Hard Looks at Hidden History

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I wish I liked it better. The battle scenes are well done and the acting is uniformly excellent, but everything else struck me as too simple to be believable, too calculated to reinforce literal preconceptions. The bad guys drink bourbon and favor Merle Haggard’s muscular brand of country music; the good ones smoke dope and dance to the sinuous Motown sounds of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. (What was a fellow to do if he liked both?) The bad sergeant believes in the war, of course. The good sergeant—so sensitive and caring that he carries the hero’s books for him when they grow too heavy on patrol—once did believe in the war (otherwise hard to explain how he got there, I suppose), but does so no longer, and even sees a kind of rough justice in the very bad time he and his men are having: “We’ve been kickin’ other people’s asses for so long,” he muses, looking up at a starlit sky, “I figure it’s time we got ours kicked.” Not perhaps the best attitude with which to lead men into battle. An egregious voiceover, supposedly drawn from letters the hero writes home to his grandmother, thumps home each editorial point in case we’ve somehow failed to get it.

Clichés from films about earlier wars are resurrected too: the moment a lovable, overweight Southern soldier shows off a snapshot of his girl friend, saying, “She’s the one fur me, thet Lucy Jean,” you know the bullet with his name on it is already in the chamber. And blacks are limited to the same role in Platoon that friendly old Indians used to play in Westerns, offering folksy but portentous comments on the action: just after destroying a village, one says, “I don’t know, brothers, I hurt real bad inside,” and, moments before the climactic assault, another adds, “Somewhere out there is the Beast, and he hungry tonight.”

When the Beast does finally arrive—a North Vietnamese night attack through thick jungle—it is genuinely scary. But the climax—in which the hero murders the murderous sergeant—undercuts whatever moral lesson this muddled plot might have had in mind.

If you really want to take a hard second look at the war, I can’t think of a better place to begin than Vietnam .

“We did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves,” Platoon ’s protagonist helpfully explains to his grandma at the very end of the film. “The enemy was in us.”

The point is made with far greater sophistication in Vietnam: A Television History, the excellent thirteen-hour PBS documentary series that won six Emmies when first aired in 1983 and is now available on seven video cassettes ($195.65 from Sony Video Software). It is as subtle and clear as Stone’s film is confused and simplistic, managing to convey a startling amount of complex diplomatic history along with a brisk account of the fighting in the field and the political struggle back home. And it does all this with emotional power that is the equal of any fiction film.

The most persuasive and harrowing scene in Platoon is a furious American assault on the helpless residents of a village whom the men believe somehow responsible for the bloody deaths of two of their comrades. In “America Takes Charge, 1965-1967,” volume three of the documentary series, participants on both sides recall the real thing, the brutal destruction of a village uncannily like its Hollywood counterpart. In this sequence two Vietnamese survivors detail the slaughter of their families and friends by Marines, their recitations somehow made still more appalling by the numbed calm with which they are delivered, one American admits he “could care less” about the civilians his unit killed: “...the way I seen it, it was war,” while another Marine’s voice cracks as he remembers: “You don’t have nightmares about killing armed soldiers in combat. The thing that I have the nightmares about is the woman in the rice field that I shot one day because she was running away...for no other reason...running away from the Americans who were going to kill her. And 1 killed her. Fifty-five, sixty years old, unarmed, and at the time I didn’t even think twice about it.”

If you really want to take a hard second look at the war, how we got into it, how it was waged, and how we got out, I can’t think of a better place to begin than Vietnam.

When the series was first aired, its producers were accused by some of having been too soft on Hanoi, too tough on us, and Accuracy in Media, Inc., the conservative watchdog organization headed by Reed Irvine, cobbled up a two-hour critique of the series, called Television’s Vietnam and narrated by Charleton Heston, which was duly run on PBS. It didn’t seem persuasive to me then—it is absurd to suggest, as its script did, for example, that it was “media distortion” that “brought about our loss of the war”—but if you’d like to make up your own mind, the critique, too, is now available for $29.95 from the same firm.