Comrades and Causes
Frank Capra's "why we fight" theme dominated films produced during World War II, even Korea. But these films also downplayed war's ferocity and horror. About Vietnam the only contemporary film was The Green Berets, produced in the style of 1944 and lobbed like a (dummy) grenade into the middle of 1968. After the war ended, a series of counter-cultural films, notably Taxi Driver (1976), caricatured Vietnam vets as dangerous lunatics. The Deer Hunter (1978) showed more respect for the veterans, while also painting an unflattering picture of the North Vietnamese communists. The lunatic vet made a comeback in the extravagantly awful Apocalypse Now (1979), but by the 1980s it was no longer cool to use vets as villains.
Yet at the same time, Hollywood in the 1980s was loath to make films retroactively supporting the Vietnam War. (Unfortunately, the sole exception, Lionel Chetwynd's The Hanoi Hilton (1987), is dramatically speaking a dud.) So the challenge became: How to make the soldiers look good, while also making the war look bad? A clever solution was devised by two directors, Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick, in two highly successful films, Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). By focusing on the experience of a small unit of soldiers, and using state-of-the-art technology to render the sights and sounds of combat as vividly as possible, these films managed to avoid any focus on why they fought. At its cleverest, this approach also managed to make the soldiers' disgruntlement with ill-conceived orders and fruitless tactics look like principled opposition to the war.
This narrowly focused band-of-brothers approach is now a cliche, as film after film ramps up the special effects and dumbs down the characters and plots. A harbinger of this approach is Ridley Scott's Blackhawk Down (2001), a high-tech tour de force whose characters are as interchangeable, and unmindful of the reason why they are fighting, as the figures in a video game. Even We Were Soldiers (2001), Mel Gibson's attempt at a revisionist Vietnam film, spends more time reconstructing the physical details of the 1965 battle of Ia Drang Valley than defending the purpose for which it was fought. And despite its patriotic fervor, Gibson's film ends with the line: "They went to war because their country asked them to, but in the end they fought not for their country or their flag. They fought for each other."
They fought for each other. Very stirring, but how do you get them to do that? On the most basic level of narrative art, there's nothing wrong with the band-of-brothers approach. Since before Homer, the best war stories have focused not on grand strategies but on comrades-in-arms. And long before sociologists coined the term unit cohesion, storytellers have understood that in the heat of battle, soldiers think less about overarching goals than about their buddies. And when they act bravely, it is usually to save their friends, to avoid letting them down, or (at most) to uphold a shared sense of honor. So it's dramatically necessary, and sociologically accurate, to separate comradeship from cause while the bullets are flying.
But this only takes us so far. Soldiers are human beings, and when the shooting stops, they are bound to ponder why they fight. If no adequate reason presents itself, or if their sense of duty becomes eroded by a sense of futility, they may grow less willing to march back into hell. In the worst case scenario, they lose their moral bearings altogether, and cease to care about either cause or comrades. This is war's final bitterness, and only rarely does Hollywood dare to depict it.