Originally published in Jump 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.”1 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,

I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good. You don't know what a media freak is until you've seen the way a few of those Grunts would run around during a light when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little Guts and Glory Leatherneck lap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks.2

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:

We'd all seen too many John Wayne movies. Jesus, what he coulda done for the anti-war movement if he'd spent only half his time hockin' up that drawl to say fine things like ‘Fuck you, Cap'n. If these little Jap bastards want this island so bad, they can have it. I'm hitchin' me a ride back to the fleet.’ With that he throws down his flamethrower 'n' wades into the surf. Fat chance.3

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

…that our desire for the imaginary, the possible, must contest with the imperatives of the real, the actual. If we view narration and narrativity, as the instruments by which the conflicting claims of the imaginary and the real are mediated, arbitrated, or resolved in a discourse, we begin to comprehend both the appeal of narrative and the grounds for refusing it.4

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 identification-projection mechanisms in order to induce him, subtly, insidiously, unconsciously, to participate in the dreams and fantasies that are marketed by bourgeois capitalist society.”

John Gardner explains that instruction is the root function of art, “whether or not we notice the instruction or approve of it. Not just occasionally, but invariably [filmmakers] set up models intended to be imitated and either slyly or blatantly give the reader instruction…”6

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 wedding of the symbolic world of language and the nonsymbolic world of physical experience, [thus] the realities of war become ‘things to think with,’ to fantasize with, to apply in action within political and social contexts.”7

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.:

You had gone over there filled with images of John F. Kennedy, Hollywood movies, and Sergeant Rock comic books, and you did your duty, even though few of these images matched the muck and the moral confusion in Asia.

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:

The firefights I had in the field, I can rationalize that for myself. You say, they knew the risk as well as you did. It was a fair fight. If I hadn't seen so many cowboy and Indian movies, I might not be so guilty about it. But [they] told me that there's a right way and a wrong way to go out and kill somebody. I imbibed that shit from my childhood on.9

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:

The worst part of it all is the Army couldn't trust us with weapons. The people who had been stationed there before me had shoot-outs, acting like Wild West characters. They would get drunk, take their weapons and have fast-draw contests. So all of our weapons were locked up at night in connex, for which only the armorer had the key.10

Sergeant-Major Mike Kukler describes the gunfights in which 60 men died during the first four months of 1968:

Men would buy specially made low-slung holsters and the soldiers would face each other like cowboys and Indians looking for a fast draw. About half of the deaths occurred in the 19, 20, and 21 year-old age groups. Thirty per cent of all deaths were caused when the drawer shot himself in the leg. One-fourth of these deaths were officer deaths.11

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 Egandorf12 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,13 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: “From each one of us there emanate two spirals: one going down and one going up. The first one is reality; the second, illusion. So — which do you choose?”14

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:

“He give you that stuff about the hearts and minds?…Captain Blood — hearts — get it?…He was Captain Hook for a while, but Pogo said that would make this Never-Never Land and he'd rather get older than stay here. Then he was Captain Gallant and we were all Germans and Englishmen run away from the law, changed our names — You ever see Beau Geste?15

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: “I wish Longo’d go back to California. Then we wouldn’t have to be here. He’s made this whole thing up”16

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:

Instead of waiting for the war to end, we just go ahead and start making movies right now. Like, turn the whole thing — this war, this country, this whole scene — turn it all into one big movie!...[N]ot a documentary. A movie: a real movie…I know it would work. I mean, look at this place…this beach — it's better than Southern California; and the country is full of beaches like this. And that's the basic idea: turn the whole place into another California: Hollywood. Disneyland, the whole works…It’s, like, everybody wants to be in the movies — you know, be part of the scene, one way or another…Think of it, turn this war into one big Hollywood set. With everything: commissaries, cameramen, directors, p.a.'s, stuntmen, wardrobe people, makeup, fan clubs — all that stuff. Man' you don't even have to tell the other side what you're doing: they'll know, once you start shooting. And then everybody'll want to get in on it. And wages, too — union wages. Man, you start paying the VC union wages to be in this big Hollywood spectacular and just see how fast they'd join up. Shit, all this money we're spending over here — helicopters, jets, napalm — you could make a really good movie — all kinds of special effects…

[How would it end?] Who needs to end it? You just keep making more movies. Like, we make ones with us winning, to show back in the States — and they make ones with them winning, to show in Russia and China. That's all right, man, that's cool: it's only movies. And they don't all have to be war movies, either — that's just to take care of the people who've got to have a war. You could make romantic movies, musical comedies, anything.17

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): “While the other marines discussed girl friends, cars, or boot camp days, Mike and Longo and the Professor would plan the movies they were going to make.”18

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.” Mike answers, “I’m serious. “Don’t tell me what to be.”19 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:

It's bad man — we walked into it. Everybody's pinned down. They got a machine gun set up in that tree line and they're trying to come around in back of us. Using the mortars to split us up. It looks like we've got to move up.20

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: “You cover and then follow us.” But as he realizes the irrevocable nature of the moment he pauses and swears, saying: “I can’t…Shouldn’t have…So stupid!…Why?”21

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? 22

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.”23 Mike begins to weep as he repeats over and over “I want to go back!…Please, let me go.”

In a while he looked up at the screen again, at the marines fighting and dying. Were there children who were watching now too, he wondered, wanting to go to war themselves someday, to become someone else? Through his sobs he spoke again. ‘I'm sorry,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry, I'm sorry…I'm so sorry.

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:

Griffin experienced a dreary film buff’s satisfaction. The single character lacking from their B-war had finally arrived: The Kid. His past, his future were as clear, defined, and predictable as the freckles on his smooth face…He becomes an abused mascot of the company, is kidded relentlessly until the brusque hero…brimming with manly tenderness, takes pity and shelters him from an apparently good-natured but actually quite cruel reality. Friendship cemented, acceptance complete, the next morning The Kid trips a land mine and blows his guts out…The hero, a tear streaking his muddy cheek, ships The Kid's meager possessions…home to a Nebraska farm…Inflamed by vengeful hate, the hero then goes berserk, slaughtering a division of godless gooks and half the allied general staff before being subdued by a foxhole presentation of the Congressional Medal of Honor…24

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:

“In any other war Wendell Payne would have been instantly recognizable as the goldbrick with the thick money belt…the one with the cap on backward catcher-style and the pile of chips and bills spreading beneath the hand holding the flush and the suspiciously uncanny luck. In this war he was making a movie.25

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”:

The Movie…would embrace the complete complexity of the American experience in Southeast Asia. Wendell photographed indiscriminately, confident that form, like invisible writing exposed to a flame would reveal itself beneath the heat of his talent.26

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:

Catastrophe lacked coherence. Every separate day was built anew and then dismantled at night, the successive constructions becoming less and less elaborate, lonely props thrown up against hope by a weariness so deep his bones felt tire with sand in their eyes.27

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:

“Well?” asked the director.
"Wendell, uh, this movie…”
"I don't believe it."
“It's a mess."
“I don't know, maybe it's me, but I couldn't make any sense of it at all. I mean, there's no beginning, no middle, no end. There's no coherence. It just kind of settles over you. Like a musty tent."
“You know nothing about cinema."28

In the scene 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:

He saw how the gestures of each instant since his induction and probably from further back than he wished to know had conspired to lead him gently as a domesticated animal to the violence of this moment, binding him to this roof, atop this horror…He began to swoon into the sensation that must occur when one is at last in possession of meaning…Over to the left there was still a radiance visible inside the chapel and he wondered how the movie had come out, unaware the spectatorless film had concluded long ago, the ghouls shot in their heads, the bodies dragged to crematory fires on glistening meathooks, and now the reel spun round and round, the last foot of celluloid slapping repeatedly against the projector. The screen was blank, a rectangle of burning light.29

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,

This small group wanted to use the Memorial to say to the war's opponents, ‘You were wrong. You have blood on your hands.’ They wanted to take an undeclared war that had oozed on and off the center stage of American life and transform it into a John Wayne movie. They wanted the memorial to make Vietnam what it had never been in reality: a good, clean, glorious war seen as necessary and supported by a united country.30

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.31 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.32

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:

I don't know why, but I was lying there, and I turned to one of the guys next to me and said, "When I count to three, open up. Give me cover fire. Just spray the area." He said, "What are you going to do? I said, ‘When I count to three one, two, three," and I jumped up and threw a grenade where [the enemy soldier] was. I got [him]. The guy next to me had been over there for about four months, five months, and I was over there for what? Three weeks? He said, "Hey. We don't pull that John Wayne shit over here. You could have easily gotten wasted by one of the snipers.: It never dawned on me. You know: "That's the way John Wayne did it. Why not me?"33


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