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Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 62.2 (2006) 99-144

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Last Stand at the Ia Drang Valley:

Memory, Mission, and the Shape of Victory in We Were Soldiers

University of Kentucky
In Memoriam: J. Douglas Canfield and for C.P.W.
Attorney General Kennedy asks the question[,] "Where would be the best place to stand and fight in SEA—where to draw the line?" (29 April 1961)
United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967
"Now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place."
—John F. Kennedy to James Reston (June 1961)
We will stand in Viet-Nam.
—Lyndon B. Johnson (28 July 1965)
Air Mobile: those boys just couldn't stay put.
—Capt. Benjamin Willard, Apocalypse Now (1979)

History, of the sort that Hollywood tends to proffer and peddle, advances not so much an understanding of the past as it does the efficacy and authority of cultural memory. However importunate about its fidelity to history, Hollywood yet tenders its accounts of past events to the unhistorical, its remembrances to the forgetful. "I'd have to say," sheepishly confesses a college student in an installment of Ted Koppel's Nightline, "Apocalypse Now is probably one of my favorite movies. That's basically where I see Vietnam from" (Koppel).1 But why reprove the young man for the narrowness of his historical outlook? [End Page 99] In Hearts of Darkness, the documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now, Francis Coppola himself, without so much as a nod to the ghost of Joseph Conrad, imperiously decrees: "My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam" (Bahr, Hickenlooper, E. Coppola). Yet, however earnestly or presumptuously the movies may engage a historical event or a historical text, the resulting product is mostly a sort of referent, a corresponding précis—not quite a dilution or a mimicking of a putative original but rather its delimited version, naively or expediently self-contained, as if, while claiming to be history, it can at the same time dispense with the disconcerting multifariousness with which even the humblest event confronts our impulse to engage the past. Hollywood's is more often than not history lacking the complex operations of time, without the eventfulness itself of the event. It is chronicle without process, history without historicity. Such "remembrance" recovers but fragments. It has already winnowed, sifted, and culled (with what intention and to what effect need not concern us here) scarcely more than a series of moments from the event's unfolding entanglements and contingencies. So considered, Hollywood renders the event not so much simplified as circumscribed. Let the muse be history's own, then; still, the resulting tale—the concrete issue and outcome, vivid and even sensational for having been so distilled and catalyzed—has become the stuff of cultural memory.

The critical interaction of history and cultural memory finds a compelling expression in the unfolding relation between the accounts of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley (November 14–18, 1965) and the recent movie that proposes to document that battle, We Were Soldiers (Wallace, 2002).2 "These," declares the movie's voiceover narrator, Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), at the beginning of We Were Soldiers, "are the true events of November 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam, a place our country does not remember, in a war it does not understand." The narrator purposes to tell no mere tale but rather to relate "the true events" that transpired at the Ia Drang Valley in mid-November 1965; and he offers his historical truth to our bedimmed memory: for we, those of us who were not "soldiers," who were absent, can hardly recall. Yet his truth and our enjoined remembrance shall at long last enable us to "understand."

I claim privilege or high station for neither history nor cultural memory. A brief sketch of the operations of history...


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