Film as Historical Apologetic
For those of us who were born in the 1980’s, the Vietnam War is a conflict to which we cannot truly relate. We live in a historical hang time: the war is far enough into history that many now living did not experience it, and yet, it is still in recent enough memory that a full historic examination of the conflict is not yet possible. To fill this void, film has become the media whereby 20 and 30-somethings attempt to understand the experiences of previous generations. This film-driven historical dialectic is relatively simple for the struggles that faced our grandparents. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List provide, if not historical accuracy, at least a general feel for the period. The historical book on WWII has been closed, at least in the modern western mindset, and most specifically in American pop-culture’s historical viewpoint. Sentiment is relatively one-sided as to the reasons and justifications of World War II.
Such clear demarcation is not available for a conflict as complicated and still, as of yet, relatively unresolved in the American consciousness, as Vietnam. Out of this cultural uncertainty arise two films, both set in the Vietnam War, that have very different, and yet at times, complimentary perspectives. These are the Stanley Kubrick classic, Full Metal Jacket (FMJ), and the relatively recent We Were Soldiers.
Kubrick’s film is clearly the more artistic of the two. Aesthetically, the film is well done, and Kubrick uses the characters in the film to great effect. The script and casting of FMJ have made it a classic. FMJ is based not on a particular event or battle. Rather, it is the story of a platoon of men who experience the de-humanizing influence of life in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. The war tears them apart, puts them back together, and ultimately changes them on the most basic of levels. Some cope, others do not. Kubrick deftly weaves a story rife with morally ambiguity. The Marines at the center of the film are not all evil, nor are they all psychopathic. However, they all lose part of their humanity as the horror of a war with no clear purpose slowly takes its toll. While FMJ’s view of the war is far from rosy, it is clearly not the nihilistic Vietnam of Apocalypse Now. Full Metal Jacket effectively makes its point about how war brutally changes men, without resorting to portraying drug use as the norm, or relying on the “smell of napalm in the morning.” FMJ uses fiction to capture the feel of the time.
Soldiers takes on the decidedly more docu-drama feel of modern war movies such as Black Hawk Down. The film, directed by Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart, emphasizes the humanity of the soldiers who fought, on both sides, in Vietnam. Extensive family scenes build up an emotional connection with the men in the viewer’s mind. Several commentators have criticized the movie for this sentimentalist approach to storytelling. However, this technique is not an unnecessary emotional manipulation of the viewer any more than is Private Pyle’s suicide in FMJ. The very real humanity of Soldier’s characters emphasizes the tragedy of war, and yet through it Wallace preserves a purpose for the bloodshed. Perhaps because the film is chronologically far removed from the conflict, it is one of the few movies that actively attempt to portray American involvement in Vietnam as, at the least, a potentially noble-minded enterprise. Soldiers attempts to avoid the political questions of the war, and focuses on the men who fought honorably, a refreshing counterpoint to decades of denigration of principled men who went to war. In the end, it seeks to validate the contribution of those who fought, without passing judgment on the ends for which the politicians sent them to fight. Below the surface, however, one can detect an undercurrent that emphasizes the ultimate futility of American involvement. The events of Soldiers, the first battle between NVA and U.S. troops, hint at the long stalemate that the war would become.
Soldiers draws from the experiences of a number of men to gain insight about the nature of the men who fought the war. FMJ, in contrast, uses the experiences of a few to draw conclusions about the nature of war. It is through this contrast that the two can be reconciled into a coherent character study of the Vietnam War. Ultimately, a more accurate perspective on the Vietnam War, and by application, all war, can be gained by synthesizing the messages of the two films. The dehumanizing effects of war, even on good men, will leave them permanently changed. Those who return home physically unscathed are still mentally scarred by “seeing the elephant.” The effects of the terrible nature of war are amplified on those who fought in a war that our nation seeks neither to understand nor truly remember. To come to grips with the Vietnam conflict, we must look at it as a time when men—many of whom on both sides were honorable soldiers fighting for what they considered moral reasons—were subjected to the dehumanizing horrors of war. To consider one perspective or the other as a complete picture would be a mistake.
War cannot dehumanize unless it has real human beings to act upon, and this is ultimately the great tragedy of any war. The lives that are destroyed are not those of theoretical, impersonal soldiers on paper, nor are the effects of war restricted only to legitimate combatants. Film is an effective media for promoting this awareness. No longer are war movies the sterile realm of clearly defined “good guy vs. bad guy” stereotypes as seen in John Wayne’s Iwo Jima or Rambo’s Afghanistan. True, caricatures will always exist, whether it’s the war on Communism, or the War on Terror. We should reject the tendency to treat war films as a form of entertainment. If we do this, they become reduced to the level of Rome’s gladiatorial games. Modern wars of the 20th Century have lead to modern war films. They are a cultural and emotional dialogue with the past. It is a good thing that our war films are so horrible; else we should grow too fond of them. While history passes judgment on the justification for past wars, I believe that film holds the potential to make the men who fought them human. While we will not completely understand war through film, perhaps we can gain a closer understanding of the lives touched by war, a closer understanding of our own humanity.
Will the wars of our generation be commemorated in a similar way? If this trend continues, then in much the same way our children and grandchildren will look to film to understand. If so, will they look to probing, questioning war films like Black Hawk Down, or to films merely set in war, like Three Kings, to try to understand why we fought, and who we were?
*Originally published in Notes on the Times, the journal of the Alexis de Tocqueville Society.