restricted access The Iconography of Violence: Television, Vietnam, and the Soldier Hero
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The Iconography of Violence:
Television, Vietnam, and the Soldier Hero

Narrative vs. Medium

The Vietnam War expanded and dominated foreign policy just as television news was expanding to a half-hour format and surpassing newspapers as the primary source of information for Americans. This coincidence resulted in a synergistic relationship between the war and the news in which each promoted and popularized the other. Forty years later, it is almost impossible to think of the Vietnam War without remembering the iconic images documented by television news and photojournalism. The continuing prominence of Eddie Adams' Saigon Execution, Nick Ut's Vietnam Napalm Girl, and Malcome Browne's Burning Monk exemplifies this interdependence between the events of the war and their journalistic representations. This relationship, however, is not as straightforward or as simple as it is often presented. According to accepted cultural memory, Vietnam was both the first and the last time "war" (generally signifying the horrors of combat) would be brought to the viewer so intimately or so immediately. Furthermore, the continual combat footage from Vietnam is believed to have influenced public opinion of the war so negatively that continuing the intervention became impossible for the American government.

This simplistic view of the relationship between television and Vietnam is based on assumptions contradicted by any study of news footage of the time.33 The news was not suffused with combat imagery, and soldiers were not portrayed as rabid killers—almost no footage showed American servicemen engaged in horrific atrocities perpetrated on helpless Vietnamese women and children. Daniel C. Hallin, in his work The Uncensored War, has shown that the news media of the time was mostly innocent of the charge of bias leveled by the Nixon administration and largely articulated by Vice President Spiro Agnew (109 et passim). While Peter Braestrup, in Big Story, does argue that coverage during the Tet Offensive suggested a negative view of the progress of the war, his focus is mostly limited to that one period of a much longer war (170). By and large, television news before Tet was optimistic, [End Page 50] keeping to themes familiar from World War II of courage under fire, American know-how, and inevitable victory. While the news became less optimistic about the progress of the war after Tet, it still did not start depicting American servicemen as bestial, savage psychopaths.

And yet the image of the psychotic Vietnam veteran, made violently insane by his wartime experiences, became clichéd as the war drew to a close. If television news was the predominant representation of warfare and soldiering during the Vietnam War and yet television news did not depict soldiers in Vietnam as psychotic, where, then, did the stereotype of the psychotic Vietvet come from? Much academic work has been done on the many roles of the Vietvet in post-Vietnam culture. Perhaps most strikingly, Susan Jeffords has argued persuasively that the American experience of the Vietnam War combined with an anti-feminist ethos in the US during the late 1970s and 1980s to rationalize political failure in terms of gender, and thus to suppress other explanations such as race and imperialism (1 et passim). However, Jeffords's focus on gender, in The Remasculinization of America, displaces another crucial factor at work in the characterization both of the Vietvet and of masculinity in the post-Vietnam period. Before this war, American cultural representations of soldiers, despite having changed several times—the patriot of freedom after the Revolutionary War, the wanderer in need of reconciliation after the Civil War, the idealist disillusioned after World War I, the champion victorious after World War II—were built on and fed into what Richard Slotkin has called a national figure of "regeneration" through the creative violence of the soldier-hero (Regeneration through Violence 21 et passim). It was this long-standing figure of agency, the center of a national mythology according to which heroic, masculine violence creates American cultural primacy, that came under fire during Vietnam.

Although television news did not define the soldier as psychotic, news coverage of Vietnam did undermine the distinctive iconography of the soldier-hero. In the aftermath of World War II, the mythology surrounding the hero...