Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Platoon: Vietnam and Iraq

Watching recent coverage of the newest "surge" in Iraq, I find myself thinking about a movie that diminished my childhood enthusiasm about war more than twenty years ago, Oliver Stone's Platoon. Released in 1986, this movie has not aged well in some ways. Certainly after the Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, a love letter to the "Greatest Generation" of World War Two, Stone's Vietnam War drama has lost some of its luster. But Platoon continues to offer a meaningful illustration of how good intentions drift in the fog of war.

Warning: Spoilers

Beyond its 360-degree combat scenes and moments of jaw-dropping savagery, Platoon offers a philosophical inquiry into the soul of the combat soldier. The protagonist, torn between his respect for two battle-hardened veterans, must decide how to survive the insanity of war. Shall he forsake humanity and embrace the violence that seems to animate every scene? Or shall he seek some higher ground? The answer lies in the incompleteness of either option.

Platoon is the struggle of innocence to appear worldly. Charlie Sheen's would-be intellectual assessment of the war ("Somebody once wrote, 'Hell is the impossibility of reason.' That's what this place feels like: Hell.") doesn't reveal the soul of a poet, only a scared kid turning to grownups to make sense of the world. Even when Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) dies in the much-discussed jungle scene, the fact that the actor's blood packs malfunction is a revealing mistake, a strange virtue. In Oliver Stone's war, noble death is an illusion.

For those critics of Platoon who rail against its supposed "liberal bias," I propose some recollection of why so many Vietnam veterans embraced this film. They didn't praise heroic effects or an elegant plot. And most didn't give a damn about whether the movie was about Johnson's war or Nixon's war. They simply appreciated an ounce of realism, some actual mud, and a little honest ambiguity. For that reason, Platoon meant something to those who had seen the real thing. And that's why Oliver Stone's masterpiece continues to say something meaningful to me.

As an active duty sailor in peacetime (1986-1990) I saw no combat. I was a broadcast journalist, which was a "skate job" (in Navy parlance). Actually, my duties were interesting, even challenging. But the only dangers I faced were due to my own carelessness. Then my tour concluded and I became a Seabee (construction worker) reservist, receiving a new uniform and joining ranks with men whose motto is "we build, we fight." I liked the sturdiness of my boots, and I kept them shined next to my packed seabag as Iraqi missiles fell on Israel and Saudi Arabia. The first Gulf War had begun, reserve units were being called to active duty, and I waited my turn.

Back then I was a young husband, father, and college student. I expressed no outward hopes of being called up. But inwardly I felt ready for anything. I was in my early twenties and this was my war. But the ground assault ended quickly and my unit never received its call. For more than ten years I regretted that bad luck, my lost chance to play those jungle combat games of my youth. Today, though, nothing is so innocent. It appears that simple wars and clean narratives reside in the imaginations of kids and fools.

Recently, I saw an article asking whether a new kind of Tet Offensive may spill out over Iraq in what has already been a bloody summer. It seems that more and more Americans expect the bombings, the beheadings, and the broken promises to continue. Solders promised one-year tours see their stays stretched longer and longer. They return home only to be called up again and again. Their hard-earned successes seem to fade away as objectives become shuffled and reshuffled. They fight for a nation (now called "the homeland") that is ever more unsure whether this war is worthwhile. Many wonder whether our leaders have a clue about what we should do next.

Comparisons between Vietnam and our current misadventures in the Middle East seem almost quaint because the implications of failure seem so much more dire now. America has bet its prestige, blood, and treasure upon the shifting sands and tenuous loyalties of a cruel and dangerous place. In this way, anyone who thinks honestly about the whirlwind we've wrought in Iraq may recognize the same moral ambiguity in Stone's Platoon. American troops -- brave and dedicated volunteers -- know more than most of us the price of failure. Yet hardly anyone can define success beyond survival. No one, that is, except for our president and his increasingly isolated advisors.

These people, most having never served in the armed forces, lack the necessary kind of self-doubt that keeps most of us sane. For them most of all I recommend Platoon.

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