Public Perceptions of the Vietnam War

This essay achieved a low 1st in the third year of my undergraduate.

Public Perception of War

As has been shown in prior conflicts of this nature, retention of public goodwill is a crucial factor in determining the ability of the government to conduct a war effectively. Perhaps the most obvious example was the Vietnam War; once public support for the conflict had largely evaporated, the administration was forced to withdraw, without having gained the victory their predecessors had claimed would be theirs with ease. More recently, a ‘national memory’ of the events in Vietnam has been made evident by the progression of the respective conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, with public opinion ebbing very quickly in both, as they reverted to campaigns of counter-insurgency. The association of a war of this type with the memory of the failures and atrocities of Vietnam will make it very difficult to retain the support of the public if the coming conflict is allowed to publicly degenerate as much as in the past.

Some of the realities of war have, in the past, been bypassed or ignored, perhaps most notably by Johnson in his State of the Union address in 1965.[1] In an age where the ability to share information is more abundant than ever, such a policy would be unwise to say the least. The realities of war will never be pleasant, but the fact remains that death and destruction are an inevitable part of war – the outrage is normally evident when it is without restraint, as portrayed perhaps most obviously in Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now. The now-famous scene in which an air assault is conducted to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” is perhaps the bluntest example of such lack of restraint, especially at its culmination with the B-52 air strike, and conveys the accompanying lack of regard for human life, and the environment which have come to be synonymous with the conflict in Vietnam.[2] Both Apocalypse Now, and the later Platoon are widely recognised as being at the more critical end of the spectrum, attributing atrocities both to the Vietnamese and the Americans, while earlier representations such as The Green Berets lays the blame largely at the feet of the Vietnamese.

This report will therefore examine the way in which the realities of war have been conveyed in the films Apocalypse Now and Platoon, as well as questioning whether the films are actually anti-war, or merely realistic, an argument made by Tomasulo.[3] One must make the distinction between the brutality of an already brutal conflict, and actual atrocities committed by both sides, perhaps the most well-publicised of which was the My Lai Massacre of 1968.[4] It will be argued that the realities of war are less abhorrent to the public than the lack of alignment between the conduct of the American military and traditional values, which are perhaps displayed in both Apocalypse Now and Platoon. The image put forward in many portrayals of the Vietnam War is of American soldiers being apparently unfazed by the prospect of killing Vietnamese non-combatants. When one combines this with some of the scandals surrounding the treatment of prisoners, particularly in Guantanamo Bay in more recent years, there has been a definite increase in scrutiny of the actions of the American military, with more emphasis being placed on the regard for human rights. As such, it will be argued that the realities of war cannot be shied away from, nor should they be. The attempted concealment of such realities in the Vietnam War made the outrage so much more profound when they were discovered, particularly after 1968, and the massacre at My Lai.[5]

While Apocalypse Now as a film is more indicative of the war as a whole, with its somewhat more epic scope, Platoon may perhaps be considered more useful in illustrating the motivations and cares of the soldiers on the ground in Vietnam, directed as it was by Oliver Stone, a veteran of the Vietnam War.[6] Both films have been described, albeit by their directors, as accurately portraying the realities of Vietnam, and as such, there are lessons to be learnt from both. The realities of the Vietnam War are displayed, but throughout the films there are obvious emphases which, one could argue narrow the scope. Both films have a strong focus on the psychological damage caused to the soldiers who fought in the war, with the main antagonist in Apocalypse Now, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, being tormented by an affliction referred to as ‘the horror’. Much of Platoon also aims to tell the story of the common soldier, how they dealt with the terrors of the War, and how it affected them psychologically. Unsurprisingly perhaps, both films tried to include scenes which represented the more infamous aspects of the war, with both including ‘My Lai type scenes’ in which Vietnamese innocents were gunned down by American soldiers.[7] This perhaps overemphasises the actions of a few, and makes it seem as if such incidents were commonplace. What has resulted is what might be criticised as a certain narrowness of scope, but is important to remember the limitations of film as a medium – it will never be able to convey all that one would experience in person. As such, while the brutality of the war has been portrayed in an accurate fashion, certain aspects of combat might have been slightly over-emphasised according to the respective directors’ personal perceptions.

One of the main reasons for the Vietnam War falling out of favour with the American public was the seeming disparity between the way in which the war was conducted, and that which was considered ‘traditional’ American values.[8] The photos of the My Lai massacre shocked the world, but were especially painful for the American public to see, as they went against all the stereotypes about the American military which had developed in the years since the Second World War, if not before. In both films there are flawed heroes, but ultimately, the values which are traditionally ‘American’ show through in the end. In the end therefore, the American public found the films acceptable, because they reflected just enough American values. The shame that they underwent before this point is reached however is extremely poignant, as they are taken through much of the heavy-handedness which is perhaps symbolic of the Vietnam War.[9] Each film, for the sake of realism, portrays aspects of the war less pleasant for the American people to watch, with the scene resulting in the death of a young retarded boy in Platoon, and the murder of the Vietnamese family on the river in Apocalypse Now.[10] Even if it is accepted that these were isolated incidents, the fact remains that they have been given screen-time, forcing viewers to form opinions about them, opinions which will likely be entirely negative. The way they have been slipped into war films which have equally graphic combat scenes would seem to imply that, for the American military, such acts are simply part of the brutality of war, given the matter of fact way they were dealt with by some of the characters in Platoon in particular.

Overall, several problems in the portrayal of the Vietnam War have been highlighted through study of Apocalypse Now and Platoon. The main problem lies in distinguishing to the public the differences between full atrocities and the stark realities of war, and a decision must be taken as to how honest the administration is willing to be about both, as it is perhaps inevitable for the former to take place, however isolated the incident.  The psychological impact of a potentially gruelling conflict must also be considered, and while many have criticised the approaching conflict as having all the hallmarks of another Vietnam, they seem to have failed to account for the enormous cultural and religious differences between the Middle East and South-East Asia, something which can potentially be used to the advantage of the administration.

There are several ways in which these issues can be addressed. The brutal realities of war must not be hidden from the public, but the administration must also make an effort the stress the natural savagery of war against the atrocities of an unrestrained few. In a best-case scenario, the administration will only have to deal with the realities of war, as opposed to the massacres of the kind the administrations through the later part of the Vietnam War were faced with. The unfortunate possibility is, however, that at some point a scandal of the kind embodied by My Lai, Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib will occur, and it is important that the administration distance itself from it, and condemn those responsible. One of the main reasons the American government lost credibility in the process of the Vietnam conflict was that it seemed to have no control over the actions of its own military – and some argued in the immediate aftermath of the war that atrocities of the kind committed at My Lai were actually commonplace; that they were the rule and not the exception. While it is possible that this will alienate the military to a certain extent, the public will gain faith in the administration’s ability to enforce its policies with regards to the upper echelons of the military.

The psychological impact of any war, but particularly a war which degenerates into a counter-insurgency, should not be underestimated, and an effort should be made on the part of the administration to provide support for returning veterans – something which, however cynical it seems, should be as well-publicised as possible. In such a way, the government will have shown concern for the welfare of its individual soldiers rather than simply their value as resources in a war, which will in turn promote public support for the conflict.

To conclude, many issues have been raised in post-Vietnam media, although some overarching themes have clearly emerged. As the first war in which the full extent of the barbarism was captured on camera, it is likely that the images had more of an impact on the public than they should have done. Since then, with the expansion of mass media, many more of the public will be far more aware of uglier side of war, thus making it easier to separate the brutality of war from actual atrocities. What is important is that no attempt is made on the part of the government to hide the savagery of war from the public, or in any way diminish the sacrifice of the soldiers who take part, as was perhaps done towards the end of the Vietnam War. As well as this, with the horrors of modern war, techniques for dealing with mental issues arising from the stresses of combat have developed, meaning that there are now suitable support networks in place, which need only be funded or at least subsidised by the government to allow them to cope with the demands of a larger-scale war. In short, the public face of the war should be handled with far more finesse than Vietnam was, and should remain sensitive to the cares and motivations of the many rather than the few. It is important to realise that the United States is under the most scrutiny when conducting itself abroad as it arguably has ‘the greatest capacity for the projection of its power, and thus the greatest capacity to do good and harm.’[11]

Word Count (including title): 2,005


[1] A. Johns, Vietnam’s Second Front: Domestic Politics, the Republican Party, and the War (Lexington, 2010), p.82.

[2] J.M. Devine, Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second: A Critical and Thematic Analysis of Over 400 Films about the Vietnam War (Austin, 1999), p.189.

[3] F.P. Tomasulo, ‘The Politics of Ambivalence: Apocalypse Now as Prowar and Antiwar Film,’ in L. Dittmar and G. Michaud (eds.), From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film (New Brunswick & London, 1990), p.147.

[4] K. Oliver, The My Lai massacre in American history and memory (Manchester & New York, 2006), p.9

[5] Oliver, My Lai, p.282

[6] Devine, Vietnam, pp.245-7.

[7] Devine, Vietnam, pp.190, 248.

[8] Oliver, My Lai, p.282.

[9] Tomasulo, ‘Politics,’ p.149.

[10] Devine, Vietnam, pp.190, 248-9.

[11] Oliver, My Lai, p.282.


Johns, A., Vietnam’s Second Front: Domestic Politics, the Republican Party, and the War (Lexington, 2010)

Devine, J.M., Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second: A Critical and Thematic Analysis of Over 400 Films about the Vietnam War (Austin, 1999)

F.P. Tomasulo, ‘The Politics of Ambivalence: Apocalypse Now as Prowar and Antiwar Film,’ in L. Dittmar and G. Michaud (eds.), From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film (New Brunswick & London, 1990)

K. Oliver, The My Lai massacre in American history and memory (Manchester & New York, 2006)



General comments: At first, I wasn’t sure quite how this  was going to work out. The opening paragraphs seemed, to my mind, to play things a little safe and hewed fairly closely to the example that we discussed in class. But, as it went on, it seemed that this was more to do with the framing than the analysis and argument – both of which became much more interesting by the bottom of p.1. You set the argument up well, and I liked the way that you distinguished between the brutality of war and isolated atrocities; it is an important distinction to make and one that, as you note, would be integral to an administration’s discussions of a future conflict. You also offer a balanced assessment as to how these lessons can be applied to present circumstances in a way that is mature and even-handed.

A couple of criticisms. First, you could have used the films a bit more heavily to illustrate some of the points you were making, and maybe even counterbalanced your assessment of Platoon and Apocalypse Now with an example that depicts the brutality of war without necessarily focusing on atrocities. Second, there were just a few places where the writing got a little untidy.


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