Gunner Palace, one of the first major documentaries on the Iraq war, stakes a claim on the reality of the war.
In the Year of the Pig offers a critical world-historical perspective on the Vietnam War beyond U.S. solipsism.
Apocalypse Now narrates the pleasurable spectacle of war, with Wagnerian accompaniment.
By the time of the Persian Gulf War, Apocalypse Now will be appropriated by soldiers as a “pro-war” stimulant, according to Jarhead: “The supposedly anti-war films have failed.”
Hearts and Minds works to re-contextualize and critique Hollywood’s contribution to the Good Fight of WWII.
Gunner Palace bears the traces of cultural mediation in its attempt to represent the Iraq war, MTV-style.
The First Gulf War and the First President Bush: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”
Hearts and Minds: LBJ widens the Vietnam War by appealing to the entire population: “Victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.”
Hearts and Minds: U.S. anti-communist propaganda contributes to the pervasive culture of fear in the 1950s.
Hearts and Minds: On the home front, capturing a celebration of U.S. chauvanism during the Vietnam War.
Hearts and Minds: A benediction before the big game: “There are going to be men made tonight and that’s religious and God cares about that.”
Hearts and Minds: The cultural reproduction of sanctioned violence is engendered by a high school football coach who beseeches his players: “Don’t let ‘em beat us!”
Hearts and Minds: Cheering on the home team: The U.S. compulsion to win at all costs and to insist that, “We’re number one!”
In the Year of the Pig historicizes the Vietnam War through documents that display the colonizer and the colonized.
The Battle of San Pietro: presents a view of war from the perspective of the “foot soldier.”
The Battle of San Pietro’s voice-over narration expresses sentiment for the fallen: “The lives lost were precious lives…to their country, to their loved ones, and to the men themselves.”
The Anderson Platoon provides a glimpse of military life in-country: “The body of Christ,” intones a chaplain, who gives holy communion in the killing fields of Vietnam.
The Anderson Platoon abstains from depicting the “big picture” of the Vietnam War, which instead is treated as individuated tragedy.
The Anderson Platoon seeks to personalize the otherwise anonymous common soldier as a way of forging viewer identification.
The Anderson Platoon deploys a freeze-frame device, here on a face that will soon perish, that effectively arrests the temporal flow.
The Anderson Platoon conveys the emotional work of surviving combat experience.
The Anderson Platoon scores footage of soldiers on patrol to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”
by Tony Grajeda
By summer 2003, with the Iraq war mutating from “mission accomplished” to urban guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgency, the “ghost” of Vietnam, believed to have been “exorcised” in the Persian Gulf War by Bush the First, had returned to haunt the political and cultural landscape. Talk of endless “quagmire” and the winning of “hearts and minds” had summoned the traumatic memory of the Vietnam War, even as its historical memory proved to be so elusive during the 2004 presidential election. Although comparisons between the two wars have entered the arena of political discourse, bound up with the struggle to yoke the “war on terror” to the Good Fight of World War II, such comparisons initially drawn upon the rhetorical level of a disputed discursive field have more recently been augmented by documentary films on the Iraq war.
Such feature-length independent documentaries as Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland offer intriguing accounts of how the war is being represented as it is still taking place and, therefore, how it is likely to be remembered; these audio-visual texts already stand, then, as evidentiary documents contributing to a history of the present. The limits and possibilities of their historicity will be taken up in this essay, which will examine their formal and rhetorical framing of truth claims, in part by contrasting them with such Vietnam-era documentaries as the early in-country films The Anderson Platoon (1966-67) and A Face of War (1967), as well as the more well-known In the Year of the Pig (1968) and Hearts and Minds (1974), films noted for their historical contextualization of the Vietnam War and now recognized as documents of the past themselves. These Vietnam documentaries serve to forestall the act of forgetting the war as a national trauma, the consequences of which include to this day the guilt-ridden treatment throughout U.S. society of the common soldier as pre-eminent victim of war, lionized recipient of a nationalistic devotion to forever “support the troops.”
What is at stake then in the Iraq war documentaries, as I hope to demonstrate, is precisely the representation of the U.S. soldier as a figure of overflowing empathy, a figure whose personal experience of war as portrayed by these films tends to override or even cancel out any political or historical consideration of what the war might mean, beyond individual stories of suffering and tragedy. The challenge, finally, posed by these films to students and scholars of media and culture during the current crisis is one that demands an engagement with both the social and political questions of our time and theoretical and textual ones regarding cultural production. More specifically, given the degree to which the documentary form generally still carries an ethical burden of veracity, often promising spectators with seemingly direct access to an otherwise unknowable world, it is vital if not necessary — especially at a moment when the real itself has never been more in doubt — to continue scrutinizing documentary means and methods for conveying that very same world.
In what follows, I position this first generation of documentaries on the Iraq war in relation not only to these earlier documentaries on Vietnam but also to narrative films from the war film genre such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, cultural texts which acutely act as frames of reference for both the documentarists and the participants to war themselves. Michael Herr’s landmark account of the Vietnam War, Dispatches, was not the first — and unfortunately not the last — to recognize the extent to which young soldiers on the battlefield seem to be acting out fantasies acquired especially from the combat genre. More recently, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, which chronicles his experience as a Marine during the Persian Gulf War, reveals that even the “antiwar” Vietnam films, such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket, have been re-functioned, appropriated as “pro-war” stimulants by U.S. soldiers who, writes Swofford,
The subsequent “band of brothers” bears the traces of yet further mediation, now riddled with a wider array of cultural influences that shape and structure experience of the real itself. In his account of the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003, journalist Evan Wright points to a generational difference in 21st Century soldiers, many of whom “are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own parents.” Wright describes one 19-year-old Marine who is “beside himself” with excitement while in action:
Although nothing quite so “fucking cool” as the (male) fantasy of de-realization — a psychic process of perceptual dissociation, here of inhabiting a video game and encountering the real through a prism of simulation — will occur in the documentaries under consideration, the question of cultural mediation nonetheless remains for both filmmakers and their subjects.
My more specific purpose here is to offer a close analysis of Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland in order both to track the work of history, as well as to gauge the evolution of formal techniques and practices endemic to the documentation of war and atrocity. A brief comparison at the level of film form suggests that while a 1970s work like Hearts and Minds seems lodged in the familiar tradition of the realist documentary, one some 30 years later like Gunner Palace— with its highly stylized logic of fragmentation and disorientation evidently indebted to the music video—appears to fall within the generic domain of the “postmodern.” Yet this strict dichotomy in a “politics” of documentary form breaks down when we recall that Hearts and Minds made liberal (and ironic) use of Hollywood movies, while Gunner Palace’s digital video feel of immediacy could be aligned with at least the U.S. variant of direct cinema.
What I will argue then is that, in light of its precedents in the war documentary, Gunner Palace’s formal strategy of “MTV-style” construction to capture the media-saturated participants of modern war (pop culture references, rap music, self-conscious performances playing to the camera) implies less an innovative approach to the form than, ironically, a reflection model of the real, in which the accretion of referentiality in our thoroughly mediated world suffuses phenomenal existence, even and especially in wartime.
Historicizing the Vietnam War through documentary film: Hearts and Minds
“The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula,” declared President George H. W. Bush, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. “It’s a proud day for America,” he trumpeted, adding, “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” [open notes in new window] Yet the “specter” of Vietnam has seemingly risen from those very same desert sands. A year into the Iraq war, Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, stated that, “slowly but surely, the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people are being won over as they see security increase in their area.” With this war for winning the “hearts and minds” of Iraqis dragging on into its fifth year, a protracted conflict half-way around the world has triggered increased use in a national debate of such loaded metaphors as “quagmire” and the “Vietnam syndrome.” The return of such politically-charged language signifies the uneasy presence of the past in the present, a condition that symptomatically reveals both the fraught historical memory of the Vietnam War and the potential trauma of realizing that, as one current bumper sticker puts it, “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.”
One way of imagining how the present is likely to be remembered or misremembered, whether the history of the Iraq war will be written in the prose of the Good Fight or that of a “syndrome,” especially with regard to the representation of the U.S. soldier, is to take note of how the Vietnam War itself was represented at the time and then subsequently re-written by both the political establishment of the 1980s and the culture industries of television and Hollywood. I want to begin reflecting on the potential historicity of the present by briefly recalling one of the definitive, and more controversial, documentaries on what the Vietnamese call the American War — Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1974 and was re-released on DVD in 2002. Adopting the model of the “document-dossier” established by Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds mixes newsreel and archival footage, talking-heads and in-country interviews, and, perhaps most surprisingly (at least to those who somehow believed that Michael Moore had invented the form), short clips from such Hollywood movies as Objective Burma, My Son John, and This Is the Army, Michael Curtiz’s 1943 musical celebrating the United States military, a war-time production from the Busby Berkeley school of spectacle featuring hundreds of singing and dancing troops.
Becoming something of a social text right from the start, the reception of Hearts and Minds at the time and its subsequent place in the body of literature on historical documentaries warrants re-evaluation precisely at a moment when the meaning of Vietnam is at stake. Predictably met by largely “hostile reviewers in the national media,” according to Peter Biskind, it didn’t seem to fair much better in other quarters. Biskind’s Cineaste 1975 review, for one, takes issue with the film’s critique of U.S. culture — at least for Biskind “the arrogant, violent, hypocritical side” —that contributed to the war. This position has been reinforced over the years in some academic circles as well. David Grosser, for example, finds the film exhibiting contempt for the working class, while Thomas Slater faults it for what he considers “blatant manipulation.” Finally, Thomas Waugh compares it unfavorably to de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig for falling into a “moralistic, bourgeois-humanist perspective of history.” De Antonio himself, in a 1974 review of Hearts and Minds, condemns the film for “political emptiness” and “an inability to understand either the United States or Vietnam.” “Patronizing attitudes,” writes the filmmaker, beset the work at every turn, as “it sneers with a japing, middle-class liberal superiority.” Cutting to the bone, it is, according to de Antonio, “both heartless and mindless.”
Such historically specific criticisms notwithstanding, revisiting Hearts and Minds during another time of war is indeed instructive, given the somewhat uneven and so far relatively ahistorical media representations of the current crisis. While not as rigorously historical as In the Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds still provides a quite thorough social context for understanding the Vietnam War, primarily by incorporating a range of perspectives, including combat veterans (both pro-war and disenchanted), a slew of political and military figures (from architects of the war to dissidents), and, most significantly, a number of Vietnamese voices.
The film’s specific argument on the war itself is augmented by a set of observations and textual materials on the more general cultural conditions of fear, racism and violence that, it is suggested, give rise to a militaristic society (Ryan and Kellner, 197). For example, the post-war, McCarthy-era structure of feeling dominated by fear and paranoia is illustrated through clips from both the mass culture of Hollywood features fueling the Cold War, as well as the government’s shrill anti-communist propaganda films. Another sampling of Hollywood clips exhibit an array of racist representations, from the Orientalism of Bob Hope road comedies to the vicious racism of WWII combat pictures set in the Pacific Theater.
Yet the documentary’s most provocative statement on U.S. culture issues from original footage of a nearly-rabid football coach whipping up his high school charges into a frenzy for the big game. The implication of socially-sanctioned masculinity compounded by everyday violence as the breeding ground for the cultural reproduction of militarism was, apparently, an unreasonable proposition to critics at the time, as Biskind’s review insinuates. From our own vantage point of the present, however — one marked by a popular culture of pervasive violent imagery that Vivian Sobchack has termed “the Postmorbid Condition” — Hearts and Minds viewed retrospectively suggests an argument still in formation, the incipient realization of which will garner only more evidence (and credibility) in the ensuing years.
As the current battle over the meaning of the Vietnam War and any “lessons” accruing around the Iraq war rages on, both In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds continue to remind us not only of the vital contribution made by critical documentary filmmaking to the work of history; they also reveal, given the substance of their specific arguments, the ideological structuring of the war itself by Cold War liberals who sought to obscure Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle for independence. Moreover, with the neo-conservative re-writing of the war since the Reagan era that has aimed to secure it within a revivified Cold War paradigm (see Martin, “Narratives,” 111), one that conveniently aligns with a post-9/11 Manichean worldview, these documentaries have never been more necessary to challenging reactionary interpretations — both past and present — of the Vietnam War.
Documenting a soldier’s perspective:
While In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds utilized the formal model of the “document-dossier” — compilation documentaries weaving archival footage and still images with counterpoint testimony through rhetorical editing — the in-country Vietnam documentaries The Anderson Platoon (1966-67) and A Face of War (1967) were comprised entirely of “raw” footage shot among the troops, in the field and, sometimes shockingly, in the midst of battle. And unlike In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds, which offer a fairly extensive political and historical context for apprehending the Vietnam War, The Anderson Platoon and A Face of War present the war exclusively from the point of view of the “foot soldier,” a formal positioning that extends back at least to John Huston’s WWII documentary The Battle of San Pietro (1945). As precedents then to the truth claims and experiential perspective on war underwriting the recent documentaries on Iraq, these Vietnam films fall on the putatively “apolitical” side of this artificially bifurcated approach to the representation of war, in which attempts to historicize events are set in opposition to accounts taken from the trenches.
Yet even such accounts from the same side of this divide—those that seem to share a similar disdain for history — require further differentiation in order to parse their claims on the reality of war. By referencing the typology of what Bill Nichols has theorized as the major modes of representation in documentary film, we can begin to distinguish the various ways in which the formal conventions and narrative strategies from the documentary tradition structure these interpretations of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
Roughly corresponding to what Nichols terms the expository mode, in which voice-over narration (the “voice of God” device) serves to organize the images and secure meaning (37), The Anderson Platoon (and to some extent Gunner Palace) relies on the “voice of authority” of the filmmaker that, along with a soundtrack mix of diegetic and post-production music, rhetorically arranges what is seen and heard within a seemingly “objective” view of soldiering. A Face of War (as well as Occupation: Dreamland), on the other hand, generally aligns with what Nichols poses as the observational mode (itself akin to direct cinema), which eschews voice-over commentary and non-diegetic music as a way of conveying, according to Nichols, “the sense of unmediated and unfettered access to the world” (43).
The French writer and filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer, a veteran of the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, produced The Anderson Platoon for French television, which first aired the film before an English version was broadcast on the highly-regarded and popular program The CBS News Hour in July 1967. The Anderson Platoon went on to win the Oscar for best documentary that year, and also had a brief theatrical run. Accompanying a U.S. Army platoon for several weeks in the fall of 1966, Schoendoerffer’s black and white footage is shot almost entirely in the field, with the exception of one sequence following a lone GI on leave in Saigon. The primary focus on the soldiers themselves both confirms expectations of military life (mail call, a field Mass replete with communion, fairly quiet patrols through the jungle), and arrests viewer attention, since the abrupt burst of gunfire or explosions always arrives without warning. Location sound is frequently laced with Schoendoerffer’s voice-over narration, delivered in his heavily French-accented English, which opens by stating:
Aside from this rather loaded introduction, the narration confines itself to basically conveying events matter-of-factly in a terse, blunt tone, providing little in the way of political or even contextual commentary. At one point, however, in reporting the general outlines of a particular mission, Schoendoerffer elicits sympathy for his subjects by suddenly lamenting:
Excluded from knowledge that decides their fate, these “pawns” are treated here not as heroic actors but as unfortunate clients subjected to larger forces. While such forces go largely unexamined in the documentary, the soldiers themselves are afforded a modicum of individualization. Several times throughout the film Schoendoerffer identifies the troops by name as they appear on camera; without benefit of interview segments, these simple introductions manage to personalize the no less anonymous soldiers, a few of whom are wounded or killed within the period of filming. We learn as much when, on occasion, the film freeze-frames on a face as the voice-over flatly states, for instance, “wounded two weeks later,” or, in a less truncated way:
Such moments of freezing the narrative flow effectively lift the proceedings out of its “present-tense” temporality (Nichols, 40), thus also breaking with the observational mode as the documentary piteously divulges privileged information to viewers, whose powerlessness to affect circumstances mirrors that which will befall the soldier-pawns.
Apart from these jarring yet casual pronouncements (“Shannon—killed two weeks later. 18 years old.”), The Anderson Platoon presents its material in a relatively unadorned manner, still hewing to the observational as much as expository mode of merely recording events as they unfold before the camera. Yet other aspects of the soundtrack beyond these verbal revelations of impending calamity suggest more is at work. In particular, music plays a significant role (as it does in other genres) in creating an affective state of reception for spectators. For example, during one segment where soldiers tend to a wounded Vietnamese girl, Schoendoerffer’s voice-over states that one member of the platoon, identified earlier as a blues singer from Alabama, “sings some blues for his buddies.” The off-screen sound of a mournful voice with plaintive acoustic guitar accompanies a subsequent shot of soldiers standing around the body of a fallen comrade. Along with two distinct a cappella moments on camera by one of the GIs, Schoendoerffer incorporates music at several turns, perhaps most dramatically when this off-screen (and likely post-production or extra-diegetic) blues song is reprised near the end of the film. In the aftermath of a ferocious battle, a series of close-ups on weary, bloodied faces and on hands clasped of those who survived is given an aural rendering, as we hear once more the soft strumming of solo guitar and a voice sing out:
A decidedly less mournful “score” appears early in the film when, following a scene of the soldiers on patrol, the film cuts to the platoon’s military base with a sound bridge of a broadcast from Armed Forces Radio. A shot from within the cramped broadcast booth hovers just over the shoulder of the DJ who, on the air, introduces Nancy Sinatra’s pop hit of the season, “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” As the song plays, a shot of reel-to-reel tape cuts to a medium close-up on army boots slugging through a muddy field. Two full verses accompany GIs on the march through streams, over the ground and into the jungle. This playful attempt at a light moment early on in an otherwise somber film could very well have given Stanley Kubrick ideas for the critical transitional figure crossing the two narrative halves of Full Metal Jacket 20 years later.