WHO TORTURED WHO IN VIETNAM?
DEER HUNTER LIES
by Pat Kincaid
SCENE: A movie theater.
On screent Robert De Niro as an American soldier held captive by Vietnamese guerrillas. He is being brutally tortured. He manages to grab a machine gun front his captors. Spraying bullets into the Vietnamese sadists, he escapes, saving his two home-town buddies. Applause. Cheers: “All Right!” “Go Get ‘Em” Whistles.
The Deer Hunter has done what The Green Berets could not do more than a decade ago: it has moved audiences to actively root for the American military fighting the Vietnam war. When The Green Berets was shown to draftees in Vietnam in 1968 it drew not cheers but bitter ironic laughter. At home it drew picket lines of antiwar activists who saw the film for what it was: a crude Pentagon-inspired propaganda bomb aimed at the hearts and minds of an increasingly disaffected American public.
The Green Berets missed its mark because the conventional propaganda weapons and cinematic cliches of the World War II heroic genre were overwhelmed by political reality: the “fragging” of officers, the terror-burning of villages, the official lies exploding on nightly TV newscasts. College campuses were ablaze with protest; winter patriots were arming against a sea of “hippie commies” and “nervous Nellies”: even a defeatist wing of the U.S. bourgeoisie was unhappily debating in the Senate, “Why are we in Vietnam?” In that polarized climate the “good guy/bad guy” images of Hollywood simply felt flat.
The Deer Hunter, while no obvious John Wayne flagwaver, has purposes no less conscious and reactionary. But unlike The Green Berets, it has realized those purposes, despite its flaws and melodramatic pretensions (they are deep and grandiloquent), despite its lies (they are big and outrageous) and despite its clearly reactionary content.
Deer Hunter is the most artistically serious popular film yet produced on the subject of America and the Vietnam war. With its recent Academy Awards victory, it has become the signal occasion for a campaign of national redemption for the “sin” of Vietnam, a popular focus for U.S, imperialism’s moral rearmament after its stunning defeat. Now, says Time magazine (23 April), “the psychological time-lock on Vietnam seems to have expire.,” And in a six-page spread entitled “Vietnam Comes Home,” Time explains why The Deer Hunter is the key to the “time-lock”: “The Deer Hunter presents a version of the American experience in Vietnam that is utterly at variance with the view” of “a nation of William Calleys.”
As the U.S. government builds up militarily and toots about “human rights” with “hawks” and former “doves” unified on the need for a mighty imperialist arsenal, the Vietnam war must be “put into perspective” amid the “complexities” of the U.S./China alliance and the new wars in Southeast Asia, Toward this end a barrage of new books, plays and films offer a “revisionist” right-wing retrospective apology for U.S, imperialism in Vietnam, The Deer Hunter is the stunning example among them.
But people do not always learn the “lessons” imperialist propagandists want to teach. So while The Deer Hunter raises a number of interesting questions at the intersection of technique and propaganda, the most vitally interesting is: why do they cheer? Why—after the Vietnam War tore up the political guts of a generation, after an experience so traumatic that it broke down the jingo-reflex born of American imperialism’s world-war victories, after millions of Americans learned their government was a collection of lying mad bombers—why now do they cheer?
It is not wrong but partial to reply that they cheer because it has been a long time since the Vietnam war was a “hot” political issue, The Deer Hunter does not simply reflect the depoliticization of the “me” decade; it is an active advocate of that process and perhaps an important artifact of the period. It is the quintessential 1970s film: slick, colorful, stylized, romantic, superficial and deeply reactionary politically in the name of being anti-political, beyond “mere” politics.
From a certain point of view The Deer Hunter is not complex enough to be a good political film; it is an adolescent good guys/bad guys movie filled with what liberal film critic Pauline Kael called “boys book values.” It surely insists on those values with its mythic tests of bravery and strength, its emphasis on male bonding and the hunt as preparation for war. In fact, the film is an epic wonder of nearly all known reactionary social attitudes, from a glorification of the provincial xenophobic “purity” of the closed ethnic community to the most vicious anti-Asian racism, neanderthal male chauvinism and sentimental jingoism. But it is too easy to dismiss The Deer Hunter as merely a “buddies” film.
The Deer Hunter is an intensely political film, full of political controversy. When it was shown at the Berlin Film Festival this spring the Soviet delegation led its bloc in a protest walkout. And no wonder! The Deer Hunter is a political outrage. Yet the first controversy encountered—and perhaps the high ground for the film’s loyal political defenders—is the claim that it is not fundamentally a political film. It is telling that such a defense should be mounted for a movie about American working-class “good guys” going off to fight the NLF. How could this not be political? Yet that is what the popular media claims in its abundant praise of The Deer Hunter. At long last, says Time (18 December 1978): “This is the first movie about Vietnam to free itself from all political cant. It contains no antiwar characters at all; its prowar characters are apolitical foot soldiers, not fire-breathing gook-killers.”
It is true that the characters in this film do not talk about politics. The three main characters join up to fight in Vietnam and say nothing about it, nor does anyone else question their decision. Nor does anyone talk about racism. The bits of behaviorist dialogue provided are supposed to suggest only feelings; no overt “thinking” is allowed to get in the way, and certainly no argument. Michael Cimino, the American director of this British-financed film, told Le Monde (29 March) that The Deer Hunter is “not about ideas, it’s a film about people.” This is a nice counterposition from the most talented graduate of the Dirty Harry school of moviemaking. But Cimino has an idea all right: “A film that takes too obvious a position may force you to think and argue, but it prevents you from feeling anything.” Indeed the primacy of feeling is what Cimino’s reactionary romantic aesthetic is all about. And the denigration of reason and glorification of unverbalized “pure” emotion is itself characteristic of a fascistic political coloration.
Cimino the filmmaker is in the business of manipulating feelings and not ideas. But this manipulation is put in the service of a complete set of reactionary ideas. As mass-culture craftsman, Cimino offers us characters whose personal consciousness is aggressively non-political—incredibly non-political for people who are supposed to exist in a period of burning political polarization. This serves his purposes. He cleverly goes to the heart of the 1970s antipathy to politics to perpetrate some of the most vicious right-wing propaganda on film since the McCarthy era. And he succeeds in drawing his audience in—to the point of cheers—through an acute sense of mass psychology, technically effective film editing and a calculated and profoundly cynical disregard for historic truth. Since the film appears to probe deeper than “just” politics to concern itself with the “real” psychological-mythic roots of war, the viewer is not supposed to concern himself with mundane conjunctural questions of who tortured who in Vietnam.
The Truth Matters
The successful impact of The Deer Hunter may be due to the boldness with which director Cimino frontally assaults the truth. There are in fiction what can be called distortions, subtle fabrications, imaginative constructs—and there are lies, The Deer Hunter lies. And so it must be or it could not portray the Americans as the good guys in Vietnam.
The scene of the biggest lie receives the biggest cheer. But before Cimino subjects the “buddies” to some of the most melodramatic scenes of torture on film—scenes expertly calculated to make the audience squirm with fear and loathing—he lets us get to “know” the heroes in their home town. The first part of the film concentrates with care upon daily life in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a fictional small steel town of a working-class Ukrainian-American ethnic community (these scenes were actually shot in a real Ukrainian-American community in the industrial “flats” of Cleveland’s near West Side). Cimino’s camera allows us to observe his “good buddies” and their family and friends. He attends carefully to the ritual business of life and death, the recognizable symbols and choreography of social gesture; sex and marriage, death and funeral, friendship and male bonding, the hunt. He picks up the smallest details of working-class life and throws them up against the largest mythic landscapes.
Of course Cimino presents his heroes as “regular guys” just trying to survive, uprooted and plunged into a horrible situation which they do not understand and for which they are not responsible. The “non-political” conceit, which makes audience identification with the heroes easier, helps to universalize their experience in Vietnam as a struggle with the ultimates of life and death. The mythic landscapes serve to suggest the primal imagery of human survival, and to deflect attention from the historical/political concreteness of the situation. In The Deer Hunter, Everyman goes to everywar.
From the mountains, Cimino cuts roughly and suddenly to Vietnam (actually shot in Thailand), where we are confronted by an American Legion political fantasy. We see massacres of Vietnamese villagers—but it is the North Vietnamese who are the mass murderers, and the Americans who are defending the helpless, just like McNamara and Westmoreland said. We are stunned by a familiar image: a Vietnamese holds a pistol to the head of a crouching prisoner, about to blow off his head. Is it Nguyen Ngoc Loan, Saigon police chief caught by a UPI photographer in the act of executing a “suspected Vietcong”? No, it is the other way around—a Vietcong about to blow the head off a helpless South Vietnamese. Cimino has taken the very images that galvanized American antiwar sentiment and turned them inside out. More than a lie, Cimino perhaps has developed an aesthetic perversion.
His technique is more insidious than the old-fashioned technique of telling the big lie and telling it often. Leni Reifenstal (Triumph of the Will) could pick up some modern-day pointers from Cimino & Co. One can only wonder if he learned his stuff in one of the army intelligence psy-war “brainwashing” schools. Familiar images are presented with exactly the opposite content of what they are known for—result: disorientation. Identification with the heroes, fear for survival, shock—and rational historical judgment is overwhelmed by feeling. Jarred out of rational perception, black becomes white, the victims become the persecutors, the tortured become the torturers.
The Vietnamese guerrilla torturers in The Deer Hunter conform to the most vicious, racist, “yellow horde” stereotypes. They precisely fit the description presented in indoctrination lectures by intelligence officers who told inductees that “the VC” were the most sadistic creatures on earth, who would “nail your dogtags to your foreheads and send it home to Mother.” Not only are Cimino’s guerrillas wild and sadistic, but they torture for sport. The Americans are kept in small, rat-infested bamboo cages in a river, from which they are dragged and forced to play Russian roulette with live ammunition. The “VC” have a splendid time betting on the outcome of this game.
Now first of all, this Russian roulette torture has no basis in fact, and even Cimino admits it is purely a romantic invention. But by the scale of The Deer Hunter this amounts to a small untruth. The prison cages, for instance, are clearly meant to recall the infamous “tiger cages.” But the tiger cages were the device of the ARVN! (And how did three home town buddies wind up in the same “tiger cage” anyway? This too is but a small lie by the standards of Cimino’s art.) The big lie that do minates and conditions all the others is the portrayal of the NLF as the torturers and the U.S. military as the tortured.
The torture scene is of central importance in The Deer Hunter as it is in the lives of its three main characters. Each is personally tested by this hideous experience which pushes them beyond the bounds of human endurance. Only Michael (De Niro)—the Hemingway-style one-shot deer hunter—comes through intact. The groom, Steven (John Savage) is mutilated; Nick (Chris Walken) is driven to madness, heroin and eventually—as he endlessly reenacts the Russian roulette torture-as-sport—to degraded self-inflicted death.
Cimino knows what he’s doing when he goes directly to the center of the liberal moral revulsion with Vietnam for his inverted images. He is after more than “war is hell” pacifism or Catch 22/M*A*S*H absurdism. He knows the truth and knows it matters, even as he tries to convince his audience that his film is an apolitical metaphor of survival. His ideological position demands he run the process of truthful discovery backwards.
Who Tortured Who
The truth is that it was the U.S. forces and their Saigon allies who did the torturing in Vietnam, and not the NLF. This statement is categorical. It is not a question of the random brutality associated with individual soldiers in the field of war—acts that tend to be the result of pressure and personality—but of torture as a policy in Vietnam. As such it was avoided necessarily by the NLF/DRV, which relied heavily upon its base of support in the peasantry and its effective political infrastructure. The policy of torture for the American government and the ARVN, however, was the strategic center of its “ground war.” Torture was the method of “political education” for a population which supported the other side. And it was practiced with demonic ferocity.
It was the CIA which organized the most widespread and systematic campaign of civilian terror based on torture since Nazi Germany. Project “Counter-Terror” (CT) in the mid-1960s funded and set up “Provincial Interrogation Centers” in each of the 44 provinces of South Vietnam:
“An agency [CIA] operator or contact employee directed each center’s operations, much of which consisted of torture tactics against suspected Vietcong, such torture usually carried out by Vietnamese nationals.”
—Victor Marchetti and John Marx, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence
A foreign service officer described the CT teams as “a unilateral American program… whose function was assassination, abuses, kidnappings and intimidation.”
The CIA’s torture machinery went into high gear with the Phoenix program begun in 1967. Phoenix set up an official torture terror center in every district where it wreaked a barbaric fate upon hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese “suspects.” It was a method that was intended to brutalize the population as a whole, its authors aware that the NLF cadres were in fact among the best concealed and protected in each village:
“In 1969 the United Stales set a goal for the Phoenix program to ‘neutralize’ twenty thousand NLF agents during the year, and at the end of the year GVN authorities reported 19,534 agents ‘neutralized.’ The figure was unsettling in that there had been no corresponding decline in American estimates of NLF agents at large. Who then were the 19,534 people, and what had become of them?”
—Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake
Eyen CIA head Colby testified before Congress in 1971 that Phoenix had killed more than 20,000 “suspected Vietcong” in its first two and a half years.
Most Americans were to learn of the government’s torture policy slowly and with initial disbelief. Starting in the late 1960s the government “truth teams” tried to counter the atrocity stories coming out of Vietnam, with vague charges of mistreatment of American soldiers. But they could never make the charges stick. Mark Lane published a book of interviews with GIs recounting the most brutal torture by the Americans. The State Department denied it. In these times of post-Watergate liberal cynicism, it is worth remembering that it was the government’s Vietnam lies which excavated the “credibility gap.”
The bourgeois defeatist “doves” got into the act. When in 1970 two Congressmen went to Vietnam they found not NLF torture but American torture on an incredible scale. It was true: there were “tiger cages” on a “Devil’s Island” of Con Son 60 miles from Saigon, where tens of thousands of prisoners were kept without trial in five-by-five hellholes. Rep. Harkin told a press conference:
‘‘There were as many as five people in an airless pit…. Many are forced to drink their own urine. Most of the men could not stand up, their legs having been paralyzed by beatings and by being shackled to a bar about one or two feet off the floor…. There are buckets of lime dust above the cages, and the guards throw this down on the prisoners when they beg for food and water.”
—Washington Star, 7 July 1970
So the American public learned from the media of the unspeakable horror. They learned it was systematic and sophisticated. They learned that the American military was training the ARVN in the most advanced techniques of electro-torture. They learned that the tiger cages did exist and that, when the old bamboo wore out, a California concrete company was contracted to rebuild them to the exact specifications of the time-worn dimensions of agony. Now Cimino wants his audiences to unlearn the truth.
Catharsis and Bourgeois Hypocrisy
For the left wing of the antiwar movement, the exposure of the U.S. policy of torture confirmed what they already knew: that there was a class war in Vietnam. The workers and peasants were on one side and U.S. imperialism—holding up the enfeebled Vietnamese capitalist class—was on the other. The Phoenix program was the model for “Vietnamization”; the counterrevolutionary war was necessarily “dirty.”
But for the liberal “doves” the torture was a dirty policy—as if that war could have been fought on a better, “human rights” basis. American liberals felt guilty. They wanted to get out of that dirty place where “our boys” were becoming corrupted by drugs, by the Saigon brothels, by the torture.
It is this guilty moralism which the new Vietnam films seek to address and purge. Both The Deer Hunter and the liberal Coming Home start from a strictly American perspective—”what has the war done to Americans?” And like the old arguments of “hawks” and “doves,” they chart different courses to come to terms with the demoralization following the defeat of U.S. imperialism. The sentimental nostalgia of Jane Fonda’s cinematic and real-life liberalism identifies with the mutilation, embraces it. Thus in Coming Home she is miraculously cured of her non-orgasmic state. To the imperialist “doves,” what mattered about the war was the “moral” question of how you felt; the purpose of the Fonda film is to help you feel better.
The Deer Hunter, of course, couldn’t care less about women’s orgasms—or about women. Its concern is men as hunter-warriors. As its filming of the last days of Saigon shows, Cimino’s film is concerned with the Vietnam defeat as a demonstration of weakness. If Coming Home identifies with weakness and sympathizes with the suffering, The Deer Hunter celebrates heroic strength,
And if Coming Home is an echo of the 1960s exhortation to “make love not war,” The Deer Hunter tries it the other way around. In the closed ethnic community of Clairton, elaborate social ritual is the mechanism for benignly working out repressed sexuality (The Deer Hunter presents the longest wedding reception in the history of film). Once you get out of Clairton, however, you’re in the war zone. Repressed sexuality becomes uncontrollable mass aggression in a crude model of social-Freudian pessimism. (And in Asia as seen by Cimino, the culture seems to have no social rituals at all except forcing people to shoot themselves in the head for fun and profit.)
At the structural center of The Deer Hunter is the metaphor of the game/sport: the Russian roulette torture/gambling game in Vietnam and the deer hunt in the U.S. The precise treatment of the ritual organization of sport is part of the film’s stress on the need for war preparation. Michael, the hero of the hunt, becomes the hero of Vietnam; tested by the game played in the mountains, he can meet the test of survival in the Southeast Asian jungles. Just as he leads the deer hunt, he leads his friends to survival in Vietnam—the super-leader who draws his strength from the “community” and upon whose shoulders rests collective survival. On this plane The Deer Hunter is a simple plea for a strong military ethos to save the “community.”
The repressed sexuality in the film is strongly homosexual (sleeping with Meryl Streep barely counts even as a game). The locker-room and barroom scenes underline the emphasis on male bonding, the highest expression of love and loyality in a warrior society.
When Michael the macho military hero comes home from the war he ascends the mountain again, in a scene which may well define the contemporary proto-fascist artistic sensibility. Above the mist of the highest peak with some tabernacle choir singing and the camera straining toward mythic grandeur and primal force, the superman stands as a solitary hunter facing the sexually symbolic buck. Of course, now he doesn’t shoot. Only the Übermensch can understand the relationship of game to life. Only here can there be sport without blood. And only the individual can be redeemed from the unconscious cycle of sexual repression and ritual social slaughter.
The real answer to the cult of the individual strong man in The Deer Hunter is not the celebration of weakness in Coming Home but the collective strength of the Vietnamese working people who with bravery, determination and self-sacrifice defeated the mightiest imperialist military machine on this planet. The heroes of the NLF/DRV who impressed the world with their courage, the masses of peasants and workers who fought for national liberation and social revolution, the millions who endured while the torturers plied their trade and the bombs rained down—these people changed the face of Asia. The Deer Hunter can lie about the Vietnamese people’s struggle for freedom, but it cannot undo their victory.
An Oscar for Uncle Sam
The Deer Hunter ends with the survivors gathered together after the funeral of their friend Nick, who blew his brains out playing Russian roulette for money in Saigon. In their grief they spontaneously break into a mournful version of “God Bless America.”
It would be inconsistent with Cimino’s methods to end his film with a big bang of obvious flagwaving. The whimpering ending is meant as bittersweet tragedy—to cast post-Vietnam demoralization in universal “human” terms. The friends are sadder (and not a bit wiser), but they have survived; they have their hero, their community and the song that brings them closer together. Thus patriotism is portrayed not as a political ideology but as a necessary mechanism and expression of community survival. And the demoralization caused by the Vietnam war is stripped of specific political content and becomes merely the image of the tragedy of the human condition.
But what about the real political tragedy of Vietnam? What about the butchery of American working-class youth sent to slaughter the Vietnamese? And what about the Vietnamese? What of their shattering “experience”? Their communities at the receiving end of imperialism’s relentless terror bombing—and the communities that lived underground in tunnels for years?
The real source of the Vietnam war’s demoralization of Americans was political—the counterrevolutionary war of an imperialist ruling class. That is what depressed and sickened the American soldier, made him weak and unwilling to fight. And Cimino’s appeal to the second-rate myth of the macho man and the mountain will not make it otherwise. The GIs in Vietnam did not believe they were fighting in defense of Hometown, USA. They sensed they were dying in the jungles for Imperialism, USA and they wanted out. And patriotism went out the window.
It is that pre-Vietnam innocent patriotism for which Cimino yearns. And The Deer Hunter does its best to recover from that image of a weakened and hurt America so that it can respond to new challenges like it did in the “old days,” in the name of the defense of the Clairtons. Ultimately this film is part of a bourgeois ideological offensive to cut through the disillusioned anti-patriotic sentiment produced by Vietnam and gear up for the next imperialist war. It is no wonder The Deer Hunter won an Oscar; perhaps it better deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor.
After all Cimino’s cinematic tricks are over, after the crafty lying is spent and the cheers have trailed off, reality imposes itself on myth. Workers are not singing “God Bless America,” and patriotism will not be the same at least for a while.
The Deer Hunter lies again. The truth is that not everyone was demoralized by the defeat of U.S. imperialism by the heroic armies of the Vietnamese workers and peasants. The Vietnamese were jubilant—and so was every class-conscious proletarian everywhere in the world. But the cheers that ring out in American movie houses do testify to the partiality and shallowness of the American antiwar sentiment that so impressed the liberals and their fake-left camp followers. Only a small minority of that movement became the conscious partisans of the other side in Vietnam. The antiwar movement in its mass never broke from social patriotism; the graduates of that movement, and the subsequent political generation, thus remain accessible to Cimino as he portrays the “VC” as sadists and murderers.
Of all The Deer Hunter‘s lies, the most dangerous poses survival through imperialist war—sending the workers into battle to kill their class brothers. But the real survival of humanity demands its liberation through socialist revolution.
Workers Vanguard, April 27, 1979