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.