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Radical Society: A Review of Culture and Politics
Is Rambo Still A Republican?
Lessons from late-Cold War cinema for the post-9/11 era.
By Mark Engler
Published in Radical Society, Volume 31 (2004), No. 1
On January 29, 2004, when I heard the news of U.S. army forces surrounding a rural compound near Tikrit, Iraq, and capturing the fugitive Saddam Hussein, I was reminded of my 1980s childhood. This is not to say that I associate deserts or spider holes with my Midwestern youth. Rather, what took me back were some curious names I noticed in the news reports. The army dubbed two farm houses on the Iraqi compound, where they thought Saddam might be hiding, "Wolverine I" and "Wolverine II." The mission itself was called "Operation Red Dawn."
Those of us who were reared on the action movies of the Reagan era knew exactly where the names came from. Red Dawn is a 1984 film (featuring a young Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, and an even younger Charlie Sheen) in which America is invaded by the Soviets and the Cubans. Although the end of the Cold War was only a few years away at the time of the film's release, the '80s were a decade in which patriotic fervor ran high. It makes sense to me that the movie would now enjoy a revival in Pentagon screening rooms. Like other anti-Soviet movies of my childhood--films like Rambo III and Rocky IV--Red Dawn offers a clear vision of conventional patriotism, and thus seems well-suited to post-9/11 popularity.
Yet the insights that such late-Cold War movies provide into U.S. foreign policy are not nearly as straightforward as what one would expect from the muscle-bound genre. Hearing of Saddam's capture, it occurred to me that returning to those films and looking from a distance at the brand of hyper-patriotism promoted in the 1980s might prove useful for those challenging militaristic visions of national purpose. And that it would be notably uncomfortable for promoters of a "New American Century." Because judging from their use of Red Dawn, the hawks were getting things very wrong.
In case you missed it, in Red Dawn's vision of World War III it's up to a rag-tag bunch of Colorado high school students to form a hit-and-run strike force and take their country back. The guerillas are the heroes. The invading troops are the enemies. The students name their platoon after their high school football team, the Wolverines.
"It's a patriotic movie," said Red Dawn director John Milius in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Nothing's more traditional than resistance."
The Original American Taliban
As a couple inclined toward Catholic pacifism, my parents detested movies like Rambo. They saw them as embodiments of war-mongering machismo. My brothers and I, on the other hand, had considerable fondness for the "ultimate fighting machine." John Rambo seemed eminently sympathetic, a man fighting with style and admirable firepower in defense of a just cause. A man to be imitated, in spite of the fact that we were not allowed to own toy guns.
The patriotic spirit of Sylvester Stallone's action hero peaked in the last movie of the series. In 1988's Rambo III the reluctant ex-Green Beret, acting on behalf of the U.S. government, joins forces with native freedom fighters against the Russians in Afghanistan. He's hesitant because he has never trusted the army after Vietnam, and he would rather be meditating at the mountaintop monastery where he has retired. "My war is over," he tells the mission's recruiter. But after Rambo's beloved Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) is captured by the Commies, the veteran commando goes back into action.
Once in Afghanistan, Rambo is convinced by the mujahideen that their battle is righteous. And it is at this point that one sees how the passing years have been unkind to Stallone's defense of Reaganite militarism. The fact that Osama bin Laden was among the warriors whose insurgency was supported by the CIA only proves the old maxim that one Republican President's freedom fighter is another's terrorist. The movie's dialogue is studded with now-unheeded warnings, and is haunted by the "blowback" that was to come.
Hamid, Rambo's guide in Afghanistan's rugged mountains, tells in broken English his people's history of anti-imperialist struggle: "Alexander the Great tried to conquer this country. Then Genghis Khan. Then the British. Now Russian. But Afghan people fight hard. They never be defeated."
At the end of the monologue Rambo approvingly notes, "You guys don't take any shit."
Later, a leader of the rebel forces explains his cause to the American fighter: "What you see here are the mujahideen soldiers, holy warriors," the chieftain says as a soaring film score ennobles his defense of jihad. "To us, this war is a holy war. And there is no true death for the mujahideen, because we have taken our last rites and we consider ourselves dead already. To us, death for our land and God is an honor."
Indignant before his callous jailers, Colonel Trautman lectures the Russians on imperial folly: "You know there won't be a victory," he says. "Every day your war machines lose ground to a bunch of poorly armed, poorly equipped freedom fighters. The fact is that you underestimated your competition. If you'd studied your history, you'd know that these people have never given up to anyone. They'd rather die than be slaves to an invading army. You can't defeat a people like that. We tried. We already had our Vietnam. Now you're gonna have yours."
Condoleezza Rice may report that the situation in Afghanistan looks sunny; John Rambo would beg to differ. Note also with this speech that even an enthusiastic movie about the Cold War (the closing frame of the picture reads, "This film is dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan") gives a rather unromantic view of Vietnam. In fact, Rambo III furthers a striking shift in the series away from Vietnam-related criticism of the government and toward pro-White House propaganda.
An Anti-War Action Hero?
How critical does Rambo get? 1982's First Blood, the first Rambo film and the father of the modern-day action movie, can be seen as a forthrightly anti-war story. Rambo, returning from Vietnam, is a vet ill-equipped to adjust to life in Rust Belt America. His is the brand of disaffected patriotism that Bruce Springsteen describes in "Born In the U.S.A." In the opening scene of the movie Rambo, who has been wandering in search of war buddies, finds that the last living member of his old commando team has succumbed to cancer. "Brought it back from 'Nam," the man's widow explains. "All that orange stuff they spread around. Cut him down to nothing. I could lift him off the sheet."
The forlorn Rambo walks down the highway, where he is spotted by a small town sheriff (played by Brian Dennehy) who dislikes the looks of the long-haired drifter. In the sheriff's office, Rambo is beaten with a nightstick and brutally washed with a high-pressure hose. After the ex-POW flashes back to scenes of wartime torture, his survival instincts kick in. He breaks free from custody. The movie follows the tragic unfolding of ensuing manhunt.
The filmmakers are careful to make sure that the audience roots for the persecuted Rambo and sees the redneck sheriff as the villain. I can report that it worked as effectively for me upon a recent reviewing of the film as it did in third grade. Of particular note is the little-noticed fact that Rambo takes pains to avoid killing anyone. With scant exception, he merely maims his pursuers. After learning Rambo's background, and witnessing his handiwork, the locals realize they are outmatched. They bring in Trautman to reason with the soldier he once trained to be a killer. At the end of the movie, Rambo breaks down in the Colonel's arms. "Back there I could fly a gun ship," Rambo sobs. "I could drive a tank. I was in charge of million-dollar equipment. Back here I can't even hold a job parking cars!"
I doubt my parents' antipathy for the series stemmed from this look at the troubling human consequences of American military adventurism. Instead, it probably developed around the time of the first sequel. In 1985's Rambo II our hero returns to Vietnam and... how to put it... doesn't take any pains to keep the body count low. It was after this second film that Executive Producer Andrew Vajna bragged of having "a photograph that was sent by Reagan where he stands in his jogging outfit... he's holding up a [sign] that says, 'Rambo is a Republican.'"
Yet even Rambo II's patriotism is far more ambiguous than the former President's endorsement implies. In the movie's main plot, Rambo is reactivated to travel to Vietnam and search for left-behind POWs. However, it quickly becomes clear that Rambo is not supposed to find any POWs, far less to bring any back. For political reasons, Murdoch, the government bureaucrat that concocted the mission, never wanted Rambo to succeed.
After Murdoch calls off Rambo's rescue helicopter, Trautman angrily confronts him: "It was just a lie, wasn't it?" he says. "Just like the whole damn war. It was a lie..."
Trautman goes on to lay out the political premise of the film: "In '72 we were supposed to pay the 'Cong four and a half billion in war reparations. We reneged. They kept the POWs. You're doing the same thing all over again."
Murdoch replies, "What the hell would you do, Trautman?... You wanna bomb Hanoi?... You think somebody is going to get up on the floor of the United States Senate and ask for billions of dollars for a couple of forgotten ghosts?!"
"Men, goddammit!" the Colonel barks back.
"Trautman, I'm going to forget this conversation ever took place."
The Lies of War
Besides the unflattering picture that the movie presents of the war in Vietnam ("a lie"), the most interesting aspect of this dialogue is its relevance for the 2004 presidential campaigns. The real-life villain in Rambo II, essentially, is John Kerry.
Since he was the chair of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in the early 1990s, Senator Kerry has been condemned by some veterans for leading the official effort to give up on those left behind. Charges virtually identical to Trautman's emerged as the cover story of the February 23, 2004, issue of the Village Voice. "[Kerry] wanted to clear a path to normalization of relations with Hanoi," writes author Sydney Schanberg. "In any other context, that would have been an honorable goal. But getting at the truth of the unaccounted for POWs and MIAs (Missing In Action) was the main obstacle to normalization--and therefore in conflict with his real intent and plan of action."
These allegations are by no means undisputed. In a recent article in The Nation, Tom Hayden calls the claim "incredible" and notes that Kerry gained "bipartisan support, including that of all the Senate's Vietnam veterans, for a report declaring the MIA legend unfounded." Charges of betrayal have also been leveled against Senator John McCain, himself a former POW.
Since his Nation article cites Rambo as one factor contributing to the legend, I got a hold of Hayden to ask what he thought of the Rambo movies more generally. He pointed me to the work of Jerry Lembcke, a scholar and Vietnam veteran who has worked to debunk the persistent myth that returning soldiers were spat on by anti-war protesters. Lembcke argues that Rambo "provided the most indelible image of the disturbed and dangerous Vietnam veteran. The film's story laid the problems of Rambo more at the feet of an America that had betrayed the military mission in Vietnam than the horrors of war itself. And it was his coming home experience--'I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer.'--that ignited Rambo's rampage against the small town he had drifted into."
Lembcke explains that the image of the mentally unstable veteran, like that of the spat-upon soldier, "is the image of a victim-veteran." With this image in mind, "The historical fact that thousands of Vietnam veterans joined with other opponents of the war to help end the carnage in Southeast Asia is lost in the mythology of wartime betrayal." The writer concludes:
"Remembered as a war that was lost because of betrayal at home, Vietnam becomes a modern-day Alamo that must be avenged... Remembered as a war in which soldiers and pacifists joined hands to fight for peace, Vietnam symbolizes popular resistance to political authority and the dominant images of what it means to be a good American."
While Lembcke's reading overlooks the depiction of the bigoted, all-American sheriff as villain in First Blood, his argument is vindicated by Rambo II's tag line: "This time we get to win." But whatever you make of the series as a whole, it is clear that the movie presenting the biggest problem for today's "war president" is not the tortured First Blood, nor the anti-government Rambo II. Instead, it's the unabashedly patriotic Rambo III.
Shameless--and Very Entertaining
By the time I was in high school, I had adopted my generation's requisite sense of irony and pre-9/11 disdain for any genuinely nationalistic emotion. But before that, there are two times in my life when I can remember chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A!" without shame or sarcasm. One was during Mary Lou Retton's 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when the U.S., unopposed by a boycotting Soviet bloc, rampaged through the competition. All of the children in my neighborhood cheered for full-spectrum dominance.
The second time was when viewing 1985's Rocky IV, a clash of superpowers in which East (the ostensibly Russian Dolph Lundgren) meets West (Stallone). Even then, watching the tape at a friend's sleepover, my classmates and I had something of a smirking sense of its over-the-top quality. But we bought into the battle, and our loyalties were clear. After recently re-watching, I would say that a featured "User Comment" at the Internet Movie Database pretty well sums up this piece of late-Cold War cinema: "Shameless--and very entertaining."
Like the last of the Rambo movies, Rocky IV evinces a profound transition in the series. In the first Rocky film, a class parable set in gritty Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa embodies the American spirit as a scrappy underdog who gets a shot at the big fight. Few remember that, even after training hard, Rocky loses the bout the first movie's climax. But it is a dignified loss, the filmmakers tell us, and that's what matters. Not so in Rocky IV, when Stallone represents big "A" America and takes on the USSR's top prizefighter. In this new nationalist framework, losing is simply not an option.
The shamelessness of the premise is put on display in the movie's depiction of a pre-fight press conference with both Rocky's team and that of the Russian boxer, Drago:
American reporter: "Considering Rocky's known punching power, do you still think this is going to be an easy fight?"
Drago's coach: "Of course. It is a matter or science, of evolution. Isn't it gentlemen? Drago is the most perfectly trained athlete ever. This other man has not the size, the endurance, or the genetics to win. It is physically impossible for this little man to win. Drago is a look at the future."
Drago's wife: "You have this belief that you are better than us. You have this belief that this country is so very good and that we are so very bad..."
[The reporters start booing.]
Coach: "It is all lies and false propaganda to support this antagonistic and violent government."
Paulie [Rocky's rough-around-the-edges brother-in-law]: "Woah... violent? Hey, we don't keep our people behind a wall with machine guns."
Coach: "Who are you?"
Paulie: "Who am I? I'm the unsilent majority, big mouth!"
Coach: "Good. There. Good. Insult us. Is more typical rude behavior toward visiting foreigners. But perhaps the simple defeat of this little so-called champion will be a perfect example of how pathetically weak your society has become!"
A High-Tech Menace?
The most noteworthy aspect of the movie is its assessment of the relative character and strength of the two superpowers, highlighted in the movie's training sequence. To get himself in shape Rocky literally takes it to the wood shed, testing himself against the forces of nature. Meanwhile, Drago turns to the power of science. Thus, while Rocky pulls a sleigh across a snow-covered plain, Drago trains in 1985's conception of an ultra-modern Russian gym (actually filmed in California). As Rocky chops down a tree, Drago pounds a digitally monitored punching pad. Drago runs hard against an inclining treadmill; Rocky runs to the top of a mountain, raising his arms in victory.
The problem here is that the vision of a powerful, technologically menacing Soviet state has not aged well. In the 1980s, perpetuating this vision was useful for those who used a hotly contested arms race to justify vast escalations in military spending. In retrospect, however, it only serves to highlight what--new blunders regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction notwithstanding--is likely the CIA's most colossal intelligence failure ever: its inability to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In a November 2000 article in Harper's magazine, National War College professor and former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman writes that, even through 1990, estimates published in a series of key intelligence reports entitled Soviet Forces and Capabilities for Strategic Nuclear Conflict "depicted a Soviet military giant with a global reach that matched the Reagan Administration's portrayal of an 'evil empire,' when in fact the Soviets were unable to afford the weapons systems that the CIA predicted they would build." The CIA also botched estimates of the size of the Soviet economy, giving superpower status to a system that, by 1985, had experienced five years of virtually no economic growth at all. Goodman notes:
"The cost of the blunder to the United States was enormous. It included the (unnecessarily huge, as was subsequently learned) defense budgets of the Reagan-Bush years, with the resulting expansion of the deficit; a prolonged confrontation with Moscow that delayed arms agreements and conflict resolution in the Third World; and a squandered opportunity to influence developments in the Russian Federation."
The sexed-up analysis about the near-invincibility of Drago's motherland in fact provides an important precedent to recent scandals around the politicization of intelligence about Iraq. Former Secretary of State George Schulz argued that "CIA analysis was distorted by strong views about policy" which made it ideologically impermissible to report the truth about Soviet weakness.
Mr. Macho and the Patriotism of Peace
This same intelligence problem afflicts Red Dawn. More than the role reversal suggested by the misnamed operation in Iraq, it's the vast overestimation of Soviet, Cuban, and--most ridiculously--Sandinista power that proves truly embarrassing in hindsight.
At the beginning of the film, a series of titles quickly flashes across the screen:
"Soviet Union suffers worst wheat harvest in 55 years. Labor and food riots in Poland. Soviet troops invade. Cuba and Nicaragua reach troop strength goals of 500,000. El Salvador and Honduras fall. Greens Party gains control of West German Parliament. Demands withdrawal of nuclear weapons from European soil. Mexico plunged into revolution. NATO dissolves. United States stands alone."
Had the Sandinistas a half million armed troops to spare, it would have taken a lot more Oliver Norths for the illegal Contra war to be so debilitating to Nicaragua's fledgling socialist government. Also significant is the manner in which Red Dawn's World War III confirms the unrelenting wimpiness of social democratic European governments. When the kids ask a stray U.S. paratrooper, "What about Europe?" He explains, "I guess they figured that twice in one century was enough. They're sitting this one out. All except England. And they won't last very long."
It's an interesting moment, revealing the long-established flimsiness of U.S. multilateralism. Of course George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" is a joke. Embattled and alone is the preferred posture of conventional American patriotism.
In another scene, Patrick Swayze, the leader of the Wolverines, conducts a summary execution of a captured Russian soldier. "This is in violation of the Geneva Convention!" the POW cries. To which Swayze replies, "I never heard of it." The scene helps to make the film more edgy and realistic, but doesn't make you feel all that reassured by White House statements that Guantanamo detainees are being treated humanely.
Red Dawn director and co-writer John Milius, a board member of the National Rifle Association, is known as one of the most conservative directors in Hollywood--a veritable "Mr. Macho," according to film critic Leonard Maltin. However, Milius also co-wrote the screenplay for Apocalypse Now. This strange connection suggests a fine line between movies that condemn war and those that glorify it. Eliminating that line altogether, Gulf War veteran Anthony Swofford contends in his 2003 memoir, Jarhead, that making an anti-war war movie may in fact be impossible:
"There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar, that the message is war is inhumane... But actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible... but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base... and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man."
This is an argument that, even as a non-military man, I find sadly true to life. Many years since, I am still ashamed to admit that after viewing Platoon in my elementary school days I spent several weeks running around in the woods shooting down imaginary "gooks."
But perhaps you can argue it the other way. Maybe it is impossible to make a truly pro-war movie. Maybe the immediate loyalty that militarism demands fosters a type of patriotism that cannot be comfortably sustained on film. The willingness to wholeheartedly believe in the rationales best suited to a particular political moment also requires a penchant for quick forgetting, one that defies the impulse to make a lasting visual record of human experience. Viewed today, Rambo's support of the holy war in Afghanistan doesn't look patriotic at all. Or, to the extent that it does--the extent to which America flags and patriotic hymns have been put at the service of propaganda--it reveals a debased nationalism, an amoral realpolitik. Ultimately, it shows that love of country must be founded on terms other than dominance and conquest.
There never was a Rambo IV. Red Dawn did not spawn even a single sequel (although Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did team up again for Dirty Dancing). And like most Americans, young and old, I found Rocky V to be a sorry end to a classic series. No doubt, absent the action titans of the past, other franchises will emerge to justify U.S. military actions abroad, however problematic they may be. I can't say I welcome these movies. But I'm not sure the Pentagon should either.
-- Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is a commentator for Foreign Policy in Focus. He can be reached via the web site www.DemocracyUprising.com.
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