Thursday, 22 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Platoon (Vietnam)

Vietnam may be one of history's most controversial wars. Beginning as a Civil War between the North and South Vietnamese armies, the American Government saw a potential threat to democracy and felt the need to shove their noses into a war that had nothing to do with them. Officially it was a "police action" designed to resolve the conflict quickly but in the end, it only made things much worse than they needed to be. As thousands tried to protest back home, more and more Americans were drafted into service and sent oversees to live in the cold jungles of Vietnam in a hopeless fight against the Viet Cong. One such veteran of this infamous moment of American history was director Oliver Stone, who would try to capture his experiences through his movie Platoon.

Platoon tells the story of a young man named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), ironically a volunteer who enlisted out of a sense of patriotism. But from the beginning it becomes clear they aren't really fighting for anything. The first thing Taylor sees upon arriving is a row of body bags, along with various tired soldiers mockingly welcoming him to "the 'Nam." He hasn't been in the field and already we are getting a sense of what the conflict has in store. Once he gets into the field, the movie shifts focus to the mundane life of a soldier. Before we even see any combat, there is the difficult day-to-day routine of trudging through the jungle, cutting aside vines, and digging foxholes.

In this first act, we are introduced to the three main characters: Taylor, Barnes (Tom Berenger), and Elias (Willem Dafoe), and it is the relationship between these three that drives much of the film. Barnes is quickly established to be a hard commander, known for insulting his soldiers and issuing threats toward anyone who fails to do their job correctly. Elias is slightly less awful, as he is reckless but also tries to do the right thing in a war where that may just be impossible. These two men, with Taylor in the middle, represent the themes of division that drive much of the film. As Taylor notes in the film's conclusion "we didn't fight the enemy. We fought amongst ourselves."

By contrast, the glimpses the film offers of the Viet Cong create the impression that they are organized. Where Elias and Barnes construct what amounts to a Civil War in the platoon, the Viet Cong are shown to be united. They work together seamlessly, coordinating a complex strategy and, if anything, taking advantage of the divisiveness among the Americans. As a result, the VC are able to routinely overpower the Americans in nearly every encounter and inflict heavy casualties. Even when they are finally repelled at the film's conclusion, it is only a temporary victory in a losing war (and still most of the platoon is dead or wounded).

The division in the army becomes especially clear in one sequence when the men approach a small village on a "patrol." They claim to be looking for VC, but their methods make it clear that they are hardly the good guys in this conflict. Their first approach is to interrogate civilians, an act which involves the automatic assumption that they are guilty and trying to beat information out of them ( which proves futile as the civillians in question have no information and don't speak English). This includes charging into people's homes and using their apparent lack of cooperation as an excuse to physically abuse them.

When that fails, Barnes receives orders to destroy the whole village. In doing so, the soldiers go above and beyond, not only shooting civilians but also joking about it. Not only do they set fire to the buildings, but they also make a point of destroying the local food supply and killing livestock. All this because they refused to believe one man's testimony that they were forced into working with the VC. Even worse is the implication that the incident is being covered up. A lieutenant promises an investigation, but reveals privately to Barnes that he will probably get off, and after learning that Elias tried to stop the massacre claims he is a "troublemaker."

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