From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War In American Film
Linda Dittmar and Gene Michau (eds)
Rutgers University Press, 1990. 387 pp. $26.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
"Boy, I saw Rambo last night; now I know what to do next time", said Ronald Reagan in 1985, after a "hostage crisis" in Lebanon. George Bush, deputy world sheriff at the time, must have watched Rambo with Ron, because George "did it" to Iraq.
From Hanoi To Hollywood was written before the US-led assault on Iraq, but the Middle East venue for the return of the B-52s, napalm, war hysteria and racism to active imperialist duty has borne out the book's contention that Hollywood Vietnam War movies "serve contemporary political and ideological agendas" by countering the Vietnam syndrome and psyching up the public for wars in "Latin America, the Middle East and other 'trouble spots' in Asia and Africa". The "comic-book heroics" of the right-wing revenge films like Stallone's Rambo, aim to "heal the Vietnam War's wounds and prepare us for new ones".
Hollywood teaches us How To Stop Worrying And Love The War through a number of techniques, the favourite being George Orwell's Memory Hole. Moral qualms about burning Vietnamese homes and bodies and forests, the use of torture and chemicals, all disappear down the Memory Hole along with any historical understanding or political analysis of why the US (and its loyal allies) invaded Vietnam.
A number of contributors label this "organised" or "strategic forgetting". The Rambo films simply ignore politics and history, except to criticise alleged political constraints on the military (a bizarre but useful myth to gloss over the political reasons a country, which had dropped on it six times the tonnage of bombs used in World War II, was able to defeat the US in a war of national and socialist revolution).
The films' use of noise, colour, action, suspense, spectacle and other cinematic opiates creates an "aestheticisation of violence" which, coupled with the "Boy's Own adventure" in the forests of Vietnam, serves to "redeem war, paving the way for an acceptance of armed intervention as a viable strategic and political alternative in US foreign policy".
Less rambustious than Rambo, the more realistic films, like Platoon (by the veteran Oliver Stone) and Full Metal Jacket by Stanley Kubrick, do voice some criticisms about the war; but by focussing on "men in combat", they also avoid politics and history, reducing these to "the morality of soldiering".
The GI and the Viet Vet are the focus of the films, and are the victims of the war, a "near-sighted humanism" which crowds out the larger tragedy of the Vietnamese people and their environment. Forty times as many Vietnamese were killed as US soldiers in a country ulation. Hollywood irons out this imbalance by stereotyping the Vietnamese as inferior, or as monsters, or marginalising them to invisibility (a ploy used during the Iraq war, too).
Down at the very bottom of Hollywood's Memory Hole, together with the Vietnamese political opposition to the war, is the US opposition. No film wants to remind its viewers of the turbulent civilian resistance, nor the US Marines' mutiny at Da Nang in 1968, nor the 200 antiwar GI papers published during the war, nor the 200 officer "fraggings" each year, nor the 500,000 army desertions, nor the 200,000 draft resisters, all of whom courageously helped to defeat the imperialism of their political and military masters (a tradition continued today by veterans who picket theatres showing Rambo films and who sell "miniature plastic body bags outside stores in malls where Rambo dolls are sold").
All the Vietnam War films are dishonest to some degree. They have done their bit to smooth the way for the wars against Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada, Iraq.
An honest Hollywood film about Iraq is even less likely. As the book says of the Vietnam films, "critical misgivings" about the imperialist slaughter in Vietnam have been "drowned out by the cinema's victory chants for the triumphant and just avenger".
Already Hollywood is planning Desert Shield, Desert Storm, The Human Shield and Target USA. The latest version of the imperialist Big Lie is coming to the Big Screen. Avoid them. Read From Hanoi to Hollywood instead.
Refreshingly free of cultural studies jargon like "overdetermined signifiers", "deconstructionism", "intradiegetical discourse" and other uglies, the book is one of the best ways of understanding Vietnam, Iraq and US imperialism more generally, and picking your way through the filmic lie field about these wars.