Sweaty men, Heightened emotions and Agent Orange;

An exploration into America’s memory of the Vietnam War created through popular film.

  “The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be surrendered by memory.” George W. Bush       Unknown     George W Bush openly defined and discussed the lingering memory of the Vietnam War that still is so present within American society. It has been constantly reiterated by the retelling and ongoing discussion of the Vietnam narrative, and one of the key influence of this is the reoccurrence of the Vietnam narrative within Film. Hence my reasoning to look at – what is the memory of Vietnam and its Vets and how has film helped shape this. When I think Vietnam I still have a hundred images run through my mind, varying from history, travel, music and most influentially film. The influence of films on the creation of the Vietnam memory and narrative on the American culture has been over whelming successful in creating the memory of both the conflict and its soldiers solidifying a certain imagery in the minds of the American physcie. Film as a medium is not a historical source that reflects direct truth, but rather as described by Jessica Silbey in Persuasive visions: Film and memory as an individual, institutional and culture memory. Most people in one way or another, weather or not we have directly been aware of it have had our perception of Vietnam be influenced by what we have seen on film. When investigating Vietnam on film we are focusing on the memory making process and the way in which it is remembered in American society. The Vietnam genre of film transitioned through several stages dealing and reflecting the grieving process of the American culture and its society. It reflected the initial excitement and favored \ narrative of the conflict initially, but more influentially and content specifically to Vietnam the return of the solider to the home front and their mental and social battles to integrate back into wider society and their home life. This metaphor for the struggling returned Vet is labeled by Keith Bettie in the Scar that binds as the “Sick Vet” metaphor. The metaphor of the sick vet is often linked the impending shame that Vietnam shed onto wider American society as their campaign was not overall successful, also reflecting the need of the American public to rewrite the national memory of this period. Films such as The Deer Hunter (1979) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) explore this narrative of the sick vet. The Vietnam metanarrative lingers in the background of the characters lives as they struggle with their transition back into normality. This is a reoccurrence throughout a lot of Vietnam films, especially those in the mainstream blockbuster film. The Deer Hunter really reflects the notion of normality and the impact of Vietnam rather than a glorified filmic rendition that often occurs within other conflicts. Born on the Fourth of July presents a similar issue. Vietnam differed from the previous traditional warfare based conflicts of World War One and Two for many reasons. The introduction of the television as a household item meant that citizens were almost forced to be confronted by the realities of the conflict. The overall nature of the conflict was not unconditionally supported in the way that previous wars had seen as protests, and consciousness objectors began also to create an unreal in society. Vietnam also differed in the way that filmic reflections rejected the romantic notion of war; its representations have been a lot rawer. The Vietnam genre of film directly reflects the reactions and grieving process of mainstream American society. Keith Bettie describes the Vietnam genre of film as fitting into three main categories forming the metanarrative of the overall memory, being the home front, the healing process, and the healed. The home front was initially a concept in which was greatly to a large extent during the first decade after the completion of the war. Through analysis of an array of films, in conjunction to contextual considerations conclusions have been drawn that the image of the sick vet still lingers. The way in which film presented Vietnam and the impact it caused on the American culture has stuck. Although as, as we see from President Bush’s speeches American has moved on, However America has most certainly not forgotten the crush to the ego Vietnam has left them with. Stepping back and reflecting on the power of film as a memory-making tool really highlights the impact that Vietnam had on a smaller scale, the impact of the every day American and their family. The way in which a film is viewed drastically affects the outcome of the message taken from the film, or in this case memory. Vietnam has been presented as a ‘soft spot’ not only for the ex-Vets but also for both past and present society. Film has held a drastic role in both forming and maintaining this wound on the American physcie.   If you’re interested in looking into this topic further check out:   Beattie, Keith. The Scar that Binds: American culture and the Vietnam War. New York: New York University Press, 1998.   Devine, Jeremy. Vietnam at 24 Frames a second. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1999   Godfrey, R. and L, Simon. “Visual Consumption, collective memory and the representation of war,” Consumption Markets and Culture; 4 (2009): P. 275 – 300.   Michaud, Gene and Linda Dittmar. From Hanoi to Hollywood, The Vietnam War in American Film. London: Rutgers University Press, 1990.   Myra Mendible, “Post Vietnam Syndrome: National Identity, War, and the Political of humiliation,” Radical Psychology, 7 (2009) p. 1 – 24.

One comment on “Sweaty men, Heightened emotions and Agent Orange;

  1. I think this is a great project. The relation between history and memory is one that particularly intrigues me and is of particular importance I believe. Questions such as “Is history defined as what happened or how we remember what happened?” are very interesting to look at. Given it is intended for mass consumption by a general audience film obviously plays a significant role in creating history, even for people who were never there. Anyone who wants to learn about Vietnam may watch these films and form there own impressions based on them. Given the tangibility and permanence of film compared to memory, films can often create their own history of the events they retell, especially when they are created with an intended purpose or message, such as the rewriting of national memory that you mentioned. Great post and a really interesting topic. Thanks for sharing.

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