Films about Vietnam are abundant. There are films that depict the war, films that explore the effects of the war, and films that use it as a backdrop. What is consistent among the long list—from low-budget B productions to award-winning blockbusters—is how Vietnam is depicted.
I can recall seeing in the theater, in 1986, the enormously successful film Platoon, directed by Oliver Stone. While there had previously been gritty, dramatic treatment of Vietnam in movies such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon helped redefine the genre by its realism. Moviegoers could now behold a relatively faithful portrayal of the GI experience.
This has become the benchmark of war in film. Whether it be landing on Omaha Beach, commando operations in Somalia, or bomb disposal in Iraq, the filmmaker must ensure detailed verisimilitude. The goal is to reproduce events on the screen and encourage the viewer to forget it's a movie. There is now a directly proportional relationship between fidelity to the look and feel and fidelity to history. The greater the realism, the greater the "historical" accuracy.
I have heard it maintained that the people who know best are the people who were there. In other words, those who fought in, say, Gettysburg, were the foremost authorities on that battle. And that we who were not there need to tread carefully about our judgment and the knowledge we claim to possess.
Of course, in a discussion of the Civil War, this issue will unlikely be raised, and the reason is simple. People don't typically get into heated debates about the Civil War. It's simply not a controversial subject. Vietnam, however, is a different matter. There lingers a sensitivity. There is an us-them dynamic undergirded by racism. Though the Cold War has been over for a quarter century, the thinking encouraged during that era persists. In discussions of Vietnam, I have personally and ungraciously been asked: "Were you there?!"
Naturally, the people who fought in the Civil War or World War II or Korea know best what it was like. They, better than anyone, know what they wore, what they ate, what they saw, what they suffered, and so on. They possess a highly detailed journalistic sense of the events. Yet, there is history on the ground and then there is history in the corridors of power. Hollywood has been okay at the former, assiduously negligent at the latter.
When one is asked if one was there in Vietnam, the question is in reference to rice paddies, not top-level meetings with policy architects in and near the Johnson administration. However, if one was present at neither, one has an ample documentary record to consult. With regard to policy planning during Vietnam, there is little to debate. The scholarship is quite extensive and tells the story that one could more or less guess if one merely surveyed the topic from a distance and with impartiality. In sum, the greatest military power in history subjected a peasant country the size of New Mexico to, quoting historian Gabriel Kolko, "the greatest flood of firepower known to history."
Nevertheless, the many films on the subject do history by subtraction. The focus is not that the United States in Southeast Asia committed one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century. The emphasis is instead placed on what happened to "us." To the point, when one listens to the commentary and public discourse on the Vietnam War, one could be forgiven for assuming that Vietnam invaded the United States.
What happened to many of those who served in Vietnam is a national disgrace. The United States has a rich history of mistreating its military, and Vietnam is a sparkling example. But to leave out what was done to Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia), with a death toll of somewhere around 2-3 million, is to distort history to the point of fictionalizing it. From 1975 to the present, unexploded ordnance has killed and wounded tens of thousands of Laotians and Vietnamese.
Sadly, Hollywood's treatment of Vietnam has provided Americans with their views on the subject. The war that exists in our minds is the one that exists on DVDs and Netflix. Most of the story has been blotted out to make certain the tale told is appropriate to our view of ourselves.
Around twenty years ago, I had a lengthy discussion with a gentleman who had served in Vietnam. The conversation made an impact on me. He was a pleasant guy, but one to whom time had not been kind. His denim vest was covered in various military patches, his unkempt hair pulled back into a ponytail. He was out of work, elbows on the bar, nursing an afternoon beer. It didn't take long to discern that this man was deeply tormented. He was still there.
While he told me one story after another, I noticed he was rapid cycling: he would oscillate from bravado and bragging to despondency and pain. Each cycle seemed to last about a handful of minutes. And it was during a moment of descent that he uttered words that have stuck with me ever since. It was the singularly most accurate statement I have ever heard on the topic of US operations in Vietnam. Tears welling up in his eyes, his head hanging low, he quietly said the following: "All we did was go over there and fuck those people up."
We know well the ordeals and suffering of Americans who have served in foreign wars, and it's a subject that deserves attention. But the picture needs to be completed. If we better understand the political history, the better equipped we are to prevent these concocted campaigns. The public could have prevented the war in Iraq had it better understood what was going on at the time. Unfortunately, our sense of reality is the stuff of celluloid, and therefore a fantasy.
Vietnam has been successfully distorted, and there's little prospect of Americans thinking about it clearly or learning from it. Apparently, given the content of the highest grossing, most popular movie in America at the moment, Iraq is next.