Ridley Scott's American Gangster and the Myths of the Vietnam War

Culture Watch

Mr. Kuzmarov is visiting assistant professor at Bucknell University. His first book, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs, will be published by UMASS Press, Amherst.

            The Vietnam War was fought by the United States in violation of the 1954 Geneva Convention on behalf of a series of corrupt client regimes against a popularly backed revolutionary movement that had led the liberation struggle against French colonialism. It resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3.4 million people (Robert S. McNamara’s numbers), the crippling and maiming of countless others and destruction of millions of hectares of forestland. It was a brutal neo-colonial war, which aroused mass opposition and protest, including from American GIs who engaged in numerous acts of insubordination and resistance. In American popular memory, however, the war remains something other than what it really was – a national trauma and tragedy, an event in which American boys lost their innocence or were victimized by misguided and soft-headed governmental policies and betrayal on the home-front. It is also a war ostensibly tainted by drugs and the addiction of American soldiers.

             These impressions have been promoted by policy-elites seeking political scapegoats for American conduct and to avoid public questioning of the ideological principles that led to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam and remain the basis for U.S. foreign policies today. They have also been widely developed in popular cultural media, which have advanced all kinds of stereotypes and apart from a few notable exceptions, left the Vietnamese perspective almost entirely out. Though not necessarily conceived by its director as a film about Vietnam, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is the latest Hollywood epic to distort American public memory of the war. It is focused on the rise and fall of drug baron Frank Lucas, a poor kid from the South who grows rich by smuggling heroin from Southeast Asia through Thailand in the coffins of dead American soldiers. The film implies that the proliferation of drugs in American inner-cities like Harlem during the 1970s was a product of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam – and one of the war’s primary tragedies.

            To be sure, there is a grain of truth to this portrayal. As Alfred W. McCoy chronicles in an important study, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, though opium was traditionally grown in the Golden Triangle region for medicinal need, rising demand by American GIs in Vietnam fostered the development of a refinery industry for heroin. America’s alliance with corrupt opium warlords, including General Vang Pao in Laos, helped to enhance its efficiency, in part by abetting enforcement efforts and procuring modern equipment that allowed for easier transport. Over time, some disaffected military deserters became involved in the region’s underground economy, which thrived off of the social dislocations of war and the corruption of American trained police. A 1971 Congressional report undertaken by Morgan Murphy (D-Ill) and Robert Steele (R-CT) made mention of the shipping of heroin in the body bags of dead soldiers by an ex-Marine named William Henry Jackson out of the 5-Star hotel in Bangkok. Evidence from the DEA and Army criminal investigations file, however, serves to underplay the scope of these operations, which appear to have been limited. Despite Lucas’ own claims of traveling to the Golden Triangle and constructing wooden coffins for smuggling, the heroin available in Harlem was of much lower purity than in Southeast Asia – forcing hard-line addicts to steal money in order to buy enough to satisfy their craving. The Nixon administration and military also began to crackdown on smuggling at this time because of public revelations surrounding the corruption of American governmental allies.

            It is ultimately a great stretch to conclude, as Scott does, that drug smuggling rackets out of Southeast Asia helped to create the mass influx of narcotics in American ghettos during the early 1970s. The DEA reported in the mid 1970s that 80 percent of American imported heroin actually came from Mexico. In 1969, the Nixon administration initiated Operation Intercept to curb smuggling along the border, though it was aborted after causing lengthy traffic delays. Subsequent anti-drug initiatives in Mexico broke down as well, largely because of the corruption of U.S. governmental allies, misallocation of resources and the errant spraying of poppy fields. This resulted in the continued free flow of heroin into the United States, which came from multiple different sources, including from a pipeline through Turkey and Marseilles. It was not singularly linked to the American intervention in Indochina.

The real root of the drug problem – which the director pays scant attention to – was the prevalence of high demand rates due to structural inequalities and poverty amidst plenty. Cutbacks to the Great Society and the conservative backlash to the civil rights movement and anti-poverty initiatives of the New Left only helped to exacerbate these trends. While Scott does show Lucas’ own impoverished background and the lure of quick money on the street, he ought to have done a better job in demonstrating how blocked social opportunities stemming from an inadequate public education system and wage structure, and the decline in availability of factory jobs led to social disillusionment, despair and the flourishing of the black market economy. At the end of the film, after Lucas’ character is arrested, he serves as an informant for the police and helps in the arrest of young dealers. The insinuation is that this helped to curtail the spread of drugs – though in reality Reaganomics policies and continued governmental neglect led to the ongoing demand for hard drugs in the inner-cities and spread of crack-cocaine.

             On the whole, while American Gangster is gripping in its presentation, it falls flat analytically in failing to contextualize the drug problem in Harlem as a product of structural inequalities and the political currents of the time. It misses a larger opportunity to engage with the consequences of conservative fiscal policies that have all but abandoned the poor, choosing instead to sensationalize the gangster life and heroize the role of the police in bringing the main protagonist to justice. The film further promotes the enduring myth that drugs were a product of America’s disastrous intervention in Indochina – thus contributing to the false impression that America was a primary victim of the conflict. It shows a nation still haunted by that dreadful war fought over thirty years ago, yet unable to confront its true horrors from the vantage point of those who felt them the most.

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Gregory Canellis - 2/25/2008

Hello? It's a movie, not an historical documentary. You're treating it like a student's essay that you are grading with your trusty red pen.