We gotta get out of this place: The GOP's war fixation and the lingering curse of Vietnam

A haunting film about Vietnam re-enactors touches a cultural nerve: America has never gotten past that trauma

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published April 11, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)
A still from "In Country"     (Bond/360)
A still from "In Country" (Bond/360)

In a black-and-white video clip, we see a soldier sitting on the ground, in evident distress. He’s a generic mid-century American G.I.: white guy between 20 and 25, close-cropped hair and a middle-of-the-country accent, smoking a cigarette. He tells a news reporter he’s writing a letter to his father about what just happened, which was that his patrol walked into a Viet Cong ambush and he had to lie in the elephant grass listening to his wounded friends calling for help. Although he’s obviously in shock, he grimly says that it’s all over with now, time to move on and forget about it. Will he ever forget about it, the reporter asks? “No,” says the soldier. “I never will.”

That’s one scene in a strange and striking new documentary called “In Country,” and here’s another one, this time in color. A group of guys who are preparing to go out on patrol in hostile territory get an oddly tepid pep talk from their commanding officer, who reminds them that the Vietnamese outlasted the Japanese and the French, “and they’ve been doing a pretty good job against us.” Later on, the officer kicks back against his rucksack and airs his private doubts: He’s older than the rest of these kids, with a wife and family back home, and his perspective is different. He’s been back and forth to ’Nam since ’67, when the mission seemed a lot clearer than it does now. What the hell are they doing here, anyway – and do the generals and politicians back in Washington even have a plan?

Although the landscape around this angst-ridden young lieutenant is lush and verdant, it doesn’t look much like the tropical jungles of Vietnam. I claim no special expertise on the ecology and vegetation of Southeast Asia, but those coniferous trees and wild field daisies just don’t feel right. There’s also something a bit rehearsed and artificial about his reflective monologue, even before he pauses to wave at a passing pickup truck that looks suspiciously like a Chevy Silverado, circa 2009 (with a pristine crystal-red paint job, tow package and four-wheel drive). That’s because, unlike the traumatized kid in the letter-writing video, this guy is not in Vietnam and has never been there.

He’s a Vietnam War enthusiast and memorabilia collector named Joel Kinney, who spends several weekends a year re-enacting Vietnam skirmishes in the Oregon woods with a modest band of brothers. Only two of the guys in his fictional Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Division, are old enough to have served in Vietnam, although several others are veterans of more recent conflicts. One is a high school student and avowed virgin, who enjoys re-enacting a war that ended 20 years before he was born because it seems “more real” than Boy Scouts. One is tempted to respond, Depends on what you consider real, son, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My conclusion, in fact, is that these guys are not as ridiculous as they seem. Their obsession with a traumatic event now drawing near the outer edges of living memory is widely shared but not widely acknowledged. We are all Vietnam re-enactors; some of us just don’t know it.

“In Country” is a small-scale indie documentary with an impressionistic, almost experimental vibe, largely funded by Kickstarter donors and foundation grants. Its ostensible subject is a striking but marginal cultural niche, and the filmmaking duo of Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara never claim that Vietnam re-enactment is some rising trend that’s about to supplant artisanal whiskey and manicured beards. Indeed, the mode of “In Country” is pretty close to cinéma-vérité; there are no talking-head interviews or explanatory graphics, although we hear O’Hara’s voice a few times, asking questions. But the dreamlike collage they construct by intercutting 21st-century re-enactment scenes with genuine footage of the Vietnam conflict has a peculiar and unexpected potency, and speaks to a phenomenon much broader and deeper than a handful of eccentric dudes in the Pacific Northwest with hoards of ’70s military gear.

You can’t attribute America’s enduring “culture war,” or the climate of bitter partisan paralysis that stretches ahead of us into the indefinite future, to any single cause. These days we’re more likely to focus on unavoidable 21st-century flashpoints like race, gender, sexual orientation and religion, rather than a war that ended 40 years ago and that we subsequently claimed to have considered and put behind us. But the specter of Vietnam, the Waterloo moment of the American empire, lingers behind all those other nodes of cultural and political conflict. It symbolizes them, and to a large degree contains them. America willfully plunged into the morass of Southeast Asia, at a time when the country was theoretically or officially united by a booming economy, a postwar sense of moral purpose and Camelot-era optimism – and limped out a dozen years later as an object of worldwide scorn, with all its contradictions and divisions exposed. It was a moment of national reckoning, or it might have been if we’d ever actually reckoned with it.

We talk endlessly about how much America has changed since the ’70s, and that's true in many ways. But the fact that you can find terrific tacos in Tennessee, or that women can fly jet planes, sometimes distracts us from noticing the ways that the underlying cultural dynamic of the United States has barely changed at all. Have passions cooled since the picturesque era when longhaired students protested against the war, and hard-hatted construction workers demonstrated in favor of it? Sure, I guess – but just try writing something neutral or favorable on the Internet about Jane Fonda, 43 years after her visit to Hanoi. All the cultural bitterness and social chaos of the Vietnam era endures in coded form as red vs. blue, heartland vs. coasts and MSNBC vs. Fox News, and has long outlasted the question of the war itself, or the immense suffering we inflicted on the Vietnamese people for no discernible reason. (Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the bottomless solipsism of the American perspective, in this context and so many others.)

As I have already argued, the recent cultural furor around Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” and its real-life subject, Chris Kyle, was effectively an attempt to reinvent the Iraq war as a new Vietnam, a mythical moment when America’s national purpose was lost and America’s heroes betrayed. (What national purpose, and betrayed by whom? If you have to ask, you’re not a true patriot.) Of necessity, that moment can never be found in the present but only in a hazy, prelapsarian past, where it’s liberated from all political, strategic and moral reality.

For many people who yearn for that lost if largely imaginary sense of national unity and purpose, this rearward gaze toward Vietnam or its latter-day simulations is an occasion for grief, nostalgia and wounded pride. Others, however, take a more ambitious view: They long for a do-over and believe the Holy Grail can be remade or recaptured. For leading neoconservatives both inside and outside the Bush administration, the invasion of Iraq had little or nothing to do with 9/11 or oil or WMDs or any such petty and small-minded excuses. Those were the useful lies fed to various classes of sheeple, in the spirit of their intellectual mentor Leo Strauss, as a cover for a higher moral quest the hoi polloi were unlikely to understand. Waging glorious war in the Middle East was specifically understood as a way to undo the trauma of Vietnam, inject some Viagra into the flaccid American spirit and combat the “value-free aimlessness,” “gentle nihilism” and moral relativism of liberal democracy.

If the ambitious Vietnam re-enactment of the 2000s didn’t turn out quite the way Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol assured us it would, it would be a big mistake to assume that the spirit behind it has been defeated. Go ask Sen. Tom Cotton, the newly minted GOP hero who was born two years after the fall of Saigon, what he thinks about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam in 1973. Cotton, who served as an Army officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, made headlines again this week by announcing that it’s time to bomb Iran: It will be over within “several days” -- and what could possibly go wrong?

Cotton is either too dumb or too blinded by ideology to appreciate the law of unintended consequences, let alone the various philosophical theses about “eternal recurrence” or history’s observed tendency to repeat itself. When things go wrong in our attempts at purgative Vietnam re-enactments (he would say), it’s not because of any inherent design flaw or collective delusion behind America’s sense of itself and view of the world. It’s either because “stuff happens,” in the immortal phrase of Donald Rumsfeld, or because the forces of righteousness have not yet done enough to defeat the pantywaist relativism and “permissive egalitarianism” that Strauss saw eating away the foundations of Western civilization.

I’m sure Cotton is smart enough to understand that it's not sufficient to set the way-back machine to January 1973, the month of the Paris Peace Accords, and pursue a course of virile ass-kicking from that point forward. The rot had set in long before that. In order to re-enact the Vietnam War as a glorious victory that returns “us” to moral certainty and global supremacy, you need to go much further back, and unwind a whole bunch of cultural, political and economic change that stretches at least a decade earlier, and in some ways much longer than that. And that’s exactly what the Cotton wing of the Republican Party, which is also the Scott Walker wing and the Ted Cruz wing and the Koch brothers wing, has in mind: a massive ideological unraveling and reshaping of American society. It’s nowhere near as far-fetched a goal as it sounds at first.

Yes, the conservative movement has been defeated on several cultural fronts. They have failed to shove LGBT people back into the closet and women back into the kitchen, and no 70-foot electrified border fence can deport the millions of immigrants who are already here. But they may be willing to tolerate the spread of taquerias, gay marriage and legal weed, since they are winning on so many other fronts, from reproductive rights to economic inequality to the poisoning and perversion of the political system to the maintenance of a secret national-security state and a permanent war policy. When nearly two-thirds of the electorate doesn’t bother to vote, as happened in the 2014 midterms – because it has been offered few real choices, and almost no meaningful debate – then the Straussian ideal of a stratified society ruled by an enlightened elite is on the verge of fulfillment. Such is the salve meant to heal the wounds of Vietnam.

As for the men of Delta Company and their literal-minded Vietnam re-enactment, they never talk politics and don’t seem to possess any grand ideological goals. As Kinney, the fake lieutenant, gamely explains to his troops, if they’re trying to recapture the ’Nam zeitgeist of the early ’70s, then their morale needs to be piss-poor. They’re a bunch of disillusioned draftees doing hard drugs and listening to hard rock; they’ve got girlfriends in Saigon (and maybe kids too) that their stateside girls don’t know about. They’ve been touched by the peace movement, by the hippie revolution, by Black Power. (Kinney's lexicon of useful terms includes “Blood,” used to describe Lucien Darensburg, the unit’s African-American medic, and “Peckerwood,” for himself and the other white soldiers. “Sylvester” is a new one on me, but I like it.)

If the reasons why these guys feel drawn to spend their weekends turning the outskirts of Salem, Oregon, into Danang Province remain pretty murky, there’s a certain geeky integrity to their approach. They’re not trying to replay the war and have it come out as a triumphal saga. They’re doing the best they can, given limited resources and limited perspective, to experience it the way it was, trauma and tragedy included. Maybe they’re replaying it precisely because it was painful and they don't understand it, something like a patient in gestalt therapy reliving childhood memories.

It also might be simpler than that. Quite a few of the guys in "In Country" are Iraq or Afghanistan vets who admit that they miss the intensity and camaraderie of combat, which is not an uncommon reaction. (One actually re-enlists and goes back to Afghanistan during the 2011 shoot.) Surely the movie's most startling personal history belongs to Vinh Nguyen, who served six years in the South Vietnamese army, right up to the 1975 surrender. Nguyen has to be pushing 60 in the film’s present tense, but looks lean and wiry, ready to strap on his M16 and hit the bush in search of V.C. scum. When O’Hara asks him why he would want to revisit such painful memories, he seems genuinely puzzled. What painful memories? Sleeping under his poncho in the jungle and fighting Communists alongside the U.S. Army – those were the best years of his life.

Officially, we don’t think about Vietnam anymore, unlike the guys of Delta Company. But maybe they’re the ones being honest about it. Oliver Stone tried to put Vietnam to rest with a series of overwrought masculine melodramas, and Dick Cheney tried to put it to rest with a whole bunch of new wars. One approach certainly seems healthier than the other, but neither form of re-enactment produced any higher understanding or found a new ending to the story. Four decades on, we remain in the same position as that poor bastard in the black-and-white video, sitting in the elephant grass trying to write a letter to his dad that won’t explain anything. As Leonard Cohen, surely a great lyric poet of the Vietnam era, once put it, we can’t forget but we don’t remember what.

"In Country" is now playing at Cinema Village in New York. It plays April 16 only at the Texas Theatre in Dallas, then opens April 17 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio; April 24 at the Village Centre Cinemas in Spokane, Wash.; and May 1 at the SIFF Cinema in Seattle. It plays May 2 and 4 only at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, then opens May 8 at the Living Room Theater in Portland, Ore., and the Screening Room in Tucson, Ariz.; and May 15 at the Varsity Theatre in Ashland, Ore., and the Bijou Metro in Eugene, Ore., with more cities to follow. It will also be available on VOD beginning April 28, from cable, satellite and online providers.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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