How was opposition to the Vietnam War portrayed in contemporary literature, film and popular song?
How was opposition to the Vietnam War portrayed in contemporary literature, film and popular song? There is a vast variety of media forms which can influence any person’s opinion on certain topics, the strongest of which would be music, literature and film. During the war, Vietnam was one of the more prominent themes up for discussion, and continues to be quite a popular topic today. Artists like Bob Dylan and the Clash were quick to voice their attitudes on social and political events, and the Vietnam War was an important time for this. Many artists decided to use their music as a means of reaching the masses with their own opinions as it was available in so many different ways; through radio, television, and today online. In the same sense, film and literature are both widely accessible. A set of lyrics, a script or a poem can be delivered to vast amounts of people in their thousands, and the views embedded in these circulate and begin to discover a following. This exemplifies the huge influence and major following that media oppositional to the war had and still has today. Depending on the manner in which a song, movie or poem/story was conveyed, it could have a major impact on the ideas of its audience.A very popular way in which musicians expressed their hostility to the war was through satire and comedy, a prime example of which lies with folk-punk group, the Dead Milkmen. They successfully manage to ridicule the US involvement in Vietnam with their track “Beach Party Vietnam”. The song is immediate in its use of mockery, using American symbolism to poke fun at the personal relationship that one man has with his country when he gets “a letter from his Uncle Sam”, and then satirises the dire mission that he is about to embark on; he does not receive a call to war, and is instead “invited to a beach party, Vietnam”. Joe Jack Talcum (the lyricist) is quick to mock all aspects of the war, including the enemy and the pitiful conditions endured; “Surfin’ with the Viet Cong / Cookin’ hotdogs with napalm / A beach party, Vietnam”. This playful reference to the Viet Cong is used to make Americans see that Vietnam was never a threat to them and the flippant mention of napalm is included to highlight the U.S.’s frivolous use of something so dangerous and harmful, a substance which they downplayed. The climax of the song is a blatant use of obscene satire and is completely insensitive to the damage down to both American and Vietnamese soldiers. Talcum talks us through a conversation between two young lovers, “Hey Frankie, aren’t you gonna give me your class ring? / I’m afraid I can’t do that Annette / Why not? / Because I don’t have any arms!”. Talcum also ends this dialogue with a prolonged howl of laughter, but this is done to deliver his point. To
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laugh at the devastation of the Vietnam War would be twisted and cruel, but in saying that we realise just how extreme this devastation was. Talcum is not mocking what had happened; he is contesting the American involvement in the war in a very effective and attention-grabbing way.Another very efficient way for songwriters to deliver their oppositional ideas is through the use of an anecdote or empathetic writing. This is seen in practice through the lyrics of “Post-War Breakout”. Although penned by the famous American folk singer Woody Guthrie, he never got the chance to complete the song. It was however brought to life more recently by American activist punk outfit, Anti-Flag. The second verse of the song is perhaps the most successful and hard hitting section, beginning with a direct reflection of the mentality of the soldiers installed in Vietnam, after their time in the war, “I’m an evil-minded breakdown / I’m a vulgar-thinking crackdown”. These lines highlight the effects of post traumatic stress disorder, a very common condition found amongst Vietnam veterans. This leaves listeners sympathetic to the suffering of the ex-soldiers, and brings to light the negativity of the war and its consequences. A very blatant line surfaces further in the verse, “I’m a non-commie drifter”. The war is obviously about Communism, and this line represents the American government’s stubborn stance on Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, President L. B. Johnson referred to Vietnam as a “fourth-rate, raggedy ass little country”, and this hard headed opinion is similar to that in “Post-War Breakout” - it portrays American self-importance as foremost in the war, and shows the obstinate attitudes that America held, along with their lack of compromise. Any open minded citizen would oppose these actions, as they were clearly more about self-righteousness than national security or aid. Directly after this opposing opinion is presented, Guthrie criticizes American patriotism with a slip of sarcasm, “I’m an ex-GI for sure, oh sure”. This verse reaches a climax when the song’s only non-sardonic line is screamed for emphasis. When we hear the words “let’s face our history, NOW!” we realise that Guthrie wants us to question the motives behind America’s involvement in Vietnam. The line is riddled with a sense of regret. Guthrie believes that the, after the horrific behaviour of the Americans serving in the war, America will have to face the negative aspects of the war. Despite being offered in propaganda, the glory that surrounded the war will never be seen. The mild mockery of the American Government’s decision to enter Vietnam and the mention of the many depressing effects of this decision all help to generate an overall pessimistic view of the war.The negative aspects of the war are presented through the above songs however few artists described the horror endured by the Vietnamese people as well as the American people. In a controversial piece by The Clash, 'Straight To Hell' uses a devastating example of American behavior towards Vietnamese women, 'When it's Christmas time in Ho Chi Minh's city / Kiddies say [papa] take me home', this line subtly introduces the mass rape of Vietnamese women by American soldiers, where the women have been left pregnant, it also blatantly shows the American soldiers' disregard and lack of responsibility. The line, 'Let me tell you 'bout your blood bamboo kid' brings forward a racist element also, which reinforces the American disregard for the Vietnamese people. The final line of the second verse, 'It ain't Coca-Cola, it's rice,' brings to light thestrong denial of the American people when it comes to the consequences of their actions. 'Coca-Cola' represents America as America can be easily associated with corporatocracy and 'Rice' represents the third world as rice is produced by lesser developed countries as a main crop and sold on to richer countries. This directly reflects the rape of third world countries by superior countries such as America through corporatocracy. This image allows for greater opposition because again, tyranny and terror is presented due to the war. The violence of the war is also presented through the line 'The Volatile Molotov says,' 'volatile' means hostile and destructive and 'Molotov (cocktail)' is type of bomb, in personifying this you see America as destructive.In the earlier stages of the war many productions came to be, channeling support and a general positive attitude towards the war however, in later years Hollywood began to adhere to the changing attitudes in regards to America's involvement and so many films proposing opposition began to surface. Probably one of the leading movies of the time was 'Apocalypse Now' (1979) which follows Captain Willard ho has been sent on a mission to Cambodia to assassinate a renegade Green Beret, General Kurtz. The high level of brutal scenes used throughout the movie showcase America’s often ruthless tactics. One memorable example is a scene in which a young girl, cycling her bicycle with a puppy in her basket, gets shot. The US soldier believes that this little girl was a threat and so in a paranoid and distraught state mindlessly began to fire. This blatantly shows both the fear and delusional nature of the American soldiers as they see even an innocent young girl as a threat. The clear desensitization of the American soldiers furthers the level of opposition. When Captain Willard tells of how the soldiers 'tear 'em in half, then give 'em a band aid,’ we realize that the soldiers show no remorse for their vulgar actions. We also see the soldiers' association between bloodshed and victory when Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore says, 'Nothin' else smells like that, I love the smell of Napalm in the mornin'... Smelled like... victory, this is yet another example of how hostility was commonplace.Full Metal Jacket is a film also efficient in showcasing the negative repercussions of the war in Vietnam. It follows the adventures of a number of American troops in their conquest for ‘freedom and democracy’. It focuses ultimately on the detriment of their mental selves and the general desensitization that many soldiers faced when serving in Vietnam. We trace the gradual deterioration of their mental states throughout the film, like when we hear a conversation between two troops, ‘How can you shoot women and children? / Easy… You don’t lead them so much (laughs)’. Their heightened sense of paranoia becomes very apparent when we realize they believe ‘Anyone who runs is Vietcong. Anyone who stands still is well-disciplined Vietcong’. Clearly the decline of their conscience is evident as they ‘wanted to be the first kid on [their] block to get a confirmed kill’.Another fine medium to present ones ideas and opinions on the occupation of Vietnam is that of literature. Veterans were often found to produce poetry reminiscent of their time in Vietnam. One soldier that I have discovered is Yusef Komunyakaa. A particular poem I decided to study was ‘Facing It’, a poem about Yusef’s post-war experiences. The state of mind that many soldiers tried to adopt was that of both apathy and nihilism as cutting of one’s emotions protected them from pain but the atrocious situations that Komunyakka has been subjected to leaves him reduced to tears, ‘I said I wouldn’t dammit; No tears. / I’m stone, I’m flesh’. One experience which Yusef writes about is the time he spent at the memorial site for the deceased soldiers employed in Vietnam. ‘I go down the 58,022 names half expecting to find my own in letters of smoke,’ the vast number of names facing Komunyakaa represent the serious number of fatalities that America suffered in such an unjust war. To many, including Komunyakaa, many of these names are insignificant, this is important in showing us the sacrifice that the soldier made – and for what? When Komunyakaa explains that he expects to find his name on the memorial realize that he has been left feeling empty and dead on the inside. This poem like many others written by veterans highlights the breakdown of mental stability and self-worth endured by American soldiers in Vietnam. Obviously the suffering of these soldiers arouses sympathy and generates an all around opposition to the war.While researching Vietnam influenced poetry, I came across the site www.angelfire.com/wa/warpoetry/vietnam.html, an online community in which people can share their thoughts and opinions on the tragedies of Vietnam through the medium of poetry. One particular poem that caught my attention was ‘A Little One’s Prayer’ by Wanda. Although Wanda was not directly involved in the war, she had a very strong opposition to it and she empathetically discusses this through her poem. The poem is written in the mindset of a young boy and explores the child’s feelings about his father serving in the army. The little boy does not understand ‘why [he] had to leave [them], to fight in another land’. This child’s constant need to question ‘why?’ leaves us too, questioning America’s motives. We see the young child’s sheer desperation for his father’s safety through his intimate relationship with God however, the need to turn to God indicates the desperation and hopelessness of the young boy, even though young children tend to be optimistic, so again sympathy is created. This poem is a prime example of the negative effects the war can have, not only on the soldiers who served in Vietnam, but also the ordinary people in America. This heightens the tragedy that surrounds decision by the American government to install troops in Vietnam, furthering opposition.Although I was not asked to explore opposition to the Vietnam war portrayed through art, I did come across one particular image which I believe was very effective. The underground Bristol street artist, Banksy, is well established for his quick wit and in your-face presentations. He makes use of massive wall displays (i.e. stencils) to reach his audience as his attention-grabbing approach is very difficult to disregard. The particular display I studied was called ‘Vietnam/America’ and featured Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald seemingly assisting a young Vietnamese girl. On closer inspection it is easy to realize the deeper meaning. Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse are both major American symbols representing corporatocracy. Banksy lines them beside Kim Phuc, a Vietnamese Napalm victim, in order to contrast the truth with America’s ‘truth’. Whilst Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse seem like innocent childhood characters they in fact represent manipulation and dishonest profiteering. Banksy uses them to sugar coat the actual situation – it would appear they are helping but they are doing nothing of the sort. Although friendly faces, both these characters are the fiends behind her pain. This is how America initially received support for the war – they used propaganda and the dream of a better society for Vietnam however, they corrupted the country with their mindless violence.Many different artists take different approaches to expressing their views, each of these are useful and effective to an audience. The use of these particular platforms allows the artists to get their messages to the masses therefore getting more and more people to understand and agree with their points of view. The artists I have studied have used a variety of techniques to showcase their opposition including satirizing the situation, creating sympathy, reversing propaganda and even sharing experiences.