"Hell is the impossibility of reason." - From Platoon directed by Oliver Stone
The prologue to my life was World War 11 which ended nine years before I was born. It informed my childhood its memories still crisp in the air. It was the war in which the US vanquished German fascism and Japanese imperialism. There was no question but that we were the good guys. World War II came to be known as the good war. Who could argue with that?
Fortunately I was growing up in Berkeley which in my early youth had much of a bucolic Anytown USA quality to it replete with picket fences ball fields and parades down main street. By the middle of the 1960's those parades were anti war marches. As I grew into adolescence it became increasingly clear that the government was not necessarily to be trusted. They were wrong to continue the war in Southeast Asia just as they had been wrong for so many years -- it was now clear -- not to ensure the rights of its Black citizens and to do enough for those in need. The US government, I was learning, was far from perfect.
Long hair rock music drugs and rebelling against the government went hand in hand. I was at the right place at the right time. Power to the people. One of the first questions you asked someone back then was: "are you for or against the war?" It was a litmus test. People for it were not only wrong but they were hopelessly square unaware and enemies of love peace and understanding.
If the nobility of the US rescuing Europe and Asia during the second world war set up my childhood then it was the ghastly mistake of the Vietnam War that ushered in my adulthood. Here was a terrible tragedy in which the United States had not just been fighting the wrong enemy -- as Daniel Ellsberg said -- but had actually been the enemy. Moreover this was a war that my generation had fought in. Almost anyway. I was about two years too young to have ever served in Viet Nam. But that was close enough for me to experience a form of survivor's guilt that afflicted many of my generation. I dreamed about being in combat in the Nam repeatedly over the years and those dreams were never heroic and were usually horrific.
Vietnam has come to be known as the first televised war which is one of the reasons that it has left such a powerful impact on my generation's psyche. There were the moving images often in living color of napalm being dropped, of soldiers entering battle or recovering from it, or coming home from it in caskets. Even then the full devastation on the war -- particularly as felt by the Vietnamese -- was unseen. But in large part due to the war's unpopularity there were the stories of the men who served. Many now came home adamantly opposed to the war they fought in. But still some of the true terror of the war caused by the US remained largely unknown. Films like Platoon (1986) and Apocalypse Now (1979) gave but a hint and cinematically at that.
I did not really begin to understand the war until a week ago when I started reading "Kill Anything That Moves" by Nick Turse. It is the story of the countless atrocities committed by US troops against Vietnamese civilians (including women children and the elderly) ranging from My Lai type massacres to individual killings rapes and torture to indiscriminate artillery and bombing that devastated villages farms animals and innocent human beings. It is a fascinating and depressing read. Clearly any notion that Americans are nobler than anyone else -- were one foolhardy enough to think so -- would be dashed by this recounting of the horror US soldiers visited upon the innocent. Turse's accounts are based on documentary evidence including interviews with witnesses and even participants and government documents some recently declassified.
In the US itself great memorials and soaring tributes and impassioned speeches and dedications are made when any Americans are victims of an attack on US soil. Last year's Boston Marathon bombing claimed three lives with 264 injured. For this there was endless praise for the strength and fortitude of the people of Boston and determination to not forgot the victims. Of course the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks has brought us years of ribbons flags and phony patriotism -- not to mention a war in Afghanistan that still endures today and part of a pretext for the war in Iraq. Americans are so accustomed to victimizing that when they are the victims they howl ceaselessly.
So anyway I watched Platoon on Sunday for maybe the sixth or seventh time but for the first time in several years. It is one of those rare Oscar winners for best picture that actually deserved the award. Charlie Sheen (his dad Martin had starred in Apocalypse Now) starred as Chris Taylor a young private arriving in the Nam in late 1967 to serve with a unit which sees action near the Cambodian border. According to people who have served in wars in general and Vietnam in particular, Platoon captures everything up to the smell of being part of a unit in combat. For those of us who've been fortunate to avoid the military it seems real enough. The contradictory isolation and camaraderie the fear the deprivation the discomfort the permeation of death and the desperation. In war your "buddies" became everything. You live together you fight together you protect one another and depend on one another.
The pressure is enormous. One mistake can cost a life or lives one of which may be your own. Rage boils below the surface and the victims of that rage are not always the enemy. Sometimes -- often in Nam -- it is the innocent. It can also be those "buddies" you are otherwise so protective of.
War is both a natural and total unnatural state for man. As boys we are conditioned to compete and often fight but the insanity of war in which the competition and fighting are constant and death is ever present twists and bends the mind in horrific ways. The greatest torture of war is to the human soul which never escapes unscathed. This has become especially true during modern wars where the bodies are the same as they've always been but the weapons of destruction so much more lethal. Add to that situations where the identity of the enemy is so ambiguous and you have a recipe for acute psychological destruction.
Platoon not only accurately depicts combat but also the terror that Americans brought to villagers. Anyone could be a suspected Viet Cong and thus subject to summary executions not to mention torture.
Ultimately Platoon's story of Chris is an allegory for what young American lads like me went through. Dedicated to the cause, believing in the rightness of the country, only to yield to bitter disillusionment and anger in the face of the reality of a wrong war. Chris was not even a draftee or from a poor family. He was that extreme rarity a volunteer who had other options. He enters a crusader and leaves bitter.
Platoon is one of those films that is so good it transcends genre. There is plenty of the action that typifies war films but it is neither gratuitous nor exciting. It always feel like what it derives from and causes: fear desperation and death. Mostly Platoon serves as another way for Americans of any generation to look into our collective souls and wonder at what this country has wrought and if it can ever tame the wild beasts that lurk within.