Hating War While Loving The Warrior

  The decade or so following the Vietnam War saw dozens of movies that were critical of American involvement in Southeast Asia.   Most filmmakers weren't content with criticizing politicians and generals. Their films showed little regard for the men who served in Vietnam. In movies like "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," and "Platoon," when servicemen weren't busy killing innocent women and children, they were using drugs and killing each other.   But two recent movies signal a felicitous change. One, "Black Hawk Down," tells the story of American soldiers, originally deployed as part of a humanitarian mission, who found themselves hunting a Somali warlord.   On October 3, 1993, thousands of Somalis attacked the Americans. Within fifteen hours, eighteen Americans were dead -- their bodies dragged through the streets. The tragic waste of life made our involvement in Somalia even more unpopular than the Vietnam War.   Yet, as Washington Post reviewer Stephen Hunter puts it, "there's not a whiff of Vietnam-era sullenness and resentment" in the film. The men who fought the battle are depicted as noble. The audience leaves the film admiring their courage and devotion to their comrades.   An even more positive depiction of the ordinary soldier is seen in the new film "We Were Soldiers." This movie tells the story of the first major battle of the Vietnam War. Americans were outnumbered by more than four to one and suffered terrible losses.   Yet, like "Black Hawk Down," while the audience may question why Americans were put in harm's way, we admire the men seen on the screen, fighting and dying for each other and for their country. This is especially true of their commander, Lt. Colonel Hal Moore, played by Mel Gibson.   Moore is something new in films about Vietnam: a commanding officer who is neither incompetent, mentally disturbed, nor a tyrant. He loves his men, and they love him. He's the first man off the helicopter and the last one on. He's a loving family man and a devout Catholic. In other words, he's the kind of man other men would willingly follow into battle.   What we see in films like "We Were Soldiers" and "Black Hawk Down" is a rejection of the nihilism and moral skepticism that shaped the post-Vietnam war movies and culture. For two decades, disillusionment over American involvement in Vietnam was applied to the rest of American life. We lost faith not only in the people who created American policy in Vietnam, but in the military and most of our major institutions.   This loss of faith was reflected on the screen in films where all sides were guilty of barbarism and where heroism and nobility didn't exist. This made these films more depressing: It made them morally unrealistic. Heroism, you see, isn't the product of our context or historical setting; it's the product of our character and moral sense.   "Soldiers" and "Black Hawk" reflect this truth, and that's why they are a welcome antidote to the war films of the past two decades. And while both films are graphic -- don't see them if you don't enjoy gory battle scenes -- they should be praised for achieving the balance that escaped previous films. They depict unpopular wars, but they do justice to the heroic men who fought them.         For further reading:   Stephen Hunter, "Shock Troops," Washington Post, 18 January 2002.   Read past movie commentaries here.   Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Baker Book House, 2000).


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary