Morality and Honor in Vietnam War Films

The films Ulzana’s Raid, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Go Tell the Spartans and First Blood all feature a central theme of the American government’s arrogance when the war in Vietnam was concerned, or at least the arrogance of the American government and military in general.

Certain parallels can be drawn amongst the four films, and all demonstrate in some manner the precursors, activities and repercussions of the Vietnam War.

In Twilight’s Last Gleaming, actor Burt Lancaster’s character lists conditions to handing control of the missiles back over to the military, one of which is the president’s admission of “the real reason behind Vietnam” to the American people via television and radio broadcast.

This puts the president in a situation similar to that of Lyndon Johnson first described in the book Backfire when author Loren Baritz comments on Johnson’s dilemma of either withdrawing or escalating the war in Vietnam.

“Remembering all this from the perspectives of 1970, LBJ said, I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved’ (Baritz 145).”

Just as Johnson’s dilemma revolved around whether he should withdraw or advance parallels the president in Twilight’s in that the president had to decide what was truly best for the people. In one instance, he could listen to his advisors and hope Lancaster and his crew could be stopped. Part of this entailed figuring out whether or not they were bluffing. The other side is to decide even if he could tell the public whether or not the public could handle that sort of information, and what sort of damage it would do to the government and the people’s faith in the system.

In a demonstration of just who actually possesses the true political power in America, the cabinet carries on with its own intentions, and basically uses the president like the tool that he was. Many have argued that Johnson himself wasn’t too far off from being a tool, largely being manipulated by his own cabinet. In more recent times, President Bush has become a sort of tool, mostly because he allowed himself to be manipulated by the CIA and by their faulty information.

As in Johnson’s situation, once you enter a war, it’s difficult to look good by either advancing or withdrawing. It’s the egomania of the cabinet in Twilight’s that parallels Johnson’s own cabinet as demonstrated through Baritz. The president is expendable. After all, that’s why there’s such a thing as a vice president. The president is just a tool. They are the real power, as demonstrated through many of the black operations going on prior to and during the war.

In a similar sense of egomania, Brian Dennehy’s Teasle in First Blood begins the first half of the film with the concept that he knows exactly what’s best for everyone, and therefore he’ll do whatever it takes to maintain “law and order” because the taxpayers pay him to keep things “nice and boring.”

In the contrast between Teasle and John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a sort of metaphor becomes drawn with Teasle representing the W.A.S.P. ideal in America that they know what’s right and good for not only their own country, but the rest of the world. Rambo, although meaning nobody any harm, represents a new ideal, only wishing to do about his way unchallenged by any opposing authority.

When “pushed,” he takes on a very Viet Cong like role, even using V.C. war tactics against Teasle who at one time was a soldier, but now is paid to maintain the wholesome American way of life, which Rambo doesn’t necessarily represent. Teasle in the film is a clean-cut, experienced law enforcement authority who has a nice cushy pension and retirement to look forward to not too far off in the future.

Rambo neither represents anything that Teasle is, nor has any of those benefits or assurances to look forward to. In fact, as Rambo says, “Over there I used to be in charge of million dollar equipment. Here I can’t even get a job parking cars.”

The character Rambo represents the disillusioned soldier coming home from a war they had little chance of winning, yet he believes they weren’t allowed to win, indicating that at least at one point during the war, he things they had some kind of control over the situation. The V.C. tended to prove otherwise.

Go Tell the Spartans, is another demonstrative film of military egomania, and the sense that they really weren’t prepared for the sort of war they were getting involved with in Vietnam. Burt Lancaster’s character is concerned with the safety of his men, but must follow orders just as any other officer would in his situation. An interesting factor is explored in this movie, aside from the more obvious factor of ineptly trained soldiers. One of the specialists who volunteered to serve under Lancaster is a draftee, and that worries him.

This is partly because it’s unheard of for a draftee to volunteer for anything. Seeing as how they didn’t volunteer for the army in the first place, and most commonly resent being in Vietnam, it’s highly unlikely a draftee of any rank would volunteer under those conditions (Baritz 284 on how draftees were disposable). And yet Lancaster finally realizes it’s because that soldier wants to be a hero.

The primary factor behind Go Tell the Spartans is military ineptness in Vietnam and arrogance of the military to go about denying such ineptness. The lieutenant assigned to investigate the hamlet and get it operational as a military outpost seems unsure, and is often quick to make rash decisions.

The sergeant whom is Lancaster’s old buddy from Korea and is still a sergeant because of a violent temperament and boozing tends to overrule him, and is constantly demonstrating how unprepared the lieutenant really is. Commanding officers of this low caliber who went out into the jungles with platoons either had to learn quickly to make the right decisions, or risk getting fragged (Baritz 314).

And much as in Go Tell the Spartans, the military higher-ups wouldn’t risk sending an experienced officer on such a mission as securing hamlet when they could put them to better use where the action is hot. Instead, they stick Lancaster’s character with a bunch of buffoons, not unlike Lancaster’s character being forced to put up with uninformed and inexperienced decisions made by the cavalry captain.

A parallel can also be drawn between Go Tell the Spartans character Cowboy and Ulzana’s Raid character Ke-Ni-Tay. Both facilitate the role of scout, and are portrayed with a certain amount of mystique about them. In certain references and similes established in film and certainly in Ulzana’s Raid, the Indians can be compared to Vietnamese guerillas, whom the cavalry is pursuing with the assistance of Lancaster’s rugged outdoorsman character and the more civilized Ke-Ni-Tay, whom could be paralleled to the more favorably looked upon South Vietnamese.

There are some differences, one being that Ke-Ni-Tay’s people and land had been brutalized to the brink of extermination, causing Ulzana to retaliate in the first place. Ke-Ni-Tay is simply doing what he must to survive in the wake of the great white man’s wave of terror across his land. Even though the white man is their true enemy, he must associate himself with them, lest he too be disposed of.

A similar scenario took place in Vietnam. The majority of the people didn’t really want U.S. involvement; however, the people who benefited from it were often the ones making all the political decisions. Government officials could benefit from American surplus and money, and city merchants could benefit from selling goods, food, drugs and girls.

One of the reasons why the Viet Cong were so easily able to recruit forces in South Vietnam was because the U.S. forces could easily have been portrayed as an invading force, whose only goal was to help them gain footing in Southeast Asia.

Going back to Twilight’s Last Gleaming, a similar egotistic nature was once again found in the president’s cabinet, when they went for so long believing that Lancaster and his two-man team were bluffing. After all, the military are had designed the missile silo and had tested all its alarm systems and internal defenses. How could anything have gone wrong? Surely the military couldn’t mess up anything that big.

Yet they had allowed three very dangerous men control over all their fully nuclear ICBMs and had the ability to blow up a good portion of the modernized world. It was their reliance on technological security and not so much on manpower-based security that allowed the takeover.

Not that it ended up mattering in the film, since the president was obviously expendable, and nobody in the government can be trusted to keep their word, even on a man’s deathbed. What seems so scary about his whole scenario is that perhaps it could happen in real life, and what if a group of terrorists did indeed take over a missile silo and gained full control over the system.

In Baritz’s “The Warriors” section, it’s mentioned how most protesters were college students who’d been able to get out of the draft by way of student deferment. The section also dealt with draftee soldiers’ views on such protestors. The general consensus is that draftees don’t know why the protestor’s are protesting.

They view the protestors primarily as not being so much anti-war as anti-draftee. Although this might have been the case in some instances, the majority was anti-war overall. Rambo demonstrates some of the draftee views in First Blood when he says: “How dare they protest me, unless they’ve been where I’ve been.”

As a college professor during and after the war, David Morrell had many interactions with both protesters and soldiers coming home from the war who went to college in an attempt to get some sort of education for a better job. Many of these views were absorbed by Morrell when he wrote First Blood, as he indicates in one of the featurettes on the newer DVD release. Also, the concept of coming back home after being at war, wanting nothing more than to move on, and having others continue to protest you is something that vets had to deal with for some time.

Baritz writes about the use of drugs in Vietnam as being on pandemic proportions, which isn’t so surprising. One of the new specialists in Go Tell the Spartans uses opium (or perhaps it’s supposed to be heroin, only not explicitly), while the older generation sticks to its old trusty alcohol for self-medication.

Such casual use is demonstrated in 317th Platoon and the newer version of The Quiet American, but is only really hinted at being an addictive problem in Go Tell the Spartans. Of course, marijuana is often referred to in other films, such as Apocalypse Now, but was not considered to be such a problem as heroin since marijuana is only habitually addictive, rather than physically addicting.

Flashbacks and haunting nightmares, often referred to as products of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), were often one of the other lasting effects on soldiers returning from war, often more damaging than some of the wounds they may have suffered (Baritz 317-318).

First Blood does an excellent job of illustrating this point. Rambo is both physically and mentally scarred from his experiences in a Vietnamese prison camp, and this factor has an adverse effect on his life, in both his ability to function in society and his ability to function at all as a balanced human being.

In his head, he’s still in the jungle, and in a way, probably still wishes he were over there. In the film, he mentions that over in Vietnam there was a code. “You watch my back, I watch yours.” Here, the same rules do not apply. In the modern society, it’s more of an “every man for himself” scenario, and that’s not what he’s used to. Every day, the vision of his friend, Danforth, being blown to pieces by a shoe shine boy suicide bomber has been stuck in his head for the past seven years, and he can’t get it out.

In another instance, he automatically associates being subdued and having a sharp razor thrust toward him as being similar to a North Vietnamese officer slicing him across his chest with a bowie knife. Many veterans suffered the same situation as far as PTSD goes, but some also suffered in camps in not too different situations as Rambo did.

Some resulted to self-medicating to help relieve some of this stress, while others unfortunately couldn’t get rid of it except to end it permanently altogether, as Rambo did in the original cut of the film. In the novel, Col. Trautman (played by Richard Crenna) kills Rambo, but in the film, Rambo was originally supposed to reach inside Trautman’s jacket during their “father-son” moment, take Trautman’s sidearm and shoot himself. However, that moment didn’t test well, leaving the test audience speechless and wondering if perhaps that’s all the remained for the disillusioned Vietnam veteran struggling to pick up the pieces of their tattered body and psyche.

So, some of the lessons these four films attempt to teach us are that often it is not the president who is calling the shots, so much as it is the officials in the field and head military officials who portray the war in any manner they see fit by manipulating numbers, and painting pictures of glory just around the corner, despite increasing numbers of South Vietnamese defection, fragging, mutiny and increased drug dependence by soldiers. Only in 1984 did the government acknowledge any involvement in the spraying of Agent Orange which caused cancer in so many soldiers, which is another point illustrated in First Blood.

The issue of African-Americans largely being imprisoned was only scarcely addressed in any of the films, while Baritz makes it a big point in “The Warriors” section. Only in Twilight’s Last Gleaming is there any real reference to it when Lancaster attempts to get his black cohort motivated to help him, and the former prisoner rants about how it was a white man’s war in the first place – often a popular remark and motto carried by many black draftees in Vietnam.

Also the concept of “us versus them” no longer just applied to America vs. North Vietnam, but also the soldiers vs. the protestors in terms of resentment for lack of support. This has started a newer campaign of “We Support Our Troops,” yet not saying anything as to whether or not there is support for any of our current involvements in the rest of the world. Indeed, some lessons have been learned and taken to heart as far as society’s look at war and respect for soldiers is concerned, but there’s still plenty to be learned about not electing mad bombers or allowing Christian zealot cowboys to make decisions when human lives are at stake.

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