Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tony Grajeda: The winning and losing of hearts and minds: Vietnam, Iraq, and the claims of the war documentary

The winning and losing of hearts and minds: Vietnam, Iraq, and the claims of the war documentary
by Tony Grajeda
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In what follows, I position this first generation of documentaries on the Iraq war in relation not only to these earlier documentaries on Vietnam but also to narrative films from the war film genre such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, cultural texts which acutely act as frames of reference for both the documentarists and the participants to war themselves. Michael Herr’s landmark account of the Vietnam War, Dispatches, was not the first — and unfortunately not the last — to recognize the extent to which young soldiers on the battlefield seem to be acting out fantasies acquired especially from the combat genre. More recently, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, which chronicles his experience as a Marine during the Persian Gulf War, reveals that even the “antiwar” Vietnam films, such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket, have been re-functioned, appropriated as “pro-war” stimulants by U.S. soldiers who, writes Swofford,

"watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; …The supposedly anti-war films have failed. Now is my time to step into the newest combat zone. And as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers" (6-7).

The subsequent “band of brothers” bears the traces of yet further mediation, now riddled with a wider array of cultural influences that shape and structure experience of the real itself. In his account of the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003, journalist Evan Wright points to a generational difference in 21st Century soldiers, many of whom “are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own parents.” Wright describes one 19-year-old Marine who is “beside himself” with excitement while in action:

“I was just thinking one thing when we drove into that ambush, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of windows, the blown-up car in the street, guys crawling around shooting at us. It was fucking cool.” (5)

Although nothing quite so “fucking cool” as the (male) fantasy of de-realization — a psychic process of perceptual dissociation, here of inhabiting a video game and encountering the real through a prism of simulation — will occur in the documentaries under consideration, the question of cultural mediation nonetheless remains for both filmmakers and their subjects.

My more specific purpose here is to offer a close analysis of Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland in order both to track the work of history, as well as to gauge the evolution of formal techniques and practices endemic to the documentation of war and atrocity. A brief comparison at the level of film form suggests that while a 1970s work like Hearts and Minds seems lodged in the familiar tradition of the realist documentary, one some 30 years later like Gunner Palace— with its highly stylized logic of fragmentation and disorientation evidently indebted to the music video—appears to fall within the generic domain of the “postmodern.” Yet this strict dichotomy in a “politics” of documentary form breaks down when we recall that Hearts and Minds made liberal (and ironic) use of Hollywood movies, while Gunner Palace’s digital video feel of immediacy could be aligned with at least the U.S. variant of direct cinema.

What I will argue then is that, in light of its precedents in the war documentary, Gunner Palace’s formal strategy of “MTV-style” construction to capture the media-saturated participants of modern war (pop culture references, rap music, self-conscious performances playing to the camera) implies less an innovative approach to the form than, ironically, a reflection model of the real, in which the accretion of referentiality in our thoroughly mediated world suffuses phenomenal existence, even and especially in wartime.

Historicizing the Vietnam War through documentary film: Hearts and Minds

“The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula,” declared President George H. W. Bush, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. “It’s a proud day for America,” he trumpeted, adding, “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”[1] [open notes in new window] Yet the “specter” of Vietnam has seemingly risen from those very same desert sands. A year into the Iraq war, Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, stated that, “slowly but surely, the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people are being won over as they see security increase in their area.”[2] With this war for winning the “hearts and minds” of Iraqis dragging on into its fifth year, a protracted conflict half-way around the world has triggered increased use in a national debate of such loaded metaphors as “quagmire” and the “Vietnam syndrome.”[3] The return of such politically-charged language signifies the uneasy presence of the past in the present, a condition that symptomatically reveals both the fraught historical memory of the Vietnam War and the potential trauma of realizing that, as one current bumper sticker puts it, “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.”

One way of imagining how the present is likely to be remembered or misremembered, whether the history of the Iraq war will be written in the prose of the Good Fight or that of a “syndrome,” especially with regard to the representation of the U.S. soldier, is to take note of how the Vietnam War itself was represented at the time and then subsequently re-written by both the political establishment of the 1980s and the culture industries of television and Hollywood. I want to begin reflecting on the potential historicity of the present by briefly recalling one of the definitive, and more controversial, documentaries on what the Vietnamese call the American War — Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1974 and was re-released on DVD in 2002. Adopting the model of the “document-dossier” established by Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds mixes newsreel and archival footage, talking-heads and in-country interviews, and, perhaps most surprisingly (at least to those who somehow believed that Michael Moore had invented the form), short clips from such Hollywood movies as Objective Burma, My Son John, and This Is the Army, Michael Curtiz’s 1943 musical celebrating the United States military, a war-time production from the Busby Berkeley school of spectacle featuring hundreds of singing and dancing troops.

Becoming something of a social text right from the start, the reception of Hearts and Minds at the time and its subsequent place in the body of literature on historical documentaries warrants re-evaluation precisely at a moment when the meaning of Vietnam is at stake. Predictably met by largely “hostile reviewers in the national media,” according to Peter Biskind, it didn’t seem to fair much better in other quarters. Biskind’s Cineaste 1975 review, for one, takes issue with the film’s critique of U.S. culture — at least for Biskind “the arrogant, violent, hypocritical side” —that contributed to the war.[4] This position has been reinforced over the years in some academic circles as well. David Grosser, for example, finds the film exhibiting contempt for the working class, while Thomas Slater faults it for what he considers “blatant manipulation.”[5] Finally, Thomas Waugh compares it unfavorably to de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig for falling into a “moralistic, bourgeois-humanist perspective of history.”[6] De Antonio himself, in a 1974 review of Hearts and Minds, condemns the film for “political emptiness” and “an inability to understand either the United States or Vietnam.” “Patronizing attitudes,” writes the filmmaker, beset the work at every turn, as “it sneers with a japing, middle-class liberal superiority.” Cutting to the bone, it is, according to de Antonio, “both heartless and mindless.”[7]

Such historically specific criticisms notwithstanding, revisiting Hearts and Minds during another time of war is indeed instructive, given the somewhat uneven and so far relatively ahistorical media representations of the current crisis.[8] While not as rigorously historical as In the Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds still provides a quite thorough social context for understanding the Vietnam War, primarily by incorporating a range of perspectives, including combat veterans (both pro-war and disenchanted), a slew of political and military figures (from architects of the war to dissidents), and, most significantly, a number of Vietnamese voices.

The film’s specific argument on the war itself is augmented by a set of observations and textual materials on the more general cultural conditions of fear, racism and violence that, it is suggested, give rise to a militaristic society (Ryan and Kellner, 197). For example, the post-war, McCarthy-era structure of feeling dominated by fear and paranoia is illustrated through clips from both the mass culture of Hollywood features fueling the Cold War, as well as the government’s shrill anti-communist propaganda films. Another sampling of Hollywood clips exhibit an array of racist representations, from the Orientalism of Bob Hope road comedies to the vicious racism of WWII combat pictures set in the Pacific Theater.

Yet the documentary’s most provocative statement on U.S. culture issues from original footage of a nearly-rabid football coach whipping up his high school charges into a frenzy for the big game. The implication of socially-sanctioned masculinity compounded by everyday violence as the breeding ground for the cultural reproduction of militarism was, apparently, an unreasonable proposition to critics at the time, as Biskind’s review insinuates. From our own vantage point of the present, however — one marked by a popular culture of pervasive violent imagery that Vivian Sobchack has termed “the Postmorbid Condition” — Hearts and Minds viewed retrospectively suggests an argument still in formation, the incipient realization of which will garner only more evidence (and credibility) in the ensuing years.

As the current battle over the meaning of the Vietnam War and any “lessons” accruing around the Iraq war rages on, both In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds continue to remind us not only of the vital contribution made by critical documentary filmmaking to the work of history; they also reveal, given the substance of their specific arguments, the ideological structuring of the war itself by Cold War liberals who sought to obscure Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle for independence. Moreover, with the neo-conservative re-writing of the war since the Reagan era that has aimed to secure it within a revivified Cold War paradigm (see Martin, “Narratives,” 111), one that conveniently aligns with a post-9/11 Manichean worldview, these documentaries have never been more necessary to challenging reactionary interpretations — both past and present — of the Vietnam War.

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