Thursday, 17 December 2015

Vietnam and the Green Berets

The Green Beret is a title commonly applied to a country's special forces, named for the distinctive green beret that is used to distinguish them from general infantry. These are specially trained soldiers, men and women who are called in when the regular army is not good enough to do the job. This title has been around for some time, though it is most commonly used in relation to the American military. Until very recently it was also a role reserved exclusively for men, and very few at that. Winning a green beret is a very definitive sign of respect in the military.

They were also the subject of the 1968 film, The Green Berets, a film that stands as something of a relic of a bygone era. While not a great film, and one that contemporary audiences would largely disagree with, it it historically significant for the simple reason that it is one of the only films made to make any effort to support the Vietnam War. It is hardly subtle about this intention, and its political views are very obvious when seen today. Even at the time of its release, audiences did not take kindly to it, the likely reason why it is more or less the only propaganda film made during the period.

The Green Berets was far from America's first attempt at using film to create propaganda. John Wayne had already starred in numerous World War II films that were made to support America's entry into the conflict. When he agreed to co-direct The Green Berets, he structured it very much like one of those old combat films. Far from his public image as an idealist, Wayne was a conservative who strongly advocated America's entry into Vietnam. Unfortunately, he failed to keep up with a changing society.

Unlike the early propaganda films of World War II, The Green Berets was made in a very different social climate. This was a period of intense distrust of the American government, brought on by a variety of events, but one of the biggest factors in this distrust was America's controversial decision to enter the Vietnam War, a conflict it could have avoided being part of entirely if not for Cold War paranoia. There were massive protests against this war, and distrust only increased when one such protest rally at Kent State University ended in an authorized mass shooting. It also didn't help that the actual atrocities of Vietnam were publicly televised.

While John Wayne may have been behind with regards to what would be most effective, he was clearly influenced by this growing distrust in the government. In many ways The Green Berets attempts, very unsubtly, to present a counter-argument to protests against Vietnam. Wayne even went as far as to request full military co-operation from President Lyndon Johnson himself, and received it. This is reflected in large part by the character of George Beckworth (David Janssen), a journalist who serves as a representation of the left (or at least how the right wing perceives the left).

Beckworth is depicted as a misguided individual who would fully support America's involvement in the war if he could just understand why they're fighting. This is brought up in the opening scene, where he, alongside several other journalists, voices several arguments against the war. Many of these are points that would be considered valid today, but the film attempts to thoroughly resist. When told that America has no business in Vietnam, Master Sergeant Muldoon (Aldo Ray) responds by displaying various forms of "captured weaponry" that he displays as evidence of communist activity. According to Muldoon, the presence of Russian, Chinese, and Czechoslovakian guns constitutes irrefutable evidence that those countries are assisting the Viet Cong.

Another argument is thrown out to the skeptical journalists during this scene: that there are attrocities being committed by the Viet Cong which must be stopped. He attempts to emphasize this point by suggesting a hypothetical scenario where similar activities (or at least, what the makers of this film think is going on in Vietnam) happened in America. Beckworth, not unjustifiably, continues to remain skeptical, but eventually agrees to go to Vietnam himself.

Upon arriving, he is initially dismissed by Col. Kirby (John Wayne), being told their current operation is too dangerous for civilians to be present. This prompts Beckworth, not unjustly, to consider the possibility that military censorship is in place, and the army is keeping him from seeing anything that might put them in a bad light. When he suggests this, Kirby immediately agrees. Beckworth then spends the rest of the film gradually coming around to recognizing the supposed justification of the war.

Already, one can see how this film is intending to convey its Pro-Vietnam messages. It's doing everything possible to make America look good. Beckworth's sub-plot already serves as an attempt to deny that any censorship is being used to make the army look good, when in fact, the opposite was, and to an extent still is, true (this side of the war would later be examined in Good Morning, Vietnam). It is when Beckworth explains that his newspaper objects to the war that Kirby agrees to let him accompany the Green Berets in their mission, this being the film's way of trying to state that the American government is honest about everything that they are doing.

The film also attempts to emphasize this by making the Vietnamese appear much more welcoming of American assistance than they actually were. Much like the Japanese soldiers of World War II combat films, the VC are stripped of any humanity. Nothing is said of their political motivations or their ultimate goals beyond the implication that it is linked to the (alleged) spread of communism. Instead, they are depicted as nothing more than bloodthirsty savages who commit atrocities against the Vietnamese and need to be eradicated.

The South Vietnamese are is naturally depicted as being on good terms with Americans. Colonel Cai (Jack Woo), a Vietnamese officer, is quick to explain the situation to Kirby, offering a briefing that makes it sound as though the joint-American and South Vietnamese forces are winning. He mentions that the camp that has been established "make big surprise for VC" and seems to imply the only reason it is vulnerable is because it is not yet finished.

At the camp, the South Vietnamese soldiers are seen working alongside Americans as equals, and the film also tries to claim there is a humanitarian aspect to the war. They are shown to be housing South Vietnamese refugees, with an emphasis on a young orphan boy named "Ham Chuck" (Craig Jue) whom the film makes use of as a source of emotion. In addition to this, the film also depicts children being given medical examinations and a village willingly agreeing to be taken by the Americans.

Later on, the Green Berets arrive at the same village to find it massacred by the VC, complete with a sign condemning the Green Berets. The chief of the village has been killed, most of the men have been forcibly recruited into the Viet Cong, and it is implied that a little girl was murdered simply for being treated by Americans. With hindsight, this dark scene calls to mind an anecdote spoken by Colonel Kurtz (also a former Green Beret) in Apocalypse Now, released 11 years after The Green Berets, in which he describes something similar:

I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember... I... I... I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead.

This resemblance is interesting to note, considering Apocalypse Now had very much the opposite tone of The Green Berets. Coppola's film was much more cynical in nature. The above-quoted anecdote describes a similar scenario to what the viewer glimpses the aftermath of in The Green Berets, the implied massacring by the VC of innocents purely because they received American medical attention. It is, however, used very differently in both films. Kurtz's anecdote serves as a glimpse into his mind, one that has come to understand the true insanity of war. This quote offers a brief but crucial moment to see just how a person can be changed by war.

The Green Berets downplays the psychological effect of such a moment. The only people who display any obvious trauma are the victims. Beckworth is also noticeably affected, largely because he realizes the little girl he'd bonded with a day earlier has been murdered. For Kurtz, a moment like this would contribute to his mental decline, but Beckworth reacts differently. Instead, this is treated as motivation for his character, an indication that perhaps America's role in Vietnam is not wholly unjustified. Once again, this serves an obvious function, dehumanizing the Viet Cong in order to make their annihilation seem more justified.

Nearly all of the soldiers depicted in the film are also shown to be patriots who believe in their cause, and many seem bizarrely enthusiastic about being here (most notably the engineers, who smile and crack jokes even while under fire). We never see any members of the cast who are merely soldiers following orders. Nobody ever expresses fear, only firm confidence, and the soldiers who die or get injured are treated as heroes or, in the case of Petersen (Jim Hutton), further incentive to keep fighting. There is always a sense that the soldiers are dying for a cause, at the very least being able to take a large number of VC with them.

One amusing example of this is the heavy weapons specialist Sgt. Provo (Luke Askew), who not only volunteers to join Kirby (for the sole reason that he has not already been chosen) but early on becomes intrigued when he realizes the Americans have a tendency to name things after fallen soldiers. He then becomes worried, not because of the possibility that he could be killed in action, but because he can't think of anything that would sound good with his name on it if he dies. Even Kirby is confused by this at first. Later on, when the camp is attacked by VC, Provo is fatally wounded, and he still shows no obvious concerns about the fact that he is going to die. He instead uses his final moments to tell Kirby that he finally figured out what his name could fit with (Provo's Privy).

This characterization is certainly at odds with later Vietnam War films, many of which are far more critical of America's entry into the war and could be seen as a more accurate representation of what really happened. Apocalypse Now offers a fitting comparison, given one of its most important characters, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), is also a Green Beret. In fact, from what is indicated, he might at one point not have been all that much different from Colonel Kirby. He is established as a decorated soldier who believed in his cause. In fact, he still does, so much so that the American military has to send someone to kill him because he is making them look bad.

Kurtz can therefore be seen as another side of Kirby's character, that which is not masked by a conservative agenda. Kurtz has seen the horrors of war, perhaps things far worse over his entire career than what the soldiers of The Green Berets see in their two missions. It is obvious that these things have affected his mind, and changed him as a person. Taking this into account, he could easily be seen as something of a future Colonel Kirby. Kirby is the man he once was: the ideal, patriotic, heroic American, but the Kurtz is how he was shaped by the reality of war.

Kurtz is also not the only green beret to be featured in Apocalypse Now. The protagonist, Captain Benjamin L. Willard, is also established to have served in special forces. He is very much the exact opposite of Colonel Kirby. Much like Kurtz, he has been changed by his experiences in the war, something The Green Berets is reluctant to detail. Willard is likely suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological condition that often affects soldiers, and if he ever had any sense of patriotism, it has been lost. He willingly takes on a dangerous mission, but only does so as a distraction, without any consideration towards whether it would benefit the fight against communism.

The film's depiction of the war is also much more cynical than that of The Green Berets. There are no true heroes in combat. None of the characters get to die as heroes. The sudden death of Tyrone "Clean" Miller (Lawrence Fishbourne) is seen as nothing more than a horrible tragedy. Chief (Albert Hall) dies attempting unsuccessfully to take Willard with him. Chef (Frederic Forrest) is decapitated by Kurtz outside of military jurisdiction, and used as a mere tool to convey a message to Willard. Kurtz himself knows this well, and merely tries instead to find an honorable way to die, making sure that Willard kills him like a soldier.

By this point in the film, the politics behind the Vietnam War are more or less forgotten. Where The Green Berets places the goal of stopping the VC front and center, Apocalypse Now opts instead to let that aspect of the war fade over the course of Willard's journey. It is notable at the beginning, but there is a gradual destruction of social order that occurs. Kilgore does a good job fighting the VC, but the pleasure he gains out of destroying their villages leaves one to question his sanity. By the time Willard reaches Do Lung Bridge, it is complete disorganized chaos. Soldiers are firing blind in the dark at an unseen army, and nobody even seems to be in charge. Past the bridge, both armies and their politics are left behind, and the jungle itself becomes a character.

There is no way John Wayne would have permitted such an aesthetic choice in The Green Berets. He wanted the politics to remain front and center, and for the film's ending to inspire the audience to go enlist in the army.This comes up at the very end through the character of Ham Chuck, a Vietnamese boy who becomes a center of emotion. He is an orphan, but has a friend in the form of a dog and a father figure in the form of Petersen. Already, the war has taken most of what he has, and by the end of the film is has claimed those last two things. His dog is killed during the raid on the camp, and Petersen dies ironically before he would have had a chance to see him again.

As the choppers return at the end of the film, Ham Chuck begins searching each of them desperately for Petersen, and is distraught when he is unable to find him in any of them. This leads to a conversation between him and Colonel Kirby during which the latter tries to comfort him by stating that Petersen was brave, and letting Ham Chuck keep his friend's green beret. Ham Chuck then asks what is going to happen to him now, to which Kirby replies "You just let me worry about that, Green Beret, you're what this thing's all about" before the two walk off into the sunset. The expected reaction is obvious: the viewer is supposed to be motivated to join the army in order to help kids like Ham Chuck and stop the evil actions of the VC.

Understandably, upon its release, The Green Berets was not well-received by audiences who were seeing the actual horrors of Vietnam on television. It would mark the last of only two attempts at directing by Wayne (the first being his earlier western The Alamo) and its reputation has hardly changed since. It is a film that is still often looked down upon for the precise reason that it tries to justify America's entry into the Vietnam War. Even in its own time, it was a dated relic of a bygone era, made for an audience that had changed since World War II.

It also does not help that it compares unfavorably to how the war actually developed. The Green Berets ends on an optimistic note, with the implication of an eventual triumph. In reality, America's entry into Vietnam only made things worse. Thousands of people died unnecessarily, and in the end they were pummeled by the VC, leading to a desperate effort to evacuate all surviving Americans as the enemy closed in. The Green Berets is hardly an accurate depiction of what was happening in Vietnam so much as it is the conservative idea of what was supposed to have been happening there.

However, while The Green Berets may be dated (and not exactly a great film, either), it is still a significant film to examine specifically because there are no other films like it. Of all the films that have been made about America's role in Vietnam, The Green Berets stands as the only one, even while the war was still happening, that made any effort to cast the army in a positive light. This alone offers a unique perspective of the war, one that cannot be found anywhere else, offering a glimpse into how The Vietnam War was perceived by those who supported it.

Cpl. Elinor Joseph, an actual Green Beret.

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