It’s been Vietnam War week on Maori Television, first of all, a documentary on the saga of making Apocalypse Now and then the showing of the two major Vietnam War films: The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now; the latter a remarkable movie – 20th century Shakespeare – and the former interesting in its portrayal of working class life in what has now become the ‘rust belt’, and also containing one of the great wedding scenes.
Both movies explore key Vietnam War themes: the underlying violence of American culture, the naivety and drug-fueled hysteria of the mainly Afro-American and poor white conscripts when faced with the single-minded belief in their cause of the Vietnamese enemy; the opulence and uselessness of the technology in the hands of the Americans (they dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than on Europe in WWll); and the alien, jungle landscape.
Rich themes. But watching the movies again fifty years later, I was struck by the filmmakers’ unwillingness or inability to portray the Vietnamese cause in any shape or form, to look at what the Communist regime was offering, to examine Vietnamese history and motivation – and, perhaps this is the central characteristic of imperial cultures, their essential narcissism. The Vietnamese are portrayed as either a hidden away and invisible threat or, if they do appear, as cruel and sub human ciphers. There is little excuse for this, for there had been visits to North Vietnam by a variety of intellectuals and writers, e.g. Sartre, Peter Weiss and Mary McCarthy, who had subsequently written articulately about these matters.
It was a war that was impacted upon by both the counter-culture and television. For the first time, the cruelty of war was immediately shown in the nation’s living rooms, and there were some famous images: the naked, napalmed child running down the road, the hippy girl placing a flower in the barrel of a soldier’s gun… The demonstrations were huge. I went to one in London where two million people marched – it took all afternoon for that number of people to walk along the route. Uncle Ho became a revered figure, the Cubans had made a revolution and Che roamed the globe. I remember reading of the human body being the model for the Vietnamese Army: the official army being the backbone, the regional units being the arms and legs, while the village squads were the fingers and toes. It was a war where the Vietnamese pitted bicycles against B52 bombers and won – the empire was defeated. Heady times.
But the narcissism was only momentarily fractured – like a drunken teenager going too far and smashing the family car. Lessons were learned: restrict and embed the press, be wary of committing ground troops, keep students in debt via student loans and keep them busy via marking schedules, and the mainstream culture, even when critical, helped heal the narcissism. And of course, as Eastern European regimes collapsed, the domino theory started to work in reverse. Without the ideal of Communism, there is no alternative.
Empires, instead, collapse slowly, as those they have colonised invade the homeland and its institutions, colonising in turn. The Roman Army was suddenly made up of those they were supposedly controlling. The subversion is often devious and unpredictable; witness the influence on the Republican Party of the conservative Cuban exiles – making the party toxic. The South Americans supply the drugs; the Hispanic population becomes volatile; the Afro-Americans are still to have their revenge. As with the Roman Empire, this collapse is incoherent, flamboyant, and often cruel, with some glimmers of hope.