sense of U.S. moral degradation is displaced onto the people of Vietnam, who are almost invariably represented as prostitutes, pimps, and/or a duplicitous enemy acting like a friend.
The films' subjects, then, mediate this displacement of a threat to national identity from historically questionable US military and political policies to a symbolic and mythic Asian menace. The threat the Vietnam war poses to the films' subjects, in fact, is often represented in mythic Oedipal terms as the threat of castration. For example, the challenge to a stable masculine identity is commonly symbolized by leg injuries from combat in Vietnam (e.g., Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Bat 21, Jacknife, Born on the Fourth of July), or by a landscape that threatens to swallow the subject whole (e.g., the underwater cages in The Deer Hunter; the opening in the earth beneath Eriksson in Casualties of War).18 At other times, this threat of castration is specifically associated with a female Other and the potential for disease and/or death if in sexual contact with her (e.g., the teenage female VC in Go Tell the Spartans; the prostitutes in Off Limits and Hamburger Hill; the prostitutes and the sniper in Full Metal Jacket; the female Vietnamese propagandist in The Iron Triangle). Even in a film like Casualties of War, which is premised on the soldier-subject taking a moral position and challenging the brutalization of the Vietnamese, contact with a Vietnamese female inaugurates a threat to both his sense of self and his life.19
Recognizing that the Hollywood Vietnam film represents national identity by a configuration of the melodramatic and the Oedipal is crucial to understanding what we won't learn from them. In contriving a conventional subject for the spectator to identify with, these films also contrive an image of an Asian Other. Earlier criticisms of a film's racism, like those about Apocalypse Now, only hint at a far more fundamental aspect of the films' contradictory positions on the war. Rather than demonstrating the potential failure of US foreign policy, they characterize this era's threat to national identity as military shortsightedness and bureaucratic malfeasance. Worst of all, in their rush to criticize the war, they maintain a racist sensibility that strips another population of their history, their cause, and their humanity in order to exploit their racial and cultural difference as a threat to our moral integrity.
As a consequence of maintaining conventional subject-Other distinctions, then, not only won't we learn about the historically specific political issues that subtend a military commitment like that in Vietnam; we also won't be offered any reasonable position from which to judge the struggle of Third World nations for self-determination. Well before US intervention in Vietnam, Simone de Beauvoir wrote:
Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself... the subject can be posed only in being opposed--he sets himself up as the essential, as opposed to the other, the inessential, the object.20
This inability to identify with the Other, and specifically with the Vietnamese struggle for self-determination, is still glaringly evident in Hollywood Vietnam war films. It also continues to be evident in virtually all discussion about this aspect of US history as we characterize a Vietnamese victory over a myriad of other nations' colonial forces as "our loss." And we do so without any recognition of our failure to speak except from the perspective of "our desires."
1 I use the qualifier Hollywood-style here, because Hollywood is a somewhat problematic term for many of these films which are independently produced (although often distributed through Hollywood, or at least Los Angeles-based companies). From here on out, I will refer to these films as Hollywood Vietnam war films, referring primarily to the Hollywood style derived from theatrical melodrama of the previous century.
2 Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981): 102.
3 James William Gibson, "Paramilitary Culture," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 6:1 (March 1989): 90.
4 In a 1990 Time magazine poll, 57% of those polled ("1,000 Adult Americans") responded that the US was "wrong" when questions, "Was the US right or wrong to get involved in the Vietnam War?" (29% responded that the US was "right"). To the question, "Are you proud of the role the US played in Vietnam?" 48% responded "no" and 39% responded "yes." "Viet Nam: 15 Years Later," Time, 30 Apr 1990: 20.
5 Robert Lang, American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minelli (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989): 19.
6 This is evident in one of the earliest and most influential of silent film melodrama, The Birth of a Nation, a film which subordinates historical facts to a racist sensibility. In the film, this racism is represented through the desire of the central character, Confederate colonel Ben Cameron. Specifically, Cameron wants the restoration of a Southern agrarian aristocracy. The film distorts the history of Reconstruction to satisfy that desire, with the Ku Klux Klan as the symbol for the restoration of the "Sacred" after the Civil War.
7 These films often center around the rescue of POWs, which provides the pretense for the conventionally heroic and spectacular victory of Americans over the Vietnamese (and sometimes, as in the case of Rambo, over the Soviets). Also see, Uncommon Valor and POW: The Escape.
8 Lang: 8.
9 Lewis Lapham, "Notebook: Vietnam Diary," Harper's Magazine, May 1989: 13. Also note the subtitle to the Time story noted above: "Guilt and recrimination still shroud America's perceptions of the only war it ever lost."
10 The key word in this sentence is "attempt," since every film generates a range of readings dependent on the predispositions of the spectators. This possibility for various interpretations, however, does not alter the fact that the films themselves attempt to communicate a certain perspective on their action.
11 Janet Bergston, "Alternation, Segmentation, Hypnosis: An Interview with Raymond Bellour," Camera Obscura 3-4 (1979): 93.
12 Again, the possibility for a range of spectator positions, especially regarding the different position of a female spectator, is at the center of a wide-ranging debate within feminist psychoanalytics, initiated by Laura Mulvey's article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16:3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18, and furthered by Laura Mulvey, "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Inspired by Duel in the Sun," Framework 15/16/17 (1981): 12-15. )One of the most influential of the recent contributions to this issue is Gaylyn Studlar, "Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema," Movies and Methods, VII, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985): 602-21.
13 In The Green Berets, just the opposite is the case, as old war movie "veterans" play soldiers in Vietnam, casting that was consistently criticized for not being authentic.
14 Judy Lee Kinney, "The Mythical Method: Fictionalizing the Vietnam War," Wide Angle 7:4 (1985): 40.
15 David Denby discusses the film Platoon in this context, since Oliver Stone was a Vietnam war veteran, referring to how the film creates "a fiction that would have the authority of truth." Rev. of Platoon, New York, 19 Jan 1987: 80. This is, of course, also the case in the Ron Kovic/Oliver Stone Born on the Fourth of July, as well as in films that declare their stories are "true" (e.g., Bat 21, Hamburger Hill and Casualties of War), or as in The Iron Triangle, claim that the story is taken from the diary of a VC soldier. This "authority" is also present in the consistent characterization of the subject as a "grunt" who experiences the Vietnam war firsthand, in this case a claim to authenticity that is internal to the film rather than part of its promotion.
16 Not too surprisingly, this concern for the Vietnamese does not last, as the first attempt to rescue Bat 21 from the jungle is thwarted by a VC ambush. The captured pilot is then forced to walk through a mine field by the VC who want to know Bat 21's whereabouts. From this point on, the Vietnamese are represented as an unseen and threatening enemy, and the film concludes with the triumphant rescue of Bat 21 by US soldiers.
17 This is true also of the best known of the documentaries on Vietnam produced in the West (with the exception of the PBS series). See, for example, Sad Song of Yellow Skin, Frontline, and Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam.
18 This is most succinctly (and un-selfconsciously) put by David Halberstam in his remarks in Time's cover story on Platoon: "You can see how the forest sucks in American soldiers; they just disappear." Richard Corliss, et al., "Platoon: Vietnam, the Way It Really Was," Time, 26 Jan 1987: 57.
19 Recent work by Klaus Theweleit on the writings of the German freikorps between the two world wars notes the predominance of images of the female and female sexuality as a threat to male subjectivity. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, Volume I, Floods, Bodies, History, trans. Stephen Conway, in collaboration with Erica Carter and Chris Turner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). The misogyny of these fascist writings is, I'm afraid, also in considerable evidence in the Hollywood Vietnam war films. Even the landscape is often represented as symbolic of the threat of female sexuality, as in the opening voice-over of The Iron Triangle, which tells us that the landscape "looks like paradise... but [it's] the bloodiest corner on the Ho Chi Minh Trail," language which brings to mind nothing if not the masculine desire for and fear of the female sex.
20 Quoted in Susan Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986): 217.