'Nam: how Hollywood won the peace

War, war, what was it good for? Twenty years after the Fall of Saigon, Kevin Jackson considers what Tinseltown made of America's anti- Communist crusade, while Tim McGirk reports from Ho Chi Minh City on the legacy left to Vietnam's own writers and artists
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The Independent Culture
Children yet unborn when the last helicopter took off from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon may confidently speak a military jargon they have never had to use in earnest: they can decode the acronyms DMZ, NVA and R&R, know that a grunt is an infantryman and a click is a unit of distance, that the enemy is called Charlie (short for Victor Charlie), and that the kind of officer you'd probably end up fragging will love the smell of napalm in the morning. They know all this because they have seen the movies. And yet - as the critic Gilbert Adair points out in his new history of the cinema, Flickers - the Vietnam film almost never happened.

Astonishing as it may seem to younger viewers who know the steaming jungles of South-east Asia as intimately as earlier generations knew the rock formations of Monument Valley, the Vietnam war went virtually unacknowledged by Hollywood for the entire duration of the conflict. (Though subtle commentators have argued that the American cinema of the Sixties and Seventies, whatever its ostensible subject-matter, is covertly obsessed with the war, so that, say, Bonnie and Clyde is "really" a Vietnam film).

With the sole exception of John Wayne's ultra-Hawkish The Green Berets, released in 1968, all of the films which now define the war for popular memory were made well after 1975: Apocalypse Now (1979), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) The Boys in Company C (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Gardens of Stone (1987), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Go Tell the Spartans (1977), Hamburger Hill (1987), Heaven and Earth (1994) Platoon (1986), Rambo (1985), Saigon (1988), Uncommon Valor (1983) and so on.

Reasons for the procrastination are not hard to find. Though The Green Berets took a very respectable $8m in the United States, it also drew pickets and bomb threats, and was regarded with contempt in overseas markets during that politically excited year.

With no domestic consensus on the justice of the war, and thus no guaranteed box-office, studios maintained a policy of caution amounting to self-censorship until the violence had ceased. Americans could follow the progress of the war every night on their televisions and every morning in their newspapers, but their local cinemas had nothing better to offer than some limited exploitations of the peacenik scene, from Easy Rider (1969) to The Strawberry Statement (1970).

What is still more striking than the caution of major studios is the feeble response of other popular arts. Youthful opposition to the war was the single most important inspiration of what they used to call the "counter-culture", but the musicians who supplied that movement with its anthems were a lot more mealy-mouthed than their radical posturing implied. Vietnam has been called "the war without songs", meaning that the troops had no "Lili Marlene" or "Tipperary" to sing as they trudged towards death - no doubt because they had Buffalo Springfield on their radios.

It was also war without songs in the broader sense: there were plenty of hits about Giving Peace a Chance and The Revolution, Man, but none of any moment about the Tet offensive or Khe Sanh (though Bruce Springsteen manged the latter a couple of decades on). Cast around for the exceptions, and you start coming up with folkies like Pete Seeger ("The Big Muddy") and Phil Ochs ("I Ain't Marchin' Anymore"), eccentrics like Country Joe and the Fish or the odd militarist like Sgt Barry Sadler, whose "Ballad of the Green Berets" topped the charts. By contrast, America's poets, from the hairy (Allen Ginsberg) to the smooth (Robert Lowell), appear positively garrulous on the theme.

Thanks to all the post-war movies that rely heavily on rock music for their sound-track, however, the same songs that were so coy about openly naming Vietnam have now come to seem like the war's inseparable sound- track. They have been transformed into emblems of that war, in short, as charged and immediate as a steel helmet with the "peace" symbol daubed on its side or a group of incoming choppers. (Gilbert Adair calls the helicopter the Vietnam war's "universally acknowledged signifier.")

The singular achievement of Hollywood's retrospective treatment of Vietnam is not, however, its creation of a terse and potent iconography for the war - there are comparably rich iconographies for the First and Second World Wars - but the thoroughness with which its carefully coded fictions have superseded all other representations. (Not one movie set in Vietnam, incidentally, has so far been based on a Vietnam novel of any literary distinction.) And in this belated ascendency, there is a curious counterpart with the ideological fate of Vietnam itself, which is now rapidly opening up to the economic system it spent decades driving out. Hollywood may have stayed home during the war, but it has overwhelmingly won the peace.


As Saigon began to quake under the Communist artillery barrages on 29 April 1975, some writers and intellectuals made furtive trips out by the river to bury their libraries. Others sold their valued collections of French and English literature by the kilo to scrap merchants. As the lawyer Nguyen Phouc Dai said: "Most of these revolutionary fighters were peasants who had no contact with the outside world. If they found any foreign book in your house, you ran the danger of being taken for an enemy." After the Communist takeover, many years passed before it was safe for intellectuals to dig up their treasured "reactionary" books, and an even longer time before many Vietnamese dared to unearth their personal traumas and misgivings suffered while they battled against their American enemies.

Only now, 20 years on, are Vietnamese writers and artists struggling to chip away the official facade, that of fresh boy and girl revolutionaries singing cheerily of "Uncle" Ho Chi Minh as they marched towards the incinerating blast of a napalm storm. For nearly two decades, Hanoi novelists such as Bao Ninh and Duong Thu Huong, both in their forties, not only had to wrestle with the searing impact of their own wartime experiences but also against strict Communist censorship.

A woman writer, Huong was arrested and imprisoned in 1991 for smuggling "state secrets abroad". These state documents were nothing more than the manuscript of her Novel without a Name. Although she has since been freed, her novel is officially banned. Pirated copies circulate widely. Both she and Mr Ninh, the author of The Sorrow of War, reveal the Vietnamese revolutionaries as they really were: not superheroes, just miserable, scared humans.

Ninh was one of 10 survivors from the 500-strong Glorious 27th Youth Brigade, and his novel is in many ways more devastating than most American fiction on the war. Vietnam for the Vets remained, finally, as alien and impenetrable as its jungles. For them, the hills had military numbers, not names. Ninh and Huong, by contrast, are both attuned to the land's anguished spirit, to its ghosts, its "Jungle of Screaming Souls". The main character in The Sorrow of War, Kien, takes part in the liberation of Saigon, and ends up drunk on brandy looted from the Air France terminal, slow-dancing with the ghost of a naked girl lying in the rubble.

This version of Victory Day did not quite endear Ninh to the Vietnamese party leadership. He outraged many old Communists. Encouraged by Ninh's success, some liberal writers recently demanded more artistic freedom at a recent Writers' Association Congress in Hanoi, but party leaders have refused to relax their Stalinist approach for at least another five years.

Vietnamese writers may be still tied to the party line, but artists less so. Slowly, painters have begun to sneak religious themes and nudes back on to their canvases, subjects long banned by the authorities as contrary to the interests of the working class. It is perhaps because few people see these paintings that they have been tolerated, while the Vietnamese, even in the villages, are avid readers. Ninh and Huong's novels, for example, each sold over 100,000 copies in Vietnam.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Western culture is flooding in faster than many of the stodgy party officials would like. Vietnamese teenagers born after the war watch satellite MTV and go to Compact Disc dance clubs. A favourite video star is a cute American blonde raised in "Little Saigon", California, who sings racy tunes in Vietnamese, her videos smuggled past the "cultural investigators" at Ho Chi Minh airport. Yet for some veteran Communists, Ho Chi Minh City is sliding too swiftly towards the way it was before the Americans were driven out.

Floundering, party intellectuals are going back to basics: schoolchildren are taught Confucianism, to obey their fathers (and president) and to worship noble ancestors, with the exception, that is, of Marx and Lenin.