Vietnam and the Disenchantment with America’s Victory Culture

Short extract from my first MA dissertation:

Undoubtedly the Vietnam War was an intensely controversial conflict. Before Vietnam, the war film had been constructed to evoke a justification and encouragement for America’s war effort. As James William Gibson suggests, ‘making war movies and Westerns was politically safe, a sign of alignment with Cold War politics.’ (1989: 18) He goes on to explain that, ‘War movies and Westerns presented a highly coherent view of American war (with rare exceptions) that encompassed the Western wars against the Indians and the foreign battles of the Second World War.’ (1989: 18) Films encompassed an image of America’s historical past, often representing the heroic and victorious nature of America’s endeavours.

Gibson discusses some of the typical conventions that were associated with the war film. These typical genre conventions can be seen in various war movies such as; Between Heaven and Hell (1956) and The Longest Day (1962). The most common draws attention to the United States always fighting for an honourably cause. This highlights a second point in that because of their good natured intentions they are presented as victorious, they ‘win almost all battles and always win the war.’ (1989: 18). Another characteristic to the genre is that ‘war movies portray war as a crucial ritual transition from male adolescence into manhood.’ (1989: 18) This glorified outlook of war is seen as a rite of passage, which in terms of the Vietnam War is highly debatable. Gibson further explains that this offers a representation that those who fight for a cause and are victorious are highly respected for their courageous efforts. The war teaches lessons that can’t be learnt elsewhere. These glorified representations of war fuelled the mythology which justified America’s moral superiority and invincibility, prompting an idealised self-image. Gibson goes on to explain that these mythic inventions held significance in supporting America’s victory culture. He describes that America’s victories encouraged a belief in these myths. David L. Anderson explains how the Second World War had encouraged cultural myth. He discusses how the victory of the war enlightened America with a sense of righteousness. ‘The cultural myth of American exceptionalism, of the goodness of America vanquishing the evils of autocracy, dictatorship, and militarism, seemed to have been realized.’ (2002: 20)

The term myth is best described by John Hellman as, ‘the stories containing a people’s image of themselves in history. Extreme simplifications, myths may always be debunked as falsifications of reality.’ (1986: ix) He then goes on to explain ‘myths may often distort or conceal, but these stories are nevertheless always true in the sense that they express deeply held beliefs.’ (1986: ix) Vietnam challenged and posed a threat to the invincible persona America had created through its visions of itself, not only in film but also literature and other mediums. ‘As American commitment to Vietnam intensified, Hollywood grappled with how to produce war films… producers shied away from triumphant portrayals of heroic Americans and brutal Communist Vietnamese.’ (Robert D. Schulzinger, 2006: 154) The very foundations of the war genre were questioned by the ramifications of America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

‘War films are at a peak during periods of war and express nationalist confidence.’ (Maurice Yacowar, 1997: 271) To depict America as the heroes in a disastrous war was inappropriate. However ‘The politics of Vietnam did not find expression in war films, because the climate of opinion about the war was so widely and deeply divided in America; but it did emerge in the cycles of amoral cop and spy thrillers, with their ambiguous myths of militant police action on the local or international scale.’ (Maurice Yacowar, 1997: 271) As Yacowar explains, the divided opinion over Vietnam made it difficult to establish war films based on the usual generic conventions. Stephen Neale draws on Tom Engelhardt to explain the challenges associated with the loss of the war, he explains, ‘defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam in the early 1970s challenged the tenets of America’s ‘victory culture’ (Engelhardt 1995), ensured that its participation in the war remained deeply controversial, posed questions as to how the war could or should be represented, and rendered the paradigms associated with the Second World War combat film at least temporarily inappropriate.’ (2000: 123)

Many of the films released soon after the war focused on the American experience, whether it was the returning veteran or the tortured soldier. The traditional conventions of the war film could not be attributed to a war which had challenged these generic principles, with the exception of The Green Berets (1968), which during the war aimed at offering support toward America’s responsibility in Vietnam. Film faced a conflict in the way Vietnam should be represented, ‘for the movie industry Vietnam had been a trauma… any project bearing even a vague resemblance to The Green Berets was out of the question.’ (Gilbert Adair, 1989: 78) Ronald L. Davis cites Renata Adler’s New York Times review in which she described the film as “so rotten and false in every detail that it passes through being fun…and becomes an invitation to grieve, not for our soldiers or for Vietnam… but for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus in this country.” (Adler as cited by Davis, 2001: 281) Films concerning the war were not valued if they conformed to glorifying America’s role in the conflict. ‘It is in films that the important work is going to be done of forcing the facts of the Vietnam War into the mold of national myth and reconciling the country to its first defeat in war. So far, the broadest generalization about the Vietnam movies is that they show how trapped the country is in the perceptions of World War II. We liked that war and are reluctant to surrender the sense of unity and righteousness it bought.’ (Leo Cawley, 1990: 70)

‘To portray and then to erase the negative images of the Vietnam War for a wounded generation of Americans, Hollywood employed the Western genre as surrogate to show the trauma and heal the wounds of an American generation.’ (William L. Hewitt, 2009: 266) William L. Hewitt explains that ‘the hardened conventions and themes of the Western genre were examined, criticized, dismantled, and refined in the late 1960s and 1970s. The conventional Western’s traditional thematic myth of whites attacked by Indians, or seeking revenge against Indians became outmoded.’ (2009: 266) The Western was an explicitly political reflection to the sentiments attached to the Vietnam conflict. As Linnie Blake explains, ‘Little Big Man undertakes a fundamental reassessment of the ideology of the classic Western and indicts it as a distortion of America’s historic past (and contemporary establishment self-image) that has not only covered up the nation’s genocidal origins but has made national heroes out of murderers.’ (2005: 217) The Western confronted and challenged American myth. The myths which fabricated elements of America’s historical past were questioned; this was respondent to the dominant opinions held over the issue of the Vietnam War. ‘Eschewing the myth-making rhetoric of the best-loved traditional westerns, only confirmed that Hollywood’s chronic tendency to mythologize virtually everything it touched had rendered it incapable of dealing conceptually with major historical currents.’ (Gilbert Adair, 1989: 95) Vietnam challenged American myth, confronting the issue of the conflict seemed to be making an impression. The transformations of the Western were reflective of the conflict and the sentiment that was attached to it. The war genre faced the same issue in that the conventions which supported cultural myth in America were questioned by the events of the Vietnam War.

Robert J. McKeever explains that although the Vietnam War posed a challenge to the war genre it was only temporary. The impression of the war was ‘neither as profound nor as enduring as most writers on the subject have suggested’. (1989: 43). McKeever’s essay entitled American Myths and the Impact of the Vietnam War, argues that the Vietnam War was a temporary disaster; he uses the example of the male action hero in understanding how the impact of the war was short lived, as film soon reinvented history to sustain American myth. ‘To change national myths is not simply a question of reinterpreting history but rather amounts to a demand that the nation do no less than reinvent itself, in terms of values, culture and behaviour as well as in terms of history… the time soon came when Vietnam, rather than the national myths, had to be reinvented.’ (1989: 44) It seems that McKeever’s argument is more concerned with the issue of America coping with defeat and sustaining mythic beliefs and values, rather than confronting the issue of the Vietnam War and how this exposed the flaws in America’s mythic confidence.

Robert J. McKeever discusses how Hollywood re-established the American myth through the image of the male hero; he discusses Rambo in particular to support his idea. ‘most interesting about Rambo is not simply that the hero has been recuperated to the point where he can function and be morally affirmed within a recent and painful historical context, but that he is, moreover, a hero of the traditional kind’. (1989: 53) However, McKeever does argue that Vietnam had resulted in certain changes in the way the hero is portrayed, ‘where the Vietnam experience has wrought changes in the myths that it challenged, the result has been a mythic hero who resolves contradictions between extreme violence and morality in a more effective way than any hero before him.’ (1989: 54) Overall McKeever’s argument is based mainly on the impact of defeat and how this effect is short lived by reinterpreting the war. This rewriting of America’s Vietnam defeat and the renewed image of the male hero is argued by McKeever to re-instil the value of the American myth. In doing so he concludes that the impact of Vietnam was not as detrimental as it was once thought.

However, after the regeneration of male heroes seen in Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, the arrival of Platoon soon reignited the memory of America’s failed war. The Vietnam conflict was still very much a sustaining attribute in reminding America of its failure. Katrina Porteous argues that Platoon ‘offers a far more ‘realistic’ account of the American experience of Vietnam than the sweeping metaphors of The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, or the idiocies of Rambo: First Blood Part II.’ (1989: 153) The suggestion that Platoon is ‘realistic’ is debatable, Platoon is credited for being a more realistic interpretation of life in Vietnam, and this is mainly due to Oliver Stone being a veteran of the war. That is not to say that Stone’s film alone depicts an accurate account of his Vietnam experience. Porteous further argues that the films realism was sometimes overshadowed by convention. ‘The traditional images of the movies and literature of past wars which Platoon restates- that war is madness and nightmare, the army a machine… were commonly invoked by American soldiers in Vietnam, not only because, as conventions, they were readily available, but also because they were rooted in the particular realities of the conflict.’ (1989:154-5) she then goes on to say that ‘American incompetence and brutality, is equally ambiguous: these too are conventions, though, unlike those of madness, nightmare and irrationality, they are specific to depictions of Vietnam.’ (1989:155) Overall Porteous explains that although Platoon pays attention to the realistic depiction of America’s Vietnam experience, it distances itself from illustrating any historical insight. ‘A preoccupation with the journey from innocence to experience gives the film an undoubted authenticity, echoing as it does so many veterans’ accounts. Yet at the same time it seriously compromises the claim that the film tells the ‘truth’’ (1989:158). Overall Porteous suggests that while Platoon is to a degree realistic in depicting the experience of life in combat, it ignores the issue that is Vietnam, which she concludes as saying disguises any historical truth.

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