Culture’s Portrayal of the Vietnam War: A Criticism Misdirected Essay

The intensity of war, and the emotionally charged atmosphere that develops around it, has always been a fertile medium for artists, writers, and activists. This was certainly true of Vietnam as a generation of soldiers, students, and citizens took to the media where a battle raged for the possession of the war’s social construction. Singers such as Green Beret Barry Sadler squared off against the anti-war guitar army in an effort to gain control of the public’s support. Long after the last helicopter had departed Saigon, the media continued to produce the sights and sounds of a war that was longing to be forgotten. Most of the popular culture images were highly critical of the war, and painted the US forces as brutal intruders into an otherwise peaceful and innocent jungle scene. From the viewpoint of the popular culture, its images and art, everybody had a scene to play and everybody got it wrong. The lowly buck private was no less responsible than the Commander in Chief, and the Pentagon shared equal guilt with the Military-Industrial Complex. Was the criticism legitimate? From the viewpoint of the actors, agents, and citizens that filled these roles, the media’s criticism of the war and their grim portrayal of the times, was an exaggerated stretch of reality that forever tarnished the reputation of an entire generation. 

It was easy to criticize a war where the world’s mightiest military machine invaded a jungle, decimated the population, destroyed the environment, and left fifty thousand of their best and brightest dead, and another half a million maimed for life. Yet, the war was more than just the front lines in some far away jungle. The war was the returning soldiers confronting a society that was different than the one they had left. It was the protestors that were stereotyped by both sides of the political spectrum as they challenged the system and denounced the American way. It was also the public that was waiting in the wings to weigh in with their critical support or criticism. These were the victims of the war. Writers would continue to paint the makers of the war as deceptive, greedy, and hypocritical megalomaniacs. Anti-war protestors would forever be branded as a silver spooned generation on drugs, gazing as the reality of capitalism slipped through their fingers. Conscripted soldiers would play the role of the demonized madman, bent on total destruction, and having little thought of patriotism while only hoping to escape an imminent death. Criticizing the war was easy, but keeping the criticism legitimate was a far more difficult task.

The Vietnam War presented America with a foreign policy, a military action, and a public response that certainly had plenty to be critical of. However, in an effort to sell the war, or its end, the portrayal of every aspect of it became a marketing tool designed to sell a political position or a blockbuster film. The movie Good Morning Vietnam (1987) chronicled the Vietnam tour of Armed Forces Radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, and was one of the more accurate versions of the war from the soldier’s point of view. Cronauer is portrayed as a soldier and a human being that has the capacity to empathize, criticize, frustrate his commanders, and fall in love even as the war goes on all around him. This is a different approach than the doomsday films such as Full Metal Jacket (1987) or Apocalypse Now (1979), that painted the soldier as a robotic killer, faced with continual death, and willing to extract any revenge necessary to accomplish the mission and survive to fight one more day. The viewer was left with the impression that the war had turned a generation of young patriotic men into automated killers that had the potential to snap at the slightest trigger or pent up memory. To be clear, there was no one singular experience for the Vietnam veteran. However, the barrage of pop culture images that stereotyped the Vietnam veteran as a ticking time bomb has had a significant negative impact on these soldier’s lives. A popular book on workplace violence warned of the unrealistic fear of the Vietnam Veteran as an “angry, homicidal worker who acts out the rage against the institution” (Braverman 42).  Employers’ fear of mental health disorders in returning Vietnam veterans, and the associated employment discrimination, resulted in the passage of affirmative action legislation to ensure the fair treatment of veterans (“Veterans”). While there should have been a legitimate concern for the emotional well being of the veterans, the media had fuelled an unrealistic fear that resulted in a traditional witch-hunt.  

In reality, there was no singular definable experience for the Vietnam Veteran, except the recriminations that they met from an ungrateful public. While the accurate portrayal of Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam (1987) was able to capture one soldier’s experience, his story did not end in Vietnam. In most portrayals of the Vietnam experience, there was the ever-present rock and roll music of the era. The Vietnam veteran had been constructed by the media as a mix of Barry Sadler’s Ballad of the Green Beret (1966) that are “men who fight by night and day, fearless men who jump and die”, and the war crazed soldier that was igniting innocent villages, such as Mai Lai, that inundated the six o’clock evening news. Sadler’s hero was a hero in an unjust war, and Mai Lai was proof of the injustice. This painted a picture that illustrated both veterans acting inappropriately or simply behaving wrongly. Most veterans were neither. The media had so skewed America’s image of the Vietnam veteran that returning vets were routinely met at their point of arrival in California by mobs of angry protestors. The protestors would brandish signs bearing blood red words that said “baby killer” or “racist murderer”. The veterans would be forced to change into civilian clothing in a futile attempt to remain anonymous, while the mob would hurl objects and spit on the veterans as they debarked the plane (Samson). While criticism of the war was certainly legitimate, and there was no excuse for Mai Lai, the image of the veteran that the media fed the public was an irresponsible portrayal that created more emotional victims of an unjust war.

In many ways, American pop culture grew up with the war protestors and again created another class of victims. It was not that the protestors did not have a legitimate complaint about the injustice of the war, or that they were not thoughtful and well intentioned in their efforts to bring it to a halt. It was and they were. They latched onto pop culture and it fit their image, their understanding, and their purposes. Folk style protest songs soon gave way to Country Joe McDonald and the Woodstock experience. As the music grew, the images became more intense, and the protests grew louder and sometime uglier. The pop media had become an expression of not only the war, but also a “generalized dissatisfaction with the dominant culture” (Hall 167). A generation of alienated youth took their legitimate criticism of the war and generalized it across society, business, and politics as a whole. While the criticism of drenching a rain forest with enough defoliant to make it uninhabitable for years can hardly be debated, it is a misapplication of logic to place the blame on the capitalist system.

As the pop culture grew more identifiable and the protestors gained a louder voice and better organization, the objections to the war became highly identified with the pop culture. In many ways, the war would be a forgotten facet of the experience as the protestors were stereotyped as drug crazed dropouts, with no more than a daydream of changing tomorrow’s world for the good of mankind. In this way, the war was creating another class of victims. The protestors were often on the font lines of opposition, forced to move to Canada to escape the draft, or live on the brink of survival while fighting for a just cause. The picture that the pop culture painted of the protestors was one that polarized the public and branded them apart from the silent majority. An early study of the social dimensions of the anti-war movement stated that “many political protesters, we had been repeatedly warned, are hostile toward “objective” social scientists and are suspicious—naturally enough—of people who want to gather information about them” (Peele and Moore 410). These were objective scientists speaking that had already been taken in by pop culture’s image of the war protestor. In essence, the members of the anti-war movement had lost their nationalist as well as their individual identity. These victims of the war were left to be the stereotyped long-haired hippie with a glazed eye stare and no future in corporate America. While the portrayal of the anti-war movement’s legitimate criticism by pop culture was accurate, the image of the protestors was not. Many of these protestors were skilled organizers, community leaders, and thoughtful politicians. Others were leaders in their chosen fields of entertainment, business, or industry. Yet, pop culture created stereotyped victims out of most of them.

Both sides of the Vietnam War issue continue to debate the merits of the war and whether US Foreign Policy got treated fairly by the media and the popular culture. Supporters of the war will often contend that the US was on the verge of victory when Congress caved to public pressure and pulled the plug on funding. Yet, what would the US have gained by a victory? The war was a war of ideologies that pitted communism against capitalism, and simply a microcosm of the Cold War. However, even in the wake of our alleged defeat, South Vietnam has embraced free market economics and is encouraging North Vietnam to follow suit. According to Pierre, “Southern constituents urging privatization, entrepreneurial initiatives, and capitalist ideas are pressuring party politicians and the rigid ministerial bureaucracies of the North to change. The more robust economy of Ho Chi Minh City [formerly Saigon] rewards its inhabitants with considerably higher wages than those earned in the nation’s capital” (72). It has become increasingly clear that free market capitalism is taking root without the necessity of a US occupation. In addition, we continue to have a strong strategic military presence in the region through cooperation with our allies such as Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. The capitalism that was criticized in the 1960s is now a jewel in Southeast Asia and is celebrated by the same Baby Boomers that condemned it decades earlier, while the criticism of the war by the media, music, poetry, and literature of the era continues to be validated by the passage of time.  

While the criticism of the war, and the demand for withdrawal, had validity and has stood history’s test of time, pop culture’s targeted intensity may have caused considerable harm for many South Vietnamese citizens. The youth movement that was engaged in protesting the war fueled the pop culture of the era. As the generation became the culture, the culture also became the generation. Since the days of Shakespeare and Dickens, we have been warned about the impertinent nature of youth and their propensity for impatience, while their characters have faced “bleak situations as a result of impulsive and impatient traits” (Behen 2). One of the popular sayings at the time of the Vietnam War said simply ‘Out Now’. This reflected the frustration of the anti-war sentiment driven by the movement’s youthful impatience. Indeed, when the end came it came without notice, as abruptly and quickly as turning off a light switch. Many of the South Vietnamese citizens that had worked closely with the US had no warning and no time to escape. In our haste to leave, the US simply vacated their political and moral obligations and abandoned their long time friends and allies. Labeled as traitors, many were executed, while others were sent to prison to spend the remainder of a dying life. The impatience of youth had become an impatient policy fueled by a culture that failed to weigh the consequences of a hasty withdrawal.  

In conclusion, it is difficult to find fault with the criticism that the pop culture leveled at the Vietnam War. It was an unnecessary and unjust war that had little or no logic to support it. However, the intensity and pervasiveness of the media, pop culture, literature, and music of the era misdirected the criticism and put an entire nation on trial. Soldiers, workers, protestors, and the silent majority were all put on the defensive in the impatient search to identify the guilty party. While most Americans would escape the carnage with no more than the emotional scars, the soldiers would not be so fortunate. After engaging an enemy that was dead set on killing them, they came home to a hostile public that was fuelled by the popular media. This youthful impatience would continue to make its presence known until the end, as the US hurriedly evacuated their position and abandoned their responsibilities in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The criticism of the war was certainly legitimate, justified, and valid, but the criticism in the hands of pop culture proved to be a dangerously shortsighted mix.