Hollywood Vs. History
How someone far removed is affected by the Vietnam conflict

'captured' jacket on display in Hanoi
click to enlarge

Though the jungle has reclaimed the battlefields and the youth in both Vietnam and America care more about Apocalypse Now than apocalypse then, someone actually wore this jacket now on display in Hanoi's Army Museum. This small and obvious fact made my semesters of history study less academic and more visceral than any documentary or news clip I have seen to date (except perhaps the requiem exhibit ~ see weekly update 12). Whoever it was may be alive today and if he is I'll bet he's not signing autographs or winning Oscars. I wonder what it is like for him today when I, born around the time the last US troops went home, can feel sorrow, anger, pity, pride, remorse, disgust, patriotism, shame and ultimately confusion when visiting Vietnam. Why confusion?

The answer for me, I think, is that Hollywood, with its tidy packaging and romantic appeal is having a greater hand in shaping my generation's perceptions of the events that took place here than textbooks and teachers.

Films made about the second world war are easy to understand because they fit the Hollywood model, a happy ending, a clear distinction between the good guys and the bad and John Wayne or Gregory Peck to reassure us we're doing the right thing. Films about the conflict here in Vietnam are altogether different. Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Apocalypse Now - these films offer no clear cut hero to cheer for, no tidy ending and no way to tell who has the moral high ground. While names like Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge make our chests swell with patriotic pride, names here have been have been instilled with horror and confusion over how and why it happened. Khe Sanh, Mei Ly, the fall of Saigon.

This shaping of perception goes further. In America, I have always thought it taboo to approach the veterans of the war in Vietnam and ask them about their experiences. I have never tried talking to men I know fought in Vietnam about their memories, yet I feel this is true. Why? On the other hand I have been lucky to meet and speak with Tuskeegee airmen, sailors present at the attack on Pearl Harbor and various other W.W.II veterans who are more than happy to relate their experiences. Why? Is it because we who were born after the last troops left Vietnamese soil are a generation bombarded with Hollywood images of the men who fought those wars. Be it Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter or Marlin Brando in Apocalypse now, we have the impression that the mere mention of 'Nam' to a veteran will either anger, upset or pull the hair trigger that sends them off the deep end.

We are shown that people who fought in the war were murderers, rapists or have been left psychotic wrecks yet we find fault in those who avoided service. Are the bad guys those who went when called and killed when necessary or those who refused and found ways to avoid their duty? The experience of soldiers on both sides ought to be divorced from politics and spoken of as a human experience. The American GI's and North Vietnamese conscripts were doing their duty as much as the ballyhooed heroes of World War Two, only in an unpopular war that did not yield a victory. Their fear just as real. Their murderous rage the same as that felt by soldiers on both sides during W.W.II. Their sacrifices were just as great for what more can you give than your youth, your life? Is it their fault that they were born at a time that required that sacrifice to be for an unjust war?

The situation is worse still for the North Vietnamese, some of whom began fighting when the French returned in the 50's and did not stop until after the Khmer Rouge was swept from power in Cambodia in 1979. If they were lucky enough to survive almost 30 years of war, they found themselves unneeded and unwanted. What skills had they picked up in the jungle that could be used in peace time to land a job? So Vietnam is full of menial laborers and beggars whose last misfortune will be to live out their lives poor and forgotten. An unwelcome reminder of the past.

All this is just a personal raft of emotions brought on by visiting Vietnam. Many of the old battlefields have guestbooks signed by returning veterans and I shudder when thinking how it must feel for them. Then I wonder how much like the movies their experiences were and feel sad that though so many survive, it is disrespectful to ask them that very question. The war was so horrible and Hollywood so trivial. Yet for that reason so much of my generations opinion and emotion comes from that source.

~ Nigel



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