Reel Life: We Were Soldiers. (Psychotherapy)

By Stone, Alan A. | Clinical Psychiatry News, October 2002 | Go to article overview
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Reel Life: We Were Soldiers. (Psychotherapy)

Stone, Alan A., Clinical Psychiatry News

The recent war movie "We Were Soldiers," starring Mel Gibson, demonstrates as only Hollywood can the change in American attitudes about Vietnam.

After the war ended in 1975, Hollywood produced a spate of movies critical of American involvement. "The Deer Hunter," which won the Oscar for best picture in 1978 and is said to have rallied Vietnam veterans in support of a memorial that became architect Maya Lin's wall of names in Washington, portrayed the Vietnamese as less than human, smilingly sadistic "gooks." In 'Apocalypse Now" (1979) and in "Platoon" (1986) the Vietnamese were phantoms, pitiable victims, or largely invisible.

It would take Hollywood more than 25 years to break the stereotype and show the Vietnamese fighting and dying like soldiers. A lot had to change before this depiction became acceptable to Americans, especially to veterans of the Vietnam War.

It is unreasonable to expect soldiers who fight a war not to hate the enemy, particularly when they lose to men half their size who are less well armed. That hatred fueled the "gook" stereotype.

It was President Clinton, a well-known evader of Vietnam military service, who officially broke the ice. He restored diplomatic relations, made a state visit, and achieved a treaty that gave Vietnam favored trading status.

Since then Vietnam has aggressively courted American tourists, and many who have traveled there are veterans. They come back talking of the beauty of the rice paddies in the countryside and the genuinely warm welcome by Vietnamese people whose land was bombed and defoliated by American planes.

Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a pilot of one of those planes and our best-known prisoner of war, has returned to Vietnam and been greeted warmly by the people, although he has harsh things to say about his captors. McCain does not apologize for calling them "gooks." He has reason to hate; he was tortured until his will was broken (he twice attempted suicide) in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he saw other prisoners of war killed. And like other career officers, McCain has declared that we would have won had politicians not tied the hands of the military.

Many other veterans have visited Vietnam, met their former enemies, and are healing the psychic scars on both sides. Such reconciliation has allowed the attitudinal change we see reflected in "We Were Soldiers."

The screenplay is based on the memoir of Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.), written with war correspondent Joseph L. Galloway. Moore, although he shares Sen. McCain's opinions, has returned to Vietnam many times and met with the Vietcong general who opposed him at Ia Drang Valley, the first major battle of the Vietnam War. The former adversaries have shaken hands; have shared memories, maps, and military documents; and have become friends. In keeping with that friendship, the Moore-Galloway book recognizes the courage and heroism on both sides. In acknowledging that valor, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young" (New York: Random House, 1992) restores the dignity of the men who fought and died on both sides.

The book is a meticulously documented history of that first battle of Ia Drang Valley, which occurred before the war turned ugly and the reasons for fighting it became obscure. Narrated in isolation from the complex politics of the war, the story of the battle could be admired as much by the John Birch Society as by Vietnam chronicler David Halberstam.

But Moore is a hero to the "Birchers," and they knew what the book omitted: the fact that the general has never forgiven his real enemy--President Lyndon Johnson. In Moore's view, Johnson was "a dove in hawk's clothing" who made it impossible for the United States to win a winnable war.

Even after the bloody battle of Ia Drang, where he lost so many men, Moore told journalists that he expected to clean out the entire valley in a few months. There would be so many failed attempts to accomplish this that American soldiers renamed the area the Valley of Death.

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