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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 253-264

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In the Combat Zone

Marilyn B. Young

Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg. Dreamworks, 1998.
Pearl Harbor, directed by Jerry Bruckheimer. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2001.
Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott. Columbia Pictures, 2001.
We Were Soldiers, directed Randall Wallace, Paramount Pictures, 2002.

In the aftermath of the U.S. victory in the Gulf War, the first president George Bush was optimistic that the country had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome." But the syndrome continued to manifest itself in the popular imagination of war. The Rambo series had tried to reverse the verdict of defeat, but it left standing the public conviction that Vietnam was not a good war. Despite a victory intended to vanquish the memory of Vietnam, the only notable movies made about Desert Storm—Courage Under Fire (dir. Edward Zwick, 1996) and Three Kings (dir. David O. Russell, 1999)—were haunted by it. Courage Under Fire, in its insistence that post-Vietnam America must have heroes, underlined their absence. Three Kings explains why, opening with black-and-white text informing us that the war is over, even as a soldier shouts the question: "Hey! Are we still killing people?" No one seems to know the answer. The soldier peers through the scope on his gun and sees an Iraqi on a distant hilltop, white flag in one hand, weapon in the other. Before either the audience, or [End Page 253] the soldier, can tell whether the man intends to shoot or surrender, the American fires and the man falls dead. "Congratulations," his buddy says. "You got yourself a raghead. I didn't think I'd get to see anyone shot in this war."

We next observe one of those interviews with the troops that, like ads for the military, punctuated television coverage of the war. Both the press and the troops who so enthusiastically performed for them are mocked: "They say you exorcised the ghost of Vietnam in [this war with its] clear moral imperative," the reporter informs the soldiers, who readily agree: "We liberated Kuwait." The rest of the movie makes deadly fun of this answer. "I don't know what we did here," George Clooney's Special Forces officer bitterly complains to a friend, "just tell me what we did here." "Do you want to occupy Iraq," the friend answers, "and do Vietnam all over again?" But in effect, the Gulf War, as Three Kings presents it, is Vietnam all over again. No clear moral imperative exists; on the contrary, Shiites and Kurds are cynically encouraged to rebel against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned to their fate. Even the bad guys drive the point home: "Do [sic] your army care about the children in Iraq?" one of Saddam's Republic Guard soldiers, pausing in the act of torturing an American captive, asks. "Do your army come back to help the people? ... My son was killed in his bed. He is one year old. He is sleeping when the bomb come. ... Can you think how it feels inside your heart if I bomb your daughter?" Individual Americans, like Clooney, through their honesty, virility, and disregard for authority, redeem the country's honor, but only in opposition to, or apart from, the government, never in support of its stated aims. In this, Three Kings is a sardonic retelling of what Pat Aufderheide has described as the "noble-grunt" Vietnam War movie. The enemies are not Vietnamese or Iraqi, but rather "the cold abstract forces of bureaucracy and the incompetence of superiors." 1

For the past few years, the only refuge for the righteous fighting man has been World War II. 2 Unsurprisingly, George W. Bush used it as his first point of reference in the immediate aftermath of September 11 (as had his father, on the eve of Desert Storm): the attack was another Pearl Harbor; the enemy was fascist, totalitarian, a spoke in an axis of evil. Only in World War II, the film historian Thomas Doherty pointed out, can Americans find "the consolation of closure and the serenity of moral certainty...


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