The Reagan era has bequeathed to us much, including, ironically, a new version of the materialist theory of the politics of culture. The essential claim of this theory is seductively simple: cultural expression reproduces, through all the appropriate “mediations,” the topography of social life. In the current version of this theory, the conservative political and social forces of the 1980s have defined the contours of its mass culture. To look in on the movies or television is to see darkly the social foundations of Reaganism: the reaffirmation of “traditional values” (the family, patriotism, work), the resuscitation of anticommunism, fetishes of the marketplace, the attack on alternative lifestyles.
The equation is tempting, especially in the case of one of the more notable cultural bequests of the decade: the films of the Vietnam War. For in the iconography of Reaganism, Vietnam was the protean symbol of all that had gone wrong in American life. Much more than an isolated event or disaster of foreign policy, the war was, and still remains, the great metaphor in the neoconservative lexicon for the 1960s, and thus for the rebellion, disorder, anti-Americanism, and flabbiness that era loosed among us.
It was not, significantly, until the full bloom of Reaganism that the Vietnam War became an acceptable subject for film. Platoon (1986), the epitome of the 1980s Vietnam film, was closely preceded or followed by nearly a dozen major productions. And as if to seal the legitimacy of the war as a subject for popular treatment, network television gave us two series, China Beach and Tour of Duty. From painful taboo to cultural icon, the Vietnam War had suddenly become a rich source of popular fictions, a story we could not hear repeated often enough.
It is convenient, then, to assume that the sudden appearance of “the Vietnam War film” on the cultural scene is linked to the conservative agenda, or at least to expect that the infant genre will reproduce the original political conflict: hawks against doves, cold warriors against new leftists, The Green Berets (1968) against Apocalypse Now (1979). But neither expectation fits well with the stories most of these films tell. A closer look at the recent Vietnam films reveals instead a tangle of impulses: self-criticism and reaffirmation, toughness and sentimentality.