Film

Bad and Mad: The Troubled and Troubling Pop Culture War Vet

Matthew Modine as Pvt. Joker in Full Metal Jacket (1987) (IMDB)

In these trying times of Trump, as American chauvinism thumps its chest and loudly threatens those who question, there is little room for contemporary filmmakers, or policymakers, who encourage sympathy for the war-damaged, the wounded, the wrecked.

Mr. Jingles, Season 9, Episode 2 of American Horror Story tells us, became a crazed serial killer "in the jungle" of Vietnam. Some branch of the service discharged him because he collected the severed ears of dead Việt Cộng.

In the Ryan Murphy and Bard Falchuk's willfully deranged universe American Horror Story: 1984 as this season has been dubbed, could be commenting on the way Americans saw Vietnam Veterans in the 1980s; troubled, damaged, failed, and possibly dangerous. Or as often happens with this series, they are attempting parody and have instead recycled old cultural tropes. Either way, this bonkers show always manages to be ridiculous in interesting ways. The first origin story we receive for Mr. Jingles is no exception.

At a time when a coalition of anti-war protestors and Vietnam veterans fought to have the American psychiatric association define Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (which it did in 1980) as a diagnosable and treatable illness, Americans gorged on fakelore, television shows, and films that celebrated war while denigrating veterans. Vietnam war historian Christian Appy notes in his celebrated book American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking, 2015) that when vets "were featured at all in movies or the press it was often as drug-addled and violent."

Smoke by werner22brigitte (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

American atrocities in Vietnam became well known by the 1980s. However, military and political leaders often blamed these acts on "bad apples" among the soldiers who fought the war. It's notable that American Horror Story: 1984 has Mr. Jingles kicked out of the army for collecting souvenirs from the dead. Nick Turse, in his book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American Story in Vietnam (Metropolitan, 2013) found from archival research and hundreds of interviews with veterans that platoon commanders actively encouraged the ghastly collection of all kinds of "souvenirs" in order to provide evidence for the "body count" that General William Westmoreland and nearly everyone above the rank of lieutenant demanded by 1968.

"Body count" became an obsession with the American military hierarchy to the point that Westmoreland gathered immense statistical data to prove the number of causalities inflicted every month. As Appy notes, high body count meant "rapid promotion" and "plum assignments". In the real world, Mr. Jingles would have been a model soldier and not cashiered in disgrace.

The pop culture veteran became the scapegoat for a war waged for unclear motives beyond the extension of American power and the assertion of American economic prerogatives. The portrayal of veterans often seemed to suggest that the American public had not forgiven them for losing. The roots of this disdain for the veteran, not unlike the roots of the Vietnam War itself, had their source in the Great War, later known as World War I, that had opened the 20th century.

Could they just stay "Over There?"

World War One produced the first zombie film. And made it about the terror of veterans coming home.

In the summer of 1918, the Great War still had millions left to maim and kill. The conflict had turned decisively against the Central Powers after the last major German offensive in the spring. The United States officially entered the war the previous year and, more than a year latter, the sheer numbers of draftees and volunteers had caused German lines to bend and finally break.

While the slaughter continued along a front stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland as well as on the sprawling Eastern Front, in Africa and the Middle East, two French veterans, one a modernist poet and the other about to become one of the great French filmmakers of the 1920s and '30s, set out to make a zombie movie.

Actually, It's imprecise to call director Abel Gance's J'Accuse! (1919) a zombie film. Hollywood appropriated the word zombi (a minor folkloric notion from the Haitian Vodun tradition) to create horror films like Victor Halperin's White Zombie (1934). The word doesn't appear in J'Accuse! although, notably it also doesn't appear in George A. Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) where the massed undead are described as "ghouls."

But J'accuse does show us a massed army of death walkers. In the film's final scenes, the poet-veteran Jean calls forth the dead of France to rise from the grave, return to their hearths and see if "their sacrifice had been in vain". The terrified expression of the folks at home reveals that they are clearly not glad to see their loved ones returning in various states of mutilation and decomposition.

Gance and his collaborator, the veteran and poet Blaise Cendrars, did something extraordinary with this final scene. Troops on leave from the front at Verdun, the strongpoint where nearly a million soldiers died in 1916, played the role of the undead troops rising from their graves.

J'accuse! (1919) (IMDB)

Gance would make the army of death even more ghastly in his 1938 remake. But few special effects are used in the 1919 version of the film. In fact, the seemingly decomposing extras simply bear the wounds and scars the actual war has given them, Cendrars marched without the arm he lost early in the war.

The grand guignol aspects of the scene become even more pronounced in the film's aftermath. The soldiers on leave had to return to the front after filming and, according to Gance, the majority died. When we watch the last poignant scenes of J'Accuse!, we are truly seeing the walking dead.

The horror embedded in the nitrate of the film blended with the reality of the war in ways almost as disturbing as the fate of the actors. One of the first major victory celebrations for the Allies occurred on France's National or Bastille Day, in the summer of 1919. But what was supposed to be a victory parade stunned, disturbed, and even angered civilians who watched amputees on crutches hobble down the broad avenues of Paris. Soldiers maimed with facio-dental injuries, and soldiers with multiple amputations, rightfully took part in the march. Many in France criticized the display of human suffering; they wanted a celebration, not a funerary rite.

Why? How could anyone, after the newly inaugurated horror of modern war, wish to wax sentimental about the experience of the veteran?

The United States arguably went further in hiding the costs of an uncertain victory. The "war to end all wars" would be the product of all manner of conflict, but no one would know that from the way American popular culture recalled Woodrow Wilson's war.

Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera (IMDB)

In the United States, popular memory of the veteran took truly bizarre forms. At a time when American solders returned from France and Russia (invaded by US troops in 1918 to end the Bolshevik revolution) as the walking wounded, Lon Chaney, "the man of a thousand faces" began to star in numerous films that portrayed maiming, mutilation and other forms of disability.

Between the end of the Great War and his death in 1930, Chaney portrayed a hunchback twice, a double amputee the same number of times, and a scarred or disfigured person five more times; most famously in Rupert Julian's 1925 Phantom of the Opera. In a peculiar twist in his numerous roles as physically disabled criminal, he also appeared as the lead in George W. Hill's 1926 Tell it to the Marines! a romantic comedy that involved winning the affection of a wartime nurse.

Public history in America joined in this dissonant memory. Memorials to the war in Europe often stood as silent symbols of mass graves, the Menin Gate in Ypres and Douaumont at Verdun being two examples. Hundreds of thousands of tombstones simply read "A Soldier of the Great War" or, for the French dead, the very stark "Unknown".

The United States mass produced its Great War memorials. "The Spirit of the American Doughboy" became perhaps the most popular, a "doughboy" (a nickname for American soldiers since the 1846 invasion of Mexico) charges forward aggressively and victoriously. There are no walking wounded here. One hundred and fifty-nine towns and cities across the country purchased the statue.

The year 1926 would prove portentous for the popular image of the American veteran. Mass produced as an image of undaunted heroism, Congress officially declared 11 November -- celebrated in France and many British Commonwealth nations as Armistice Day -- to celebrate Veterans Day. For many veteran of what then was referred as the Great War, this must have seemed a bone thrown to them in hard times or perhaps, even an insult, as it seemed to honor every soldier who had ever fought, or ever would fight in an American war.

Harold Russell as Homer Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives (IMDB)

The American military discharged three million veterans in 1918, many with no economic prospects, and tens of thousands with disabling war wounds. A series of bonus payments had been promised these troops in the mid-'20s. But as the Great Depression crashed the global economy, statues for the "Spirit of the American Doughboy"" emerged around the country and Veterans Day continued to be celebrated.

World War II, "the good war" as the late Studs Terkel christened it in his 1984 bestseller, produced a much more positive image of the veteran. But even as films like Allan Dwan's Sands of Iwo Jima 1949) and Nathan Juran's Hellcats of the Navy (1957) seemed to glorify the experience of war, the walking wounded played a complex role in popular culture. In 1946, William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives became one of the truly great American films about the veteran experience and proved very popular. Indeed, it garnered bigger box office receipts than World War II veteran Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, released the same year.

However, even Wyler's achievement, the work of a director who had joined the army and been under fire throughout most of the conflict, suggested the veteran as a problem. Perhaps the most memorable scene features the down-on-his-luck former bombardier Fred wandering in a huge aircraft salvage yard. He falls asleep inside the shattered nose of a B-17, and is shaken awake by a work crew using the plane parts to build pre-fab housing. The veteran has to make way for suburbia.

The confusing nature of the Korean War left the American public uneasy, especially when it learned of American POWs allegedly broken by their North Korean or Chinese captors. Korean veterans rightly called the conflict "the forgotten war", one that few Americans cared to remember or memorialize. No major monument, and few local ones, appeared until 1995. The idea of the "brainwashed" veteran appeared in the 1950s, eventually producing films like John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, what historian and sociologist Jerry Lembcke (himself a Vietnam veteran) described as the "mythical" story of returning veterans being spat on by anti-war protestors, seemed a folkloric representation of a very real phenomenon. When the large and active Vietnam Veterans against the War marched, pro-war crowds often mocked them with taunts of "Look at you…no wonder you lost." Lembcke writes that, during and in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, anti-war protestors and veterans often maintained good relations with one another; indeed, they formed important alliances. This, he notes, outraged older veterans. In 1972, a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in Greely Colorado refused to allow a group of Vietnam veterans to march with them.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) (© Columbia Pictures Photographer: Josh Weiner / IMDB)

Popular culture consistently represented the troubled Vietnam vet as traumatized...but therefore dangerous. American films, even those that attempted to show some empathy toward the veteran's experience, tended to portray them as given to criminal psychotic behavior and generally being unable to reintegrate into a new American economic order.

Although little is made of the fact in the script, De Niro's deranged Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver (1976) came to stand in for the "bad and mad" veteran. Sylvester Stallone in Ted Kotcheff's Rambo: First Blood, released in 1982, before the Reagan era sequels weaponized the character into a American superhero seemingly born from a vat of testosterone, told the story of a homeless veteran disregarded and ignored by a society that had turned him, for all intents and purposes, into a psychotic killer.

These images turn up again and again in the films of the 1970s and '80s. Masterpieces such as Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) plays with the idea of the vicious and deranged soldier in the unforgettable first act on Parris Island. Oliver Stone, himself a combat veteran in Vietnam, created the extraordinary Born on the Fourth of July (1989), about the physical and emotional trauma of Ron Kovic (author of the memoir the film is based on). The film pays Kovic's anti-war activism due tribute. Yet viewers tend to remember the extended scenes of Kovic's troubling behavior toward family and friends and his anger and near psychotic breaks over his sexual impotence. Even a film as saccharine Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump (1994) determinedly insisted on giving us an angry, alcoholic, and suicidal veteran in Lieutenant Dan, played by Gary Sinise.

There are both political and ethical questions at stake in these aesthetic representations. In the Great War, in World War II, in every conflict of the last 100 years, veterans have committed war crimes and the trauma of what they did, as well as what was done to them, has been the ghost at the feat of very victory march. At the same time, particularly in the wake of Vietnam and the assessment of the American's military empire, individual veterans are (sometimes) punished for war crimes while the system that that encourages and allows them to maintain American hegemony remains unquestioned.

We continue to wage America's longest war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and east Africa. Soldiers who hadn't even been born on the infamous day of 11 September 2001, now fight in these wars.. Meanwhile, as Stars and Stripes reported one year ago, the Trump administration has demanded and since received deep cuts to Veterans Administration programs.

Nobody Likes a Loser

Donald Trump's campaign for US President, some observers might have believed, would have ended ingloriously with his attack on Vietnam veteran John McCain. At a July 2015_campaign rally, Trump said "He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured."

Anyone who thought this comment spelled doom for Trump's candidacy has paid no attention to how much Americans enjoy a good war while holding troubled, conflicted, or maimed veterans in disdain. Trump summed up the feeling of many Americans about veterans in general and Vietnam veterans in particular.

The American public -- .04% of whom serve in the military and fewer than 8% of whom are veterans -- loves to win wars. They love advanced weapons systems that allow them do so, and they revel in the sense of dominance of the killing machine that corporate power in the United States created for them. They might even slap a sticker on their cars that says "Support the Troops" without any idea, or real concern, about how Veterans Administration cuts have savaged the aging, the disabled, and the traumatized.

When Gance remade J'Accuse in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, he replaced its message of sacrifice with one of international peace. Rather than the living dead of France coming home to inquire about their sacrifices, the dead of all nations, Germans included, rise to demand an end to war.

Don't thank a veteran for their service. Fight to ensure that they receive the benefits they need to overcome the mental and physical trauma of being sacrificed in wars without end. It is imperative to social progress that we see the skeletal finger pointed at us and hear the grave-choked voices of wars past, "J'accuse!"

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