Forget Apocalypse Now
It’s the fortieth anniversary of Apocalypse Now’s voyeuristic adventure to the dark side of human nature. But the real victims of the Vietnam War are forgotten in its cheap thrills.
In March of 2017, President Trump met with leaders of veterans groups and got in an absurd argument about Apocalypse Now.
A representative of Vietnam Veterans of America emphasized to the president the need to designate more diseases as caused by Agent Orange. In response Trump insisted, “that’s taken care of.” Puzzled attendees quizzed him, and Trump wondered if Agent Orange was “that stuff from that movie.”
He was wrong on both points. Veterans suffering from Agent Orange–related illnesses are far from taken care of. And as attendees quickly pointed out, Robert Duvall’s infamous line in “that movie” was “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” not Agent Orange. Trump derailed the meeting to poll everyone in the room about the line. They all agreed it was napalm.
That said, both napalm and Agent Orange were manufactured by the same company: Dow Chemical. So as far as profiting from the Vietnam War was concerned, Duvall’s character, Colonel Kilgore, might as well have ordered the spraying of the notorious Agent Orange. Either way, Dow got paid.
Scholar-activist H. Bruce Franklin’s recent memoir Crash Course gives a firsthand account of what it was like to take on Dow and its subsidiaries during the antiwar movement’s exponential growth in the late 1960s.
A professor at Stanford at the time, Franklin and his wife Jane were activists with the Stanford Committee for Peace in Vietnam (SCPV). In 1966, SCPV got a tip that a local company, United Technology Corporation (UTC), had been subcontracted by Dow to make a new more lethal form of napalm, Napalm-B. SCPV tried to stop them by appealing to management and leafleting workers. Soon the Franklins noticed their phone was tapped and their car followed.
But the activists were undeterred. When UTC won another contract to make the napalm bombs and chose a site on public land in Redwood City, SCPV and other activists organized a petition to put UTC’s lease on the ballot in Redwood City.
In just thirty days, the activists gathered the required 15 percent of residents’ signatures. In response UTC and the Redwood City Port Authority Commission drew up a new lease; and a judge who was a personal friend of the company’s president declared their petition invalid.
“We had been forced to recognize,” Franklin writes, “that judges — like port authority commissions, city attorneys, policemen, FBI agents, newspapers, and armies — were there to do whatever corporations required of them.”
Franklin’s activism made him the target of a political witch-hunt, and he became the only tenured professor ever fired from Stanford. But thanks to his and other activists’ efforts, a movement to boycott Dow was underway, one that would force the company to stop making napalm in 1969.
Hollywood Gave Permission to Win
Stories like SCPV’s fight against Dow are forgotten today because the struggle to interpret the Vietnam War in its immediate aftermath was won decisively by right- wing reactionaries. Kathleen Belew’s recent book Bring the War Home documents how right-wing terrorist groups quickly converged around the myth that the Vietnam War was a noble lost cause the military had not been permitted to win.
It was Hollywood’s role to launder such reactionary, false views for mainstream consumption.
The Oscar-winning Deer Hunter (1978) was the first film to reinterpret the Vietnam War along reactionary lines. In the film the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) uses tiger cages to detain noble American POWs. In fact, it was the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam that tortured thousands in the infamous cages.
The film’s signature trope involves a sadistic game of Russian roulette American POWs are forced to play by their captors. As Franklin documents, this reinvents a real-life event during the Tet Offensive, when the chief of the Saigon national police executed a Vietcong soldier on live television. Deer Hunter reverses the roles, with US POWs and not the Vietcong as the victims of summary executions.
By the 1980s Rambo was reassured this time he would be permitted to win in Vietnam, while Chuck Norris and Gene Hackman rescued nonexistent MIAs in Missing in Action (1984) and Uncommon Valor (1983).
Even Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) is a one-sided depiction of soldiers’ behavior during the war. The film correctly alludes to the changes in basic training implemented after military historian S.L.A. Marshall showed that during World War II, “only about fifteen percent of American riflemen in combat had fired at the enemy.” The average American soldier’s fear of killing, Marshall’s analysis went, left him paralyzed on the battlefield. The US Army took Marshall’s advice to heart, and rolled out new training that ensured that by the time of the Vietnam War, roughly 90 percent of GIs were shooting back.
Kubrick’s film shows this transformation’s dehumanizing effect on soldiers when one kills their drill instructor and himself during boot camp and at its climax the film’s hero kills a child soldier as she lies wounded.
But forgotten in such misanthropic storytelling is that the GI movement against the Vietnam War was decisive in ending it. Though underreported during the war and forgotten since, desertion, sabotage, and fragging (the killing of officers) were all common.
Franklin notes in Crash Course that deserters often saw themselves as resisters, and “there were 503,926 incidents of desertion between July 1, 1966, and December 31, 1973” compared to “only 13,528 … prosecuted for draft evasion or resistance.”
By 1971, “sailors’ antiwar activities coalesced into a coherent movement called SOS (StopOurShips/SaveOurSailors).” Their sabotage campaigns succeeded to such an extent that “Nixon was left with only one military option: using B-52s to rain massive amounts of bombs indiscriminately on…North Vietnam” in the “Christmas Bombing” of December 1972. The result was the American equivalent of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
“In each case,” Franklin writes, “their imperial enemy threw its best forces against Vietnam — and lost.” In January 1973, the Nixon administration signed the Paris Accords, capitulating “to terms Washington had been offered throughout the war.”
“My Film Is Vietnam”
But like President Trump, many Americans remember Vietnam War films better than the actual war and its aftermath. So much that Francis Ford Coppola’s comment about Apocalypse Now forty years ago at Cannes – “My film is not about Vietnam. My film is Vietnam.” – has become depressingly accurate. This is particularly true of the scene Trump referenced, where a helicopter assault on a Vietnamese village is set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
The scene and its soundtrack have been used repeatedly to psych up troops before and during combat missions in the Iraq War. Wagner’s music was played for US troops before they raided homes in Ramadi in June 2003 as part of counterinsurgency operations. Similarly, when the battle for Fallujah commenced in fall 2004, “Humvees blared Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’” as 8000 marines entered the city for the most intense fighting by US troops since the Battle of Hue in the wake of the Tet Offensive.
Coppola expressed frustration with the way the helicopter assault scene and its music have led to violent cases of life imitating art. But he nonetheless allowed it to be shown in a scene in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (based on Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the Persian Gulf War) where Marines sing along to the scene but do not watch the rest of the film with its more critical perspective on the war.
“It is clear,” Coppola commented on the way the scene has been co-opted for pro-war propaganda, “that if you want to make a real antiwar film, you have to be far from the battlefield because if you show battle you are in a sense exciting people even though it’s horrible. … If you want to make a film that’s antiwar, it has to be about love and it can’t be near a battlefield.”
Coppola is only partially to blame for the scene’s existence. It was written by John Milius, Hollywood’s court poet of reactionary politics, whose credits include an early draft of Dirty Harry (1971) and writing and directing the ludicrous communist paranoia film Red Dawn (1984).
Unable to serve in Vietnam due to asthma, Milius is proud his scene inspires America’s modern soldiers.
Those boys need mantras like that [“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”], they need to be juiced. They constitute the point of the spear, and the point needs…to be kept ready, whether it’s for a good war or bad war. And we, the rest of us, in turn need people like that who will be willing and eager to constitute the point of that spear. Otherwise we will just end up like Rome, with the barbarians coming pouring in over the gates.
With views this subtle, it is a tribute to the imagination of critics that the helicopter scene draws praise for its darkness, ambivalence, and other “invigorating” aesthetic qualities.
Its only redeeming feature is the Wagner, which rather than scaring the Vietnamese as Kilgore imagines, foolishly lets the guerillas know Americans are coming. Several helicopters are destroyed in the battle, and Kilgore only carries the day by radioing for napalm.
Forget his bluster about napalm’s morning fragrance; his real insight is his uncertainty about winning the war. “Someday,” he muses shirtlessly before surfing, “this war is gonna end.” But even this is reactionary mythology. Kilgore’s nonchalance suggests that the US was just playing at war in Vietnam, and never fought with everything it had, furthering the idea that things could be different if we just had a round two.
Unable to Adapt to Society
The anniversary of Apocalypse Now’s debut will spawn endless fawning retrospectives on its supposedly cutting political commentary. But there are other, more honest films about the war’s consequences and the movement to stop it — films that can better help us learn our history to stop repeating it in endless wars.
The 2015 documentary short, Chau, beyond the lines, tells the story of an adolescent Vietnamese boy growing up in a camp for children with birth defects caused by Agent Orange. Chau aspires to be an artist and fashion designer. The overworked nurses in the crowded camp scoff at his dreams. After leaving the camp, returning to his parents, and giving up art, Chau contemplates suicide before finally gaining admission to an art school for victims of Agent Orange.
The film’s power resides in how it shows so many of the other children with Agent Orange-related birth defects in the background of Chau’s story. They play soccer with Chau, gather with him at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, and are later his rivals for recognition in art school. In such sidelong glances, you get a sense of how daunting the problem of Agent Orange remains in Vietnam, how courageous the Vietnamese people remain, and how culpable the American government is for an ecocide it has only recently begun cleaning up.
The 1982 documentary Vietnam: The Secret Agent gives a good overview of how Agent Orange and related chemicals were first developed for commercial agriculture, how Dow concealed the dangers of the Agent Orange byproduct dioxin, and how the US violated international law by using Agent Orange as a weapon.
The heart of the film is the hunger strike that begins at a Los Angeles-area VA Hospital after a veteran who had previously been arrested for running his car into the entrance commits suicide. The strikers demand congressional hearings and a meeting with the president. Eventually they are forcibly ejected from the building, their encampment destroyed. But they continue their strike in Washington and are finally granted congressional hearings, a crucial early step in a struggle for recognition and compensation that continues today.
Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), a love story between a disabled vet (Jon Voight) and a volunteer (Jane Fonda) at a VA hospital, remains a moving statement about the neglect and oblivion in which so many veterans are trapped. But it is another, suppressed Jane Fonda film from 1972, the documentary F.T.A. (short for the popular GI slogan “fuck the army”) that shows the forgotten GIs who courageously resisted the war.
Fonda, along with other actors and musicians, including Donald Sutherland and Paul Mooney, tour US military bases on the Pacific Rim performing an agitprop variety show before enthusiastic audiences of war weary GIs.
“I’m gonna get me a watchdog,” Sutherland tells Mooney in one sketch.
“Whatcha need a watchdog for, sarge?” Mooney asks. “You’re surrounded by 250 armed men.”
“That’s why I’m gonna get me a watchdog.”
The highlight of F.T.A. is its interviews with GIs and sailors. Though often segregated by race, they are united in opposition to the war and in their sense that it is young working-class men who are forced to fight it.
So forget Apocalypse Now and other films that glorify the Vietnam War as a journey to the dark side of existence, or argue the war was a “well-intentioned” but misguided effort, as Ken Burn’s puts it in his regrettable TV series. Instead, remember the GIs who resisted the war, the ongoing health and environmental crises in Vietnam, and the struggle for justice for Vietnam veterans and their families exposed to Agent Orange.
The war’s victims have been unable to adapt to society and return to normal. And to paraphrase Martin Luther King’s celebrated speech “Beyond Vietnam,” the rest of us should not adapt to a society where, thanks to films like Apocalypse Now, such atrocities are normalized.