by Kali Tal
Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 19-24
Over the last five or six years I have read some 250 Vietnam novels by veterans and combat journalists. I have also worked with and talked with scores of Vietnam veterans. And at some point, several years ago, I became aware of the importance of John Wayne. Not John Wayne, the film actor, or John Wayne, the man, or even John Wayne, the image. No, what I became aware of was John Wayne, the story: the narrative strategy responsible for the deaths of thousands of nineteen- and twenty-year-old boys in Vietnam.
In 1960 Delbert Mann was shooting THE OUTSIDER at Camp Pendleton. He asked a group of Marine recruits to tell him why they joined the Marines. "Half of them answered that it was because of the John Wayne films that they had seen.”[open notes in new window] Every one of the Vietnam novels and narratives I have read mentions John Wayne and/or the film THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA. The reference is always bitter, ironic or angry. "John Wayne” became a verb in Vietnam: a term applied to the actions of men who foolishly exposed themselves or others to danger for the sake of that ambiguous term "glory" or that even more ambiguous term "honor." ("John Wayne” was also grunt terminology for the standard issue P-38 can opener used on C-rations — make of that what you will), Michael Herr confesses in a 1983 Esquire article,
And Charles Durden, another correspondent, has written a novel in which the main character, Private Hawkins, wonders what would happen if all the men in his company refused their orders to Vietnam and went back to bed. “No way," he concludes:
My thesis is that film shaped soldiers' expectations about their Vietnam experience, and influenced their actions while they were in Vietnam. Life and death decisions were made based on film images, and the consequences could frequently be wounding or death. The devastating effects of their betrayal by the film medium brought about a deep ambivalence toward film in Vietnam War veterans. Further, film has become an acknowledged weapon in the battle over who owns the narrative rights to the Vietnam War. Hayden White says that it is in narrative
Film critic James Roy MacBean has asserted that the practice of "ignoring the spectator" in bourgeois cinema creates the illusion that the film is a "reflection of reality," at the same time that it plays on the audience's emotions and exploits the viewer's
John Gardner explains that instruction is the root function of art,
Soldiers adopted the models created for them in films, and relied on films to provide them with the tools to deal with the real war. We can begin to understand the importance of this process by examining the prevalence of film images in narratives by veterans. Veterans who write do not simply choose their images on the basis of aesthetic appeal. Eric Leeds, discussing World War I veterans, argues that the metaphors of combat veterans are the result of
The clash between the expectations generated by film, and the physical realities encountered by the soldier in Vietnam is the source of the veterans' film metaphors.
It took very little time for the soldier to conclude that his experience in Vietnam was not going to match up to his film-generated expectations. Men who go to war expect to kill people, and perhaps even to die gloriously; they do not expect to bomb villages, to watch the suffering of women and children, and to be hated by the people that they believed they had come to help. In the words of Jan Scruggs, the man who became the driving force behind the construction of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.:
The betrayal of the soldier by film had a variety of consequences. There was, of course, the possibility of literal death; the category of kids "wiped out by 17 years of war movies." But even those soldiers who escaped injury were plunged into a state of ideological chaos, moral confusion, and alienation from the culture which had raised them, misinformed them, and shipped them off to war. An anonymous veteran in Mark Baker’s book, Nam, explains:
Soldiers' identification with movie characters was so strong that they frequently turned fiction into reality. A G.I. with the 18th Aviation Company in Nha Trang describes the situation at his base during December of 1963:
Sergeant-Major Mike Kukler describes the gunfights in which 60 men died during the first four months of 1968:
The alienation of the soldier in the Vietnam War has been well documented and described by psychologists such as Robert Lifton, Charles Figley and Arthur Egandorf who discuss alienation and distancing in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Though alienation is a feeling common to soldiers in all wars because of the traumatic nature of the combat experience, the image of film as metaphor for a soldier's alienation is, for obvious reasons, a recent development.
I would like to discuss the images of film in two novels by Vietnam veterans-Robert Anderson's Service for the Dead and Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green. These works use as a central metaphor the film and the filmmaker.
Robert Anderson was a graduate of Yale University who enlisted in the Marines and became an infantry lieutenant, serving at Hué during the Tet offensive of 1968. Service for the Dead, published in 1987, is his second Vietnam novel. His focus on the conflict between film and reality is foreshadowed by the Joseph Rael quote on the preface page:
The protagonist of Anderson's novel is a young Marine named Mike. Mike has been wounded in Vietnam and is returning to a hospital in the U.S. The story of his tour in Vietnam unfolds along with the story of his trip home and his reunion with his family; a series of flashbacks and reminiscences. At the center of Mike's story is the enigmatic figure of a Marine named "Longo.” Longo is obsessed with the movies and welcomes Mike to Vietnam by including him in his fantasy that the Vietnam War exists only in the imagination of the soldiers who fight it. (There is an old grunt joke that goes something like: "I ain't ever going to the in Vietnam, man." "Why is that?" “Because it don't exist." The unreal character of the war was also mirrored in the soldiers' descriptions of Vietnam as "The Brown Disneyland" and "Six Flags Over Nothing," as well as their practice of calling the U.S. "the World"(a term which pointed out the surreal nature of Vietnam.) Longo asks Mike if he's talked to Captain Matthews yet, and explains why he calls Matthews Captain Blood:
Longo, by no accident, is from Hollywood, California, a black ballet dancer with a lisp who was drafted out of college. He is charismatic and irresistible, bringing everyone into his game of renaming, even creating the fear in one of them that the war couldn't exist without Longo:
They call their base camp "the Fort," the bush “Frontierland,” the VC snipers who shoot at them “Zorro" and "the Cisco Kid." Longo has a grand plan, which he reveals to Mike:
Mike and Longo continue to recruit new squad members into their movie. The most important of these new members is The Professor (certainly named to remind us of that other Professor once stranded on Gilligan's Island).
Longo and the Professor seem to complement each other in a way that Mike does not. Longo marveled “at the Professor’s calm and detached way of speaking" and the Professor, in turn, "told Mike he thought Longo was 'amazing — really amazing.’" Mike, in fact, becomes increasingly alienated by the combination of Longo and the Professor as time goes on and more and more of the people he knows are wounded or killed. The day before Longo is killed in battle, Mike gets drunk and has an argument with Longo where he rejects Longo's assertion that “it's all a movie…You can't take it serious" (Anderson, p. 148). "I'm serious," Mike answers. "Don't tell me what to be." The next morning Mike is embarrassed at his reaction to the still friendly and good-natured Longo.
Later that night the squad is shipped out by helicopter to rescue another unit which has been pinned down by the VC, and the battle scene, described from Mike's perspective, seems confusing and incomprehensible. Longo, however, appears to know exactly what is going on, mouthing lines right out of the movies:
Longo and his men are ordered to advance on the machine gun in a scene reminiscent of a dozen World War II films: the impossible task delegated to the hero and his men. At this moment film converges with reality. The plot dictates that he must now go out and die. Longo begins to say what the film moment would require:
Mike never sees what actually happens to Longo because he is himself wounded by a machine gun bullet in his jaw and medevacked to the rear and then to Japan. He hears about Longo's death later, in a long letter from the Professor which describes a war where the movies are dead:
“The morality and values, etc., that we are brought up with have nothing to do with what goes on in a war. Except, perhaps, for the unofficial morality: e.g., John Wayne war movies. But, unfortunately, they have nothing to do with war either — really; which is why Longo's idea was so good: we do understand war movies — everybody does — much better than we understand war itself…Eventually…the talk came around to Longo, and it turned into a kind of unofficial 'service for the dead' for him, with those of us who knew him telling our favorite Longo stories. Then somebody…said, 'What do you think Longo is up to now?' Making a movie — what else? — someone else said, and then it really was like the old days, as we tried to figure out what the movie would be like. Maybe he's got together with Cecil B. De Mille — can you see it, the two of them up there, working on some big epic? Then someone else remembered that Walt Disney is dead now too — can you see that? — Longo and Disney together? (Anderson, pp. 266,269)
In the final scene of the book, Mike is lying in a motel room watching a television program on the Marines in World War II. The narrator describes them in glowing terms as "simple, ordinary men who somehow became extraordinary in battle…risking their lives so their buddies might live." (Anderson, p.774). Mike begins to weep as he repeats over and over "I want to go back!…Please, let me go."
Anderson uses the movie metaphor to convey the deep ambivalence of the soldier toward the cultural images which have seduced, and then betrayed him. Though these images have failed him as instructors and teachers, he never loses his longing for the simple and clean answers they provide to confusing moral questions.
Stephen Wright's novel, Meditations in Green (which won the Maxwell Perkins Prize in 1983) also uses the film and the filmmaker as a central metaphor. Wright was drafted into the Army in 1969, and attended the U.S. Army intelligence school. He served in Vietnam through 1970.
Wright, like Anderson, chooses not to make his filmmaker character the protagonist of his story. Once again, a major theme in the book is the relationship of the protagonist to the filmmaker.
Spec. 4 James Griffin spends his tour in Vietnam staring through a large magnifying glass, studying frame after frame of black and white aerial film footage for the intelligence division of the U.S. Army. The military name for his task is “image interpreter," and that is exactly what Griffin becomes — a seeker after truth in the myriad images of the war. The images, at first, seem very clear: reading the film is a relatively straightforward job. This initial sense of understanding images of the war is mirrored in Griffin's understanding of larger narrative plots. For example, when the "fucking new guy" Claypool is introduced to Griffin, Griffin imagines a whole series of episodes based on his war images:
Many of the soldiers in the novel become obsessed with images, like the combat infantry squad where every man goes into the bush with a camera and an M-16 and the question, "Can you shoot?" becomes more complex than the new man can answer. But the filmmaker in Meditations in Green is unmistakably Weird Wendell. Wendell's official role on the base has long since been forgotten because both he and the soldiers around him are caught up in his plan to film the war:
Wendell's story is interspersed with Griffin's, and we read, at intervals throughout the novel, about him directing soldier/actors or showing them the various scenes that they have acted in. The film “diverted Payne's energies so thoroughly he could rarely be found on the set of the real war”:
Griffin's initially coherent view of the war grows increasingly more fragmented, as his grasp on the meanings of the images he works with and lives with become less and less understandable. Explanations, Griffin comes to understand, have little use when they can be blown apart any time by experience:
At the same time, Wendell works harder and harder to fit those very images into his film. Towards the end of the novel Griffin watches a four and a half hour screening of Wendell's film:
In the were before the final battle Griffin and the other men in his unit are gathered in the chapel watching a screening of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. He likes it. As “armed gangs of potbellied men roam the daylight countryside hunting for the ghouls,” the attack siren sounds. The base is being overrun by an NVA regiment. During the battle Griffin comes across the badly wounded Wendell who demands that Griffin find his camera and finish the picture for him. But it is too late. Wendell dies, and Griffin, though he tries, can feel nothing at all. No longer able to make sense out of anything, he finds himself seated on the roof of the officers club watching the world around him burn, contemplating the inevitability of the moment:
Griffin's inability to integrate the nightmare images of the war into a coherent whole is highlighted by stark contrast with the neat and simple ending of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The horrors that exist on film are contained and controlled by a narrative structure, which provides a framework of explanation for the events depicted. The war, plotless and anarchic, supports no such framework.
The choice of film and filmmaker as metaphor springs directly from veteran's ambivalence about the culture which sent him to war. These Vietnam War narratives deconstruct the seamless surface of war films and question the cultural myths upon which they are founded. Though the filmmaker appears as a character in these novels, they do not speak to him. Rather, they are directed at the filmgoing audience, to a new generation of soldiers-to-be who are being seduced by a new generation of war films.
Films have become an acknowledged weapon in the war over the rights to the “real" story of the Vietnam War. That the battle is over "image" rather than reality is most apparent in the heated arguments generated by the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington. The black marble wail, engraved with the names of the soldiers killed in Vietnam during the war, is a strong statement: here are the dead, judge for yourselves. A small number of politically powerful veterans and interested parties violently objected to the construction of the memorial and managed to hold it up until the Memorial Fund agreed to place Frederick Hart's sculpture, a statue of three infantrymen, opposite the monument. Says Jan Scruggs,
What does this have to do with the movies? Let me give you some things to think about. You are familiar with the photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, The Joel Rosenthal image, later sculpted and cast in bronze as a memorial, was used as the official poster of a war bond drive that raised $220 million, and was also pictured on a commemorative stamp that had the largest sales in history. This photo was actually of the second flag-raising on the island, and it was staged for the camera. Without a doubt, the most frequently mentioned film in Vietnam novels by combat veterans is John Wayne's SANDS OF IWO JIMA: the film ends with the image of the fictitious flag-raising. Frederick Hart, the man who created the sculpture which was placed in front of the wall, had apprenticed under Felix de Welden. Welden was the sculptor of the Iwo Jima Memorial (Scruggs, p. 49).
There is a strange circularity to all of this; a lineup of coincidence which would make a conspiracy theorist drool. But instead of discussing abstract conclusions, I'd like to close with a war story told by Donald Hines, an Army infantryman in Vietnam in 1967:
1. Richard Holmes, Acts of War: the Behavior of Men in Combat (New York: Macmillan,1985),
2. Michael Herr, "Sending the War Home," Esquire (June, 1983), p. 265.
3. Charles Durden, No Bugles No Drums (New York: Avon, 19760, p.2.
4. Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," Critical Inquiry 7 (Autumn 1980), pp. 8-9,
5. James Roy MacBean, "VENT D’EST or Godard and Rocha at the Crossroads," Movies and Methods: An Anthology, Bill Nichols, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).
6. John Gardner, “Death by Art,” Critical Inquiry 3, no.1 (Summer 1977), p.756.
7. Eric J. Leeds, No Man's Land: Combat and Identity in World War I (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 78.
8. Jan Scruggs and Joel Swerdlow, To Heal a Nation (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 10.
9. Mark Baker, Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There (Berkeley: New York, 1981), p. 151.
10. Al Santoli, Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It (New York: Ballantine, 1981), p. 6.
11. Robert Lifton, Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans, Neither Victims Nor Executioners (New York: Basic Books,1973); Charles Figley, Strangers at Home: Vietnam Veterans Since the War (New York: Praeger. 1980); Arthur Egandorf, Healing from the War: Trauma and Transformation after Vietnam (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1985).
12. See Eric J. Leeds, No Man's Land (on World War I). J. Glen Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (New York: Harper and Row, 1970) — on World War II; Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: Free Press, 1987).
13. Robert Anderson, Service for the Dead (New York: Arbor House, 1986), p. 25.
14. Stephen Wright, Meditations in Green (New York: Bantam, 1983), pp. 23-24.
15. Bill Ross, Iwo Jima: Legacy of Valor (New York: Vanguard Press, 1985), p. xiii.
16. Heather Brandon, Casualties: Death in Vietnam, Anguish and Survival in America (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984), p. 113.