Halloween and Dressed to Kill appear around 1978-80, at the same time as The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, two major conservative Vietnam films. All four are distinguished by regressive portrayals of women combined with assertions of male power and right-wing violence. That ideological conjunction, we suggest, is not accidental. It is symptomatic of a turn occurring in American culture at that time, a turn whose trajectory intersects eventually with the rise of the New Right as a force in American politics and with the renewal of militarism during the Reagan eighties. It is also symptomatic of the necessary connection between representations of paranoid projection in the horror genre as a reaction to feminism and representations of revived military might as a result of threats to national self-esteem. The psychological source was similar in each case as was the representational violence that emerged as its solution.
In American culture, film representations of military prowess seem inseparable from national self-esteem. For conservatives especially, greatness as a nation means the ability to exercise military power. In war, the strength and courage of the soldiers who represent male national prestige are tested and proven. In post-World War II cinematic representations of this ritual, proof of manhood was accompanied by a nationalistic idealism that pictured the American fighting man as a heroic liberator of oppressed people and as a defender of freedom. This ideal legend was justified by World War II, when American forces did indeed help defeat right-wing fascist regimes. After the war, however, the defense of political freedom against the right-wing corporatism of the fascist movement was replaced by a defense of free enterprise capitalism against both Soviet communism and national liberation movements throughout the world, from Latin America to Southeast Asia. The legend of the freedom-defending U.S. fighting man soon began to be tarnished by the frequent sacrifice of political freedom and democratic rights that the defense of capitalism entailed. While the overthrow of democratic leftist governments in places like Guatemala and Iran could be tolerated in the Cold War climate of the fifties, in the sixties a new generation, nurtured in a more liberal cultural atmosphere and faced with having to risk their lives in the defense of capitalism overseas, began to question the right of a corporate controlled U.S. government to suppress democracy and socialism throughout the world in the name of “freedom.” The equation of “freedom” and “democracy” with capitalism became increasingly strained because antidemocratic military dictatorships were more often than not U.S. allies in policing Third World liberation movements. During the 1960s, the Vietnam War became a focus of popular contestation. American youth refused to fight an unjust war, and by the early seventies, a majority of the people came to oppose the war. In addition, the army began to look increasingly incapable, undisciplined, and demoralized. In 1975, the United States suffered its first military defeat in its history with the liberation of Saigon. The loss created a lesion in the sense of national prestige, and it provoked a heated debate over American foreign policy.
We shall argue that Hollywood military movies of the seventies and eighties need to be read, first, in the context of the national debate over Vietnam, and, secondly, in the context of the “post-Vietnam syndrome,” which was characterized by the desire for withdrawal from “foreign involvements” after the debacle in Vietnam and epitomized by the Clark Amendment forbidding intervention in Angola.
In the decade following the end of the war, America’s military posture shifted from doubt to assertiveness, as the liberal tide of the mid-seventies receded and a rightist current came to dominate American political life. Films during the period articulate the arguments that led to this change and point the direction American culture was taking regarding the war long before actual political events confirmed the shift. Around the issues of Vietnam and war in general, the failure of liberalism took the form of an inability to transform the widespread antiwar feelings of the time into a permanent institutional change in foreign policy. Once again, in this regard as in economic policy, the liberals were victims of historical circumstances. As Carter and the Democrats staved off new military programs like the B-1 bomber, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Sandinistas overthrew a U.S.-supported dictator in Nicaragua, and Iran’s revolution led to the taking of American hostages all in 1979 and 1980. The American empire, which had lasted from 1945 to 1970, was crumbling, and the triumph of conservatism around military policy resulted from the ability of conservatives to take advantage of these circumstances to promote the sort of military buildup they favored. Many films of the period argue the conservative position.
One major factor in the conservative triumph was the social psychology of shame that was a significant motif of American culture after the military defeat in Vietnam. It is for this reason that the returned vet motif is so important in contemporary Hollywood film. Those whose self-identity is in part constructed through the internalization of representations of the nation as a military power no doubt felt a loss of self-esteem as a result of the nation’s failure. That sense of loss generated resentment as well as a yearning for compensation. One aspect of the failure of liberalism is the inability of liberals to provide a redemptive and compensatory vision that would replace military representations as a source of self-esteem. Conservatives, on the other hand, managed successfully to equate self-restoration with military renewal.
The posture Hollywood initially adopted toward Vietnam is best summed up in the title of Julian Smith’s book —Looking Away.1 With the exception of The Green Berets (1968), a jingoist war story, no major films dealt directly with the war until the late seventies. Nevertheless, war itself was a topic of great debate in films of the late sixties and early seventies, and many of these touch covertly on the issue of Vietnam. Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s thirties antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun was made into a film in 1971, a time when opposition to the war was peaking, and films like M*A*S*H and Soldier Blue of the same period indirectly criticized Vietnam era militarism. A similar sort of indirect message from the conservative side was delivered in Patton (1970), a promilitarist film scripted by Coppola that supposedly helped inspire Nixon to bomb Cambodia. Indeed, Patton’s opening speech, shot against an immense American flag, which exhorted Americans never to give up the fight, probably had a subliminal topical resonance for many prowar hawks.
The first major 1970s Hollywood film to deal directly with the issue of the war was the independently made feature documentary Hearts and Minds (1975), directed by Peter Davis. If Patton demonstrated that the conservative militarist pathology is inseparable from male self-aggrandizement, an authoritarian model of social discipline, and the skewing of the personality away from a composite of affectionate and aggressive traits and toward a hypertropism of violence, Hearts and Minds by combining clips from war films with scenes of football games, shows how militarism emerges from a culture that promotes aggressivity in young men and furthers a racist attitude toward the world. The film juxtaposes defenders and critics of U.S. policy, and the accompanying documentary footage of the ravages of war positions the prowar speakers as being arrogant and cruel. For example, General Westmoreland’s remark that Asians do not value human life is juxtaposed to long and painful scenes of the Vietnamese mourning their dead.
The film is also significant for attempting to establish the historical context and social system out of which the war emerged. Unlike later fictional narrative war films, Hearts and Minds adopts a multiple perspective that undermines the power and the blindness of a monocular subjective position. What other films pose as an object (the Vietnamese), this film grants some subjectivity, as when the Vietnamese themselves express their anger and suffering. And it situates the war in a historical context that displaces the conservative concern for violent redemption or the liberal focus on the fate of individual (usually white, male) characters.
It was not until the war was over that fictional films began to appear that dealt directly with or were explicitly critical of the war. The first films to appear concerned returned veterans, frequently portrayed as dangerously alienated or violent (Black Sunday, Stone Killer). Later films take a more sympathetic point of view; films like Cutter’s Way, Who’ll Stop the Rain?, and Some Kind of Hero portray the vets as confused and wounded victims. Another strain of returned vet films use the motif as a springboard for justifying the kind of violent and racist disposition that initiated the war in the first place (Rolling Thunder, First Blood, Firefox). And finally, the vet motif in the eighties (Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action, Rambo) becomes a means of affirming the militarism of the new era.2
Liberal vet films focused on personal issues at the expense of the historical and global systemic concerns of Hearts and Minds. They criticized the war for what it did to good, white American boys, not for what ruin it brought to innocent Vietnamese. The first major liberal vet film —Coming Home (1978)—was also the first major Hollywood feature film to deal seriously with the issue of the war from a critical perspective. It skillfully manipulates the personalist and emotive codes of Hollywood to elicit sympathy for a wounded antiwar vet and to generate an empathetic yet critical stance toward a gungho soldier who is driven suicidal by the war experience. The scenes of the military hospital filled with the victims of war lifted a veil of silence, yet at the same time the film reproduces the traditional, Hollywood, sentimentalist vision of postwar experiences (as in, say, The Best Years of Our Lives).
Both Who’ll Stop the Rain? (1978) and Cutter’s Way (1981) use the figure of the returning vet to engage in social critique. In Rain a vet tries to help a buddy’s wife who is victimized by drug dealers with whom her husband was involved. He is killed, and his death is cast in such a way as to evoke a sense of victimage. In addition, the fact that the final fight takes place in a carnival atmosphere suggests a critical parallel with the fruitless struggle in Vietnam. Passer’s Cutter’s Way is even bleaker. A bitter disabled vet becomes obsessed with revealing that a wealthy capitalist has murdered a young girl. He associates the man with the class he feels sent him to Vietnam to do its dirty work. Again, the vet dies, while riding a white horse through a lawn party on his way to have justice done. Such liberal vet films are distinguished by the hopeless vision they project, a vision reinforced in Cutter’s Way by the use of somber color tones and confined spaces that suggest desolation and despair. Yet both direct the violence of the vet against groups or elites who clearly profited from the war at the expense of ordinary working-class soldiers. Conservative vet films turn shame into violent affirmation, but to do so they direct violence against the Vietnamese, in an attempt to win the lost war.
Rolling Thunder (1977) is an example of an extremely reactionary representation of the veteran issue. A veteran returns home to find his wife having an affair (a familiar cultural motif at the time expressed in the popular song “Ruby,” concerning a woman who betrays a wounded vet). In this reprise of the post-World War II classic The Blue Dahlia, the wife and children are brutally murdered, and the veteran seeks out and kills the perpetrators with the aid of another veteran. Male bonding heals female betrayal, and violence, as usual, cures all ills. The wife’s murder could be seen as a symbolic projection of the husband’s revenge (his hand is mangled by the attackers, and the two events seem interrelated). And the rest of the violence is directed against non-whites. In this vision, the Vietnam War is not left behind; it is brought home to roost.
The film depicts the psychological basis upon which post-Vietnam Americans are enlisted into the new militarism. The hero is depicted as being shamed (“castrated”), and his reaction is to become violent against non-Americans. The shame associated with sexuality in the film is linked both to military defeat and to being deprived of money (the attack on his family is a burglary attempt). Thus, the denial of self-esteem around economic matters is also in part signaled as a source of resentment.
Returning veteran films range from the critical vision of films like Coming Home and Cutter’s Way to the military revivalist vision of First Blood, Firefox, and Rambo. Films directly about the war experience itself are equally mixed, although, as in the returning vet subgenre, none adopts an explicitly oppositional posture toward the war.
Go Tell the Spartans (1978) and The Boys in Company C (1978) both criticize the U.S. involvement in Vietnam while forgoing more radical critiques of the military, U.S. foreign policy, or the values that support militarism. Spartans shows the army blundering deeper into the war during its early stages, and it stands as an allegory of the futility of the war effort as a whole. A small group of U.S. soldiers in a provincial outpost are ordered to occupy another, even more obscure position. They are overrun, and many are killed in the senseless action. Nevertheless, the critique of the war is executed against the standard of the “good war,” which reproduces a traditional trope of critical Hollywood war films in that it criticizes a specific war while celebrating military values in general. The Boys in Company C suffers from a similar drawback. The story follows a platoon of young marines from boot camp through combat in Vietnam. Along the way, they discover that their officers are corrupt and only interested in high body counts. The film points to the futility and misguidedness of the American war effort. It criticizes both the U.S.-supported Vietnamese bourgeoisie and the Army high command that treated genocide against Vietnamese as a numbers game and as an excuse for using fancy hightech weaponry. The common soldiers, in alliance with the Vietnamese people, symbolized by the children, are pitted against these two groups. They and the children are slaughtered in the end. The Boys in Company C constitutes one of the few overt statements against the war to come out of Hollywood, yet it resorts to the traditional Hollywood convention of valorizing “good grunt soldiers” over officers, and avoids criticizing the military as such.
Vietnam combat films like Spartans and Boys share the same limits as the liberal vet films. Liberals usually avoided the broader implications of the war, its origin in a desire to maintain access to Third World labor, markets, raw materials, etc., and to forestall the rise of noncapitalist sociopolitical systems. The traditional liberal focus on individuals implies a personalistic account that easily permits larger geopolitical issues to be displaced. And the sorts of self-replicating identifications that such an account invites usually evoke sentimentalist reactions to individual suffering rather than outrage at national policies of genocide. What needs to be determined is whether or not such personal evocations can translate into broader systemic lessons.
The rhetoric of liberal films nevertheless marks an advance on that used in conservative films. In simple thematic terms, the liberal films are critical of figures of authority, while conservative films like Patton metaphorically elevate such figures to an ideal position. There is a singularity of focus in conservative war films that is lacking in liberal rhetoric. Boys concerns a multiplicity of characters, and no one point of view is privileged. The “other” in Patton, a German officer assigned to study the general, is there simply to instantiate the implicit narcissistic male (self-)gaze, which takes the empirical form of the German’s adulation for the great American hero. Boys draws Vietnamese into the narrative and grants them empathy not as admirers of the Americans but as their victims. Finally, Patton resorts to overwhelmingly metaphoric rhetorical strategies, while Boys is more metonymic in its approach. Patton assumes an ideal purity of character, and it even intimates a rather silly sort of universalism in the male militarist spirit. The trope of elevation and subordination fits easily with an authoritarian ideology in this film. In Boys, on the other hand, a representational strategy which emphasizes the equality of terms and their material, contiguous interconnections prevails. One soldier reprimands another for endangering all their lives; on the material level at which the soldiers are obliged to operate, metonymic connections are very real.
By the late seventies Vietnam was no longer an explosive issue. Conservatives decried the slow erosion of American international power in the face of Third World liberation movements, and in response to what they perceived as an epansionist USSR, they called for an end to the “post-Vietnam War syndrome.” What began was a period of resurgent militarism, and Vietnam films of the time take part in the conservative backlash. They do so in part by rewriting history.
If, from a conservative political point of view, the period of the “post-Vietnam War syndrome” was characterized by national self-doubt, military vacillation, and a failure of will to intervene overseas, then the appropriate counter in the “post-syndrome” period of national revival was a triumph of the will, a purgation of doubt through action, and an interventionist military stance that brooked no restraint of the sort that led to the United State’s first military defeat, tarnished national prestige, and shamed American military manhood. Both The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now contribute to that revival by incorporating Vietnam not as a defeat from which lessons can be learned, but as a springboard for male military heroism.
The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino, won the Oscar in 1978. The film is more about the accession to leadership of the seer-warrior-individualist hero, Michael Vronsky (Robert DeNiro), than about the war. But this turning away from defeat, loss, and responsibility to an emblem of male strength might itself be symptomatic of a denial of loss through a compensatory self-inflation of the very sort that helped initiate and prolong the war.3 Nevertheless, the film is multivalent politically. It appealed to working-class viewers who saw in it an accurate representation of the dilemmas of their lives. Radicals praised its implicit critique of certain male myths. And its bleak, ambiguous ending inspired many to read it as an anti-Vietnam-War statement. We respect all of these positions, but we read the film from the perspective of the critique of ideology, and in that light, it seems less progressive.4
The story concerns three steeltown buddies—Michael, Steve, and Nick—who are shown united in the first part in a highly ritualized wedding scene that conveys a sense of strong community. The church steeple, a symbol of unreflective faith, spontaneous adherence to hierarchy, and paternalistic authority, rises above the community as its guiding axis. It is returned to repeatedly by the camera, and the gesture underscores the church’s centrality as a locus of social authority and an anchor securing community cohesion. All three men go to Vietnam, where they are reunited as prisoners of the Vietcong, who force them to play Russian roulette. Michael outsmarts the VC and saves his buddies. But Nick, apparently unhinged by his experience, remains in Vietnam playing roulette for money. Steve, now confined to a wheelchair in a stateside hospital, refuses to leave and return home. Michael returns to establish a relationship with Linda, Nick’s old girlfriend. He forces Steve to overcome his shame, to be a “man” and leave the hospital. Then, Michael returns to Vietnam at the time of the fall of Saigon to witness Nick kill himself in his last roulette game. The film closes with Nick’s funeral and the group of surviving friends singing “God Bless America.”
Like so many films of the seventies, The Deer Hunter offers as a solution to complex political and social problems the exercise of power by a male individualist who is charged with saving a community through strong leadership. The community is patriarchal; women are present to be fought over, as bossy mothers, and in the role of not altogether faithful, weak, yet at the right moment supportive partners. War breaks the community, and its worst effect is the transformation of men into will-less weaklings (Steve) or addicted obsessives (Nick). It falls to Michael to exercise his natural power of leadership to restore the communal cohesion and order at the end of the film. That restoration requires the sacrifice of Michael’s weaker counterpart, Nick, with whose funeral the film ends. The reaffirmation of male military power in the character of Michael is predicated upon the purgation of weakness, vacillation, and the obsessively suicidal behavior in which the country was engaged in Vietnam, all of which seem embodied in Nick. It is important that in the scene immediately following Nick’s suicide, the audience sees documentary footage of the U.S. Army’s “disgraceful” flight from Saigon. The juxtaposition associates Nick’s weakness and self-destructiveness with the military defeat of 1975. The film, then, can be said to work in two dimensions. It concerns the restoration of community through strong patriarchal leadership. And it offers an allegorical solution to the problem Vietnam poses by symbolically purging the source of defeat and proposing a way to renewed national strength and patriotic cohesion.
The call for strong leadership as a solution to historical crises is a political version of the aesthetic transformation in the film of actual history into a moral allegory. Just as the warrior-leader-savior resolves vacillation into a triumph of heroic will, so also the romantic, allegorical form of the film attempts to resolve the contradictions, meaninglessness, and ambiguity of the actual historical war into a meaningful and apparently noncontradictory quest narrative executed in a synthetic style that balances the unity of the individual leader with a formal or aesthetic unity. It is not surprising that a political ideology of the superior individual subject should seem inseparable from an aesthetic of romantic, quasi-mystical exaltation, since both are forms of empowerment. The romantic aesthetic overpowers history and incorporates it into highly subjective fantasy representations. The problem of realistically depicting history, which is linked to the political problem of acknowledging responsibility and loss as a nation, is solved by sublimating history into a stylized, ceremonial fusion of color, sound, and theme that elevates contingent events to a moral allegory of redemption and an ordinary human to secular divinity. It is important that the most stylized and allegorical representations appear while Michael is hunting. The aesthetic transformation of the mountains into a mystical temple (replete with choir) parallels the political and ideological elevation of the member of the gang into the strong, mystical leader, naturally destined to lead the lesser mortals around him. It is also, of course, a means of attaining the sorts of separation we have described as necessary to the more pathological forms of male sexual identity. Heightened mental representations of the sort evident in the mountain scenes are themselves ways of denying connection to the world and to others who might transgress the boundary between self and world which a reactive male sexual identity must establish. It is significant, then, that Michael is most alone in the mountain scenes, most separated from others, and most protected from them by a representational boundary that makes him seem transcendent, unique. Those scenes are also, of course, the most metaphoric.
Yet affirmations of transcendence are necessary only when the actual world is fallen (meaningless, hopeless, unhappy). “My country right or wrong” makes sense or is necessary only if the country can be or is frequently wrong. The quest for transcendence, for turning the everyday into the grandiose, the monumental, and the meaningful, presupposes the absence of the empirical equivalents of these spiritual ideals in the actual world. Indeed, the actual world has to be a positive negation of such things as fulfillment, self-worth, and significance for the quest for other-worldly, transcendent meanings to be activated. The metaphor exists in necessary tension with a more metonymic or worldly and material set of constraints which bring the metaphor into being as a reaction against them.
The transcendent moments of the film can thus be read either as successful enactments of the attainment of a spiritual ideal just short of the clouds that are the floor of heaven, or as the neurotic symptoms of this-worldly victimization, attempts to secure a sense of self-worth against a world that denies it nine to five and only allows a few leisure-time pursuits, like the male rituals of drinking and hunting, as metaphoric alternatives. The film depicts both, and our point is that its progressive potential resides in the fact that it cannot avoid this undecidability. The transcendental moments can only appear as such in contrast to a detailed description of a fallen everyday reality. This is why the film is so incredibly dense with ethnographic detail from everyday life, from the long marriage celebration to the scenes inside the industrial workplace. It is important, therefore, that the film opens in the factory, with an establishing shot from under a viaduct at night that makes the factory world seem enclosed and oppressive. The colorful mountain scenes of transcendence gain their meaning from their difference from the darkness of the workplace and the squalor of ethnic neighborhood life. And Michael’s individuation is defined as a separating out, a denial of “weakening” social links of the sort that characterize his less strong male cronies.
Thus, the film permits a deconstruction of the premises of its idealization of Michael as the seer-leader. His elevation occurs through the metaphor of the deer hunt, which transforms a literal leisure-time activity into a higher ideal meaning that transcends literality, just as Michael comes to transcend the literal and material social texture, to rise above it. He must do so if he is to give it order, but the metaphor cannot fully rise above the literality that is its vehicle. Part of its literality is that it exists in metonymic or contiguous relation to the opening factory scene of fallen fire, confinement, and darkness where the men seem all alike. Michael’s distinction as the superior individual who can read sunspots, like a shaman, or who knows the mystical meaning of a bullet (“This is this”), or who takes down deer with one shot like a true hunter has meaning only in differentiation from the other men, from their sameness in the factory. And the metaphor of transcendental leadership takes on meaning only in distinction from the workaday world; without that contrast, that determining difference, it makes no sense. Yet the film’s ideology depends on the assumption that the metaphor subsumes the literal event into an ideal meaning which transcends wordly materiality and meaninglessness (nondistinction) entirely.
The film thus puts on display the interconnections between wage labor oppression and white male working class compensations for that oppression. In this film, a mythic idealization of the individual counters the reduction of all the men to faceless and impersonal functions in the industrial machine at the beginning of the film. An idealized meaning substitutes for the fallen reality of everyday life. The powerful emblem of the church, the extremely ritualized wedding, the mythologized hunt, and the strong bonding between the men should thus be seen as ways of counteracting the banality of life on the bottom of capitalism.
Like many populist films, this one therefore has a double valence. Its depiction of the accreditation of right-wing political leadership points to the way pre-class-conscious working class men can have their resentment against oppression channeled into conservative, even fascist forms in a highly individualistic and patriarchal cultural context that limits the means of attaining communal cohesion to strong male individual leadership. Yet it also points to potentially radical desires to transcend the cruel material conditions to which working class people are reduced (or were being reduced, in the late seventies particularly), conditions that deny a sense of worldly meaning or worth to people, who, as a result, overcompensate for those lacks by turning to either religious or political idealizations.
If both Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now (see 8.3) indicate the reactionary way of dealing with the Vietnam War, they also testify to something amiss in the country’s prevailing conception of itself. The need, demonstrated in these films, to repudiate the war as history and to transfer it into an allegory of militarist manhood is itself symptomatic of a wound, a sense of shame, that seems resistant to the sort of healing these films attempt. And the films merely reproduce the desire to realize a totality of American will in the world that reveals its own problematic anchoring in a web of serial, contiguous non-totalizable relations with other people the more it asserts itself so hyperbolically and hysterically.
By the mid-eighties, the Vietnam syndrome had been at least partially overcome, and conservatives once again felt a pre-Vietnam license to exercise U.S. military power overseas. Yet the country remained convinced by the experience of Vietnam, and it refused to back full-scale interventions that might lead to wars in places like Central America. Our poll suggests that American viewers tended to turn even conservative war films like The Deer Hunter into antiwar statements: 69% felt that it portrayed the war as a mistake, and 93% said that it confirmed their opposition to the war. The ending made 27% feel patriotic, while it made 51% feel disheartened. Perhaps the most disturbing result we found was that 74% felt that the representation of the Vietcong in the film was accurate. Even if Americans had learned some lessons regarding foreign wars, they still seemed to need to learn lessons regarding foreigners. And this perhaps accounts for the fact that, although they continued to oppose interventionism on a large scale, they overwhelmingly approved Ronald Reagan’s strikes against Grenada and Libya during this period.
One consequence of the Vietnam War and the draft that supplied it with men was an undermining of the U.S. Army. By the end of the war, soldiers were “fragging” (deliberately killing) their officers, rather than obeying orders to fight. As a result of this, as well as of the widespread opposition to war that the draft helped inspire, the draft was eliminated, and the army was transformed into an all-volunteer force. That new force was heavily minority, since nonwhite minorities in a retrenching capitalist society dominated by whites had few other career opportunities. Advertisements for the army began to appear on diversionary television shows (sports and MTV especially) that might attract working-class, unemployed, and minority viewers. The restoration of the army became a more pressing concern in the late seventies, when events such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of U.S. hostages in Iran made it clear that American imperial interests were no longer going to be taken for granted or allowed to go uncontested in the world. Hollywood joined in the effort, and a number of early eighties films “humanize” the army by turning it into a scene for family melodrama, liberal ideals, and humor. The link seemed so overt that one suspected that some Hollywood filmmakers had not heard that culture is supposed to be at least relatively autonomous in relation to political power and the state.5
These films are generally liberal in tone; their humanization of the military is laudable in contrast to the more conservative exaggeration of the worst traits of the military—violence, discipline, intolerance, masculinism, etc.—in such films as Rambo. Yet these films appear at a time when the country, in the hands of conservatives, was adopting increasingly militarist poses in the world theater and when a “culture of militarism” was developing (in the form of toys, magazines, TV shows, and films). Whatever the intention of these films, their political valence was reinflected in a conservative direction by their historical moment and their social context. Moreover, the liberal vision takes for granted the necessity of an institution like the military. Liberals fail to see the deep structural roots and systemic relations that link the military per se as an institution to the patriarchal socialization patterns that are partly responsible (as we have argued) for war. It is in light of a broader radical critique of the military itself that the liberal position must be judged. Such a critique would see the military as an instrument of class defense, as well as a machine for producing a model of a general social discipline of the sort capitalism (or any work-oriented, inegalitarian society) requires. In addition, the military from this perspective is less a protection than a threat. In the modern world especially, the very existence of the military poses a danger, and it is no longer possible, because of modern weapons, to justify the military as a defense against aggression. Defense and a war of total annihilation are no longer separable concepts.
The format of humanized military films like Stripes, Private Benjamin, and An Officer and a Gentleman consists of the transformation of an unsuccessful person into a very successful one. Thus, an affirmative personal narrative is laid over an attempt at institutional reconstruction, and, like the ads for the army on television (“Be all that you can be”), the films identify personal achievement with military life. In this way, the films seem to participate in an attempt in the culture to restore the army to its pre-Vietnam credit and, in certain instances, to reintegrate it with a lost patriotic vision of the United States.
Private Benjamin (1980) incorporates feminism into this process. It recounts the transformation of a dependent and ineffectual woman who is at a loss when her husband dies on the night of their wedding into a strong, independent figure. The change is marked by the difference between the first wedding scene, in which she is little more than a sexual servant of her husband, and the last, when she socks her husband-to-be on the jaw because he is a philanderer and stalks off alone. The ideological dimension of the film consists in intimating that the army is what has made her strong. Thus, a very antifeminist institution is made to appear an ally of feminism.
Stripes (1981) and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) both concern the transformation of ne’er-do-wells into successful soldiers and “men.” But more important, both are allegories of the metamorphosis of the Vietnam generation, with its anti-bourgeois and antiauthoritarian dropout values, into the fighting machines of the eighties, who believe in patriotism, nationalism, and militarism. In Stripes an underemployed goof-off whose girlfriend has left him is transformed by the army into a good soldier who becomes a leader of his squad as well as a sexual success.
The most popular humanized military film, An Officer and a Gentleman, is neo-forties in outlook and tone; advertisements made it seem like a story out of the past, but that attempt to step back into the generic form and style of an older, more innocent male military ethos was very much a statement about the present. The film recounts the transformation of Zack (Richard Gere) from an undisciplined, motorcycle-riding, down-and-out tough guy into “an officer and a gentleman.” Brutality saves, the film says, as the hammer shapes steel. Foley, Zack’s black drill instructor (Lou Gossett), brutalizes him until he renounces his selfishness and becomes a team player. Zack stops treating women badly and does the honorable thing by carrying off his working-class girlfriend (Debra Winger) at the end. And he sacrifices his chance to set a new obstacle course record by returning to help a female classmate. The film elicits audience sympathy (even applause) at points like this. It plays on human, even liberal sentiments (integrationist and token feminist), but it does so in order to reinforce the military institution. Zack’s military training seems to make him a better man, a “gentleman.” We would argue that the film should be understood, then, as an allegory of a transformation being promoted by the Right in contemporary U.S. society. Zack represents a generation of youth who grew up disaffected with traditional institutions like the military. Through Zack, we see that generation overcome its alienation and accept such values as military honor and team play. The price is submission to discipline, authority, and brutality, but the prize is self-respect and love.
The love story is sweet and reassuring; its retreat from modernity to the sort of “torrid romance” of early Hollywood films invests libidinal energies into militarism—soldiers get the “girls,” the film suggests. In a film where men must learn to be “men,” it is fitting that women’s goal should be protrayed as “getting a man.” The love story, in fact, depicts the real state of affairs of many working class women in a society that fails to satisfy real human needs and that makes women’s survival often depend on men. Such romance has a double edge. It permits a hothouse closure to be established which reinforces the film’s masculinist-militarist ideology. But romance also testifies to structural differences between male power and female dependency that could never be fully sublated to an ideological closure and are underscored, even as their reality is denied in a film like this. They remain outside such closure always, for they are the very things that make ideology necessary in the first place.
Films like Officer were some of the most successful ideological narratives of the era. Yet for that very reason, they are some of the most interesting for understanding the rhetorical procedures of ideology as well as the social system of militarism. They are open to deconstruction precisely because they seem such perfect exercises in ideology. Strong personal needs for romance or family are transferred metaphorically or by analogy onto the military. And by virtue of metaphoric substitution, the military stands in as the answer for the personal desires. Yet this exercise in metaphoric closure also signals literal connections between the realms which are joined metaphorically. The films do not merely compare male-dominated romance or the patriarchal family to the military; they inadvertently dramatize the real material or metonymic relations between these realms of socialization.
For example, in The Great Santini (1982), a narrative of intergenerational strife between a gung-ho old-style military man and his son is mapped over a justification of the military. The narrative proceeds as a movement toward a moment of recognition when the children finally see that the father was a good man despite his excesses. He becomes a locus of sympathy when he dies sacrificing himself so that a town will not be destroyed by his crashing jet. The son, who seemed to reject his father’s values, dons his flight jacket, assumes his father’s position at the driver’s wheel of the family car, and begins to act like him. The gesture is indicative of the patriarchal character of the military. It is passed from fathers to sons, bypassing women, who serve in this film as breeders. If the family is not just a legitimating model by metaphoric analogy for the military, but also a literal seed-bed of militarist values, then this division of labor is not accidental. The socialization patterns of the two seemingly separate domains form a continuum.
Liberal films like Taps (1981) and The Lords of Discipline (1983) criticize military excess in the name of a humanized military, one in which militarism must be tempered by restraint and respect for life. Indeed, Taps thematizes this very position. Cadets at a military academy, in order to defend the existence of the academy, engage in an armed revolt, which results in the deaths of several of them. The most fervent apostle of military honor, an aging general, also dies, and his disciple, the young cadet who leads the revolt, learns that militarism must give way to good judgment. Yet the military itself is affirmed.
Films like this display the crucial ingredients of the failure of liberalism to develop a program for significantly transforming American society. Liberalism operates from within patriarchal presuppositions, which, like the similar procapitalist presuppositions liberals hold, limit the ability of liberals to see beyond the walls of the ideological prison in which they operate. Militarist patriarchs are okay, these films seem to say, though we’d be better off with nicer ones. But in a world in which one trigger-happy fool can send everyone to happy vaporland, even nice militarist patriarchs must be seen as pathological. It is such a shift of vision, whereby the most everyday assumptions of patriarchy and capitalism, especially the assumption that strong, rambunctious men are needed to lead and defend us, are relinquished forever, that lies beyond the capacity of liberals. Indeed, liberals should probably be defined as people incapable of such structural conceptualizations.
Liberals do not see the military as a social problem that must be eliminated, in part because they accept the patriarchal logic of the Cold War-that the only way to keep peace with an antagonist is through the threat of aggression or annihilation. Yet this position is itself a product of a patriarchal socialization to competition and power. In other words, if you only look at the world with sunglasses, you’ll never see anything but a dark world. In order to perceive the military itself as an unnecessary and potentially dangerous institution, liberals would have to step outside their own socialization, exit from the structure they inhabit, question the very words that come automatically to their lips.
A more radical position would argue that the outlawing of armies and weapons is not a Utopian dream; it is a precondition of the modern world’s survival. Beyond patriarchal and capitalist socialization to competition, aggression, and domination reside alternative socialization possibilities, and alternate ideals of cooperation, demilitarization, and peaceful communal existence. But that would require a different set of structuring assumptions, as well as a different set of social institutions. If the problem of the military is wedded to the social institutions that justify it metaphorically, then it is not likely to change until they are changed. Indeed, one could say that something of that potentially emergent reality is signaled by even the ideology of some of the humanized military films. For by comparing the military with the family, they indicate the possibility of a breakdown of the boundaries that separate the two realms. The family is a patriarchal form, and for this reason, it can successfully legitimate the military. But it is also a communal form. The very “humanity” that it lends the military also threatens the military. The price of analogy is comparison. And in comparison to the family, the military can only ultimately appear as being inhumane. For if the family breeds children, the military murders them. Taps and Lords at least point this out. They just don’t follow the point to its logical conclusion. And they couldn’t, because of the very patriarchal assumptions which underwrite the military, assumptions which also limit any critique of the military by immediately branding accurate critiques as unreal, Utopian, or, worse, not manly enough.
Liberals succeeded in stemming the growth of the military in the mid to late seventies, but they were incapable of turning the loss in Vietnam into a permanent structural reform of U.S. militarism. This was so in part because of historical events that made a renewed defense of the American empire necessary. That empire consisted of a network of client states overseas, in places like the Philippines and Iran, that were tied into the imperial economic and military system by treaty and corporate investment. These states helped assure that leftist or anticapitalist governments would not come to power in areas American corporations deemed necessary to their interests. Usually they brutally repressed liberation movements, in places like Indonesia and Chile, for example, and they protected the flow of raw materials and the supply of cheap labor for American firms. Military buildups within the United States were thus closely related to the status of the imperial client states, and they both have an economic dimension. In the late seventies and early eighties several client states fell to liberation movements (Nicaragua, Iran, the Philippines), others (South Korea, South Africa, El Salvador) were troubled by incipient liberation movements or unrest, and other U.S.-supported military regimes (Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Chile) were subject either to internal disturbances or to overthrow by democratic forces repulsed by the exercise of state terror in the name of defending capitalism. At the same time, several previously “secure” colonial nations became socialist—Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique—as a result of revolutions. The empire was trembling, and the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-80 heated up jingoist sentiment enough in the nation to give the new conservative power bloc the support it required to begin carrying out a momentous military buildup decked out in militarist and anticommunist rhetoric.
Yet public sentiment was not entirely homogeneous on the subject of militarism. Polls indicated that in general people opposed foreign interventionism. For this reason, perhaps, there was a cultural offensive to enlist support for the conservative ideals of an aggressive, combative defense of imperial interests. If the public didn’t need to be whipped up, there would not have been so much whipping going on in the early to mid-eighties, especially in films.
The revival of militarism was not spontaneous, however. Conservative groups like the Committee on the Present Danger campaigned throughout the seventies for greater “defense” spending and for a firmer foreign policy. The new militarism is not an effect of the Reagan era; rather, Reagan himself is in part an effect of the culture of militarism born in the late seventies, with some help from Democrats like Jimmy Carter. The Final Countdown (1979) is an example of a film that prefigures the conservative military buildup of the early eighties. It concerns an aircraft carrier that travels through a time warp to emerge on the day before Pearl Harbor. The captain has to decide whether to intervene and change the course of history. The purpose of this historical displacement is to suggest that the United States needs a powerful military in order to prevent another Pearl Harbor. Indeed, in a number of new militarist films, the Vietnamese, the Russians, or the “enemy” are decked out in uniforms that markedly resemble Japanese and German World War II battle gear. This evocation of the notion of the past “just war” in the contemporary context recalls the American Right’s persistent equating of communism with German Nazism, a movement which was in fact conservative and rightist in character as well as being devoted to the eradication of communism.
Militarism in the United States is inseparable from anticommunism. Although anticommunism has been a staple of post-World War II culture, after the late sixties, during the period of detente, it faded somewhat from American consciousness and from Hollywood film. But in the late seventies and early eighties it was revived and promoted in conjunction with the new militarism. It ranged from military revival allegories like Firefox to dance musicals like White Night. The new anticommunism worked either by projecting its own aggressive animus onto the “enemy,” thus justifying itself as a “defense” against a hypothetically offensive Red Terror, or by dehumanizing the ideological adversaries of the United States through the use of racial and social stereotypes in such a way as to excuse the use of violence against them. For example, Megaforce (1982) was a Pentagon-supported advertisement both for military hardware and for elite military manpower. It concerns an elite group of fighters known as “Megaforce” (who look and taste like the Pentagon’s Rapid Deployment Force). They use some of the most sophisticated military technology available to fight Castro-like, south-of-the-border bandits and their communist allies, who overthrow governments like dominoes, not for social ideals, but out of greed for money. The film presents social revolutionaries as venal criminals. And this criminalization and dehumanization of foreign people struggling for liberation from capitalism and feudalism seems to be essential to the promotion of weapons designed for their liquidation.
Perhaps the most audacious anticommunist film of the era was John Milius’s Red Dawn (1984), about a hypothetical Soviet invasion of the United States. A group of youngsters hide out in the mountains and become a successful guerrilla unit. In the end, they are all killed. Along with the usual right-wing themes (the Soviets are subhuman concentration camp guards, Latin American revolutionaries are merely their agents, the United States is the last bastion of justice and freedom), the film is distinguished by certain ideological motifs that hark back to fascist and national socialist ideologies of the twenties and thirties. At one point, an intellectual liberal and a jock conservative fight over how to proceed in the group. The liberal’s call for democracy loses out to the conservative’s assertion of his right to command the others. The authoritarian leadership principle is linked to the assumption that those with greater force or power should prevail—not those with the best principles or rational arguments. Such force derives its authority from nature, from what the Nazis called “blood and soil.” The blood motif in the film appears as the ritual drinking of a deer’s blood as proof of one’s warrior manhood; it refers to the Nazi fetishizing of powerful animals, and it elaborates the conservative idea that human life is primitivist, a struggle for survival in a civil society that is no different from nature. The soil motif appears at those moments when Milius’s camera meditates on nature, positioning it as a still, immense, unmoving presence. The existential loneliness of the individualist warrior leader is associated with expansive fields and high mountains, fetishes of power and strength.6
Thus, the film displays the close relationship between contemporary American right-wing ideology and Nazism. Indeed, one curious dimension of the film’s argument is that what it poses against communism, depicted as totalitarian domination, is a social model of authoritarian leadership. The authoritarian camp in the mountains is not much different from the totalitarian “camp” in the town. At this point in history, conservatives like Jeane Kirkpatrick argued for a distinction between totalitarianism (authoritarianism for the sake of communism) and authoritarianism (totalitarianism for the sake of capitalism). The film shows why such a distinction might have been necessary to avoid confusion.
While films like Red Dawn were not particularly successful at the box office, they are shown repeatedly, for months on end, on cable television. In fact, this phenomenon points to the breakdown of the distinction between film and television as well as to the eventual erosion of the importance of box-office figures in the determination of the potential effects of films. Since blockbusters must be kept off the market in order to maintain their scarcity and value, lesser films arguably acquire a greater ability to influence audiences by virtue of saturation showing on TV.
In the late seventies and early eighties, the “world communist conspiracy” becomes associated with “terrorism,” the use of non-state-sanctioned violence to gain political ends. Conservative fantasists like Claire Sterling made careers out of tracing all violent opposition to U. S. interests back to an “international terrorist network” emanating from Moscow. Numerous Hollywood films transcode this discourse, from Stallone’s Nighthawks (1981) to The Final Option (1983), which suggests the peace movement is communist-inspired, and Chuck Norris’s Invasion U.S.A. (1985), in which terrorists invade the United States. Norris and Stallone were also involved in promoting fantasies of veterans who return to Vietnam to free American POWs—Missing in Action (I and II) and Rambo.
In Rambo (1985), a veteran, who is depicted mythically as a super-killer, is enlisted to rescue missing POWs in Vietnam. He succeeds through heroic effort and a display of primitive violence that kills off numerous Russians and Vietnamese. The film satisfies several contemporary conservative prejudices. Asian communists are portrayed as subhuman. The film rewrites history in a way that excuses American atrocities against the Vietnamese. And it portrays Americans, not the Vietnamese, as the ones fighting for liberation. The overall significance of the film seems to be to try to make certain that the Vietnam War would be won in Nicaragua. It is less about an event than an attitude. The theme of betrayal that characterized the conservative attitude toward the liberal critics of the war (Reagan’s remark that the army did not lose the war but was prevented from winning it)—and that is also reminiscent of post-World War I German attitudes that aided the rise of Nazism—appears in the way Rambo is misled by a Washington bureaucrat who wants him to fail in his mission so that the book can be closed on Vietnam. Yet we suggest that a film of this sort needs to be read as a symptom of victimization. A paragon of inarticulate meatheadedness, the figure of Rambo is also indicative of the way many American working-class youths are undereducated and offered the military as the only way of affirming themselves. Denied self-esteem through creative work for their own self-enhancement, they seek surrogate worth in metaphoric substitutes like militarism and nationalism. Rambo’s neurotic resentment is less his own fault than that of those who run the social system, assuring an unequal distribution of cultural and intellectual capital.
We read the new militarist phenomenon as being both a psychological problem of patriarchal society and a problem of a threatened and defensive capitalism. Reagan’s “hard line on defense,” his stubborn hewing to a stern, punitive, and intolerant attitude toward the world, is symptomatic of patriarchal pathology, as much a matter of socialization as of social organization. Rambo is important because it displays the roots of that pathology. The male need to feel singular, to separate out from dependence on initial caretakers, is metaphorized in Rambo’s mythic isolation. Because the social world is necessarily interdependent, such isolation is necessarily aggressive. Aggression separates, whereas affection binds and makes one dependent. The isolated male is therefore without affectionate ties. Freedom of action is his norm; it requires the repudiation of anyone who threatens his space or his sense of singular importance, from the communists to the federal bureaucrats—both enemies in the film. War is, as we have argued, in part a matter of representation, images that people identify with and internalize which mobilize action. Loss in war can in consequence be experienced as self-diminution, damage done to internal representations that have become inseparable from the self. Given the prevailing socialization patterns, such loss draws out male dependence and vulnerability, male “femininization.” It is the rejection of this possibility, of its intolerable shame, that results in the sorts of hypertropic representations of violence in Rambo.
Yet within this problem lurk the rudiments of a solution. For the need for a confirmation of manhood signals a broader need for a feeling of self-worth of a sort that can only be provided by others. It depends on others’ affection, just as all singularizing metaphors depend on contextualizing metonyms. To a certain extent, Rambo’s violence is simply an expression of such a need. Such a radical compensation for lost self-esteem is in some respects a demand for a return of the other’s recognition. If we call such needs “socialist” it is because the ideals of socialism are communal support, mutual help, and shared dependence. Even the male militarist’s pathos articulates needs for such social structures. Even as he rejects dependence as shame, he affirms its necessity as the need for self-worth. And such unrecognized dependencies and unrealized desires cannot be recognized or realized in a patriarchal and capitalist social context. Indeed, this film is a testament to that reality.
One major consequence of this argument is that it is not only male sexualization that is at stake in militarism. Women, as they are socialized to be passive, to need strong men in order to survive, are complicit in the socialization process of men for war. This was made particularly clear to us at a viewing of Rambo. Women in the theater were especially loud in their demands for blood and vengeance. We were reminded of the housewives of Santiago de Chile who beat their pots at night to help bring down the leftist government. The sort of male self-display evident in Rambo requires an adulatory other in conservative women whose applause validates male violence. Thus, a reconstruction of male psychology is inseparable from a broader reconstruction of the patriarchal socialization system that produces both sexes.
The new militarism did not go uncontested. Films like War Games, Wrong Is Right, The Dogs of War, Blue Thunder, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon opposed certain forms of militarism in the eighties. And several films like Testament and Countdown to Looking Glass during the same period criticized nuclear war policy. This cultural mobilization, in conjunction with public protests, had an effect. Reagan moved from statements regarding the feasibility of limited nuclear wars in the early years of his tenure to a defensive and somewhat disingenuous call for the avoidance of all nuclear war in his later years. Comedies also contributed to the continuing liberal critique, especially such Chevy Chase vehicles as Deal of the Century, a satire of the arms industry, and Spies Like Us, a satire of Reagan’s “Star Wars” program (the “Strategic Defense Initiative”) and of the militarist-Americanist mentality in general. In Spies, two trickster figures (played by Chase and Dan Ackroyd) overturn the military’s plan to initiate a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union in order to use a new space defense system. The system fails, and one character remarks: “Such a short time to destroy a world.” In the film’s carnivalesque vision, military authority figures are little worthy of respect, and the irrationality of conservative nostrums (“To guarantee the American way of life, I’m willing to take that risk” [of nuclear destruction]) is underscored. What is noteworthy in this and other antimilitarist films is the attempt to depict alternative social attitudes (toward gays or sexuality, for example) that are necessary correlates of a post-repressive, post-militarist social construction. What the comedies underscore is the importance of irony and humor to such a process, since so many of the militarist films are distinguished by high levels of self-seriousness and an inability to engage in the plunge into indeterminacy that the carnivalesque inversion of hierarchy entails.
What all of this points to is that if militarism is a public projection of private or personal human relations and attitudes, then its reconstruction is something more than a matter of foreign policy. Liberal antimilitarist films like War Games, 2010, Testament, or Platoon frequently contain images of nonauthoritarian, nonexploitative, equal relations between people. Many conservative films offer just the opposite sorts of relations, and the positive relations are frequently oiled with sentimentalism, a form of alienated positive affect that often accompanies an equally alienated aggressivity that takes authoritarian and militarist forms. What this suggests is that one necessary route to a world free from militarism is a reconstruction of the alienated and skewed affective structures feeding the distrust and enmity that operate behind militarism. Militarism is a collective neurosis, not just a foreign policy alternative. The micrological or interpersonal dimension of human existence, therefore, is not apolitical, nor is it entirely distinct from the macrological dimension of political interaction. A different nonantagonistic structure of international relations, one purged of genocidal impulses, would be predicated in part on a different psychology and a different social construction of interpersonal affection and aggression.