The Strange Afterlife of the Vietnam War


Mr. Arnold is Professor of Liberal Arts at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts, where he teaches courses in the history of the Vietnam War and in media and politics. His book The Afterlife of America’s War in Vietnam: Changing Visions in Politics and on Screen will be published next month by McFarland & Company.

As the hostilities in Iraq continue, the United States faces the difficult task of defeating a stubborn and violent insurgency. Some Americans today see uncomfortable parallels to America’s lost war in Vietnam. Others believe the differences far outweigh the similarities. In this debate one thing is clear. The Vietnam War is still among the most toxic labels in all of American politics. Although the nation shows due respect for the many military veterans who served in Vietnam, it is still bitterly divided about the policies that got and kept us in Southeast Asia more than a generation ago.

More than thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War, Americans still have not resolved the controversies that surrounded it. With the passing of time, our collective memory of the war has splintered. A bewildering array of movie and television portrayals has sped this process along. Hollywood’s many treatments of the topic have been vivid and at times masterful. More than simple entertainments, however, these fictional accounts in movies and television have helped blur perceptions of the past.

Screen versions of the Vietnam War run the gamut of interpretative perspectives. In the late 1970s, films like Apocalypse Now presented the war as savage madness. During the heyday of Vietnam War movies a decade later, the Rambo and Missing in Action films reinforced Reagan’s view of the war as a “noble cause.” They showed a picture of the war in which America’s leaders undermined the U.S. military’s heroic efforts. Later in that decade, more nuanced and conflicted retellings of the war appeared in movies such as Platoon, Hamburger Hill and Full Metal Jacket. Finally, in 1990s and beyond, movies as varied as Forrest Gump, Heaven and Earth and We Were Soldiers, entertained audiences with still more interpretations of the Vietnam War.

Hollywood’s versions of the Vietnam War continue the long battle for “hearts and minds,” which has been waged nonstop since the early 1960s. This aspect of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam is often cited as the least successful aspect of the conflict. People frequently take this to mean that the U.S. did not do a good job of convincing the Vietnamese people to take more effective action in fighting communist forces. Yet more importantly, it was a fight that was waged and lost in the American homeland. Initial support for the war unraveled by the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and was never regained. Domestic disagreement about the war was deeply polarizing. The military conflict ended in Vietnam in the 1970s, but the battle in American for hearts and minds never did.

Viewers receive a variety of inconsistent messages about the Vietnam War through Hollywood productions. Yet some common themes, which are also fixtures in political rhetoric, do come across. Of these, the theme of American hegemony, not only in politics, but in human experience, is the most obvious. Despite the fact that they look at the war from differing world views, the Vietnam War films almost universally emphasize that the conflict was primarily an American experience. Seldom do the films look at the Vietnamese people or culture. Usually, in fact, Vietnamese people are portrayed in a flat, one-dimensional way. Often, they are shown in stereotyped roles as villains or victims. As dramatis personae, they serve as foils against which American characters can act out their heroism or cowardice. We learn little of them as individuals or as a people.

Americans, too, are often reduced to only a basic dichotomy: the hero-patriot and the coward-villain. Heroes have a duty to perform and must do so with honor. The ultimate screen hero in Vietnam War movies is undoubtedly John Rambo, who in three films spanning the 1980s defeated numerous well-equipped military foes single-handedly. Although few other films went to this extreme, in most the heroism of the American soldier is a central theme. In this respect, the Vietnam War films fall neatly into the long line of Hollywood war films.

Dramatic films of all sorts require conflict, and in war films a pre-determined enemy usually fulfills most of that role. In the Vietnam War movies, however, villains are not confined to the official enemy. Frequently, they are also embodied in misguided, cowardly, or simply evil Americans who undermine the efforts of the heroic soldiers. Oddly, these characters might be morally corrupted government officials or they might be counter-culture anti-war types. The presence of these characters suggests to viewers that American troops faced not one, but two enemies during the war: the communist Vietnamese forces and fellow Americans who undermined their efforts. In this logic, it is only a short step to the conclusion that Americans did not lose the war to a foreign enemy, but instead lost it to themselves.

Indeed, one of the strongest legacies of the Vietnam War is the trauma that Americans felt about losing a war. (Of course, it was not really that simple, since by the time the Saigon government fell in 1975, the U.S. had already signed its own peace accords with North Vietnam and had mostly disengaged from the fighting.) The very idea of this loss has been so anathema to Americans that other explanations needed to be found. The war’s outcome violated the moral framework in which Americans view their nation. It was more comforting to believe that the United States had defeated itself than to believe a small communist nation could inflict such pain on its superpower adversary.

As I report in my book The Afterlife of America’s War in Vietnam, the repeated incarnations of the war in politics and on screen are part of the continuing nation’s efforts to come to terms with disillusionment and disappointments from the conflict. Because of our fractured understanding of how the Vietnam War fits into the American saga, it is a particularly dubious proposition to employ the Vietnam metaphor in current international conflicts. It is difficult to see how using failed consensus about one war as the basis for unity in a new one will have satisfactory results.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

There is no such thing as "prolonging" an unwinnable war by "giving hope to the enemy." Nor, in a democracy, is calling that democracy's poor leadership and its failed policies to account "sympathizing with the enemy."

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

In the first Rambo movie, how many AMERICANS does Rambo kill? If he had killed ten times as many Americans as that would that make him an even greater "ultimate American screen hero"? Is there a correlation between sick, twisted ignorant minds and attempts to mythologize the colossal decade-long American foreign policy disaster that was the Vietnam War?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/11/2006

So McClellan "lost at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863," did he. At least you got the date right. Both were union victories, sir, and the former was won by Gen. George Meade, the latter by Gen. U. S. Grant. McClellan was not present at either battle. Don't feel badly, however, because we all know rote learning w ent out with high button shoes, and it is not necessary to command facts when venting opinions.

Frederick Thomas - 9/5/2006

..but where McClellan was concerned the answer is "maybe." Surely if the issue was brought, it would be decided in court.

The constitution never conceived that a US president would invade his own country, which Lincoln did in invading the South, and since it is the same country, how can it be called "the enemy," regardless of the "foreign and domestic" wording.

That McClellan was a respected soldier was important politically. There have been many instances in history in which a soldier who commanded the respect of the army used that army to take power.

And McClellan thought Lincoln incompetent and certainly told many correspondents as much. Truly, McClellan lost in July of 1863 at Gettysburg and at Vicksburg.

Think of recent presidents who got us into wars and proceeded very poorly: Wilson and Roosevelt, whose body counts started at 100 times Iraq's, for WW I, and in the case of FDR went up to 300 times, with real incompetence and political lying manifest throughout.

Both used sedition laws to legally destroy not just political dissent, but also printed articles. Many went to jail in both cases for "free speech."

Would you say they are wrong? Remember that the objective of wars is to win, not to lose, and if you show your enemy that our thoughtless politicians can win for him, he will hang in longer and cost you even more dead youngsters.

Are those additional dead worth it to pay for anti-war agitation and violence? I guess that statesmen have worked that equation as hard as any other over the centuries.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/30/2006

If we took your definition of treason in time of war to a fairly logical extreme, then there would be no way to criticize a bad war and little if any way to criticize an administration for running a war badly.

I suspect that you would stop short in both cases, but it would be good if you articulated just how one could argue a war is wrong without committing treason.

Here is one possible case you could comment on: was the Democratic candidate in 1864--George McLellan committing treason by saying that he would negtotiate a peace with the South?

Frederick Thomas - 8/30/2006

Mr. Clark:

Ho Chi Minh would disagree with you.

He and general Giap have quite openly stated that they were ready to quit and settle during Nixon's heavy bombing campaign, but continued the war because of the violent "student" protests here, and the agitation of American leftists against the war.

Millions would have been saved had those murderous commies actually thrown that towel in. Those "students" have the blood of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians on their hands.

Is it your point that Ho and Vo did not know their own minds? That they were lying? That they made a mistake? I find none of these explanations particularly convincing.

The same is true today. Osama and his thugs have one objective in Iraq: to kill enough Americans and Iraqis that we will cut and run, just like hot pants Clinton did in Somalia.

As to your other point, the constitution defines treason as "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." The framers strike a distinction between free political speech in time of war, and in peacetime. Considerations such as that however, simply float through your mind and out the other ear.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/29/2006

Michael good question. Except for born again Reagan lovers (and Reagan haters), it is hard to consider just exactly how important his actions were in ending the Cold War.

The fundamentals of the situation: the relative economic military strength of the Soviets and the Americans were not changed greatly by Reagan or his decisions.

The Soviet's fundamental weaknesses were long-standing and increasing. Carter had already moved for increasing the defense. He had also begun funneling aid to Afghanistan. Reagan's decision to provide Stingers, which was critical, was also pretty logical. (For those who think Carter might not have done that, Reagan did not order that until his second term. If Carter had been reelected in 1980, there would have been a new president then.)

One exception I might allow would be the SDI (Star Wars), which does seem to have worried the Soviets far more than its near term potential allowed. Reagan's faith in a flawed technology was singular and critical.

Another would be the sheer bloody ruthlessness with which the United States funded terrorism in Nicaragua. Ruthlessness and innocent blood did communicate determination. However, one must remember that it proved considerably divisive within the United States and led to the weakening of Reagan's political power. He was fortunate that his last and most important actions were not attempts to escalate hostilities.

The last, and the place where Reagan deserves the most credit, is his willingness to change policy when a Soviet leader arose who was willing to more toward and end of the Cold War. Of all the active American politicians he was the best positioned to negotiate in that, in pursuing peace--as opposed to war--he had support across the political spectrum. He embraced that chance.

As to you wider points about resistance in Eastern Europe (and I would add the Ostpolitik of the Germans that greatly increased the dissatisfaction of the average eastern bloc citizen), I think these were also of considerable importance.

Michael Dunning - 8/29/2006

Why are so many quick to give Reagan universal credit for the fall of the Soviet Union, while rarely giving credit to those on the inside? And weren't men like Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II equally important in that struggle, by providing hope and strength during such trying times?

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/26/2006

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

A couple of rejoinders. The wars of central Amerca were pretty bloody. Some groups we sponsored used tactics that would be universally labelled terrorist into today's enviornment, particularly if they had been used by Arabs. I understand why you see these in a context of necessity and idealism, but to me part of being American involves more moral restraint than that, particularly when the situation was not life and death for our country.

That brings us back to Ike. He did indeed want to avoid another great war. In looking for other means to wage war he, more than any other president, made the covert ops approach acceptable with the short term "successes" (by the standards of Ike's administration) in Iran and Guatemala.

It is possible that of all our interventions, Guatemala's had the worst consequences for the inhabitants. As for Iran, our involvement there and--more importantly--our continuing to prop him up into the late 1970s must now be considered one of our great long-term failures.

But they both seemed like good, and perhaps even elegant, ideas at the time.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/26/2006

I agree with Ms. Reyes above. To attempt to study the Vietnam War via its treatment in American movies is absurd.

We need a movie or two about the boat people, as well as another one or two about the clubing to death of millions of Cambodians. They were the war's most numerous victims, and all were victims of our pull-out. But they are forgotten today, except in your local Vietnamese--American neighborhood. We should be feeling very guilty about those millions of dead as well as our own 56,000, half of whom were draftees.

In my humble opinion all of America's wars should be "noble causes" when the guns begin to shoot, and all arguments about them should come later. When it's kill-or-be-killed- time all who sympathize with the enemy should shut up. Every anti-war article, broadcast, song and movie costs American lives by giving hope to the enemy, and prolongs our wars even when it doesn't lose them, as in Vietnam.

Frederick Thomas - 8/23/2006

Indeed. A close friend was a pre-teen Khmer during the killing fields period, which fact saved her from the murder which was the fate of three family members, including two older sisters who declined sexual favors for KR functionaries and died for it.

Watch for her book, "My Hero," which celebrates her father's efforts to get her, a brother and various close relatives out of that hell.

Frederick Thomas - 8/23/2006

And, of course, each of the Americans killed was fat, white, complacent, cruel and arrogant, thereby justifying their unceremonious terminations.

When I saw Rambo on the book cover, it was a sure sign that i would not read it.

Frederick Thomas - 8/23/2006

Mr. Chamberlain:

I am always interested in your comments, which tend to epitomise the term "nuance," and perhaps "engagement" as well.

A couple of rebounds for you:

True, I did not count the Central American wars as US wars. But then, we were not directly involved, and thinking back as far as one wishes to go in history, proxy wars are among the foremost foreign tools in terms of effectiveness and cost. They are the elegant tools of the statesman, and not just the Machivellian.

And true, we never should have been in Lebanon pulling Israel's fat out of the fire. But the Marines should also have implemented effective perimeter security, as they do today in Iraq.

In terms of economics, I would not call Ike's economic approach entirely "leftist." It was more of an interregnum. And investment projects such as the interstate highway system, which add value to the economy, cannot be called leftist as can for example, the war on poverty which destroyed black culture and led to even more poverty for blacks. A leftist policy is one which says you don't have to work or achieve to get free money.

Reagan's economic program was based upon changing taxation policy to stimulate investment, as did Kennedy, and getting rid of new-deal style government regulations which have the effect of discouraging economic growth. These things kill small business, and Reagan made them better. Gingrich's programs a few years later reinforced what Reagan had done.

Anyway, thanks for your comments.

Nancy REYES - 8/22/2006

What is missing from the story of Viet Nam is the voice of the Vietnamese (and the Hmong).
Yes, we have "the Killing Fields", and "Heaven and Earth" but you didn't mention these films...perhaps because they didn't mirror the angst of baby Boomers.
And these two films were done by western directors.
One suspects in another generation, other films will be made by the children of the refugees. Like Andy Garcia's award winning film on Cuba, they will probably be ignored too.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/22/2006


Lorraine was too dismissive but you provide hagiography more than facts.

First of all, most of the supporters consider his waging war by proxy in Central America as important to the end of the Cold War. I'm intrigued that you deny its importance by claiming he resisted communism without war.

"60 years of leftist neglect" Chill out and reconsider the late 1940s to mid 1960s economy. The GI Bill of Rights and other government actions--for example the Interstate system combined with the pent-up savings due to rationing during WWII--initiated and sustained one of the great economic booms of American history.

Concerning his fierce reputation: simply consider the Arms for Hostages maneuvers and slaughter of our troops in Beiruit. His work in the Middle East was not skilled. The one exception was his policy in regards to Afghanistan, and the decision not to be concerned with postwar AFghanistan was made by his succesors.

You are right to emphasize his intelligence. In his first term particularly, like him or dislkie him, he showed great skill in his job. Happily, those skills remained evident in his negotiations with Gorbachev if not in other aspects of the job.

On the other hand, he used his popularity to ridicule and reduce support for conservation meausres and the pursuit of alternative fuels. As a partisan tactic it was successful, but it damaged this country.

In short he was a skilled politician, and some (though not all) of his causes were good, but his administration was hardly the time of peaceful perfection you describe.

Frederick Thomas - 8/22/2006

Ms. Paul,

I am often amused by your irreverant and frequently knowledgable commentary, but here it seems that you fell into "Reagan as dummie" trap.

The fact is that Reagan got things done - very big, very complex things, including an actual noble cause or two.

By political posturing and economic policy pressure alone, and without war, Reagan destroyed the most evil government ever, one which according to "Murder by Government" killed 61 million of its own people, and millions from other lands, the Soviet Union.

He influenced another government, China, to liberalize economically and thus move from grinding Communist poverty to Capitalist prosperity, and the fastest growth rate in the world-not bad for a dummy.

He raised the US economy from the sewer of 60 years of deadly leftist neglect and made it much freer and thus many times larger and more powerful than when he took office from the loser Jimmuh Cahttah, who blamed the dying economy on the people and their malaise.

Before Reagan took office, the mere threat of him caused the Iranian Ayatollahs to free dozens of US state department people from a miserable captivity. His reputation preceeded him, and got the job done at no cost.

Reagan did this by practicing the art of face to face politics better than any other of our times, starting with his Irish whiskey tete-a-tetes with Tip O'Neil and going right up to Reykjavik and Gorby. Where Clinton went for photo ops, Reagan actually got it done.

His enemies respected him far more than you do. Perhaps you consider these feats to be small, or his skills to be borrowed. If so, then you too have fallen into the trap. Don't worry, most US and international editorial staffs are right in there with you.

Lorraine Paul - 8/21/2006

Ronnie wouldn't know a 'noble cause' if it bit him on the bum!