We Were Soldiers (2002): The Neoconservative Right Does Vietnam

If I avoided seeing We Were Soldiers for years, I think it had something to do with how I used to see posters for the film when I photographed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth rallies in Washington DC in 2004. While I enjoyed Braveheart, I could never quite bring myself to go see a movie that seemed like such obvious propaganda for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Even though Joe Galloway, who wrote the book We Were Soldiers Once And Young,  was a respected journalist, even among liberals, something about Mel Gibson’s square-jawed, bulldog middle-aged face, Bill Mauldin meets William Wallace, reminded me of old Hollywood films about the Second World War. Saddam as Hitler? Vietnam as a “noble cause?” And evangelical Christian icon Mel Gibson shoveling the propaganda? No thanks.

Having finally seen We Were Soldiers, I suppose my verdict is “much better than I thought it would be.” Mel Gibson, like Andy Garcia, is a Roman Catholic probably even more conservative than the Vatican, more Catholic than the Pope. But, unlike Garcia’s For Greater Glory, a big-budget snooze-fest, We Were Soldiers is not only effective right-wing propaganda. It’s consistently dramatic and engaging. What’s more, in one or two very important ways, We Were Soldiers might be less racist, and more “progressive” than “liberal” films like Apocalypse Now or Platoon. This doesn’t mean that We Were Soldiers isn’t a right-wing, pro-war commercial for George W. Bush. It certainly is. But it does mean that Gibson is a very talented propagandist. It’s worth figuring out why.

Unlike Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, or Platoon, We Were Soldiers let’s the Vietnamese speak. No, it’s not an anti-imperialist film. No, We Were Soldiers is not the second coming of Braveheart, something that would have made sense since the Vietnamese, like William Wallace’s Scots, were a colonized people fighting off an invader. But unlike Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, Stanley Kubrick or Oliver Stone, director and screenwriter Randall Wallace does not see the Vietnamese as exotic sex objects, primitive savages, or as symbols of the American moral conflict in the jungle. He sees them as subjects, not objects, worthy, if brutal adversaries. Let’s not get carried away. You could probably make the argument that the North Vietnamese soldiers shoot like storm troopers and die like orcs, that the film is, in fact, a lot more racist than I’m letting on here. But Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Hữu An is not a villain or a torturer. He’s basically Hal Moore’s mirror image, a smart, if ruthless battlefield commander who knows how to order men to die.

We Were Soldiers main set piece, a dramatization of the Battle of la Drang filmed at Fort Benning in Georgia, rivals the opening of Saving Private Ryan for its vivid depiction of battlefield carnage. Admittedly, the whole film is PR for the United States Army on the eve of its invading Iraq, a war game at an American military base with a few good actors, but, once again, Russell Wallace throws some interesting twists into the red, white and blue mix. The battle, to be sure, is a classic example of the “besieged imperial invaders” narrative. White people go to the west, circle the wagon trains,and fight off wave after wave of Indians. But Wallace is smart enough to let us know he knows it. “That’s Custer’s Division,” Moore says to his commanding officer after he learns that his regiment has been re designated as the First Brigade, Seventh Cavalry. “Custer was a pussy,” Sergeant Plumley, Moore’s top NCO played to over the top macho perfection by Sam Elliot says. “You’re not.”

Unlike Custer at The Little Bighorn, however, Hal Moore had an air force at the Battle of la Drang. It’s less of a massacre than a brutal stalemate, a Pyrrhic Victory for the United States that convinced Ho Chi Minh that he could win the war. The Americans use helicopters, napalm, and sophisticated artillery barrages with deadly efficiency. Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Hữu pushes his field commanders to get inside Hal Moore’s lines. “Grab the Americans by their belt buckle,” he says. It works. First one platoon, then the entire brigade is overrun by North Vietnamese soldiers. Moore calls in an airstrike so close to the First Cavalry lines that he accidentally napalms his own men. American soldiers die in agony. A medic tries to cut a piece of napalmed skin off a man’s cheek before it burns through to his brain. The flesh of another soldier’s legs comes off in Joe Galloway’s hands when he tries to carry him to a helicopter to be evacuated. It’s an astonishingly anti-war image from militarist film by a right wing director starring a famous reactionary and anti-Semite, a vivid depiction of what the Vietnamese went through when they were bombed by the United States air force, instant empathy for an American audience for the victims of American war crimes simply because those war crimes are accidentally committed against Americans.

And yet, We Were Soldiers remains shamelessly pro-war agitprop.

If We Were Soldiers shows the Vietnamese in a better light than Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter, then it’s mainly because its pro-war agenda requires it. Films from “the left” like Apocalypse Now or Platoon (and I think Oliver Stone can be safely called a leftist even if Francis Ford Coppola can’t) show the Vietnamese as either primitives, or as helpless victims. But that’s mainly because they dramatize the American involvement in Vietnam not as a “war” but as an “occupation.” The United States Army in Vietnam is not the United States Army at Gettysburg or on the beaches of Normandy. It’s a glorified police force. At best it’s a gang of bumbling fools. At worst, as in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War, it’s a blood soaked, sadistic American Gestapo. The less formidable the Vietnamese seem, therefore, the more of an anti-war punch the movie packs. Short of a film that openly embraces Ho Chi Minh Võ Nguyên Giáp and the anti-imperialist cause (the kind of film that would never get funding in Hollywood), it is perhaps the most accurate way to dramatize the United States invasion.

Noam Chomsky has often remarked that one of the central misconceptions of the United States invasion of Vietnam is that it was an attack on North Vietnam. On the contrary, he argues, the war was mainly an attack on South Vietnam. Oliver Stone, in his depiction of the senseless destruction of a Vietnamese village, gets it dead right. The goal was to displace the Vietnamese people, to dry up support for the Vietcong by herding a mainly agrarian population into concentration camps, or “strategic hamlets,” to use the euphemism the United States government used at the time. By depicting the Vietnam War as a “war” and not an occupation, as a conflict with “NVA Regulars” and not an attack on farmers, old men, women and children, We Were Soldiers tries to breath life back into the propaganda films like Platoon and Casualties of War, for all their faults, had already debunked. The more Russell Wallace and Mel Gibson build the North Vietnamese up as worthy opponents, the more they transform the criminal and genocidal destruction of South Vietnam into a “noble cause,” the nobility residing not in the political agenda of the Johnson or Nixon administrations, but in the soldiers themselves.

Indeed, while it had been released before the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, We Were Soldiers feels as if it had been filmed with the invasion of Iraq in mind. Since it’s early in the war, and Hal Moore’s soldiers are mostly a small elite, they feel a lot more like the all volunteer army of professional soldiers in Iraq than they do like the army of draftees in Vietnam. The soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry fight not for any kind of political cause, but for the guy next to them, for the honor of the regiment, not for the President back in Washington. If the Bush administration eventually stopped making up excuses for the invasion of Iraq, and finally just said “it’s about supporting the troops,” Joe Galloway beat him to it by 30 years. By narrowing the focus from the war as a whole to a single bloody battle, from the Vietnamese struggle against American imperialism to the troops themselves, Galloway artfully ducks the charges that he was writing propaganda. “I don’t care about politics,” one can imagine him saying. “I’m just trying to tell the story of those boys on the front lines.”

We Were Soldiers ends with Moore paying a visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. It’s a fitting ending since the film mirrors the kind of propaganda the Vietnam Memorial itself embodies so perfectly. There are 58,195 names on the Vietnam Memorial, but that’s only a tiny fraction of the number of people who died in Southeast Asia. Even in the most conservative estimates, the total number of casualties was over 2 million. It makes sense that the Vietnam Memorial, which was once considered anti-war, even radical, has become a focal point for reactionary, even neo-fascist MIA organizations, Rolling Thunder motorcycle rides, and Swift Boat Vets For Truth style neoconservative front groups. Many Americans reacted with outrage when Pat Buchanan tried to engineer a Reagan visit to an SS cemetery at Bitburg. But they never even ask themselves why rank and file American soldiers prosecuting a genocidal in Southeast Asia deserve to be honored any more than rank and file German soldiers prosecuting a genocidal war in Eastern Europe. Perhaps, someday, when I’m dictator of the proletariat, I’ll have the Vietnam War Memorial torn down and replaced by a Southeast Asian Holocaust Memorial or a monument to Ho Chi Minh and General Võ Nguyên Giáp. But I’ll still keep We Were Soldiers as a museum piece, an artfully made, vivid and entertaining lie representative of the ideology of the late American empire.

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