British Association for American Studies


“They Need Us and They Want Us”—Erecting the Empire in the Vietnam War

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In the view of the late Amy Kaplan, the practice of US imperialism is denied and projected onto other nations in the discourse of American culture studies (13). Whereas the research in this field only marginally engages with the idea of the US being an imperial force, a cursory look at US political rhetoric, literary productions, and Hollywood blockbusters of the last decades discloses that the United States indeed seems to employ an imperial mindset. A close investigation of US-based representations of West-East encounters—during the Cold War period, for instance—reinforces Kaplan’s assertion that “US culture was from its origins grounded on ‘an imperium’” (22) and that US imperialism would “go unrecognized as an American way of life” (23). The difficulty of understanding that US culture was and still is, according to Alyosha Goldstein, formed by colonialist practices within and outside the United States can be explained by a closer look at the mechanisms with which US cultural productions promote imperial logics while simultaneously rendering them nearly invisible. Through the perspective of the war movie The Green Berets, I explore the ways in which the Hollywood film industry employs such methods. With the help of a close-reading of the 1968 classic, I examine the simultaneous destruction and construction of space on Vietnamese soil in the course of US expansionism and how such a contradictory imperial premise is disguised through a mise-en-scène of human bonding between paternal US soldiers and infantilized Vietnamese people at a new frontier in southeast Asia.

In US popular culture, the frontier of the American West has long served as a metaphor for the place in which democracy and a common sense of American nationalism evolves (Paul 324). The frontier mythology became a fundamental idea of imperial logic by which territorial expansion and the replacement of indigenous populations were seen necessary for the establishment of US democratic values and its national identity (Slotkin 10). As a “major conceptual site in American studies” (Kaplan 16), it transformed US imperial practices into a ‘civilization project’ of such populations that lived on the other side of the imaginary frontier and that were deemed savage and childlike (Lefrançois & Mills 512). During the course of the twentieth century, too, the frontier and its inherent binary opposition, imagined and reinforced between the civilized and the savage, served as a recurrent symbol of US culture to deliver a rationale for the subjugation of native population and create spaces of US empire, that is to say, seemingly benevolent and mutually beneficial, inclusive societal structures (Slotkin 10).

The constructed American West and its frontier as spatial imaginary is not restricted to a geographical location within the United States. John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” administration transferred the concept of the frontier to Eurasia and made possible capitalist growth and American expansion on a global level through the imagination of being in a constant war against demonized others. Such thinking also contributed to the political notion of the Vietnam War being a “noble cause” (Lytle 386) in which white supremacy and patriarchy proved vital (Reinecke 59). When recalling the Vietnam War and the consequences it had on both sides of the conflict, Sylvia Shin Chong notes that “Vietnam is the site of American trauma rather than Vietnamese trauma [emphasis added]” (29). The defeat of the United States deeply shattered the prevailing ideology of the US being a benevolent and superior military force that succeeds in war by creating democratic societies (Dittmar & Michaud 7). In the wake of public unease and discomfort with US participation in the Vietnam War, John Wayne produced the propagandistic 1968 classic The Green Berets, in which he persistently uses “child” and “savage” symbolisms to make the patriarchal relationships between mature, righteous US soldiers and weak, infantilized Vietnamese the main theme of his version of Vietnam. However, such focus is intended to distract from the fundamental illogic of imperialism: the production of space for new settlements through the destruction of likewise habitable, foreign spaces in the course of US-empire building.

“Vietnam War Era – Photo by Bruno Barbey” by manhhai is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Whereas the frontier has long been a site of combat between the white, hardened American cowboy, the solidity of untouched nature and its resident Indian ‘savages’, the new frontier in The Green Berets is now full of Vietnamese people, as childlike and barbarous as the stereotypical Indian in Wayne’s previous Westerns. Through the attempt of making Vietnam the new American West, in which the US soldiers fight savage Viet Cong in order to protect innocent, infantilized Vietnamese villagers, The Green Berets renders the eradication of Vietnamese land and culture as inevitable. Once again, it seems, that the war against evil, foreign enemies and the correlating destruction of space is necessary for the establishment of a new, imperial space disguised as solid military bases and safe homes for the vulnerable Vietnamese, all run by humanitarian US soldiers. According to the movie’s overall logic, in order for Vietnam to be reborn and to thrive, it is necessary to rid it of its old, scarce, and dysfunctional foundations. This presupposition turns into action when Colonel Mike Kirby and his men extend the terrain of their camp by clearing parts of the surrounding “jungle”. The Green Berets was financially supported by the Pentagon (Jenkins 101) and produced in consultation with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Slotkin 521). Since the movie’s incentive was to promote US participation in the Vietnam War, Wayne made up multiple explanations for why the war and its destructive consequences, consequences that do not become visible in the movie, were necessary.

First and foremost, he did so through the introduction of the human element. As the movie suggests, the US army engages in war only to provide shelter for a vulnerable segment of Vietnam, which seeks protection from the atrocious, Indian-like Viet Cong (VC). The Vietnamese population in The Green Berets is thus depicted either as the noble or ignoble savage of the Western movie. Both concepts recur in Western representations of the encounters between native populations and American pioneers in the course of Euro-American settlement in the 16th century (Paul 341). The noble savage understands the propagated objective of US expansionism to help humanity progress and this way silently accepts the replacement of his or her own culture (ibid.). By contrast, the ignoble savages, who are depicted both as ferocious and primitive, oppose themselves to the Euro-American settler by employing brutal and reckless war methods (ibid.). In either case, the culture of Native Americans is going to be eradicated, either by war or assimilation to US customs (ibid.). The ignoble savage in The Green Berets is represented by the evil VC, the enemy of the US forces, who display similarities to the dehumanized and animalistic natives in Western narratives. The VC, “an enemy as ruthless as the stereotypical Indians portrayed in Wayne’s westerns” (Lytle 371), do the Indian war cry, carry bow and arrows and “assume the role of savages, raping young girls and torturing wives in front of their husbands” (ibid.). Stigmatized as “stinky Cong” by the character Captain Nim, they are akin to natives that “have been debased […] with filth and dirt” (Adnan 26).

By contrast, the noble Vietnamese in The Green Berets are embodied by heavily Americanised, English-speaking individuals in a Vietnamese sports club and later on, by infantilized and nativised Vietnamese villagers that seek help and guidance at the US base camp. Both groups of people endorse US participation and willingly give up their own customs and identity. The first group at the Da Nang sports club has already acquired the traits of US culture. This becomes most visible when—in a manner that is reminiscent of America’s chanteuses of the 1950s—a Vietnamese singer flawlessly performs Doris Day’s “The river Seine” not only in French, but also in English. By stark contrast, the second group of noble savages—embodied by the Vietnamese villagers—are infantilised and nativised, since they have not yet complied with American guidance and are thus deemed childlike and dependent on US paternalism (Lefrançois & Mills 512). They have not adjusted to US customs yet and, as the movie suggests, therefore resemble evolutionary backward individuals that must use hand gestures to be understood, find the concept of money foreign and require US leaflets that define the white man in his physical appearance to recognise US soldiers. As Lefrançois and Mills put it, infantilisation of colonised and non-Western nations is fundamental to colonial rhetoric in which “the ‘child-native’ performs a discursive function ‘foundational to the ideology of imperialism’” (508). The projection of the child metaphor onto the Vietnamese people renders US military intervention at the new frontier in Vietnam a “necessary, legitimate, and even benevolent” (ibid.) enterprise, just as it did so often before in the course of Native American removal. The infantilised Vietnamese cannot develop any further, the movie seems to suggest, unless they live under the parental guidance of a benevolent America (ibid.). Whereas the movie focuses on the potential and future growth of an underdeveloped society, it silently withholds the erosion of identities and the destruction of spaces that were already there before imperial intervention.

In a further attempt to detract from the morally troubling side of US participation in the Vietnam War, the movie draws back to the consumer familiar realm of family dynamics by displaying several examples of patriarchal relationships between paternal US soldiers and infantilised Vietnamese. With main character Colonel Kirby—played by John Wayne himself—and the orphan boy Hamchunk, the movie posits the ultimate patriarch and the ultimate child to reinforce the power imbalance between the two nations. Hamchunk, a young Vietnamese boy who lives in the US base camp, embodies the “child symbolism” (Slotkin 522) in which the Vietnamese population is depicted as “orphaned children who have luckily fallen into the paternal care of the paragon of strong American men” (ibid.). The Green Berets show several patriarchal gestures throughout the movie, such as the pinch of a cheek or the distribution of candies to Vietnamese children. At the end of the movie Colonel Kirby adopts Hamchunk and reassures the child’s worries about the future saying, “You let me worry about that, Green Beret. You’re what this war is all about.”

“You’re what this war is all about” is meant to convince US spectators that the war is a necessary enterprise to save Vietnam, a country of endangered children, from the attacks of vicious VC who are as barbarous as the stereotypical native. It seeks to validate America’s ostensible objectives of civilising the savage and protecting the weak. Kirby’s statement might be true, but due to different reasons. As the close-reading of The Green Berets suggests, the Vietnam War is not about America’s mission to protect innocent children in foreign lands, rather, it is about colonialist representational strategies of infantilisation and othering that are used to conceal imperial practices and the replacement of indigenous culture. The infantilisation of the Vietnamese noble savage “justifies guardianship, patronage by the adult, more enlightened, rational West” (Adnan 33). It puts the Vietnam War into a family context, in which the paternal West finds itself called upon to raise the lost children of the East in the ever-stretching expanse of an ‘imperial home’ (ibid.).

More than that, the symbolism of childhood and the stereotype of the backward native used in the movie prove to be vital for imperial rhetoric because they absorb both “the exploitation and the nurture of the colonial subject” (Ashcroft 200) and in this way, ensure the very existence of imperialism. Such rhetoric ignores the destructive nature of imperialism, which is first required for the emergence of spaces of order and democracy to appear essential. The declaration of the character McGee at the beginning of the movie that “they [the Vietnamese] need us and they want us” is the very propaganda the movie wishes the spectator to believe in. The underlying message behind it is rather, “we need the people to believe that they need us.”



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