Failure is a hard word, and no matter how you analyze the Vietnam War, that is exactly what it was. The War was a personal failure on a national scale. From its covert beginnings, through the bloodiest, darkest days and finally to the bitter end, this ten-year period of American history is a national disgrace. Some may believe that the only lesson that will ever be learned is a personal one. Do you know someone that died in a muddy jungle there? Did you have a friend or classmate or a member of your family caught up in this nightmare? Even if you were not affected on that level, what a waste of time, taxes, resources and the precious lives of young Americans.
Fifty-eight thousand were killed, two thousand captured, and three hundred fifty thousand; maimed and wounded, almost everyone in this country still feels the effects of this conflict. Today, the young people of this country cringe in response to the senselessness and waste of this struggle. A new generation of college students, workers and young parents bring a unique perspective to the analysis of the consequences of this particular war. These are the sons and daughters of the men that fought to their death in the jungles of South East Asia.
This research paper will deal with some of the more interesting aspects and effects of this war. Since the Vietnam conflict made absolutely no sense politically, militarily or economically, the value of analysis must come on the individual level. The individual soldiers that survived this war are now laced throughout society on every level. They are waiting and have been patiently biding their time. Not waiting to protest or draw attention but waiting for the questions they know will come. Not from a busy country or politicians or the government but from their own children. They've had nearly 30 years to think about it and decide what really happened. They've also had that time to raise those children, and now we want to know.
The Vietnam War will be analyzed in this paper through three different sources of information. The first will be research involving psychological studies and cases. The second will be through the media, most specifically through films. The third is a one-on-one interview with a Vietnam veteran. The tying factors throughout each of these sections will be the seven separate topics on which we focus this research, including: Before the war: 1) soldiers reasons for going to the Vietnam War. During the War: 2) Soldiers reactions and adjustments to the war. 3) Soldiers' feelings toward the Vietnamese. 4) Drug and alcohol use. 5) Media effects. After the war: 6) How exposure to the war affected soldiers physically and mentally. 7) Veteran attitudes toward Americans once home (Government, protestors, family, society).
This paper will thoroughly discuss the psychological effects of the Vietnam War using the three different areas of research stated above. Each area has been researched individually with the intentions of learning how the information will compare across the lines.
The Psychological Point of View
For many Americans, the Vietnam War is over and long forgotten. Among those still suffering are several veterans who have felt forgotten, unappreciated, and even discriminated against. For some of them ' the trauma of their battle experiences or their physical disabilities have shattered their lives. For even more, adjustment to civilian life has not been easy. "Imagine if you had just graduated out of high school and were sent to a guerrilla warfare far away from your home. During the war, you were exposed to a lot of stress, confusion, anxiety, pain, and hatred. Then you were sent back home with no readjustment to the lifestyle in the states, no deprogramming of what you learned from the military, and no "welcome home" parades. You are portrayed to the public as a crazed psychopathic killer with no morals or control over your aggression. You find that there's nobody you can talk to or who can understand what you've been through, not even your family. As you re-emerge into civilization, you struggle to establish a personal identity or a place in society because you lack the proper education and job skills. In addition, there are no supportive groups to help you find your way, which makes you feel even more isolated, unappreciated, and exploited for serving your country."1 This scenario is similar to what many Vietnam veterans have felt in their transition from battle to home.
War has always had a profound effect on those who engage in combat. The Vietnam War, however, was different in many ways. First, it was the unpopular war as viewed by most people today. Vietnam veterans were the first to fight in an American war that could not be recalled with pride. Second, it was the first to be reported in full detail by the media, historians, and scientists. And third, the Vietnam War became a metaphor for American society that connoted distrust in the government, and the sacrifice of American lives for poorly understood and deeply divided values and principles. Upon the veterans' return to the states, many exhibited significant psychiatric symptoms. These ranged from difficulty sleeping to vivid flashbacks, and are now recognized as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a development of characteristic symptoms following a psychologically distressing event. "It begins with an event in which the individual is threatened with his or her own death or the destruction of a body part, to such humiliation that their personal identity may be lost."2 Vietnam veterans who experience PTSD have a feeling of helplessness, worthlessness, dejection, anger, depression, insomnia, and a tendency to react to tense situations by using survival tactics. Combat experience remains the variable most often linked to PTSD among Vietnam veterans. The frequency of PTSD was a lot higher among those with high levels of exposure to combat compared to the noncombatants. PTSD was not taken seriously until the 1980's when many Vietnam veterans were complaining of similar symptoms. These symptoms had been noticed after previous wars but there were only a couple of cases. In some cases, veterans did not experience their symptoms until a year after they returned. Thus, it was very easy for the government to ignore the effects of PTSD because it had such a delayed reaction.
This first section of the paper is a narrative of the way psychologists; physicians, historians, and scientists portrayed the effects of the Vietnam War on American soldiers according to the seven topics, which have been previously discussed.
Before the war, there were many reasons why men wanted to participate. Some felt that it was their duty to fight for their country and for freedom. The majority of them were drafted without a prior notice, while others escaped the drafting process and remained at home. Most of the books cited in this paper gloss over the reasons for going to war simply because there is nothing to analyze. Either they got drafted or they volunteered.
During the war, the main factor that affected the adjustments made by American soldiers and their attitudes was the DEROS system (date of expected return from overseas). Every individual serving in Vietnam knew before leaving the U.S. when he was scheduled to return. An individual's rotation lasted twelve to thirteen months. Thus, for the individual American soldier, the main attribute affecting combat motivation in the war was the operation of the rotation system. The soldier's primary concern was focused on reaching his personal DEROS instead of preparing and fighting in battle. Upon arrival to his unit and the first weeks thereafter, the soldier was excited to be in the war zone and may even have looked forward to engaging with the enemy. "However, after the first serious encounter, he lost his enthusiasm for combat. As he began to approach the end of his tour, the soldier noticeably began to give up; he became reluctant to engage in offensive combat operations."3 Thus, as soldiers came closer to their expected departure, they either withdrew themselves from battle or just became more careful in order to survive and return home safely.
From interviews and studies conducted on Vietnam veterans, the overall consensus is that American soldiers despised as well as feared the Vietnamese. Race was a critical factor affecting both the military and social experiences of American troops in Vietnam. Psychologists believe that there were two types of war. The first was considered the "good" war which took place from 1964-1968. The second was the "bad" war which occurred from 1968-1972. The earlier war was very conventional and traditional in that it involved the usual confrontation between opposing armies. "From the American G.l.'s point of view, the enemy was the North Vietnamese army whose members could be easily recognized and thus killed legally. The G.l.'s could relate easily to Vietnamese villagers, talk to them, and eat with them. The later war involved the confrontation between American troops and Vietnamese guerrillas as well as civilians who sometimes shielded the troops. The guerrilla warfare had booby traps and mines planted by an invisible enemy, or it seemed like to the Americans."4 These traps caused a lot of casualties among the American troops. At this stage of the war, Americans began to view all Vietnamese soldiers and civilians as the enemy and as racially inferior. Since the initial contact in Vietnam occurred in customary warfare activity, American's race awareness was hidden, practically dormant. However, when the enemy went into civilian villages and countryside to fight a guerrilla war, consisting of ambushes, mines, and booby traps, this resulted in closer contact with the Vietnamese people blurring the distinction between soldier and civilian. With the transformation of the war from "good" to "bad", American troops came to intensify their racial conceptions.
In a "good" war, armies meet on a battlefield where there are set rules and boundaries. It is a very formal situation. On the other hand, in guerrilla warfare there is no formalities, rules, or boundaries; there is no way of telling who was friend or foe. This unpredictable environment posed to be dangerous to the Americans because they were not accustomed to this type of battle. So when contacts between the Americans and Vietnamese came closer and more common, the G.l.'s became more prejudiced because it was their way of distinguishing between themselves and the Vietnamese. At the start of the war, it was the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong who were considered 4 4 gooks". South Vietnamese and civilians were friends to the American troops, they were not viewed as "gooks". "But when the war began to go bad, the American troops began to respect and de-racialize the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong because they saw how dedicated they were as fighters and how well they defended their homeland.5 At the same time, South Vietnamese and civilians became more racially inferior to the American troops because they got in the way of the war and thus were to blame for most of the casualties. There were many instances where woman and children would confront a group of Americans and have a grenade planted on their body ready to blow up. They didn't seem to realize that the Americans were there to help them, thus they were not trusted and were considered more racially inferior than the Vietnamese troops. All Vietnamese were initially viewed by Americans as members of a racially inferior group. However, the nature and conditions of their contact, that is as the war shifted from good to bad, changed how they viewed the Vietnamese.
Drugs and alcohol played a major role in the lives of the American soldiers during the Vietnam war. In the beginning of the war, marijuana was the main drug of choice. However, news that American soldiers were using drugs came back to the U.S., which resulted in immediate action by the military to suppress drugs, especially marijuana. After marijuana was banned, many soldiers turned to heroin in order to get their "high". Many soldiers enjoyed heroin better than marijuana because it sped up the perception of time, whereas marijuana slowed it down. Because marijuana, heroin, and alcohol were so abundant and inexpensive in Vietnam, veterans used them to ease the stress and sometimes to forget what they saw on the battlefield. As they returned to the states, drugs were not as easy to obtain. Some of the veterans were too young to legally buy alcohol. Other veterans actually stopped using drugs and alcohol, because it was hurting their marriage or relationships with others. These were usually the men who had left a stable home and were a little older. However, those young men who came back between the age of 19 and 23 had a much harder time adjusting to society. One of the tragic effects of the Vietnam drug situation was that some men were refused employment because they had served in Vietnam and employers considered this evidence of drug addiction. Since veterans had many problems adjusting to society, some continued to drink alcohol and do drugs not only to forget what they saw in Vietnam but to cope with the frustration and anguish of not being accepted into society.
The media had an immense effect on many individuals during the war. The public were informed about the war's progress through the media, television, and newspapers. Consequently, much of their opinions and beliefs about war and American soldiers were shaped by how the media viewed the war. Photographers were very influential in forming, changing, and molding public opinion. Some photographers were interested in showing the suffering and anguish of the soldier, whereas others wanted to emphasize the dignity, strength, and fearlessness of the American soldier. Those at home had no experience of how the soldier lived or what he had to deal with during the war. The media built up a stereotype of the soldier's life. These stereotypes are formed, directed, and censored for military and political reasons, which were designed to build up morale at home or show that there was progression and production of the war. When the soldier returned home, he was confused and annoyed to have seen that his family and friends did not understand what he had experienced and how he had changed. What the people at home had learned and discovered about the war, they had seen mostly through the media. Thus, whatever the media portrayed was what the public believed, but this didn't necessarily agree with what the soldier actually experienced. Psychologists found that it was important not only to prepare the veteran for the necessary process of adjustment, but it was also important to prepare the people at home. "They have to learn through the media, that the man whom they await will be somebody different from what they imagined him to be."6 In order to have facilitated the process of re-adjustment for the veteran, the public should have been told the truth as to what these men endured.
Many veterans were profoundly affected by the Vietnam war after they left. It changed their sense of identity and perspective of society. The various social, moral, and psychological conflicts that they encountered in battle changed their lives. Upon returning home, the veteran felt a sense of uncertainty and alienation from himself and society. He found that he was questioning himself pertaining to his sense of identity and his existence. After many cases of PTSD had arisen, psychologists engaged themselves in extensive studies that analyzed the process of identity formation and integration. They concluded that identity formation begins at birth and progresses until death. "As one grows up, there is a constant relationship, almost tug of war, between genetically based aspects of personality and the cultural influences that shape the personality and motivation of a person."7 As a child reaches adolescence or their teens, there seems to be a pressure on the formation of identity in order to integrate with the rest of society. This is the time when teens think they're responsible and they feel a sense of freedom and liberation from their parents. As the individual goes through this critical process of growing up, there must be some set of beliefs or values that will help them in forming a personal identity. This allows them to feel a sense of integration and acceptance within society.
Typically, the Vietnam soldier was between the ages of 17-25 years old. The fact that they were either drafted or volunteered for war had a big effect on their identity formation, depending on the kind and quality of their experiences in Vietnam. If, for example, these kids had good role models and a good sense of purpose and commitment while they were in Vietnam, then it would have been easier for them to cope with the horrifying events that took place there. Unfortunately, there was no commitment to the war, most of the soldiers had no idea why they were fighting, and there was a lot of controversy and confusion over the U.S. involvement in Vietnam that got widespread anti-war protests within the U.S. Thus, in Vietnam, due to a lack of a strong moral and political avocation for the war in addition to the guerrilla warfare, it was difficult for the soldier to control and predict the events occurring around him. During the war, the soldier often felt that all was hopeless, and nothing or nobody could be counted on to provide a sense of continuity necessary to a feeling of integration or connectedness.
After they returned home, in the process of establishing a personal identity and constructing new values, most veterans had to deal with rejections and criticisms by a non-accepting society. Many individuals struggled in trying to achieve self-unity which led to PTSD. The returning veteran needed social support, affection, and a positive welcoming from his community in order to work through the war experiences while establishing his sense of identity. Because he was unable to share his war experience with his family and friends, this led to loneliness and alienation and sometimes complete hatred of oneself.
There was a general feeling of hostility from the veterans towards the government, anti-war protesters, and even towards family and friends. The veterans were forgotten by the government and PTSD was swept under the bed. Unfortunately, PTSD had a delayed stress reaction so most veterans did not experience their symptoms until a year after they were discharged. There was a time limit of one year after which the Veterans Administration would not recognize neuropsychiatric problems as service connected. Thus the veteran couldn't get any disability compensation after one year, a time when they needed it the most. This provoked depression and temper problems. In general, there was a loss of faith in political leaders, political processes and trust in the worthiness of authority and institutions. When veterans came back to the states they were despised by protesters, isolated from their family and friends, and dejected by society. They were the victims of the worst injustice because they had given everything for their country, physically and emotionally, and received nothing, not even welcome home parades. It came to a point that veterans were in rage and felt used. They hated many people, but mainly those in the government. "They hated their peers who somehow escaped military service and now live a wonderful life. They hated profiteers and politicians because while soldiers were dying, they were getting rich and making capital of campaigns that cost the lives of many. To veterans, politicians and government officials were hated the most because all they did was talk about ideals and morals, and how to fight for them, when they had no idea of the process of enforcing these ideals meant in terms of pain, starvation, fear, and death."8 It seemed as though the federal government wanted to place veterans at a disadvantage to those that did not go to war as administrations cut off veterans' preferences in the civil service, and the educational benefits given to them contained less than half of the benefits of the GI bill of WWII. Some veterans had been exposed to Agent Orange, one of the first chemical warfare devices used, and wanted some sort of compensation, but the government didn't want to acknowledge that they had caused it. It was common for veterans to feel hostility towards their own government who allowed them to die off while those who survived were forgotten.
The Vietnam war was very different from any other previous war fought. Vietnam veterans were the first to fight in an American war that could not be recalled with pride. There were many more cases of PTSD among Vietnam veterans than any other war. "In the Korean war, if there were individual psychological breakdowns, there were clinicians which provided immediate treatment onsite so that the soldiers could go back into combat thereafter."9 In Vietnam, psychological breakdown was very low compared to the Korean war and WWII. Thus, it was decided that these preventive measures used in Korea had solved the problem of psychological breakdown in combat. However, the pattern of neuropsychiatric disorder for soldiers in WWII and Korea was a lot different for Vietnam. For WWII and Korea, the occurrence of neuropsychiatric disorder increased as the intensity of the wars increased, and as wars settled down, so did the frequency of disorders. However, in Vietnam, as the war progressed in intensity, there was no increase in neuropsychiatric disorders. Not until the war was ending did the disorders begin.
Some Vietnam veterans and psychologists believe that PTSD was so common after Vietnam and not after Korea or WWII because following the previous wars soldiers were brought home on boats which took them a longer time to get home, thus they had more time to reflect on their experiences. By the time they arrived at home, they had already talked to fellow war buddies about the horrors that they experienced. They were able to talk about their feelings with somebody before they got home, which is what Vietnam veterans lacked. Instead, Vietnam veterans took a relatively short airplane ride home by themselves and really didn't get a chance to talk with anyone who understood what they had been through. By the time they arrived at home, they didn't feel comfortable talking to their families about their war experiences because they wouldn't understand and would probably think less of him.
Another reason why Vietnam veterans experienced PTSD more than Korean veterans was because of systems used to decide when to bring back the soldiers. In Korea, they used the point system. After an individual accumulated a certain amount of points, he was rotated home no matter at what stage of the war. In Vietnam, they used the DEROS system in which an individual was rotated home on a specific date. The absence of a warm welcome home parade can be attributed to this rotational system because it returned veterans from the war in an individual and isolated manner. Thus, the Vietnam war became an individualized event for each man. His war began the day he arrived and ended the day he left. Because of this individualism, unit integration suffered because complete strangers were sometimes transferred into units whenever an individual's rotation was completed. In past wars, unit cohesion acted like a buffer for the individual against the stresses of combat.
What has distinguished Vietnam veterans from most of their predecessors is that the public's detestation of the war seemed to be directed onto them, as if it was their fault. Thus they did not return as heroes, but as men suspected in participating in shocking cruelty and wickedness or feared to be drug addicts. The combination of society rejecting them, the government ignoring them, and their families not understanding to them, caused Vietnam veterans to self-destruct both mentally and sometimes physically.
The Vietnam War as Portrayed by Popular Film
This section of the paper focuses on the way film has portrayed the Vietnam War. Six films have been chosen to serve this purpose. They include Apocalypse Now, Born on The 4t" of July, Forrest Gump, Full Metal Jacket Good Morning Vietnam, and Platoon. The basis used to decide on these particular films to analyze was simple. They were chosen because they cover and portray various aspects of the Vietnam War, and because these six films were the films remembered by the most people over the course of the first three EDGE sections including eight people. In other words, to get the best view of what audiences are seeing portrayed about the Vietnam War in films, it is crucial to view those films which would have had the greatest impact on society, namely, the popular and well known films. This was the criteria used in choosing these six Vietnam War films, because they appear to have been viewed the most and thus have had the best opportunity to influence and affect the attitudes of today's society.
This section of the paper will focus on the way in which these six films have portrayed the Vietnam War according to the seven topics which have been previously discussed. Interestingly, the main character of each film narrates all six films. Every film often used this technique because it allows the character to express his inner thoughts and feelings to the audience. The Vietnam War was an emotional roller coaster for most of its participants; therefore knowing what they thought and felt is therefore crucial when attempting to understand the War. Also, every film's main character and point of view was from that of a low ranking soldier in either the army or the marines.
Reasons for going to the Vietnam War
Of the films that addressed this topic, the majority seemed to suggest that young men volunteered for the War out of a sense of duty and loyalty to their great country. One soldier said, "I just want to live up to what grandpa did in the first war and what dad did in the second. I just want to do my share for my country" (Platoon). Born on the 4th of July really seemed to emphasize how the main character wanted to serve his country "like a man"; he looked forward to defending and fighting for freedom. In Full Metal Jacket, the main character indicates that he joined the marines "to become a killing machine." By volunteering to serve, young men were doing what was right and honorable. They would fight for the freedom that America believed in, instead of letting communist-rule spread to Vietnam. Volunteering to go to Vietnam meant you were making your family and nation proud.
Some of the films, however, did not directly address why the soldiers had gone to the Vietnam War. In Apocalypse Now, the main character reveals his anxiousness to return to the War, but it is not until he is called upon to run an undercover mission that he gets his chance. Both in Good Morning Vietnam and Forrest Gump, the men were simply at war, no reason was given as to why they had joined or, if drafted, how they felt about being at war. In Platoon however, two soldiers ridicule and call the main character crazy when he reveals that he volunteered to serve; in their eyes it was unfortunate to have been drafted and have to serve.
Although not everyone willfully volunteered to patriotically serve, the overall message from the films was that the young men who went to the War felt they were doing something right and, in the least, were doing nothing that they could later be ashamed of.
Soldier's Reactions and Adjustments to the War
Most of the films portrayed the soldiers as maturing and evolving as the war progressed. The soldiers' initial reactions to the war environment were very different from the soldiers' make-up and outlook at the end of each film.
The soldiers new to the War were portrayed as ignorant and immature when it came to the ins and outs of war. In every film, the hierarchy of ranks between those who give orders and punishment and those who receive the orders and punishment is made painfully obvious. Those who do not take orders well are weeded out, scolded, and punished until an adjustment is made. For example, Forrest Gump is immediately scolded upon arriving in the field after he salutes his commanding officer; the Vietcong could have been watching. Another example is the beating of a marine who is slow to adjust in Full Metal Jacket gets beaten by his entire unit. They claimed he needed help with his motivation.
In most of the movies, the soldiers in the unit became closer as time passes. The only antagonist to the group is usually the unit leader when he is yelling or punishing the disobedient unit. However, Platoon takes the problems within the unit to another level. Not only is there disputes between the leader and the soldiers, but there was also constant bickering and fighting among the U.S. soldiers. The main character remarked, "I can't believe we're fighting ourselves when we should be fighting them."
As time passed and the soldiers gained experience and exposure to the War, they began to transform. At first, the inexperienced soldiers were timid, frightened, and sensitive to the stresses and casualties of the battlefield. They hesitated during combat and came close to getting killed. They saw many of their friends right next to them being slaughtered and blown apart. The only thing that got them through to the next day despite their intense sense of fear was the animal instinct to survive. And as the War wore on, it seemed that the fear and anxiety built up to a point were they could no longer
tolerate it. The soldiers grew tired of worrying about death and became desensitized to the thought of dying. In Apocalypse Now, the soldiers travel down a river which is symbolic of their exposure to the War. The farther they travel down that river (i.e. the more combat they see), the more desensitized and animalistic they become. It seemed as though the soldiers who saw heavy combat realized that being scared to die and being hesitant in war accomplishes nothing. "I am so happy to be alive," says the main character of Full Metal Jacket. "I am in a world of shit-yes. And I am not afraid." Instead of fretting over the next encounter with the Vietcong, they became more and more brave and careless and actually began to enjoy killing. As the main character of Platoon shoots down Vietnamese soldiers in a killing frenzy towards the end of the film, he exhilaratedly screams, "This is fuckin' beautiful."
Soldiers' feelings toward the Vietnamese
A constant throughout all of these movies is the derogatory manner used to speak of the Vietnamese. The terms "Vietcong" or "civilians" were seldom used to describe the Vietnamese people. Most often they were just labeled and referred to as "gooks" among the U.S. soldiers. This suggests that the soldiers had little respect for Vietnamese people in general.
Another issue conveyed through most of the films was the trust factor. The U.S. soldiers knew they had come to protect the Vietnamese people, yet the enemy, the Vietcong or "Charlie," was also made up of Vietnamese people. The soldiers did not know who to shoot and who to protect. Who could they trust for sure? For example, the soldiers in Platoon walk into a civilian village and are frustrated because they cannot tell the difference between innocent civilians and the Vietcong. Out of fear and frustration, they begin to shoot some of the villagers. A soldier looking at a little old Vietnamese woman remarks, "I wonder if grandma runs the whole fuckin' show," referring to her being part of the Vietcong. The U.S. soldiers wanted to believe they could trust some Vietnamese people, but every time another one of their close friends in their unit died at the hands of a Vietnamese soldier, the U.S. soldiers seemed to care less about killing them and became quicker to pull the trigger.
Some of the films portrayed the U.S. soldiers treating the Vietnamese as less than human. Killing these people meant nothing to the soldiers. They are the enemy, and even if they are just civilians, they are still "gooks" from which the enemy forces are born. In these films, the soldiers have no sensitivity or expression of emotion when they kill someone from the other side. For example, the unit leader in Apocalypse Now small talks about surfing as he walks through a battlefield of freshly killed Vietnamese soldiers. This type of portrayal trivializes the lives of the Vietnamese and is meant to show us that the U.S. soldiers felt no remorse when killing them.
Other films portrayed the U.S. soldiers' mixed emotions and feelings toward the Vietnamese. These films illustrated how the duty of war and the soldiers' fears and frustrations forced them to kill like any soldier would. Yet the killing is at least accorded a second thought. These films did not portray the U.S. soldiers as guiltless killing machines, but rather as soldiers who are emotional and sensitive to the human beings on the other side. In one scene of Platoon, the main character is shooting at Vietnamese people in frustration. Yet the very next scene he is protecting a Vietnamese girl from getting raped. Contrasting these acts evokes the audience the range of feelings the U.S. soldiers felt toward the Vietnamese people. In Born on the 4'h of July, the main character struggles psychologically with his memories of accidentally killing an innocent Vietnamese family. Yet another example is how the main character of Good Morning Vietnam becomes a friend to many Vietnamese civilians throughout the movie. These kinds of images and portrayals suggest that the U.S. soldiers viewed the Vietnamese as people, and not just a distant, unknowable enemy.
Alcohol and Drug Use
Drugs and alcohol were consumed in every single film. Most of the films had multiple scenes in which either the soldiers were smoking pot or drinking beer or hard liquor. Consuming the alcohol or doing the drugs was not portrayed as out of the ordinary; no one seemed to have a problem with it. In fact, it was portrayed to be widely accepted and practiced by all of the main characters in every movie, except for Forrest Gump. Even the unit leaders in Platoon were smoking pot with the troops. In Apocalypse Now, the unit leader declares to one of his soldiers, "Nice shot. I'll get you a case of beer for that one." Alcohol and drugs (mainly marijuana, and in one case acid) seemed to be readily available to anyone who wanted them. They were portrayed as one of the few pleasures or rewards soldiers received during the Vietnam War for a hard day's work.
The drugs and alcohol usually seemed to be consumed for one of two reasons always. The soldiers were either using them casually in their leisure time for pleasure, or are more actively employing them to drown their sorrows and stresses from the war. Alcohol was consumed in every movie by at least one soldier for this latter reason. In Platoon for instance, many soldiers in the unit would retire to what they called "the underworld," a tent where the soldiers could drink and smoke to relax and forget about the madness of the day's battle. In Apocalypse Now, Born on the 4 th of July, and Forrest Gum , the soldiers also abuse alcohol after they have left the War in their attempts to come to grips with what happened to them in the Vietnam War. Regardless of the various reasons drugs and alcohol were employed in the movies, the scenes in which they were used are portrayed as one of the few times during the War that the soldiers were ever smiling and getting along with one another as a group.
Surprisingly, many of the films portrayed how the media played a part in shaping the War and how the media had its own agenda. Some of the movies actually had film crews on the battlefields taking pictures and rolling live footage. In Good Morning Vietnam, the main character is a popular Vietnam radio disc jockey with thousands of soldiers as everyday listeners. In Full Metal Jacket the main character is both a soldier and also a journalist for a newspaper.
The films illustrate how media is as a tool to shape how the War was portrayed for both the soldiers and civilians back in the U.S. These portrayals of the War could either be in favor of the War and American involvement, or against our soldiers and the War. For example, a film crew in Full Metal Jacket interviews the soldiers for a program to show to the public back in the States. They ask the soldiers, "Does America belong in Vietnam?" A soldier responds, "I don't know." By showing this type of answer to society back at home, people would feel that even the soldiers are uncertain as to why they are at war. It would promote people to be against American involvement. The newspaper editor in Full Metal Jacket acknowledged how the War was being portrayed back at home. "This is not a popular war." He then explained to his journalists that their job was to try and portray the War as positive as possible. He said, "We run only two kinds of stories here: Stories which win the hearts and minds of society, and combat action that results in a kill-winning the war." Good Morning Vietnam also portrayed this concept of the media selectively picking and choosing which news it wants to report. Before the disc jockey is permitted to read the news over the air and inform the soldiers in Vietnam of the latest developments, he had to first give it to radio officials who checked its content. The officials would censor negative events out of the report, thus shaping the truth about what was really happening in the War.
Though films are media in themselves, these Vietnam War movies seem to feel felt that, in order to give the most accurate portrayal, they should illustrate how the media at that time effected the way in which the War was viewed and accepted.
After the War
How Exposure to the Vietnam War Affected Soldiers Mentally and Physically
The films all suggested that the War had lasting effects on the soldiers who participated in it. All of the main characters were exposed to war, and all of them came close to being killed. Three were actually shot, and two were left without legs as a result of their participation in the War.
Besides the obvious physical effects of participating in the Vietnam War, most of the films portrayed how exposure to the War left lasting psychological effects in most of the soldiers. Many factors during the Vietnam War combined to affect the soldiers' thoughts, emotions, and minds. They felt they could not trust any of the Vietnamese, which made them paranoid most of the time. They constantly feared death and were deeply traumatized as they saw their comrades being shredded to pieces by bullets and mines. They were also frustrated and confused, not knowing exactly where they were going or how America was going to win the War. In the end, they all realized that their blood, sweat, and tears accomplished nothing; we lost the War. These films illustrated how all of these factors contributed to the psychological effects of the Vietnam War.
Some of the films portrayed soldiers who were being affected mentally even before they had left the battlefields. After a great degree of exposure to war and towards the end of the film, the main character of Platoon states, "Day by day, I struggle not only to maintain my strength, but my sanity."
Many of the films portrayed how the psychological effects of war remained with the soldiers well beyond their stay in Vietnam. The veterans struggle to forget the painful memories and traumatic experiences. The main characters of both Apocalypse Now and Born on the 4th of July have vivid flashbacks. These flashbacks would then remind them of the War's stress, confusion, and frustration, thus affecting their lives and families well after the War had ended. "Every time I wake up I always think I'm in the jungle, but then I realize there is nothing. I've divorced my wife. All I can think of is getting back to the jungle. Every minute I sit in this room I get weaker, and Charlie is getting stronger" (Apocalypse Now). One experienced soldier concludes, "You must make horror your friend."
The traumatic experiences of the Vietnam War seemed to be too painful and intense to ever forgive or forget. The films illustrated how the stresses and ills of the War impacted its participants in such a way that they never could have the power to just let it go. The War had changed them forever. The main character of Platoon perhaps summed it up best when he said, "The War is over for me now, but it will be in me for the rest of my days."
Veteran Attitudes toward life at Home
Only three of the films depicted the life of a soldier after he had returned home. Born on the 4t" of July contributed the most information, with the majority of the movie being devoted to this particular topic. The other films concentrated on the lives of soldiers during their participation in the War.
When it is portrayed, the post-war period for Vietnam veterans is portrayed negatively. Both Forrest Gump and Born on the 4th of July illustrate how soldiers came home to anti-war protests and protesters. The veteran in Born on the 4th of July responds to this saying, "Love it or leave it you fuckin' bastards." Even the families of the veterans are divided as to whom they support. They want to support their sons and brothers, yet seeing how they return from the War with permanent physical and psychological effects, the families tended to regret that American soldiers were ever involved in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War altered the soldiers' views and perspectives in a way that only other veterans could relate to. They return home with sentiments such as, "Everything looks so different." It seemed to the soldiers that "Home did not exist anymore" (Apocalypse Now). They cannot relate to normal life anymore, especially when no one can relate or understand what they have been through. Instead of being proud of their bravery and honor, civilians they encounter at home tell the veteran to "take your Vietnam War and shove it up your ass" (Born on the 4th of July). An old friend who went to college instead of the War tells the main character of Born on the 4th of July how he and many other civilians at home felt after the War. He says: "People here, they don't give a shit about the War. To them it was just a million miles away. We got the shit kicked out of us-and for what? For bullshit lies?"
Coming home to views such as these, veterans did not know how to react, what to think, or how to feel. All they knew is that they had risked their lives for their country and no one appreciated their efforts and courage. Instead of being glorified, their actions and contributions were protested in their faces. The initial response of the main character in Born on the 4t" of July is to stand strong to his beliefs in honor, loyalty, and pride. He was not ashamed of losing his legs for such a noble cause, and he feels that the protesters of the War are simply ignorant and wrong. It seemed as though all he wanted to receive from those back at home was a pat on the back for his efforts in Vietnam. Yet that pat on the back never came. Frustrated with the lack of respect he receives, he cries out, "I just want to be treated like a human being. I fought for my country. I am a Vietnam War veteran! "
Constantly surrounded by civilians who cannot relate to what soldiers went through or how they now feel, the Vietnam veterans began to succumb to the beliefs and views of those who did not go to the War. Instead of remaining proud of what they believe in and what they had fought for, the veterans in Born on the 4th of July to gradually deteriorate and weaken in their stance. They begin to hate the War as well. The main character admits that he would trade in the morals and beliefs that he had fought for to have his body back whole again. As time passes, he complains more and more openly about the problems the Vietnam War has caused him.
Not knowing who to blame for the sorrows they feel now, the veterans in Born on the 4th of July begin to believe it is the government’s fault. The film ends with the main character and many other veterans as anti-war protestors themselves, declaring statements such as: "They told us to go, we'd fight communism." "This country lied to me, it told me to fight against the Vietnamese." "We love America, but it stops with the government. The government is corrupt. They are killing our brothers in Vietnam."
All three films that depicted life after the War showed how the veterans had problems not only physically and psychologically, but also socially. Born on the 4th of July was a film devoted to these problems, illustrating how Vietnam veterans were at first self-assured and proud but over time became confused and bitter. The veterans are extremely desperate to make sense of it all. Perhaps the best example of this is when the main character woefully asked another veteran, "Do you remember things we could care about before we all got so lost?"
Today, most people in the United States do not even know what a "C.I.B." is. It is a small, simple, blue badge worn by the members of a very exclusive fraternity. This fraternity isn't academic or athletic or dedicated to making money. Yet, the admission standard was very strict. Not all the members of this fraternity wanted to join, but every single member paid the same dues. The cost of membership was easy to understand. To belong, you had to be willing to kill other human beings and the only way out of this club was to die or go insane. The school was the University of South Vietnam and graduation was a bitch.
The United States Army awards the "Combat Infantryman's Badge" to infantry soldiers who served in a combat unit, line crew, fire team, or in some other combat capacity during a time of war. Maybe it isn't the most famous medal or award but it is the most honored. Only the "Medal of Honor" is worn above this beautiful, hard symbol. For the men that display this badge, the world is a different place and their perception of life and other human beings is a closely kept secret. Only their fraternity brothers know the truth or would understand the meaning. They witness life through different eyes now and their personal perspective is forever tinted with blood and pain and terror. Not everyone survived the initiation.
The ones that did survive eventually filtered back to their homes and began life again. Trying to forget, trying to remember, these soldiers will always be haunted by the intensity, desperation and camaraderie of their tour of duty. Some were welcomed home with open arms and others spit upon, but all were changed. Tens of thousands died, hundreds of thousands were wounded or captured while their friends and family sat each night and calmly watched this nightmare unfold on TV. A dark time for this country that in some strange way defines us as a nation now. Because of these men and this violent time in our history we are, as a nation, even more decisive and aggressive when there are American lives at stake.
Truly, this will be the only reward for this brotherhood of warriors and a lesson well learned. Time is a blessed healer for these fighters but it is also a teacher for the country that asked of them more than should have been asked. Assimilated and made to disappear after the Vietnam war, this group of men are finally getting the chance to speak out and answer questions about their experiences. Dispersed throughout society, these aging combat soldiers now have sons the same age they were during the fighting. Sons and daughters that would judge for themselves the effects of war and peace on men and society.
The following is an interview done with one of these soldiers. My father, Eddy L. Stevenson, was drafted into the U.S. Army in February, 1969. Working and going to college part time, he did not meet the criteria of the draft deferment laws during this time and so found himself in basic Army training at Ft. Bliss, Texas. Since he had been a full time college student for the three previous years, he was one of the older draftees. He was almost 21 years old.
After basic training he was shipped straight into infantry training at Ft. Ord, California. There on the beautiful Monterey peninsula he was given instruction in the deadly art of mortal combat. The instruction was a gruesome eight weeks of physical abuse, emotional intimidation and weapons training given by experienced combat veterans. His platoon sergeant (having served two tours in Vietnam) was 21 years old and his company commander (also two tours) was 23 years old. The company's first sergeant was an "old" man at 29 years old. In their offices hung many pictures and trophies (don't ask me to describe these trophies) of their tours of duty in South East Asia. They were "stone killers", combined these three men had 70 confirmed combat kills. The training in the white sand of Monterey Bay was very hard and very serious.
The rewards for graduation from infantry school were a promotion to Private First Class ($315.00/month), a fourteen day leave, and orders to Vietnam. A fast trip home only to say "good-bye" and "I love you", he saw the terror in his family's eyes as he left. Two weeks and a few days later he stepped off a shaky Huey helicopter as a jungle warrior replacement. Every life has its darkest days and this was the beginning of an uninterrupted nightmare that lasted almost four months. His memories are somewhat faded now, out of sequence and softened, but still important, if for no other reason than to document a dark place where humans should not go.
Like all places, the jungles of Vietnam also had many names, " boonies", "bush", "Indian country", "he field". And, like any other society it had a language of its own: ambush, search and destroy, trip flare, claymore, C4, CA, RPG, LAW, 16, 60, det chord, C's, LRP rations, frags, dinks, gooks, NVA. Some remembered phrases and words still provoke strong feelings for some of these men. The worst word was "contact". Contact with the enemy, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), almost always meant that human beings were going to die. From small skirmishes to battalion size battles the killing was done with hatred and done wantonly. "Yea, as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for I am the baddest son-of-a-bitch in the valley."
Can you imagine a tired, dirty, scared infantry company made up of twenty-year old draftees armed to the teeth and in a bad mood? These were not the strike troops of the first years. These were not privileged sons, they were poor and middle class youngsters that could not avoid the draft. There were no volunteers in these combat units and the only thing that kept them in the field and together was fear and personal pride. They would rather have died than be called a coward and that is exactly what they did, die by the thousands. The conditions and quality of the American effort by this time are more than evidenced by one statistic. 30% of all the casualties during this period came from friendly fire. If you walked out of the perimeter to do your latrine business you better make danm sure that you could get back in because a certain percentage of the kids on guard were most likely stoned, drunk or flat-out terrified. How's that for a nightmare?
With this scenario in mind I interviewed my father about his tour of duty. His response, while carefully considered, is certainly subjective and in no way represents the thoughts or feelings of all other veterans. In June of 1969 he received orders to report to the 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry of the 11th Brigade of the Americal Division in the I Corps of South Vietnam. He was assigned to Company D, 1st platoon, 1st squad and there began his tour of duty with eighty-eight other lost souls. As he stepped off the re-supply chopper he was directed to where his fire team was digging their fox hole for the night. There he met the "men" he would try to stay alive with for the next year: Sal, Birdman, Woody, Wolfman and the Cowboy. Some seemed very young, others very old, but all were stone killers.
My father describes it as a trip through the Twilight Zone, a Freddy Cruggar (Friday the 13th) movie and Disneyland all rolled into one. His three months in the field were spent during the dry season in the central highlands patrolling in a "free fire zone." It was during this time that the American Army sustained the heaviest casualties of the war and saw the worst fighting. Entire infantry companies were being over-run by sizable forces of NVA soldiers. This intense experience came to a very sudden end three months later. He was wounded in action on August 28th, 1969. Delta Company was caught in an ambush and he was hit with rocket fire in both legs, right hip and left arm. Within the span of a very bad three hours, Delta company went from eight-eight soldiers down to twenty-one. He spent the next eighteen months in three different Army hospitals.
Eighteen months, five operations and thirty pieces of rocket shrapnel later he was debriefed, discharged and sent back to Texas to begin his life again. In the short debriefing he was asked only one question by the Army psychiatrist. The question was "I see from your file that you have confirmed kills, does this experience make you want to kill other people?" When he said "no" the Army psychiatrist said only "Good, that is all I wanted to hear, you're dismissed." Back to the world, back on the street and back to the society that asked of him more than should have been asked.
I knew the answer to the first question of the interview but I wanted to confirm it anyway. To the question, why did you participate in the war, he answered, "I had no choice, I was drafted." He told me his thoughts about the war before he was drafted. "I was a typical college student. I didn't really even know where Vietnam was or why we were there. All I definitely knew was that friends, relatives and classmates were dying. I did not want to go and from what I saw and heard it was nothing but a political mess that for some unknown reason, continued endlessly. Although, once I was involved in the fighting it became personal. All I cared about was survival and I could have cared less about right or wrong, good or bad. Now, its a different story. I've had 30 years to evaluate and educate myself as to what really happened. Now, I know the truth. It sucked, it was wrong and all that will ever come of it is an expensive lesson in how politicians and government officials must be monitored and controlled."
Nine out of ten soldiers in Vietnam never saw combat or any violence. They were support troops, supplying rations, munitions, transportation, and etc. to the troops in the field. As a combat soldier, I wanted to know what his first reactions to the bloodshed and violence were. "Some of my first and strongest memories were of dead bodies, lined up nice and straight, waiting to be taken who knows where. Mostly they were black clad Viet Cong or NVA soldiers but some were Gl's. My reaction, like everyone else's was, oh shit, this is not good! How did I let this happen to myself and how am I going to get out of this! After the first few days passed, I realized I wasn't going to get out of it. My reaction then was to adapt, whatever that meant, depressed, sad, scared to death, I wanted my mommie."
"Yes, my reactions to the violence evolved greatly while I was there. Exactly like everyone else, I adapted to my situation. I very quickly found a peer group and followed their lead. It just so happened that my peer group was a fire team of six, 19-21 year old boys that happened to be stone killers. I adapted. Just like you would, just like we all did, I slowly learned the art of hatred and wanton killing of the enemy. I very quickly learned to hate dinks and gooks with every fiber of my being and relished the effort of killing as many as I could. They were trying desperately to kill me too. They hated us more than we hated them."
The intensity of the these feelings is a little hard to look at but I wanted to know if this extreme level of emotion and violence still affected his life today, so I asked him if the war effected him mentally or physically. "No" is all he said. "If it does, it is so complicated that I don't know how to verbalize it."
He had much more to say when I asked how he felt about the Vietnamese people while he was there. "My feelings about the Viet Cong and NVA soldiers transcended hate. I would have murdered them happily. My feelings about the civilian population bordered on venomous. Not only did I feel superior to them, the burning hatred in their eyes scared me. Soon after my arrival in Vietnam the truth was obvious. Even the South Vietnamese civilians hated Gl's and the American Army. We'd bombed their cities, villages and country flat. We killed, wounded and maimed members of their families and raped their culture. I often wondered how I would feel toward them if they had invaded the US and done to our country what we'd done to theirs. We invaded their land and took control of it and for years there was an army of 500,000 twenty year old fighters, armed to the teeth, in a bad mood, roaming all over their country. When you ask the Americans for help you better be careful what you ask for."
"The only emotions I still harbor about my experiences with the Vietnamese people are the feelings of discomfort I experience around all Orientals now. It took me a little while to sort through those feelings but now I believe that my discomfort comes from the real hatred I saw on the faces of so many of the Vietnamese. I am still uneasy when I find myself exposed to a group made up of this race of people. This may seem strange to say but I definitely am more tolerant of other races, religions and ideologies because of my time in Vietnam. I saw first hand that all people are the same. They all need and want the same things and will definitely kill other humans to defend their homes, families and interests. Culture, religion, ideas and theories may be different but none of that makes any difference anyway. All that counts is love of family, loyalty to quality behavior and protection of individual rights and freedoms. All people, American or Vietnamese, react the same to these simple truths. While I was in Vietnam I definitely 'did not' see the quality in tolerant behavior and respect for other cultures, just the opposite. What I learned then was 'might is right' and whoever could bring the most fire power to bear was the superior race. Although, once I was safe and back to the world, the lesson was different. The lesson I carried for the rest of my life is never, never underestimate any other human being. No matter how small, ignorant or uneducated they are, they are all capable of magnificent feats of sacrifice, bravery and indescribable violence."
A common topic of discussion about the Vietnam War is the role drugs and alcohol played. Was it as prevalent as is commonly believed? Why and how were they abused so badly by some of the troops in Vietnam? This was another topic about which Dad had solid thoughts. "Drugs and alcohol were cheap, readily available and legal. Not only that, but these twenty-year old men were going on seventy. What I mean is, that these child soldiers were making and enforcing life and death decisions daily and had given their very lives over to the fact that probably they weren't going to make it home alive anyway. They gave a damn about legal or ethical or right. All they cared about was survival, peer group loyalties, friendship and then escape from the reality of this unending nightmare. Our time in Vietnam was probably unique in the history of warfare. These boys were conscripted and sent to hell by the most organized, legalized, controlled, powerful government to ever exist. There was no way out except to die in Vietnam, go to prison, or be branded a coward by your family and community. How dare anyone even ask a question about what was the right thing or wrong thing for these soldiers do. These were college kids, young workers and young fathers forced to police and kill other humans. Whether to get stoned or drunk was a very minor issue to these men. Their lives and welfare, during this time, hinged on much more important issues than smoking marijuana or drinking Jack Daniel's or prostitutes, these were trivial pursuits. These were issues never thought of or cared about by combat troops. Discipline and order regarding these things was an internal matter and taken care of internally. What the world knew or approved of was invisible to these men. Only half the troops were heads (a slang term soldiers used to describe people who used drugs or alcohol), the other half were very straight."
"There was a problem though after all the heads returned home. In Vietnam these powerful men were making individual decisions based only on what they needed and wanted at the time. Back in the world they found that their status was significantly less meaningful and much less valuable than it had been in the bush. This country tolerated and condoned their actions in the line of duty but back here it was outlawed. One reward we were given for the risk we faced there was individual freedom. When the risk ended so too did the right to react freely. When they returned home, their experiments in freedom of choice were forced underground, but we all knew it was for the best. It was just going to take a while to get ourselves straight and back into the flow of our society. It is weird that many hardened combat vets could die from an OD on some dirty street somewhere in their own country. Again, only half the troops were heads, the other half were straight."
The media, especially TV, was a significant player in the Vietnam War. Even today most of the information and history of this conflict is documented by film, video and news broadcasts of the day. I ask my Dad what he remembered of the media coverage before, during and after he was there. "Before I went, it was the only readily available source of information I had and it was intensive coverage. As I look back now I realize that there were so many reports and stories coming into our home that the truth was fairly apparent years before I went. Maybe in the first years the press waved the flag and distorted the truth but not in the last years. I think the American public knew full well what was going on by the end and it was the massive amount of information shown by the media that finally brought the war to its end. The media had no effect on the line crews or any of the troops in Vietnam while they were there. Incoming information was censored anyway. The strangest thing about all the media coverage was how callused the American people became to seeing the death toll statistics each day. Even as a child I wondered about it. What a nightmare it must have been for the parents and loved ones of the soldiers to see those numbers each evening on the TV news. I remember thinking to myself that for each casualty there was a mother and father somewhere. How much grief can one country bear each day? Or, maybe the only reason I even noticed was because I knew there was a good chance that I would have to participate in the fighting."
We've all seen and heard about the stereotypical combat vet that returns home and because of his deeply violent experiences can not find a normal life. Episodes of nightmares and emotional problems are commonly reported and documented among returning fighters. Yet, this can't be the norm or describe the feelings of the greatest majority of them. Most of them came home and resumed normal lives. My father went back to the job he left and the life he'd begun as a young man. I asked him how his exposure to life and death combat situations changed him as a person. "It was a little strange when I first got home. To be in a civilized environment, so far from all that bloodshed was a little confusing. I mean, it was hard to decide which world was real. Both were a part of my reality but now neither seemed steady or confident to me. Once bitten, twice shy. After the intensity of Vietnam, all I knew was I did not want to go back there but I also knew that the world I'd come home to was a fake. I knew then and I still know today that safety and security are an abstract illusion. The citizens of this country take peace and prosperity for granted every second of their lives. Instead of causing nightmares and emotional problems the war changed my attitude and perception. The same boy that left Texas did not return. The violence and desperation of that experience taught me the essence of what happiness, physical safety and individual freedom truly is. Now, I would endure it all over again to protect my family and their happiness, physical safety and individual freedom."
"Killing other humans is easy, it's the dying that's hard. Not fighting back was never an option where I was. The infantry company I was with worked in a 'free fire zone.' A legally designated area in which anything or anyone (man, woman or child) we found there was either enemy or enemy property. This area was well marked and the purpose was clear. These free fire zones were set up to stop the flow of munitions and troops into the more populated areas down south. Anything in a free fire zone was to be killed or destroyed and there were supposed to be no civilians in these areas. In these places there was no quarter given and none asked. They (NVA) didn't take prisoners here and neither did we. The short term effects of this reality were unbelievable. Again, that trapped feeling (panic) of how did I get here and how the hell can I get out of here stayed with me. Another short term effect was utterly human: adapt or die. Again, I adapted and before too long began to find some calmness and a measure of comfort. I was surprised at how my fear began to subside. I must say the initial fear was overwhelming though and during an engagement the fear steadily grew worse. Mostly, other members of my company went home, some died. I desperately wanted the former and at the same time I was terrified it would be the latter."
"To evaluate the long term effects of killing another human being must be done in a strict context. The long term effects of 'kill or be killed' are completely subjective. Nothing that is justified is destructive emotionally. Obviously, all the killing in Vietnam wasn't justifiable, some was murder, some was accidental but all of the killing on both sides shared one commonalty. Whatever the reason and no matter what the situation, whom ever the killer was, he was definitely glad and relieved it wasn't him that was being killed. After the killing is done there is no going back. After the shaking stops, the breathing becomes normal and the intense panic subsides, the doubts and questions about the moral dilemma you just faced come to the surface. Who know show combat vets answer these questions about justifiable homicide. Some try to answer these questions their entire lives. One thing is for certain though, we are all glad it wasn't us that died. The question should not be, how did the soldiers deal with these moral dilemmas? It should be, how did their country deal with these returning soldiers? If the violence they committed and witnessed can not be justified in some context it makes them sick."
My fathers' return to this country was different than the average homecoming. Arriving on a hospital ship, he was carried through the crowd on a stretcher. He was flown into Oakland where most of the anti-war protests were staged. He did witness a large protest when he arrived. What must that have been like to see crowds of college students and other protesters denouncing what he'd done, singing, smoking pot, in total disdain for anyone that hadn't deserted or dropped out before they were forced into battle for the establishment. This was in late 1969, less than a year from when this dream began. I asked him how he felt when he returned. "They had already warned us about the protesters. They also body searched us for weapons because there had been incidents of violence between protesters and returning vets. If those protesters could have heard what the returning combatants said about them they would have left instantly and never returned, grateful to live to see one more minute of life. What they did, what this country allowed them to do, was the absolute darkest moment of American history. This time, this instant, this act will be recorded as the worst display of character, integrity and low quality this country will ever know. It signals and exemplifies for all humans how not to be. This was the highest treason against this country and should have been punishable by (???). Right or wrong, justified or not these young men were tortured to death for this country and politics don't mean shit, economy don't mean shit, and philosophy don't mean shit! Unforgivable! The height of ignorance that transcends intelligent behavior, these were animals. The damage they did is uncalculatable. I hated them all then and I still do. I would have hurt them if I could have."
"I did have a secret though. Something the politicians, the government, the shitty protesters and all the people of this country didn't know. The secret was, I survived. Not only did I survive but I was going to be alright despite all of them. Never again would I be like them or participate in their country or their system, or their abstract laws that made them all my equals. Not only would I never be trapped like that again but I would see to it that none of my children were either. This idiot country is nothing but an idiot system and never again would I let other humans control my destiny. Never again would I be drafted, coerced, threatened or conscripted by anyone. Funny as this sounds, Conan the Barbarian said it best, if it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger. The bottom line is this stupid country, in all its fake, ignorant, shallow behavior did do something great for me. It forced me to get tough or die, now I'm ready. Just as if it were yesterday, I'm ready.
Having researched each section individually, we will now compare and contrast our findings. We want to point out that any similarities found among the three sources of information are not the result of collective collaboration prior to conducting our research. Rather, the findings we common to all three sections are just simply what we found to be in common after individually gathering our information. In other words, we did not biasedly set our to find information we felt ahead of time would be common to each source. We had no expectations on what similarities and differences we would find. Because of this, we feel our findings can be concluded to be that much more accurate and credible, as they arose from not just one but three different genres of information. Besides our findings, we also offer our insights and reasons as to why these similarities and differences between the accounts occur.
The first section was the reasons for going Vietnam. Both the psychological study and the one-on-one interview found that the majority of people that went to Vietnam were drafted. Interestingly, the majority of the films portrayed the main character as volunteering for their duty. We feel this difference occurs because films want to simply make a good story. When someone volunteers with patriotic and noble aspirations to serve their great country it is easier to show more of a change in their own beliefs and ideals. This is a much more interesting scenario that a simple draftee that was forced to go against his will.
Our next section researched was soldiers' reactions and adjustments to the war. All three sections did find that soldiers adapted and reacted like they had to in order to survive. However, the psychological study section found that as soldiers were nearing their departure date from Vietnam, they became more reluctant to put their lives on the line, whereas the other two sections portrayed the soldiers as becoming less emotional killing machines. We feel that the psychological study is more accurate and thorough in this topic. The films simply left this detail out. We feel the films traded in accuracy for a more climatic ending. The films, trying to make money, left out the soldiers' reluctance to go into battle at the end of their tours in order to end each film with more excitement and emotion-soldiers as killing machines rather than hesitant cowards.
This leads into our next section which was soldiers' feeling about the Vietnamese people. The overall portrayal was one of distaste for the Vietnamese, "bordering on venomous" as the Vietnam veteran proclaimed in the personal one-on-one interview. The majority of these feelings arose from the general distrust and fear of the Vietnamese people. However, some films did suggest that not all soldiers were simply mindless killing machines, but rather that some did have sympathy for the Vietnamese people. We, feel that some of the films were able to portray this due to the fact that not all of the soldiers in the movies were psychologically effected in a negative way, whereas in the psychological study, the information concentrated solely on these types of soldiers. We believe there is a correlation between those who were psychologically effected and those who feared and distrusted the Vietnamese the most--i.e. those who had the least amount of sympathy for the Vietnamese.
The fourth section we covered was the alcohol and drug use that occurred throughout the duration of the war. All three sections found that drugs and alcohol were all readily available, cheap, and used to temporarily escape the hell in which the soldiers were living on a day to day basis. We feel that alcohol was discussed in every section based on the simple fact that it was readily available and highly used. Thus, any accurate portrayal of the War should include a discussion of alcohol and drug use.
We then looked at media effects. The only general theme we all had in common was that there were times in which the media would censor information to portray the war how they wanted to. We feel that the media purposely set their own agenda of the War. In other words, the media intentionally put emphasis on either the positive or negative aspects of the War (depending on its particular stance -for or against the War) in order to shape how people accepted and understood what was going one in Vietnam. This agenda-setting effected how both the soldiers and civilians at home viewed the Vietnam war.
Our next section covered how exposure the war affected soldiers physically and mentally. The psychological study focused more on the soldiers who were negatively effected by the war. Along these same lines, the films studied also portrayed soldiers who were negatively effected due to their bias towards portraying characters which evolved and changed as they were exposed to war. The personal account revealed that not all veterans are psychologically effected to the degree that the psychological study and films suggest. We feel these latter sections were biased toward discussing/portraying those soldiers that had been negatively affected.
The final section researched was veterans' attitudes toward Americans once home including the Government, protestors, family, and society. For the most part all three sections portrayed a hostility toward the government and anti-war protestors. The inability to understand and the lack of respect given to the veterans angered and frustrated the soldiers upon their arrival home. However, one film did portray that over a long period of time, some veterans reversed their views and become anti-war protestors themselves. We feel that this particular film's agenda and message was to show the changing beliefs and feelings of a veteran and therefore wanted to portray how some of the veterans did in fact completely change their views over time.
In conclusion, this paper thoroughly shows some angles of the psychological effects of the Vietnam War. Overall, throughout the three sections, the majority of topics were similar in their depiction of the effects of war. However, differences did exist. To a great degree, these differences can be accounted for due to the biases that exist within each separate source. The psychological study obviously sought out information pertaining solely to accounts of soldiers who had been psychologically (negatively) affected by the War. Media is also biased. The films obviously portrayed characters and events that would develop into the most interesting story line (attracting larger audiences and thus greater profits). Also realize that the films will be biased by the film maker's own personal point of view or agenda on how to portray the Vietnam War. Finally, even though the personal account is I 00% accurate, it is only I 00% accurate to that person. With each of these biases, gathering information from just one of these sources would be less thorough and valid than what our combined research adds up to. Despite these biases, we feel the similar findings among all three sources of information are accurate and strong.
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