The Iconography of violence: Television, Vietnam, and the Soldier Hero.
The Vietnam War expanded and dominated foreign policy just as television news was expanding to a half-hour format and surpassing newspapers as the primary source of information for Americans. This coincidence resulted in a synergistic relationship between the war and the news in which each promoted and popularized the other. Forty years later, it is almost impossible to think of the Vietnam War without remembering the iconic images documented by television news and photojournalism. The continuing prominence of Eddie Adams' Saigon Execution, Nick Ut's Vietnam Napalm Girl, and Malcome Browne's Burning Monk exemplifies this interdependence between the events of the war and their journalistic representations. This relationship, however, is not as straightforward or as simple as it is often presented. According to accepted cultural memory, Vietnam was both the first and the last time "war" (generally signifying the horrors of combat) would be brought to the viewer so intimately or so immediately. Furthermore, the continual combat footage from Vietnam is believed to have influenced public opinion of the war so negatively that continuing the intervention became impossible for the American government.
This simplistic view of the relationship between television and Vietnam is based on assumptions contradicted by any study of news footage of the time. (33) The news was not suffused with combat imagery, and soldiers were not portrayed as rabid killers--almost no footage showed American servicemen engaged in horrific atrocities perpetrated on helpless Vietnamese women and children. Daniel C. Hallin, in his work The Uncensored War, has shown that the news media of the time was mostly innocent of the charge of bias leveled by the Nixon administration and largely articulated by Vice President Spiro Agnew (109 et passim). While Peter Braestrup, in Big Story, does argue that coverage during the Tet Offensive suggested a negative view of the progress of the war, his focus is mostly limited to that one period of a much longer war (170). By and large, television news before Tet was optimistic, keeping to themes familiar from World War II of courage under fire, American know-how, and inevitable victory. While the news became less optimistic about the progress of the war after Tet, it still did not start depicting American servicemen as bestial, savage psychopaths.
And yet the image of the psychotic Vietnam veteran, made violently insane by his wartime experiences, became cliched as the war drew to a close. If television news was the predominant representation of warfare and soldiering during the Vietnam War and yet television news did not depict soldiers in Vietnam as psychotic, where, then, did the stereotype of the psychotic Vietvet come from? Much academic work has been done on the many roles of the Vietvet in post-Vietnam culture. Perhaps most strikingly, Susan Jeffords has argued persuasively that the American experience of the Vietnam War combined with an anti-feminist ethos in the US during the late 1970s and 1980s to rationalize political failure in terms of gender, and thus to suppress other explanations such as race and imperialism (1 et passim). However, Jeffords's focus on gender, in The Remasculinization of America, displaces another crucial factor at work in the characterization both of the Vietvet and of masculinity in the post-Vietnam period. Before this war, American cultural representations of soldiers, despite having changed several times--the patriot of freedom after the Revolutionary War, the wanderer in need of reconciliation after the Civil War, the idealist disillusioned after World War I, the champion victorious after World War II--were built on and fed into what Richard Slotkin has called a national figure of "regeneration" through the creative violence of the soldier-hero (Regeneration through Violence 21 et passim). It was this long-standing figure of agency, the center of a national mythology according to which heroic, masculine violence creates American cultural primacy, that came under fire during Vietnam.
Although television news did not define the soldier as psychotic, news coverage of Vietnam did undermine the distinctive iconography of the soldier-hero. In the aftermath of World War II, the mythology surrounding the hero-warrior, which has pervaded Western culture since at least the time of Homer, solidified into a particularly American and nationalistic coming-of-age tale cemented in what Tom Engelhardt calls Victory Culture (10 et passim): in answering the call to fight for his country, every American boy would learn how to become a man (if not John Wayne himself). WWII culture particularly emphasized battle as a formative experience through its spectacular visual images, and, in its wake, the heroism of warfare became inseparable from its visual representations. Films featuring lantern-jawed heroes storming the beaches in France or bombing cities in Japan made warfare seem not just an adventure and an essential masculine rite but the timeless foundation of American culture: the ultimate wilderness in which to learn that regenerative violence, manfully shaping order from chaos. However, television news coverage of Vietnam refuted that mythology with every frame by removing the narrative from the visuals of warfare; soldiering was depicted as both mundane and arduous, not as a story of victory.
The nightly news forced this reconsideration of the image of the soldier-hero much less through political bias than through the interaction of the medium with its subject. Because of the size of the television screen and its common location in the living room, because of the single-camera format of the time, because of the delay between shooting and broadcast that forced the decontextualization of daily footage, and yet because of the much greater flow of footage coming from the front than during WWII, news coverage of the Vietnam War systematically, if frantically, destabilized the visual icon of the soldier-hero, stripping away his framing narrative of courage and victory and leaving in his place the desultory and yet dangerous Vietvet, wielding weaponry far more powerful than the Guns of Navarone. Television news, as a medium, undermined the mythology of regenerative violence and reinscribed soldiering as a common enterprise. At the same time, however, in the few cases when violence actually was caught on camera (see below), the medium highlighted the suddenly unpredictable violence of individual soldiers caught in an ambush or deploying without narrative oversight, without any narrator to explain the grand moral strategy or the shrewd military tactic. The effect was to depict soldiers not as heroes or even as ordinary men, but as tenuously socialized individuals.
Of course, film images of wars before Vietnam were not always heroic or focused on the valor of fighting men, and challenges to the icon of the soldier-hero also date at least from the time of Homer. The mass deaths of modern warfare present a particular trial for this icon because of the difficulty of individual heroic acts that such warfare implies, and early photographic images of modern warfare, because of both their implied realism and their technological limitations, did little to aggrandize such combat. In fact, the first American conflict after the invention of the camera produced a vision of war that was far from idealized. As H. Bruce Franklin has pointed out, the technology of photography during the Civil War forced a concentration on the unmoving dead rather than on living action that could not be captured in focus (26). Panoramic visions of the aftermath of battle depicting unnaturally sprawled bodies scattered across grey fields were the norm for the Civil War and helped to suggest that the conflict was neither a heroic adventure nor an epic quest, but rather a tragedy. World War I continued this depiction, with an emphasis on life in the trenches featuring dysentery and fear. Furthermore, still or silent visual art left much of the storytelling to language, and the images of these wars dovetailed with narratives focused on the particularly horrific nature of modern warfare which continually challenged the glorification of nationalistic violence promoted by such figures as William Randolph Hearst and Theodore Roosevelt.
World War II received very different treatment in the visual media, however, and this period supplied the reportorial stage on which the Vietnam War would be played. The first war to be captured on moving film, WWII presented visual technologies that newly allowed action--movement--to enter the photographic representation of warfare, replacing static and silent depictions of death with an adventure and heroism drawn from the sequence of images themselves. Instead of concentrating on still tableaux, the technology of motion-picture cameras gravitated toward the drama of combat rather than its disturbing outcome. The most common contemporaneous depictions of the war were found in newsreels and government-produced documentaries, and these moving images were usually paired with voiceovers emphasizing the bravery of our fighting boys on the front lines. This narration was uniformly positive, even when called upon to mourn the heroic dead. Furthermore, these films were set to rousing orchestral scores, suggesting even to the ear that warfare was a noble, epic, heroic pursuit. Seeing and hearing these newsreels and documentaries on the big screen produced the impression of an exploit that was literally and figuratively larger than life: chivalric, moral, and grand. An individual soldier's violence had larger structure and purpose; it created personal as well as national identity. These newsreels visually demonstrated that violence civilized a primitive Asia and purified a corrupt Europe--twin stories emerging from WWII that determined subsequent visual and narrative depictions of war in general, carrying well over their propagandistic frame, as Jeanine Basinger argues (125). By the time the United States sent combat troops to Vietnam, the ritualized mythos of warfare as the testing ground for the civilizing/purifying violence of the soldier had become central to American culture. (34)
By the Vietnam Era, although newsreels had given way to television as the medium of choice for war coverage, television news continued to use this mythic narrative. Edward Jay Epstein, in his study of nightly news broadcasts conducted during the early war years, News from Nowhere: Television and the News, chronicles the extent to which television news had permeated American culture by the early 1970s: about a quarter of the population at the time watched the evening news (4). According to Daniel Hallin, the networks, far from being biased against the war, generally rehearsed the ideology that had informed the WWII combat film:
Television reporting of Vietnam [...] was structured by a set of assumptions about the value of war--not so much as a political instrument, but as an arena of human action, of individual and national self-expression--and by images and a language for talking about it. This understanding of war was formed primarily in World War II, and later, no doubt, etched into the national consciousness by the popular culture about war that developed simultaneously with the political ideology of the East-West conflict: the films of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, for example [...]. (142)
Certainly before the Tet Offensive of 1968, and to a certain degree afterwards, network news coverage viewed Vietnam both through Cold-War-colored glasses and through the paradigm of the boys' own adventure. War was not about conflict between nations: it was about the hero's journey from boyhood to manhood, in which Communism was the dragon to be slain. However, both the content and the effect of Vietnam newscasts were radically different from that of WWII newsreels. To begin with, most Vietnam stories did not even consist of combat coverage. Statistics vary depending on how "combat" is defined, but there is no doubt that, despite the stereotype, the violence of battle was not a nightly experience for news audiences at any point during the war. (35) Certainly correspondents sought out combat footage, and such footage was prized by the networks for its drama, but the very nature of television journalism made such footage difficult to come by; a reporter had to be on the spot when fighting broke out, and, given the unpredictable nature of fighting in guerrilla warfare, much more commonly a reporter arrived after the fighting had ended. Broad, lengthy WWII-style engagements were a rare news opportunity. Furthermore, the networks themselves tried to avoid airing particularly explicit combat images for fear that dinnertime viewers would switch off overly graphic programs (Epstein News from Nowhere 178). The networks did keep track of the "body count," or the total dead, missing, and wounded, but these accounts were weekly, not nightly, and were broadcast without accompanying images. Instead, anchormen usually read the body-count numbers while those numbers were displayed on a screen behind them. Most Vietnam coverage consisted of talking heads: anchormen reading stories or administration spokesmen making statements, rather than soldiers fighting and dying in rice paddies. Without the spectacular visuals, America was digesting a routine of pedestrian patrols, not action, not drama, not the teleology of heroic war.
Of course, the impact of those rare images of combat at least partly explains why such footage looms so large in the cultural memory of Vietnam. Oscar Patterson III, in a series of studies of various news media during the war, concludes that "a form of selective perception (and more importantly selective retention) on the part of the general public of certain highly dramatic events has led to the projection of those events as characteristic of television coverage of the Vietnam war to a far greater extent than was actually true" (403). However, even if combat footage did have more of an impact on the television news audience than its quantity of airtime would suggest, the nature of that impact is still up for debate. As Robert Hamilton argues, "images" are not "self-evidently anti- or pro-war. It does not follow that by showing the 'horror' of war, the image is necessarily anti-war. It is dependent on the context in which it is used" (140). Images of combat themselves may have been shocking, but how their audiences interpreted them stemmed less from their content than their context. Todd Gitlin points out that all media, in particular news media, are organized by what he terms "frames," systems of representation that act as a kind of shorthand: "Media frames are persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual" (7, emphasis removed). Over time, certain images increasingly become associated with the same frames, which come to stand for an entire unspoken narrative. Before Tet, and to some extent after, the frame for Vietnam War coverage was predominantly a Cold War context, which emphasized the power of US technology and the nefariousness of the Communist enemy, and which slotted combat footage of Vietnam into the heroic narrative told by the WWII combat film. Combat footage itself did not automatically imply that the war in Vietnam was wrong or that its soldiers were savage, and in general the networks made no efforts to frame it that way, instead attempting to merge the rare combat footage with the regenerative narrative left over from WWII.
The Mythic vs. the Mundane
But the system of representation itself undermined this narrative. Although the frame for this combat footage was the same as that of the newsreels of WWII, which aggrandized war, the medium did the opposite, exploding the mystique necessary to any depiction of battle as the valiant coming-of-age ritual. While the images from Vietnam contained no inherent pro- or anti-war message, and while newscasts attempted to fit those images into a narrative of regenerative violence, incidental details of the medium of television resisted and overturned that narrative. Michael Arlen, writing for the New Yorker, coined the term "living-room war" to describe Vietnam because of the impression of families gathered nightly around the television, watching coverage of the war in the comfort of their homes. Common wisdom then and now is that this invasion by warfare into the domestic space unsettled that space, undermining the perception of the home and family as safe, but Arlen himself suggests differently:
I can't say I completely agree with people who think that when battle scenes are brought into the living room the hazards of war are necessarily made "real" to the civilian audience. It seems to me that by the same process they are also made less "real"--diminished, in part, by the physical size of the television screen, which, for all the industry's advances, still shows one a picture of men three inches tall shooting at other men three inches tall, and trivialized, or at least tamed, by the enveloping cozy alarums of the household. (8)
While film newsreels made the practice of warfare seem larger than life because of the size of the screen, television domesticated warfare, making battle seem small in both size and scope. On-the-spot reports, made possible by new, lighter-weight sound cameras, demoted soldiers from mythic beings, whose every action was enhanced both by a grandiose score and a singular god-like narrator, into simple men-on-the-street. These soldiers did not look like heroes; they looked like 19-yearold kids describing the logistics of their first job. Their lives were not something out of a movie; they were the same as our lives--just lived in Vietnam. The grandeur imported by the newsreel was utterly lost in the ordinariness of the television interview, when the image of the man shrank to the voice of the boy. By extension, this ersatz experience by the viewer encouraged the notion that soldiering was as easy as gathering to watch the nightly news. The taint of common domesticity soon attached to the job of soldiering, making the idea that war was the ultimate in masculine pursuits, entirely outside everyday experience, impossible to maintain. Bringing the war home may have made home seem more dangerous, but it also made war seem trivial.
In addition, Vietnam stories tended to remove the exoticism of war through an emphasis on the routine. Vietnam was certainly the first war where anything approaching daily visual coverage was possible, but there were still great technological limitations on what could be broadcast and when. Satellite technology allowed footage shot in Vietnam to be transmitted to the networks in New York with minimal delay, but the costs of satellite transmission were very high, and the networks avoided using satellites for anything but the most important breaking news. (36) Instead, film was shot in Vietnam and then shipped by plane to New York, resulting in automatic delays of some days. As a result, to avoid airing dated news and to provide stories that could be used to illustrate future events, journalists were encouraged to avoid stories focused on the particular and tied to a specific moment in time. Most stories avoided dating by sticking with the routine: the technologies of war, such as stories about helicopters, missiles, or planes; the living conditions of the troops; or military actions that could be separated from their greater strategic importance. Clips following bomber pilots, for instance, emphasized the repetitiveness of their missions: wake up, fly over North Vietnam, drop bombs, head back to the base or carrier for dinner. Clips following helicopter pilots followed the same narrative path, replacing dropping bombs with rescuing wounded. Clips involving infantrymen dealt with the baseline patrol rather than outlining any specific engagement with the enemy.
Focusing on the everyday rather than the exceptional certainly solved the networks' timeliness problem, but it had the unexpected effect of making war itself seem routine. The violence of war lost its mythic proportions and civilizing mission, turning warfare from a grand project to simple employment: "While some television reports would put it 'above' moral or political judgment by reference to the Cold War, what was far more common was language that essentially put the war below such judgment by treating it as a sporting event or a day's work" (Hallin 145). Soldiers were essentially (and sometimes literally) described as commuters, going to work in the jungle and then returning home to base at night. The everyday focus required by television depicted war as a common job and soldiering as no more glamorous or heroic than commuting from the suburbs in a grey flannel suit. Of course, soldiering is more violent, so, as the goals of the war were transformed from glorious to mundane, the war's extreme brutality seemed aberrant and unjustified. As Slotkin writes: "The growing sense of a disproportion between the levels of violence and the ends for which it was being deployed made 'violence' itself [.] an object of intense public concern" (Gunfighter Nation 555). The notion that being a soldier allowed one access to hidden knowledge, to a select club of those who had been tested and had survived to deploy their trained violence in service of manhood and of nation, was dissolved by civilian viewers who witnessed banal, yet brutal, versions of themselves.
This banality further undermined the claim that the US was winning the Vietnam War. While newsreels functioned as propaganda during WWII by continually emphasizing both the bravery of soldiers and their military gains, the utter dislocation of most Vietnam reports from any sense of their greater military goals had the opposite effect. There was no mythopoetic voiceover to invest the desultory narratives with teleological stature, so combat seemed even less than routine; it seemed pointless. Helicopters, jets, long-range reconnaissance patrols came and went, but nothing in Vietnam changed. As much as the military and the administration before Tet tried to give the impression of continual gains in the project of building a secure nation in South Vietnam, and as complicit as the networks may have been in this endeavor, the static nature of the news reports viewed by the American public undermined all claims of military and moral progress. If America was winning the war in Vietnam, why did the war look so inert? The narrative arc of civilization taming the wilderness was lost. The U.S. Army no longer seemed to be a band of heroes marching inexorably to a goal of victory, but now had made a daily grind out of a war that seemed both repetitive and never-ending. As the war continued, and as the logistics of news coverage progressively stripped the heroism from it, the violence of the Vietnam conflict lost its coherence as myth. Without the possibility of heroism, of the attainment of some kind of (masculine) enlightenment, war lost its sanctity as a realm of individual growth. Without the narrative of victory or progress, war could not be seen as proof of the nation's moral prerogative. Heroism was thus stripped from the icon of the soldier.
His violence, however, remained, and without those personal and social justifications, that violence transformed from civilizing and courageous to chaotic and threatening. The first, and one of the most famous, moments of American GI violence captured by news cameras (August 3, 1965, airing on August 5) occurred in the village of Cam Ne, where a CBS crew, headed by Morley Safer, filmed US soldiers burning down huts with flamethrowers and, more memorably, Zippo lighters. This was not a battle in which soldiers fought valiantly against a determined enemy; this was a bunch of young men, all-American boys, really, going about the business of destroying homes with the same emotional content displayed by a plumber unclogging a sink. Furthermore, the tool they used--the Zippo lighter--was itself a symbol of domestic prosperity that was suddenly and disturbingly transformed into a means of destruction. Engelhardt writes that a "minor convenience of the age of abundance, the cigarette lighter, was meant to facilitate that moment of pleasure around the house, in the office, at a restaurant, but not, obviously, to torch house, office, or restaurant" (190). The unstructured violence of burning down a hamlet had neither the excitement of a threatening enemy nor the heroism of risking life and limb for God and country; the apathy of the men themselves further pushed their violence outside the pale of acceptable human behavior. These were not men caught in the heat of battle; these were men treating destruction as commonplace employment. At the same time, the boys themselves seemed so innocent in their pursuit of destruction that they could not simply be dismissed as hoodlums. Instead, during the interviews--between hut-burnings--the soldiers seem cheerful, innocent, and responsible, not savage, doing their job (even later calling themselves the "Zippo Brigade"), but a job that turns out to be horrifying, and the soldiers' very lack of affect in undertaking such a horrific job faintly suggested psychosis.
Even so, the violence at Cam Ne was done to property, not people, and most violence shown in the early years of Vietnam was either directed at an unseen enemy or perpetrated by those enemies. (37) American soldiers in the early years of the war were not generally associated with brutality. The March 16, 1968, massacre at My Lai, in which US troops of the Americal Division slaughtered between 300 and 500 non-resisting Vietnamese villagers, was the first moment when accounts of extreme American violence against Vietnamese civilians began to seep into the nation's consciousness. This savagery of American soldiers, directed at humans, not huts, conveyed not just the brutality of war but its potentially psychotic underpinnings. When Seymour Hersh broke the story of My Lai in 1969 in a St. Louis newspaper, more than a year after it occurred, it was rapidly picked up by national news outlets, leading to a CBS interview of Paul Meadlo, a veteran who had participated in the massacre and who freely described the atrocity in great detail. Fred Turner describes the effect of the timing of this interview:
On the evening of November 24 , many [...] people were sitting in their living rooms, surrounded by friends and family, waiting to watch the Apollo 12 astronauts splash down into the Pacific Ocean. This was supposed to be a moment of American triumph--no other nation could have sent these men to the moon--and millions of Americans had gathered around their televisions to share in the feeling of national power. Yet when they tuned their sets to CBS, they saw not the smiling faces of astronauts, but the awkward, strained visage of Paul Meadlo. (38)
An audience expecting a moment of American glory instead were confronted with an instance of what Hannah Arendt has called the banality of evil. In the interview, Mike Wallace leads Meadlo to describe his actions at My Lai, repeating the phrase "And babies?" to force home the horror of what Meadlo has done, but Meadlo himself seems emotionless, expressing his belief that God had punished him for his actions (Meadlo lost his foot to a mine shortly after the events of My Lai), without demonstrating either remorse or any response to his own suffering. In a quiet voice, Meadlo answers Wallace's questions, remaining eerily calm even as Wallace seems to compensate for Meadlo's lack of response by becoming more agitated. Meadlo never raises his voice or changes his pitch, instead answering Wallace's questions evenly and matter-of-factly; his expression never changes; he never pauses or seems to be overcome by any emotion of any kind: he could be discussing mess-hall options. His lack of affect, particularly in comparison to Wallace's revulsion (again, "And babies?" (38)), makes Meadlo seem almost inhuman: an amoral killing machine, not a valiant soldier. (39)
After My Lai, soldiers were increasingly depicted in ways that would be anathema to the World War II combat narrative. Stories of soldiers abusing drugs, refusing orders, and generally behaving in an undisciplined
manner became common throughout the early 1970s. In some part, this change in depiction resulted from the shifting focus of news coverage of Vietnam following the election of Nixon and his promise of peace in Vietnam; networks then sought out stories that emphasized American withdrawal from Vietnam rather than the fighting still taking place (Epstein Between Fact and Fiction 227). These features naturally dealt with aspects of soldiers' lives that were removed from combat but that would also make for exciting television. And, as James Landers notes in reference to news magazines, there was a decline in fighting involving Americans, leaving a vacuum in coverage that was filled by other sensational topics (111). After Tet and after My Lai, as America pulled out of Vietnam and fighting involving Americans decreased, television news replaced the few stories of combat with stories that focused on other kinds of conflict. The news stations were not so much interested in exposing any essential truth about the military, warfare, or American politics; they were interested in telling dramatic stories, and the story of the mythic American soldier in combat was dead.
Hallin notes that not all of these stories painted US troops in an unflattering light: "The portrayal of American soldiers remained highly sympathetic through the end of the war, but the image of the soldier eager for a fight gave way to that of the reluctant warrior whose battle was mainly to survive" (180). These stories refused the notion that war was heroic: "Never after Tet does one hear a phrase like 'They were bloody, but that was what they wanted'" (Hallin 175). News stories from Vietnam were no longer following the script of the WWII combat genre, and soldiering was no longer portrayed as the definitive ritual for manhood. Warfare was now a job, and a dirty one at that, one that could not only get you killed but, even worse, could make you a monster. As Myrtle Meadlo said about her son: "I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer" (Hersh). Even in the most sympathetic news stories, soldiers looked less and less like the dogged heroes of WWII. Instead, they often were bare-chested and mustachioed, wearing the paraphernalia of the anti-war movement, flouting the iconography of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in WWII, and shrugging at the violence that before had been contained within a narrative of patriotic sacrifice--a violence that began to radiate in more threatening and uncontrolled directions, especially back toward the civilization these soldiers were supposed to be protecting. (40)
Visual Logic Coming Home
As the counterculture and anti-war movement at home grew, combat footage from Vietnam gave way to combat footage from the heartland of America. The news media turned their attention to a different drama: anti-war demonstrations that pitted the activist against the establishment. Again, the very nature of the medium of television news forced a displacement of Vietnam combat to the "war at home." The networks already tended to categorize the growing counterculture under the umbrella topic of Vietnam; as a result of the tendency of producers to try to provide some kind of unifying theme between commercial breaks, stories about the anti-war movement usually fell in the same segment as stories about the war. (41) The resulting habitual back-to-back line-up of Vietnam summary and anti-Vietnam-demonstration coverage reinforced this link between the two topics, blurring the distinction between the battlefield and the home front while simultaneously disconnecting both the soldier and the protestor from any moral or civilizing mission. Since the vast majority of Vietnam coverage was nothing more than an anchorman reading a description of in-country fighting, the networks' tendency to follow these descriptions with footage of violence from protests at home gave the impression that the demonstration footage illustrated the Vietnam stories. For instance, when Walter Cronkite's narration of a battle was immediately followed by visuals of domestic police battling protesters, the location of the battle was transposed from Vietnam to America. The technology of the nightly news strengthened this impression: most studio broadcasts used only one camera, instead of switching between camera angles to indicate shifts in topic, as modern news broadcasts do. Because the studio visual is a static shot of Cronkite talking, uninterrupted by a cut to another camera or a shift to another anchor (either of which would indicate a narrative break), everything Cronkite says between commercials occurs visually as parts of the same story. Rattling off details in the monotone style that was typical of the era, Cronkite gives no obvious indication at the end of the Vietnam stories that he has finished his discussion of the war abroad, instead continuing directly into his discussion of the protests, but now complete with actual footage of violence between protesters and police. War stories flowed into anti-war stories with no attempt at differentiation, and thus the war in Vietnam, including its brutality and its immorality, seemed to rage in US streets. The conflation of these two battlefields suggested that, without the narrative frame of a just cause, the violence of the soldier was no longer limited to the wilderness of the frontier, but was being turned on American civilization itself.
Through this conflation, the soldiers who had lost their heroism and now represented uncontrolled, threatening violence were in one rhetorical-visual slide transformed into uncontrolled police who battered helpless peaceniks. While soldiers in uniform rounded up civilians in Vietnam using excessive force, beating women and old men (and babies), Chicago Mayor Daley's police force did the same with the peaceful demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Audiences watched in horror as television cameras captured days of violence, made especially threatening when police turned on reporters themselves. The visual depiction of a correspondent, the audience's surrogate, attacked by police creates the impression that Americans themselves are being attacked; the image of a police baton coming at the camera as if it were swinging toward viewers' own heads cements this impression. (42) The suspicion that Americans were at war with the very soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them reached a climax when National Guardsmen actually killed unarmed college students during protests at Kent State in May 1970. To some Americans, the nakedly violent soldiers of Vietnam had come home in the form of a faceless, fascist police force. The narrative of the WWII soldier as the heroic agent of civilization had become the narrative of the Vietvet thug.
Still, the majority of Americans were not sympathetic to the plight of the anti-war movement, however much they might have agreed with that movement's goals. In fact, Edward P. Morgan notes that public reaction after the 1968 Convention predominantly favored the Chicago police, rather than the protestors, regardless of the media's new framing of these images of violence: "Immediately following the convention, public opinion polls indicated that 56 percent of the public approved of Mayor Daley's handling of the convention disorders, and 71 percent thought the security measures by police were justified [...]. Clearly, millions of Americans did not like what they were seeing, and more blamed the protesters than the police" (139). Soldiers, however, did not occupy just one position in the war at home. Not only were they seen as the fascist forces of oppression; in an alternate but concurrent narrative they were also seen as the violent counterculture. Soldiers still in Vietnam flaunted their anti-establishment sympathies, mixing peace signs and bandannas with olive drab and bandoliers. At the same time, anti-war protestors looked more like soldiers as more activists dressed in fatigues. In large part, this fashion crossover stemmed from the growing media presence of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Although VVAW never received the widespread media coverage its members sought, and although many of their planned activities were all but ignored by the mainstream news, images of veterans protesting multiplied in news coverage as more anti-war protests were organized by VVAW. However, these veterans looked nothing like Audie Murphy or John Wayne. The armies of protesting veterans who entered the living rooms of America through the nightly news looked more like the hippies whose protests they had joined than the returning veterans of WWII, who wore crisp uniforms while parading down Broadway (Nicosia 63). In fact, these Vietvets themselves were denouncing, rather than celebrating, their actions in war. The line between the civilizing soldier and the uncivilized hippie became blurred, and both the soldiers still in Vietnam and the veterans at home came to be identified with the counterculture with which they were once considered at odds. In a progression naturalized by the visual procedures of news coverage, according to this narrative, the crazed soldiers destroying the landscape of Vietnam turned that destructive, rather than creative, violence on the US when they returned home. The psychological chaos of the soldier thus materialized on television as much through images and stories of skirmishes at home as through images of battle abroad.
As former soldiers blended into the counterculture movement, those veterans became a threat to the home front. Gitlin emphasizes in his history of the anti-war movement that the movement came to be depicted as not just deviant but also dangerous by the news media. In part this transformation was accidental. Television audiences demanded excitement, so producers chose stories that favored coverage of demonstrations focusing on violence, making the entire movement seem prone to such violence. Although Gitlin argues that the movement was also depicted as dangerous in an unconscious attempt on the part of producers to maintain the bourgeois status quo, as an anti-war stance became more politically acceptable and was held by more members of the elite, Gitlin admits that newscasts distinguished between good anti-war protestors--middle-class college students who had no other attachment to the counterculture--and bad anti-war protestors--dirty hippie communists, who viewed the war as only one part of a larger imperialist project. By focusing on clean-cut members of the anti-war movement, the news media effectively mainstreamed such protestors while marginalizing the agent of cultural chaos (209-266 etpassim). VVAW members tended to fall into the latter category. As this marginalized counterculture came to seem even more dangerous in contrast with the more acceptable, reasonable branches of the anti-war movement, the Vietvets who were associated with this counterculture came to be identified with random acts of violence. Even worse, VVAW's larger arguments against the war were usually not clearly presented by television news any more than the arguments of the counterculture were. The short, visually-directed television news segment does not lend itself to in-depth analysis, and television programming across the board typically reduced the counterculture to nothing more than style. As Gary R. Edgerton writes, television programming tended to "appropriat[e] the trappings of the counterculture instead of giving voice to its criticisms of the country's conservative social mores, its ongoing civil rights shortcomings, and its growing military intervention in Vietnam" (264). The counterculture on television boiled down to long hair and beads; VVAW became ragged fatigues and rage. Vietnam had been assimilated to the visual logic of television.
Madness Either Way
Not only did VVAW members dress radically; their message also put them beyond the pale of acceptable American society. Wilbur J. Scott points out how VVAW's tactics undermined the group's legitimacy in the minds of the American public: "The VVAW strategy of emphasizing atrocity to disparage American military policy in Vietnam--an increasingly favored way to protest the war--aroused more than feelings about the war. It also stirred the sentiment that many Vietnam veterans themselves were worthy of contempt. Even those in sympathy with what VVAW was trying to accomplish sometimes found it difficult to accept and make sense of the stories without despising those who reported them" (19). VVAW's guerrilla theater actions, where they mimicked the taking of a Vietnamese village in the heartland of America in order to represent the violence in Vietnam, suggested that these Vietvets themselves were uncontrollable and likely to stage armed attacks on their neighbors. The VVAW's Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971, in which several Vietvets testified to atrocities they themselves had committed, did not so much bring home the horrors of US military actions as it reminded the public that these veterans were capable of such horrors. VVAW members, by far the most often broadcast type of Vietnam veteran (with the possible exception of POWs in later years), proved by their very anti-war actions that they were violent, uncontrollable men who could commit the worst kind of atrocities, and the VVAW's conscious attempts to "bring the war home" to the American people had the unintended effect of making the American people afraid that veterans would literally bring the war home by committing violent acts on the populace. When, during the week of protests known as Dewey Canyon III, several veterans threw their medals onto the White House lawn in the ultimate rejection of the war, the lack of a coherent narrative of protest in the news coverage left the impression that these Vietvets were as unreasonable and uncontrollable as the counterculture, and thus a threat not only to individuals but to American society at large. Now they were not just mock-arresting civilians; they were surrounding the White House. Even worse, their skills and the violence they embodied made them considerably more dangerous than the hippies whose best offense was a Japanese tiger dance meant to protect them from police batons. Abbie Hoffman attacked the government by attempting to levitate the Pentagon, a threat obviously more symbolic than pressing; Vietnam veterans, however, had been trained by that very government, and knew how to use guns. The regenerative violence of the soldier is intended to protect and purify civilization; the soldier-hero leaves his violence behind in the wilderness. But the mythos of pacifying the wilderness had been stripped away from the Vietnam soldier, and he seemed to be turning that trained violence on civilization itself for no clear reason. The absence of a narrative that could plausibly distinguish groups and battle lines left audiences at the mercy of images sensationally heaped together.
By the time the American involvement in Vietnam drew to a close, the media had created two types of Vietvet: the fascist war machine and the desperate revolutionary. These two stereotypes corresponded to the extremes of American political culture: those on the left feared the fascist while those on the right feared the anarchist. But what these two diametrically opposed portraits had in common was the notion of uncontrolled, unstructured violence: regardless of one's stance on the war, regardless of one's beliefs about American society in general, the Vietvet was now psychotically dangerous. Soldiers had learned violence in Vietnam, but did not leave their violence in that "Indian country," and as televised veterans behaved in unexpected and unexplained ways--protesting the war they had just fought, throwing medals at the White House--their actions seemed erratic and unpredictable. Television news only furthered this impression with its tendency to report actions without causes: veterans were obviously angry, but American society was not quite sure why. Once the mythic superstructure was removed from the occupation of the soldier, and the moral teleology of warfare was vacated, all that remained was the violence inherent in war without any suggestion of direction or control.
That accidental critique of the soldier-hero icon went on to become the predominant framing narrative for coverage of Vietvets after the war. The vast majority of popular depictions of the Vietvet followed in this path, and film and television portrayals of veterans were consolidated in the icon of the psychotic Vietvet. As Vietvets came to stand for a kind of rabid violence, whether fascist or revolutionary, they became a catch-all villain in popular culture. (43) By the time the last combat troops left Vietnam in 1973, the image of the soldier-hero had been almost entirely undermined. The only defining attribute left to the post-Vietnam soldier was the threat of violence. As Julian Smith writes,
Vietnam has produced a large body of young men who practiced or witnessed at first hand the sanctioned use of violence--not surprisingly, film and television writers and producers have assumed the mass audience will accept the portrayal of veterans as constantly violent, given to handgrenade fraggings in hotel elevators and [.] sniping from rooftops. Though the films are rarely specific about the exact relationship between Vietnam and violent veterans, three general categories can be dimly perceived: the Vietnamese experience has turned healthy young men into sick killers; it has pushed latently violent men over the line or has transformed blatant maniacs into honored representatives of our culture; most commonly, it has embittered men (be they normal or neurotic) while teaching them skills that can be put to dangerous use. (155-6)
Such a description follows upon the stereotype produced by the logic of television. Accepted as truth by American society and thus fed back into the framing narratives used by television news, the stereotype generated its own history, complete with detailed stories about moments of incomprehensible violence from returning veterans. Soldiering was not heroic; it was monstrous.
Television news created this image of the psychotic Vietnam veteran not through any intent on the part of its producers or even the content of the reports, but through the format of the medium itself. In fact, this image emerged in direct contradiction to the narrative espoused by news media of the time. The heroic iconography surrounding the World War II soldier succeeded in large part because of the medium in which that icon was packaged--because of the ways in which the medium strengthened that narrative of courage and victory. Vietnam television coverage, however, dissolved the narrative foundation that allowed the soldier-hero icon to exist visually. The next twenty years after the Vietnam War would see a determined effort on the part of both the government and American society, particularly in film, to rehabilitate this cultural monster and thus to transmute his violence, once more, toward a narrative that supported American mythologies of the regenerative hero.
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Braestrup, Peter. Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet in 1968 in Vietnam and Washington. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977.
Edgerton, Gary R. The Columbia History of American Television. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. New York: BasicBooks, 1995.
Epstein, Edward Jay. Between Fact and Fiction: The Problem of Journalism. 1st ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.
--. News from Nowhere: Television and the News. 1973. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000.
Franklin, H. Bruce. "From Realism to Virtual Reality: Images of America's Wars." Seeing through the Media: The Persian Gulf War. Eds. Susan Jeffords and Lauren Rabinovitz. Communications, Media, and Culture. New Brunwick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994. 25-44.
Gitlin, Todd. The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making & Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Hallin, Daniel C. The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Hamilton, Robert. "British Photojournalism and the Vietnam War." Tell Me Lies About Vietnam: Cultural Battles for the Meaning of the War. Eds. Alf Louvre and Jeffrey Walsh. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1988. 134-48.
Hersh, Seymour. "Ex-Gi Tells of Killing Civilians at Pinkville." St. Louis Post-Dispatch November 25 1969. The My Lai Massacre: Seymour Hersh's Complete and Unabridged Reporting for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, November 1969. Web. 19 Sep 2007.
Jeffords, Susan. The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Landers, James. The Weekly War: Newsmagazines and Vietnam. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
Morgan, Edward P. What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010.
Nicosia, Gerald. Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement. 1st ed. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001.
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Scott, Wilbur J. The Politics of Readjustment: Vietnam Veterans since the War. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1993.
Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 16001860. 1973. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
---. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Smith, Julian. Looking Away: Hollywood and Vietnam. New York: Scribner, 1975.
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(33) Unfortunately, conducting such a study is extremely difficult. There are very few resources available for researching television news coverage during the Vietnam War; in fact, the most comprehensive archive, the Television News Archive at Vanderbilt University, only begins its collection in mid-1968. Other archives include kinescope recordings made by the Pentagon, as well as archives by the networks themselves, all of which are woefully incomplete and unavailable to the public. This paper would not have been possible without the assistance provided by the Television News Archive.
(34) For instance, see Engelhardt's The End of Victory Culture for an excellent discussion of the importance of Army men to children's play in the post-World War II period.
(35) According to James Landers, "An examination of all news reports on the war broadcast by ABC, CBS, and NBC from summer 1965 through summer 1970 determined that only 3 percent of all film segments from Vietnam showed 'heavy battle,' defined as scenes with gunfire, incoming artillery or mortar rounds, and dead or wounded combatants visible [...]. A random sample of news programs from August 1968 through August 1973 also found few graphic scenes, ranging from 2.9 percent to 4.2 percent of all Vietnam segments shown" (89-90). Daniel Hallin finds that 22% of coverage showed combat, but he defines "combat" much more broadly (129).
(36) $5,000 for a five-minute transmission, as opposed to $20 or $30 to ship film by plane, according to Epstein (News From Nowhere 33).
(37) One glaring exception to this rule is the famous incident during the Tet Offensive in which General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, executed an NLF prisoner by shooting him in the head. The moment was captured both by television cameras and by photographer Eddie Adams, and has since become one of the most famous images of the Vietnam War. However, as Loan was Vietnamese, the image came to stand more for the brutality of the war in general and less for the degeneration into violence of the American soldier specifically.
(38) This exchange would go on to be referenced on the iconic And Babies anti-war poster.
(39) Meadlo's lack of affect today would likely be taken as a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but that diagnosis would not become codified for another ten years.
(40) Audie Murphy played himself in his film biography, further connecting film narrative with the soldier's iconic status in WWII.
(41) See Gitlin 73.
(42) Naturally, the newsmen under attack by the police soon began to cover the protests from altered perspectives.
(43) See, for example, the entire genre of Vietvet biker films, epitomized by Angels from Hell (1968); the villains of Magnum Force (1973); and countless interchangeable bad guys on countless police procedural television shows.
Texas State University
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|Publication:||Film & History|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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