Vietnam and Other American Fantasies by Bruce Franklin Essay

The only major conflict that the U.S. fought openly during the Cold War era was that in Vietnam, the land that American war veterans love to hate as a swampy marshland.  It still lingers in the American psyche, one that is filled with hatred for socialist doctrinaire and acts as a leitmotif in the US’ military history as America had the longest fight in its history of occupation and war in Vietnam. Whether the US should have in fact entered into the war with Vietnam remains a mystery to date although the official version was that it was meant to combat the spread of communism. Reasons for the war are many, like in most wars, ranging from ideological to diplomatic compulsions. Some condemns the long drawn history colonization some attribute it the American external policy of combating communism. Failures are also attributed to the American misunderstanding about the ground realities of Vietnam. Amidst this debate the quandary of the Americans, the guilt and the remorse that originated from the massacres and losses, the final question remains unanswered: for whom did the war serve its purpose? Who gained and who lost? What weight did the war compel to endure? Was it all that necessary? The most recurring images of the Vietnam War through most cultural texts since then, however, has been the loss of lives of Americans and the atrocities of the Communists. Bruce Franklin, in his book elaborates on various myths about the Vietnam War, including the existence of American POW/MIA in Vietnamese prisons decades after the war ended. Franklin’s book is an apt description of the hypocritical American culture industry that has distorted the history of the Vietnam War, which was the first televised war in the world, in the sense that images of atrocities were telecast by television journalists as much as print journalists reported.

In a sense, the culture industry since the end of the war has served the purpose of official propaganda by the American administration, the latter being less effective during the Vietnam War than it was during the World Wars. This was the first time that independent journalists built up anti-war sentiments at home, forcing the government to withdraw forces from Vietnam. By then, television had entered most American drawing rooms and censorship became weak. Nixon, in his memoirs, described how important the media had become during the Vietnam War. He said, “American news media had come to dominate domestic opinion about its purpose and conduct…. In each night’s TV news and each morning’s paper the war was reported battle by battle, but little or no sense of the underlying purpose of the fighting was conveyed. Eventually this contributed to the impression that we were fighting in military and moral quicksand, rather than towards an important and worthwhile objective” (quoted in Fehlman, 1992). Young (1991) argues that the war in Indochina disproved the naïve idea propagated by the administration’s spin-doctors that US foreign policies always “meant well” and that Marxism was always “bad”.  Before the war, the Americans portrayed the Vietnamese as deceitful hordes, cruel, apathetic and unconcerned lots. Young (1991) thinks that the war proved it otherwise and shows that the turn of events that led to the war were actually America’s doings.

The administration’s media spin during the Vietnam War came a cropper primarily because it was as yet inexperienced with the new medium of television. While print journalists had already developed the art of covering human-interest stories during wars, the administration had learnt through its experiences during the world wars how to go about either censoring print media news or include embedded journalists to provide the official version of war reports. However, television news became of crucial importance during the Vietnam War and it has developed into a major art since then. As Braastrup notes, “No print journalist on a major newspaper or wire service would be permitted the latitude allowed television reporters as they interpret on-camera the carefully edited film snippets that appear on the network every news shows…. Indeed, the vignette, often presented by the correspondent as a microcosm of the larger event, is the goal of television news… and what the home office wants him to do, essentially, is direct the making of a vivid little action film, and supply theme and coherence to the pictures with the script” (quoted in Fehlman, 1992).

Since the 1970s, there have been a number of Hollywood movies that distort the history of the Vietnam war and Franklin does a great job in unraveling these cultural texts that have created the myths. For example, the 1978 film Deer Hunter, reversed the images of the war and thus canonizing the American war heroes. The technique is all the more hypocritical since it uses some of the images that have been ingrained in the American television viewers’ minds, like those of the American Gis in Vietnamese villages and photographic images like those of the My Lai massacre in Life magazine. In the film, a uniformed Vietnamese soldier who throws a grenade at women and children hiding in an underground village shelter, is killed single-handed by the Special Forces hero played by Robert De Niro. Also, Americans who remember images of a Vietnamese prisoner thrown out of a helicopter to make him talk would find a close resemblance to the shot that shows an American prisoner being hurled out. Torture scenes, too, closely follow what is known in history – General Loan killing a soldier among many who were kept captive in tiger cages by shooting him on his right temple. In the film, it is American soldiers who have been kept captive in tiger cages and North Vietnamese officers putting their revolvers on their temples.   

Franklin also demonstrates how culture texts have been used to subvert the role played by journalists and photographers during the Vietnam War. In the 1988 November issue of the comic book, Nam, the term ‘shooting a picture’ has been made synonymous with ‘shooting a revolver’ and the act is made to look like treason. This is achieved in a clever distortion that Franklin points out. In the cover illustration, still photographers and television journalists are made to appear enemies simply by reversing an execution scene that they had placed on the front page of every newspaper during the war. In the comic strip version, the photographer takes up the central position, his face hidden by his camera. Only a part of the prisoner’s body is visible. Only the chief of security has his face visible in the picture and it is heroic indignation for the Viet Cong that is apparent. The execution itself is seen only as a reflection on the camera lens as the photographer is in exaltation, as he shouts “Keep shooting! Just keep shooting!”. Such subject comic book images seem to be pointing out towards justification of embedded journalists who would otherwise make a killing about the war. This is in fact what has happened since the Vietnam War. Perhaps with knowledge and experience from Vietnam, in all major wars since then, including the 1983 US invasion of Grenada or the 1989 Panama invasion, independent photojournalists were in effect excluded from the war zone completely. Not surprising, therefore, photographic images are almost negligible for these US aggression in the 1980s.

The Gulf War, as Franklin points out, takes American war history to the next step. From mainly photographic images of the Vietnam War, the days of televised war had come into existence. The images that were beamed were directed towards generating a sense of fervor among the viewers, like it did during World War II through films. Propaganda images like the preposterous one that showed Iraqi soldiers dumping Kuwaiti babies being thrown out of incubators, bought the audience’s support. Perhaps the most interesting part of these images was the perfectly synchronized bombing images that hardly showed any human casualties.

Franklin’s book serves a very useful purpose in showing how propaganda has been made into art forms, without being explicit or being constrained to the only the war period. The myths that are created through such texts are often indelibly marked in the human mind, which is perhaps why the hysteria generated about the War on Terror linked Iraq with the terrorists who struck at the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. From Franklin’s analysis of the culture texts on Vietnam War, the cliches can find a close resemblance to those that were generated thirty years later on the Middle East.    

Works Cited

Young Marilyn, Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, Harper Perennial; Reprint edition, 1991

Fehlman, Lt. Col Marc D., The Military/ Media Clash and the Principles of War: The Media Spin, Thesis presented to the Faculty of The School of Advanced Airpower Studies, Air University, Maxwell Airforce Base, Alabama, May 1992, http://aupress.au.af.mil/saas_Theses/SAASS_Out/Felman/felman.pdf

Franklin, H Bruce, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, University of Massachusetts Press, 2000