Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Red Dawn Over Vietnam: The Myth of the Invincible Guerrilla

I've been thinking a bit about an early/mid 80's phenomena that painted the guerrilla as the ultimate/unstoppable hero and how that reflected America's confusion and disillusionment at the outcome of our interventions in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam movies of the 1970s tended to be overtly anti-establishment and its notable that several of the most popular movies of the era prominently feature a patricide as a central turning point. Films such as Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now  and of course the Star Wars Trilogy depict characters who struggle against, and must eventually defeat, corrupt yet charismatic father-authority figures. The message is clear: The failing is not our own - it is these evil men who have led us astray. It's Johnson. It's Nixon. Once their generation is unseated and reins of the power have passed to a new generation there will be justice.

 But by the early 1980s, with the U.S. still trying the reconcile the loss of Saigon and the tremendous price we paid, American story tellers were drawn to a new and more exciting explanation: The fault lay not with our leaders but with our enemy - thus was born The Myth of the Invincible Guerrilla. The Myth of the Invincible Guerrilla has 1 central tenet: guerrilla wars are everywhere and always un-winnable (the overwhelming U.S. victory in our 45-year war against the plains Indians notwithstanding) no matter what the larger, better equipped conventional army does. So in Red Dawn, Americans got to be the guerrillas against the Soviets, but the larger message was that the guerrilla will always win - he will always be faster, smarter and more lethal than the "professional" solider. And the conventional army will always pay a tremendous price for daring to run afoul of the insurgents.

This message was also found in the V miniseries and was pumped up on steroids in movies like Rambo: First Blood II and Missing in Action - films where the guerrilla becomes the hero and because he travels lighter and moves faster than the conventional army he will always win. The guerrilla's opponent changed too - gone were the Vaderesque/Nixonian father figure to lead us astray in the patricide films of the late 1970s, they were replaced by the legions of nameless/faceless bureaucratic henchmen. Walter Kurtz was a Mao-like misguided idealist and Darth Vader was a monk turned to the dark side - but in the 1980s an Invincible Guerrilla faced a cadre of Dilberts, as likely to be armed with Uzis as clipboards, who would do little more than provide the guerrilla with target practice on his way to the end credits.    

The guerrilla/hero was a convenient post-Vietnam archetype because he absolved America of the sins of Vietnam. By being "invincible" he lets America say "See, nobody can beat a small group of fighters who run around in the country side! They're unstoppable!" This let us put the trauma of Vietnam behind us and write our involvement in Southeast Asia off as a failed experiment in attempting to fight an "un-winnable war" against an "un-deflatable" enemy.

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