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Rambo as America: An (Over-the-top) Inter-textual Analysis of America’s Greatest/Worst Film Series

You can’t understand how America feels about its troops today until you understand how America feels about its Vietnam veterans. The best example of this is, of course, Rambo.

First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III have a pretty obvious surface-level connection to American foreign policy--the first film deals with losing Vietnam, the second with winning it, and the third with beating the Russians in Afghanistan--but, more impressively, they represent the post-Vietnam American psyche.

First, a literary psycho-history of America. As a country, we entered into a war in Vietnam, and lost. Then we emotionally abandoned our troops, and the kids went crazy. President Nixon stole an election and his Vice President pardoned him for violating every tenet of the constitution. America became disillusioned. In the words of one veteran, “I believed in Jesus Christ and John Wayne before I went to Vietnam. After Vietnam, both went down the tubes.” (I should mention, this post owes a great deal to Christian Appy and Alexander Bloom’s essay “Vietnam War Mythology and the Rise of Public Cynicism”. Check it out.)

This betrayal, by America against its Soldiers, is First Blood. John Rambo plays the crazy, stereotyped Vietnam veteran. He’s also one of the greatest heroes of ‘Nam--he has a Medal of Honor. And he’s upset. Rambo was a part of America’s losing effort and now he can’t even hold a job.

Most importantly, Rambo blames the military, and by extension America, for abandoning its troops. They sent him back into the world without any help or resources, and prevented him (via ROEs) from winning the war. This is all stated explicitly in the closing monologue, and shown symbolically in the opening scene where Rambo discovers his friend has died of cancer, brought on by Agent Orange exposure. (This, unfortunately, was true.)

The message is clear: We, America, betrayed our troops. And now we’re losers.

But a superpower can’t be a loser, especially during the 80’s and 90’s boom years. A country as patriotic and great as ours can’t lose wars. Enter Richard Nixon’s book in 1980 arguing we won in Vietnam. Enter “Reagan declar[ing] Vietnam ‘a noble cause’” and rewriting history.

Enter Rambo: First Blood Part II.

This time, Rambo has to go back into Vietnam to both literally rescue American Soldiers from Vietnamese captors, and figuratively rescue America from its failure as a nation. He succeeds. The military, of course, betrays him again. This time, Rambo gets his revenge. He survives, punches the sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo in the face, and leaves the middling bureaucrat from the US government a message: “You know there's more men out there and you know where they are. Find' em. Or I'll find you.”

Like the “protesters spitting on returning veterans” myth that Rambo mentioned in his first monologue, the whole “missing Vietnam POWs” issue never really happened--a Senate commission found "no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."--but that isn’t the point. The point is that America felt like it had abandoned its Soldiers in Vietnam. Someone (Rambo in this case) needed to get them back. What’s the moral of this whole story? Rambo explains at the end, “I want, what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it!

Which gets into the crux of my argument: America thinks it lost Vietnam because it just didn’t love its Soldiers enough, and we've resolved not to let it happen again.

The leftover scar from Vietnam is the treatment of our veterans. Whether real or not, we believe as a nation we let out veterans down. We failed them domestically when we left them out on the street when they came home. We let them down militarily when we abandoned Vietnam. In the new wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve resolved to care for them and love them. If it goes past lip service and means better VA care and a larger more expansive GI bill, that’s a good thing.

But how is it a bad thing? It leads to a lack of critical introspection. It leads to people conflating anti-war sentiment with anti-troop sentiment. It leads to gung-ho militarism. Most of all, it leads to mistakes in American foreign policy.

This is Rambo III. Rambo, this time, heads to Afghanistan to fight the USSR. The film is even dedicated, in the end credits, to the “gallant people of Afghanistan” who we, of course, left in the lurch less than two years later. In Rambo and America’s desire to defeat the Russians, they set in motion the chain of events that caused 9/11.


nine comments

I am still trying to digest this post but will make these comments as to these:

“The leftover scar from Vietnam is the treatment of our veterans. Whether real or not, we believe as a nation we let out veterans down. We failed them domestically when we left them out on the street when they came home. We let them down militarily when we abandoned Vietnam.”

I assume you had to put the qualifier in due to not having lived through that experience and perhaps not yet having studied it. As a veteran of that conflict and the era thereafter I can tell you categorically and without any reservation the nation (and certain constituencies even more so) did let them down and for those still living, still is doing so.

As to this:

“America thinks it lost Vietnam because it just didn’t love its Soldiers enough, and we’ve resolved not to let it happen again.”

I think you are missing a much larger and profound reason why “America” (and I am not sure this includes many beyond the Vietnam veterans and their families) thinks this way. You went out of your way to cite Nixon and Reagan, the evil Republicans that they were, but IMHO fail to see the real cause of this phenomenon that is the incredible progressivism that fueled the US effort in Vietnam long before Nixon and Reagan appeared on the national stage.

Kennedy and Johnson, and more particularly their administrations with Rusk, Bundy and McNamara (and his “Whiz Kids”) leading the charge, manipulated and even created events that led to our major involvement there. If one reads the various mea culpas or rationalizations of these people, especially McNamara’s self-serving “In Retrospect,” this becomes clearer. Indeed, I commend H.R. McMaster’s excellent book “Dereliction of Duty” to put this in a more accurate context.

This is the fundamental reason I and many others feel America failed us—in getting us involved in the first place on the basis of lies and a progressive world view that regarded the military as virtual inhuman pawns (and merely statistics among the slide rule wielding Whiz Kids) in their elitist efforts for the “greater good” (of course as they defined it) that we great unwashed simply could not understand so that we needed to be tricked and (to use the tactic of our current masters) nudged into war.

Your use of Rambo and the low hanging fruit of those movies and the message that America abandoned us on the back end of the Vietnam War in an apparent effort to set up your argument that we should not allow this to influence our policies in Afghanistan or conflate anti-war with anti-military is frankly rather shallow.

@ Cincinnatus Jr. – First, the reason I put in the qualifier is because I was discussing why America acted the way it did. As I pointed out in the post, there were no missing POWs, but we thought there were. That’s what matters.

Second, could you please define “progressive world view”? I hope you’re not conflating domestic politics with foreign policy. I may be reading too much into the word progressive, I’m just saying. (I certainly wouldn’t disagree with you that Johnson made a huge foreign policy blunder).

Finally, my argument isn’t shallow, it is low-brow. And it is also right.

You may want to take a look at Professor Ekirch’s prescient 1979 article “The Reform Mentality, War, Peace, and
the National State: from the Progressives
to Vietnam” ((Article)) that does a pretty good job explaining the meaning of progressivism and its nexus to Vietnam.

I admire your certainty about the “rightness” of your arguments, whether low brow or shallow. I have learned in my regrettably greater time on the planet to be a bit more circumspect.

Why don’t you explain what you meant by “progressivism”? I can’t really debate your use of the term or the idea until you explain it.

I’ll try to anyways. You write, “in getting us involved in the first place on the basis of lies…that regarded the military as virtual inhuman pawns…in their elitist efforts for the “greater good”…that we great unwashed …needed to be tricked and…nudged into war” This is the problem with the post-Vietnam mentality. You basically described the war in Iraq. The problem is we never learned from our mistakes. (And in case you’re curious, foreign policy is non-partisan; both democrats and republicans screw it up. Describe it as a “progressive world view” or a “neo-conservative” one, I don’t really care.)

Finally, re “I have learned in my regrettably greater time on the planet to be a bit more circumspect.” And I’ve learned not to call other people’s arguments shallow.

I generally agree with Georgie Will’s column:

(George Will on Unlimited Government)

Right. The “progressive world view” or progressivism had nothing to do with going into Vietnam, or like I wrote earlier, American Foreign Policy in general. Progressivism is about domestic politics.

In general, on Foreign policy, going to war is quite bi-partisan. Johnson took us into Vietnam, Roosevelt in World War Two. But Bush took us into Iraq 1, Bush 2 into Iraq 2, Nixon kept Vietnam going, and Obama kept Afghanistan and Iraq going.

In particular, on Vietnam, Republicans at the time supported it, Goldwater would have continued it. The House passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution unanimously, the Senate had two abstentions.

If nothing else your certitude is impressive. Too bad you are not in one of my law classes—it would no doubt enliven things considerably.

In referring to Mr. Wills column I was responding to your request for a “definition” of progressivism but I had assumed you ad also at least skimmed Professor Ekirch’s piece as well since the two should be tsaken together. As for your contention that “progressivism” is solely domestic, Ekirch said this:

_“It is significant that Americans since the Progressive Era have been happiest with Democratic Presidents who have cloaked their penchant for war and intervention abroad with elaborate programs of social and economic reforms at home. In the words of John Kenneth Galbraith: “Wars,just or unjust, have come with devastating reliability every time the Democrats have enjoyed power. …” But, as Thurman Arnold had once pointed out in regard to “the folklore of capitalism,” we should understand that the folk-lore of reform works best when the reforms, as well as the wars, are essentially fraudulent. The popular institutional creeds or beliefs of a society, Arnold observed, have to “be false in order to function effectively.”

So President Truman’s Fair Deal never amounted to much, and the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson was bankrupted by Vietnam.
Still Americans prefer to have their wars in the guise of reforms, real or pretended. Avowed militarists such as Douglas MacArthur, John Foster Dulles, and Barry Goldwater have accordingly not been popular with the electorate. And, in the presidential election of 1964, Goldwater’s inconsistent marriage of militarism and laissez faire fell an easy prey to President Johnson’s warfare-welfare state. The ever-expanding military budget of the 1960s now became a device to implement a planned economy. It was easier to get the voters to approve governmental spending when it was couched in terms of the national defense. In any event, the business community in the Northeast, which supported the Democrats in 1964, was not worried over the radical rhetoric of the Great Society. As sophisticated conservatives, the most successful businessmen understood that the warfare-welfare society helped the rich more than it did the poor. The only voters whom Johnson misled were the academic-type liberals who failed to perceive that the President’s admiration for F. D. R.‘s political methods included the latter’s deception of the American people in regard to peace and war. In this regard, William V. Shannon, a New York Times columnist, pointed out, not unfairly, that “When Roosevelt sent fifty destroyers to Britain and Johnson sent the Navy skirmishing off the coast of Vietnam and asked for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, their actions spoke far louder than any honeyed words of peace. . . . Beyond dispute,” Shannon adds, “both Presidents sacrificed something of this nation’s precious tradition of candor and accountability by elected officials.”

Furthermore, my reference to “progressivism” was in its broader sense and not limited to the so-called “Progressive Movement” of the later 19th and early 20th centuries in America which is why I used the term ‘progressivism.” As to its global reach, the modern term appears now to be “transnational progressivism.” John Fonte has said this about TP:

The following could be considered the core propositions that define transnational progressivism:
‘Identity’ group more important than the individual citizen. _For transnational progressivism the key political unit is
not the individual citizen, who forms voluntary associations and works with fellow citizens regardless of race, sex, or national origin, but the ascriptive group (racial, ethnic, or gender) into which one is born.

A dichotomy of groups. Transnational ideologists have incorporated the essentially Hegelian Marxist ‘privileged
vs marginalized’ dichotomy:
oppressor vs victim groups, with immigrant groups designated as victims. Group proportionalism as the goal of ‘fairness’. Transnational progressivism assumes that ‘victim’ groups
should be represented in all professions roughly proportionate to their percentage of the population. If not,
there is a problem of ‘under-representation’.
The values of all dominant institutions to be changed to reflect the perspectives of the victim groups. Transnational
progressives insist that it is not enough to have proportional representation of minorities in major institutions if these institutions continue to reflect the
worldview of the ‘dominant’ culture.

Instead, the distinct world views of ethnic, gender, and linguistic minorities must be represented within these institutions.

The ‘demographic imperative’. The demographic imperative tells us that major demographic changes are occurring
throughout the world. The traditional paradigm based on the assimilation of immigrants into an existing civic culture is obsolete and must be changed to a framework that promotes
‘diversity’, defined as group proportionalism.

The redefinition of democracy and ‘democratic ideals’. Transnational progressives have been altering the definition
of ‘democracy’ from that of a system of majority rules among equal citizens to one of power sharing among ethnic groups composed of both citizens and non-citizens. Real democracy
will come when the different ‘peoples’ that live within the society ‘share power’ as groups.

_Deconstruction of national narratives._Transnational ideologues attack national symbols and identity in democratic
nation-states in the West. In October 2000, a UK government report denounced the concept of ‘Britishness’.
In the US, the proposed ‘National History Standards’, recommended altering the traditional historical narrative. In
Israel, a ‘post-Zionist’ intelligentsia has proposed that Israel consider itself multicultural and deconstruct its identity as a Jewish state.

Promotion of the concept of postnational citizenship. In an important academic paper, Rutgers Law Professor Linda Bosniak asks hopefully ‘Can advocates of postnational citizenship
ultimately succeed in decoupling the concept of citizenship from the nation state in prevailing political thought?’

I happen to see a continuity between much of US foreign policy from Teddy Roosevelt to the present in that elites from both dominant political parties have created a virtual devil’s brew of elements of the original American Progressive Movement co-mingled with those of “transnational progressivism” that took hold as the former effectively went underground after Wilson. Indeed the ill-fated and ill-advised League of Nations pushed by Wilson is a very apt “type” of the way American Progressivism morphed into transnational progressivism that has brought us such wonderful experiments as Nazism, Stalinism and many aspects of the UN.

I failed to respond to your point about bi-partisanship. Progressivism is indeed an equal opportunity world view shared by many, if not most of our national and international political leaders. If you will note the elements of progressivism, principally autocratic rule by an elite that seeks to continually consolidate and expand its power (political, economic, social) from a perspective of what the elite deems as being for the “greater good.” On the bases of how the elite is structured its members perceive themselves to be so much more intelligent, wise etc. than the poor great unwashed who so badly need the tender mercies of their masters to care for their every need.

This can be benign (in the sense that the elites (or more usually some of them with more realpolitik others manipulating the true believers) really believe they are doing “good”) or malignant (as with Hitler or Stalin where they centralized their power for their own purposes more than for the “greater good” although they tried to sell their approach within that construct.)

As a consequence, membership in mainstream political parties is not the distinguishing feature for determining who is progressive. Our politicians are largely on the same progressive spectrum differing in degree rather than kind. This can be seen in many ways but the profligate government spending and growth of the federal government under both Bushes demonstrates that they were not fundamentally different from our current master and Nobel laureate. The difference is only in degree, albeit He has taken it to an obscene and existential level.

That Rambo III is so ironic. Why is it Sly Stone’s characters seem to single-handedly defeat communism?