Friday, 27 August 2010

The American Experience.

The First Casualty of War.
Ricky Gervais once joked that the Second World War may have the best ending but the Vietnam war has the best sound track. He was referring to the horrendous use of the atomic bomb against the Japanese as less "entertaining" than the music of the 1960s. In doing so, whether intentionally or not, Gervais highlights the way war has been reduced to the realm of entertainment today. As we all know, since the end of the Vietnam war there have been countless efforts to immortalise the conflict on the big screen for all to see. The best of these films are often listed as Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. The Kubrick film being my personal favourite. But there are problems with the so-called anti-war films that have focused on the war which raged from the early 60s under JFK to the mid 1970s under the caretaker administration of Gerald Ford.

The problems of films like First Blood and Missing in Action are self-evident, as such films do not pretend to be anything more than a shallow display of steroid-fuelled jingoism and a mere excuse for a angry white man to go "wild". The problems of films that claim to show us the true horror of war are not often discussed in the same light. Even though the films, which take a less "positive" look at the Vietnam war, have made false depictions of the Vietnamese. One such instance being in The Deer Hunter where American POWs are forced to play Russian roulette for the pleasure of sadistic Vietcong. Thus, justifying the ruthlessness which Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken demonstrated in gunning them down to escape. It is the scars, both physical and psychological, of war that are depicted in the film. But only the scars inflicted on the minds and bodies of American soldiers.

Let's look at Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's take on the Vietnam war, which was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Conrad's novella takes place in the Congo Free State, a private-colony of the Belgian King Leopold II, and the characters are working for a trading company which brutally exploits African workers. Apocalypse Now takes place in war-ravaged Vietnam and Cambodia, the main characters are soldiers. It is Cambodians who replace the Africans as the brutalised people, but also as "primitive savages" who worship Kurtz as a God. In Apocalypse Now Kurtz recalls a humanitarian trip to inoculate children for polio in a Vietnamese village, the Vietcong went into the village and then hacked off the arms of the inoculated children. Kurtz wept at the sight of the pile of little arms, before learning to admire the will of the Vietcong to commit such atrocities. Kurtz says "If I had 10 divisions of those men, then our troubles would be over very quickly."

The emphasis on the American experience of the war is a characteristic that practically all films on the Vietnam war share. The Vietnamese experience is severely neglected, even though it was 6 million Indochinese who died during the war. Not only is the war depicted from the side of the aggressor, it is the subjective experience of the war by soldiers carrying out the invasion which is the focus of such films. The objective violence of war, which is inherent to war regardless of the existence of any particular person, which becomes subjective violence in war films. Subjective violence in the sense of violence as impacting directly on individuals, violence which is partly dependent on the existence of an individual. Take Platoon the mass-killings and fraggings that take place is all part of Charlie Sheen losing his innocence, which is the "first casualty of war" according to the film's tag line.

Far from actually taking a moral position on the war these films actually obfuscate the important issues of the war. Instead opting to focus in on the perpetrator's traumatic experience, which enables the ethical and political background of the conflict to be suppressed. Why was the US in Vietnam? This question goes unanswered in most, if not all, American war movies. The fact that it was the events at Pearl Harbour that drove the Europeans out of South-East Asia and by the early 1950s colonial powers were struggling to maintain power.  Around this time the US government supported the French in their bid to regain dominance over Indochina. This attempt failed and the US ended up backing a nationalist regime in the South of Vietnam as the North was taken over by communists. In the 60s, the US moved to destroy all currents of independence in Vietnam - whether communist or nationalist - to prevent a "domino effect" across South-East Asia. 

In We Were Soldiers, which was dedicated not just to the Americans who fought at Ia Drang but also the Vietnamese who died there, the fall of French colonialism in the region is depicted in the opening scene. The problem in the ambush of French soldiers by Vietnamese rebels is that it is the Vietnamese who remain faceless aggressors and the French who are the victims of the assault. This goes as far as portraying a Vietnamese man literally stabbing a French officer in the back with a bayonet. It is the French who are overwhelmed, disarmed and executed mercilessly. This scene is supposed to explain how the Vietnam war "began", but it takes one battle out of context. The battle of Ia Drang was one of the last in the First Indochina war, which spanned 8 years and ultimately brought an end to over 60 years of French colonialism in the region.

It is as if the American film industry is obsessed with Vietnam in particular because it is commonly perceived as such a loss for the US and a pointless waste of American life. Not because it was fundamentally wrong and immoral, but because almost 60,000 Americans died in a senseless war. Never mind the 6 million people slaughtered all over South-East Asia, not just from Vietnam but Laos and Cambodia as well. It could also be argued that the US succeeded in its goals in Indochina, most currents of independence were eradicated and these countries were reduced to satellites of China. In that sense, the Vietnam war was no loss for the US and the thousands of Americans who died in the war did die for a cause - an immoral cause. The Americans were not the victims of this war, the people of Indochina were. Thus, a film about the Vietnamese experience of war is well over due.

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