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An Ex-Marine Sees Platoon

Detail from Vietnamese Vietnam War Poster. Artist Unknown.

Detail from Vietnamese Vietnam War Poster. Artist Unknown.

Leo Cawley (1944-1991) grew up in suburban south Florida and graduated from high school in Jacksonville in 1962, receiving one of two William Faulkner scholarships awarded that year by the University of Virginia, based on two short stories and three poems he had written. He had a bright future as a creative writer. Indeed, in other circumstances, one might have expected him to have embarked on a conventional, safe literary career, albeit one of much distinction.Instead, he soon he found himself in the Marine Corps and on the front lines in Vietnam, wounded in action more than once. It became the transformative experience of Cawley’s life. He has described this, most notably in the present essay, distinguished for not sugarcoating the horrors that war visited either on its U.S. or Vietnamese participants. It was in Vietnam that he was poisoned by the defoliant Agent Orange sprayed by the U.S. military with little regard for its own troops, and, as Cawley persistently pointed out, the Vietnamese population as well. As a result, in 1980 he developed the multiple myeloma that would kill him eleven years later.

Determined to make sense of what had happened to him and to understand the forces that brought it about, Cawley studied political economy at Columbia on his return from the war. Later he went on to teach at Georgetown University and Vassar College. He also became a radical activist, working with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Columbia University chapter of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars for whose Bulletin he occasionally wrote. He also served on Monthly Review Foundation’s Board of Directors, presented a widely popular and influential weekly radio program of political and cultural criticism on WBAI in New York, and published in The Nation, The Village Voice, and Newsday. For MR he also wrote “Bright Shining Lies and The Liars who Told Them” (April 1989), a review of former New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan’s book, A Bright Shining Lie.

Had he lived long enough, Leo Cawley probably would have applied his unflinching understanding of the “actually existing” world to the cultural landscape of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. It is safe to say he would have detested the postmodernist obfuscation that passes today for imaginative literature (and film and television, for that matter). Now, writers and filmmakers are applauded for works that are clever but carefully tell us little about how life and work proceed. Cawley understood and detested this.

In this essay on Oliver Stone’s film Platoon, reprinted below, Cawley points out that the authors of nineteenth-century realist novels, writing in the era of the Industrial Revolution and triumphalist capitalism, sought to tell their readers what quotidian life and work was like. To the extent that they achieved that, they enriched their readers understanding of their world. In other words, to rephrase Marx a bit, they saw their literary effort not as rumination, but as providing readers with the tools to be actors in their own lives. Through the few essays of his that we have, it is clear that Cawley meant to attempt something similar in his own time. The critical insights in this piece and in others demonstrate this. His perspective, at once radical and sharp, grows both from his life experience and his formidable talents.

At a memorial meeting for him in 1991, Barbara Ehrenreich offered the clearest portrait of Leo, remembering that his conversation was always “the best.” “It was about history and war, gender and race, democracy and astronomy, utopia and justice—and what we are going to do about them.” Leo, she pointed out, paid the highest price, but wished for us to “keep going, keep questioning, keep probingasking not just what and how, but why and most profoundly why not.”

John J. Simon

During the Iranian hostage crisis, I was teaching a class on the economics of less developed countries at Georgetown University. There was a warlike mood in Washington in those waning days of Carter wimpishness when I asked for a show of hands on how many supported a U.S. war with Iran. The vote was 60 to 3 in favor of war. Then I asked how many thought the United States ought to go back to a universal military draft. The vote was 59 to 4 against. The one who switched was an Iranian student. I have cherished this incident as proof of the mindless military rambunctiousness that grows up among preppies who feel secure from the sobering hook of the draft. The film Platoon now brings the acrid aroma of the possibility that war has costs to the nostrils of the me generation.

I was in a Marine Corps rifle company, getting fired on and sometimes hit, at about the same time that is described in Oliver Stone’s film Platoon. The film calls up a lot that needs to be told and remembered by Vietnam veterans and the countrymen that they haven’t talked to. The ones who most need to hear are the young, the ones I call the Future Veterans of Foreign Wars (FVFW). A decade has passed since the fall of Saigon, and in that time something in the United States has worked to block attempts to deal with the Vietnam War honestly. This has gone on so long that the recognition of the reality contained in Stone’s movie jarred me like a revelation. Facts about the war that seemed in danger of disappearing forever are captured here for the first time.

Critics have faulted Platoon for the college-literary symbolism of the plot and for its romanticization of violence. This is true, but it misses the point of this movie and most movies. It is film and television that tell us what life is like in a submarine or at the bottom of a mine or in an igloo. The task of the realist writers of the nineteenth century has been taken over by film and television. If a film successfully immerses you in a lifelike situation, physical or moral, then some kind of success has been achieved. Oliver Stone’s film resolutely adopts the grunt’s eye view of the world and achieves that kind of success.

The truth of the situation begins in the first scene with the classic figure of war literature, the green recruit, seen walking out of the cargo hold of a plane at an airport where other troops are leaving, some whole and on their feet, others in body bags. The new arrival’s eyes meet the hollow-eyed stare of another soldier who is leaving. The rest of the film will be a transition toward the condition of that hollow-eyed stare. By this and the constant talk among the troops about how long they have left in their tours, the movie establishes the mental terrain that American troops fought in—the terrain of personal survival, of enduring the war as an individual and then, when your days are up, escaping it. This is the first film I’ve seen that nails down this core fact of the experience.

Staying with the lowly viewpoint of the grunt, the movie unreels a series of images that seem drawn from the trove of buried media visuals of the so-called “living room war” that America knew, the emblematic images of that war: the helicopter, the thatched huts, the peasants in conical hats. But very soon the screen confronts you with images that were not part of the “living room war.” The impossibility of filming small unit combat kept the actual fighting off the network news, even though most people seem to think they saw pretty much all there was to see. Other “considerations” kept the networks from showing the shooting of wounded enemy soldiers, the murder of civilians, and the mutilation of enemy dead. Platoon is different in that it takes you from the familiar images of the war and then crosses into other areas known only to the people who were there. You get the feeling that the problem with television is not so much what it shows or doesn’t show but the bogus impression it gives of having informed.

Taylor’s unit goes on night ambush, then on a search-and-destroy mission. They evacuate a village while savaging it and then defend their unit’s perimeter in a night attack. Except for the omission of all the time spent in boredom and mindless waiting when absolutely nothing happens, omission which adds to the romance for the FVFW, it was in these kinds of operations that the war was fought after the television crews took off. I think it is an achievement to present the mechanics of these basic events this faithfully.

The details are authentic and compelling. When Taylor’s unit is sitting in night ambush, the misery of the rain is followed almost immediately by the misery of the insects that come out a moment after the rain stops. Shown here is the paralyzing fear that keeps the green recruits from springing their ambush until it is too late and the ambushers take casualties. Afterward, a wounded enemy soldier is shot, and this too happens the way it was, a minor war crime in a minor war that nobody thought too much about at the time.

At the war’s end, there were two groups of people in the United States who watched the return of U.S. pilots from captivity in North Vietnam. There were those who were moved to sorrow at the maltreatment stories of the downed pilots and those, like me, who know what would have happened to a Senator Jeremiah Denton had he been captured after a bombing mission over the United States by one of our platoons. What happened to Vietnamese prisoners in the hands of U.S. troops in the “living room war” is one of our open secrets.

The search-and-destroy mission shows the U.S. troops arriving at a bunker complex after the NVA/NLF have fled and after they’ve booby-trapped the site. And this underlines the near one-hundred-percent intelligence the Vietnamese had of our movements and the zero information we had of theirs. The next engagement shows the platoon making contact with the enemy at a time and place of the enemy’s choosing. Artillery is called in by the lieutenant, but the Americans are at too close quarters and the first rounds land on the U.S. troops. This is what is called “friendly fire,” and it illustrates the Vietnamese tactical response to U.S. superiority in firepower. The Vietnamese kept their movements secret, and when they engaged they observed the maxim of General Vo Nguyen Giap, “When you fight Americans, hold onto their belt buckles.” This meant they would stay so close as to make it impossible to use fire support and airpower. In this scene a capable and aggressive sergeant wants to outflank the ambushing force, but the lieutenant is not interested. He has been trained in battle doctrine which is to sit tight and call in air and artillery support. When the Vietnamese response of staying close was noticed, the doctrine changed to draw back and call in support. At which point the Vietnamese doctrine became to stay close with the Americans as they draw back. And stay close they did. The film shows the ensuing close-quarter fighting. This was the strategy that enabled the Vietnamese to neutralize American firepower while inflicting enough casualties to win.

The “pitiful and helpless” aspect of massive firepower, as it was experienced by the troops, is driven home in the next scene when the battalion commander calls an air strike on his own position. This actually happened only very rarely, and it is one of the few things that seems forced. But it does illustrate the ultimate logic of the U.S. way of war and how it constantly substitutes firepower for manpower. I was in Vietnam for a year and a half, and I remember taking consolation when I arrived that all this fire support was available if we got stuck. At the end of the tour I could not remember a single instance where fire support was useful to my unit. The Vietnamese were always too close, and it all happened too fast. But we have a military establishment whose purpose is not so much to win battles as to use up the goods that the military Keynesian economics wants to sell. War functions as a kind of production in reverse. It is the distillate of Stone’s Vietnam experience and to the movie’s credit that the firepower is not something needed by the troops on the battlefield but is essentially a reflex of an army doctrine in which the infantry are used mainly as bait. This strategy failed the U.S. military in Korea and again in Vietnam. The movie and the Vietnam veterans know that war can’t be played like a video game, and that terrain is something you take with blood and lives if you are going to take it at all and you better be sure that it’s worth it before you try.

The characterizations of the men for the most part have an authentic resonance. A vet friend of mine said, “Thank God! They don’t have thirty-five-year-old men running around doing the fighting in this one.” Platoon corrects the usual Hollywood error of not realizing that men the age of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris are far too old to withstand the rigors of jungle war. One teenage warrior explains how he likes it in Vietnam okay except for the part about getting killed. Much of dialogue has the ring of “found” talk, whole sentences of which I felt were being recalled from some part of my memory, in their accuracy and callowness. War movies don’t usually recognize that most wars, including Vietnam, are fought by teenagers. After all, the most undesirable person in society is a teenage male. They are economically and socially expendable. On this Reagan and Gorbachev and the Ayatollah all agree. The teenagers who fought the Vietnam War were disproportionately high-school dropouts, the poor, black, and Hispanic. It is part of the enduring magic of the American national security state that it can take the least-valued members of the least-privileged groups and send them where there is someone still lower for them to abuse, even if it is only a Thai prostitute or a Vietnamese farmer. And that is why some of my countrymen found in Vietnam a sense, if not the reality, of being valued by their society for the first time. The FVFW need to understand how infinitely pathetic it is when being an infantryman is being “all that you can be.”

The platoon seethes with racial tension. There is black liberation talk among the black troops in the movie, and this brought back to me the first living criticism of American imperialism I’d ever heard. It was from black marines who were reading Malcolm X. None of us knew too much, but those of us who were so inclined would argue with the world history of leave everybody else in the world alone. The tension between black and white was a direct function of the level of danger we felt. There was racial brawling in the rear—hostility at, say, battalion headquarters—and the closest thing to the complete suppression of racial antagonism that is possible in the United States in rifle squads on patrol. But the blacks’ suspicions about the U.S. social system did not make them any easier on the Vietnamese.

In the voices of the soldiers you hear sensibilities that are rarely heard. One black grunt says the rich have always taken advantage of the poor, “always hasalways will,” imparting this wisdom as useful background information without anger or indignation. He is the man in whose mouth Stone puts the American dream secretly held but rarely uttered in the American working class, that the American social system is a tough place where you might be able to save your own ass with luck and fortitude, but it will be the only one you can save. It is a place where sympathy and pity are the psychological luxuries of the rich.

But if they are shown as being cheated by the rest of America, the film still holds them to a morality that they can honor or betray. This is shown in a scene of great emotional power and ugliness when the platoon sweeps through a village after two of their own men are killed in action and the film shows the platoon’s “revenge.” These scenes struck me as horribly sad and truthful. The heat and exhaustion and fear play as much a part as revenge in bringing Taylor close to murder and another baby-faced soldier actually to it. It seems right that it is the sensitive soldier, Taylor, who lurches toward homicide first, while the brutal lout, Sergeant O’Neil, tries to stop it. At one level, this scene draws its power from the way the sequence of familiar images of thatched huts and conical hats and flak jacketed GIs prompt an “I know, I know” reaction that comes from the bogus knowledge gained from watching pictures. But this immediately changes to stupefaction as the scene turns to murder and the reaction becomes, “Wait! This isn’t how it goes.” Or, “We didn’t know about this,” as the columnist Anthony Lewis recently said about the film. You didn’t? How come?

At the same time, the scene suggests My Lai, and it has even been called the My Lai scene by some writers, although, if you think about it, it isn’t clear why. And again, because of what we know about My Lai and how this scene very well might end, the few murders that do occur seem almost restrained. We are relieved when the platoon “merely” burns the village and evacuates the surviving inhabitants. We want to get back to the more familiar “living room war,” which is what promptly happens. After murdering and destroying, the troops are shown as American good guys, leaving the village carrying children on their shoulders. Two aspects of the war and of the American personality are pushed against each other—the rage and the violence on the one hand and the mawkish and sentimental on the other. The effect of the contrast is jarring and not a little disgusting, partly because, with the return to the familiar as the troops carry the babies, nobody can pretend they don’t know what just happened. And we all know it could have been and often was worse.

Is this a time for a recess in the national pastime of make believe? Vietnam Veterans Against the War staged a sit-in at CBS toward the end of the war. The issue was the killing by CBS of a proposed project to investigate a cover-up of U.S. responsibility for the so-called “Hue massacre.” During the occupation of Hue in the Tet Offensive, Marine Corps bombing raids killed a large number of civilians inside the city. As Vietnamese forces held out against the city’s recapture, various groups dug mass graves and buried the bodies which had become a health hazard. The Marine Corps claimed the dead had been shot, the result of mass executions by the enemy. Enough credible—i.e., non-Vietnamese—sources saw the bombing, and the Marine Corps story was challenged. A producer did some preliminary interviews and wrote up a proposal, but CBS brass killed it. A copy made its way to VVAW offices and we decided to try to draw attention to the suppression of the story with a sit-in. It seemed important because Nixon was using the prevention of a “bloodbath” as a justification for continuing the war, and along with rapprochement with China it became the only justification for the war. By the end of the first morning of the sit-in on the executive floor of CBS HQ at “Blackrock” it became clear that defense of freedom of the press would require CBS’s having us jailed. Barry Richardson, then vice president for public relations, told me that they thought we had a point but that the heat CBS had taken over My Lai had been tremendous. Then he said something that prefigured the Age of Reagan and has stayed with me. He said, “You know one of those is enough.” So “one of those” was all that America was allowed to have. In Platoon there is the suggestion that a hidden history lies submerged like a lost continent under the waters of network coverage.

The grunts-eye-view the film adheres to presents the Vietnamese from a distance, very much as remote figures in a backdrop. This has been objected to, but it reflects the experience of most of the troops. It is hard to overstate the hostility that infantry units can develop against anybody outside the group, anybody who hasn’t endured the particular sufferings that they’ve had to endure. Add to this racism, suspicion, and the fact that as units we rarely stayed in any one locale for long. But for all that, the peasants are not portrayed as passive victims or sentimentalized. The enemy appears as real, and there is a measure of respect for what it took to go up against the well-armed Americans. This corresponds with the attitude that I felt and saw among the troops in the line companies, a kind of noncommittal respect that only became crazed fear and loathing when the action got hot. The Vietnamese children are shown resenting being pushed around, and the peasants actively support the NLF/NVA and are murdered for their trouble. This and much else is acutely sensed and expressed in the film, the pervasive fear that grows as the twilight and the isolation of being in a foxhole deepen and keep men who look my age sitting in their seats till long after the credits have run.

There are things that can be objected to. Stone has the enemy patrol come on the ambush site framed by a doorway and backlit with soft light so the audience can know what is happening. The partial lighting of the night fighting scenes makes it seem far less confusing and terrifying than it was. There was no light at all many times and fear plus the surge of adrenalin that goes with it ruins night vision. The expression “shit or go blind” has solid roots in physiology, and people often do both. The monotony of most of the experience gets downplayed for the usual cinematic reasons, but this makes the sleeping on night ambush hard to understand for an audience of people who haven’t been out there on the previous twenty nights when nothing happened. Strangely, the air war is absent from the film in ways that might have been included. I kept expecting a patrol to pass through an area that had been hit by 2,000 pound bombs from a B-52 raid. The ragtag, clutch of camp-following barbers, hookers, and laundry boys is missing. They seemed to follow my company everywhere but Khe Sanh. I’ve always attributed it to their superior intelligence, in both senses of the word.

The accuracy of Stone in capturing the grunt’s world is betrayed by his plot and his two central characters, the metaphorical sergeants, Elias and Barnes. These two men embody martial skill and violence, do not show fear and enjoy killing. Barnes is a war-scarred, even war-deadened military automaton, while Elias is an equally proficient warrior who has retained his humanity in the very limited sense that he feels violence has to have limits. The conflict between the two divides the men of the platoon. When Barnes kills a woman in the village, it is Elias who stops him from going further and initiates a court martial. I thought the intervention of Elias was convincing in showing the precariousness of a group poised between good and evil and how it can be tilted in the right direction by principled leadership. The problem is with the falseness of these two men and the unresolved point of view that Taylor has toward them.

I was an enlisted marine for three years, and I didn’t know any super-troopers even in my long-range recon outfit where gung-ho types collected. Sergeant Elias’s war whoop as he guns down a clump of enemy is as phony as a three-dollar bill, and so is the men’s adoration of the two military tigers. As everyone in combat soon learns, modern war kills very, very tough guys much like it kills everybody else. Mortar rounds in the sky, fired by people miles away, do not know or care about how fast your reflexes are, or how good your marksmanship is, or whether you are brave. The grunts believed that being savvy and alert could improve your chances, but they all knew it was much better to be lucky than smart or tough. In every unit tough, capable guys got killed, and everybody knew it. It would go something like this: a black belt in karate is standing near a tank. The tank trips a mine. Sorry about that. When you see tough guys die, it creates a kind of skepticism about toughness. A grunt may come to this knowledge reluctantly. After all, he probably bought some part of the cowboy, tough-guy ethic: every American boy does. But he almost always wises up. Oliver Stone, surprisingly, is one of the exceptions.

An army, any army, is a vast machine for forcing people to do what they would otherwise almost never do, kill other humans. This is done in innumerable ways, many of them very subtle. No one even pretends to take the bayonet seriously as a weapon. The point of all the bayonet training is to inculcate an attitude: kill the enemy. It was discovered in the Second World War that only 15 percent of troops ever fired their weapons in combat. All training and manuals and tactics have been redone since to raise that number. Generals know what people are really like. Unfortunately Oliver Stone, for all his talent, doesn’t always. He has concocted these two all-too-symbolic lovers of war for an unclear purpose, and with them he betrays the authenticity of the rest of the film.

Not that there aren’t people, a few people, who are thrilled by violence. Violence does thrill and attract but not in the unambiguous and glamorous way of Barnes and Elias. Stone stays with one Hollywood stereotype of war by making his war lovers highly proficient. Vietnam veterans will have no trouble recalling hard-charging incompetents as more the rule than the exception. When I was in the Danang Naval Hospital recuperating from an unlucky night ambush, the remnants of a botched recon patrol were brought in. One of the lightly wounded survivors, a gung-ho corporal I knew from a previous unit, described how they’d been caught by a larger VC unit. This ex-quarterback from a California college, who was known for his ability to do a thousand pushups, had got the patrol caught in the first place by climbing a tree to check his position and giving away their location when the VC saw the tree shake. Most of them got out of the encirclement, but running down the trail he heard the marine behind him get hit and fall. A day later he made it to a hill and signaled a helicopter. Then he paused and said, “But it was a good mission except for Pierre getting zapped.” And the little group of poker players around the hospital bed looked at each other in disgust at this stupidity and barbarism. The few people with the motives of Stone’s heroes are more often incompetent, dangerous, and revolting, or at least one of these. They repel even in a group of recon marines. In Stone’s world, the war-lover is a paragon of the military virtues who attracts. Why?

Sooner or later the film’s flaws force on you the question of the autobiography. Stone’s protagonist Taylor and the movie itself get a kind of fogged vision when it comes to violence junkies. This can be set down as a heavy demerit, but it is also a product of the American way of war. There is a relative silence in our films and our literature about the infantry war, a result of the way the educated and literate could avoid the draft while it fell like a scythe in a wheat field among the poor, the black, and the dispossessed—the “tongueless proletarians.” An exception was when a middle-class adventurer fell among them. And Oliver Stone/Taylor, cut off from society and family and caught by the “mystique” of war, is one of these. The fact that Stone/Taylor is possessed by the romanticism of a middle-class adventurer explains the flaws in the film, but it also explains why there was a movie at all. It also explains another part of the film’s appeal, an appeal that many infantry veterans will feel, the sense that there was another war that they didn’t get to fight, one where skill and courage would have decided things, not carpet bombing and politics, where they could have met capable opponents man-to-man. But in reality there was no other war, only this one where skill and courage didn’t count for much, at least on our side, even though we didn’t lack them. Stone and the rest of the veterans need to ask why it was that way.

As it is, he has recovered much of the out-of-control rush of events that the Vietnam war was for most of us. We arrived like Private Taylor alone, spent the most vivid months of our lives close to and dependent on people that we then never saw again after they or we ourselves left at the end of our tours or were carried out. The limits the film imposes on itself, the nightmare of the soldier’s one-year-plus tour, reflect how the war was experienced. The military intellectuals in Washington have severely criticized the personnel rotation system used by the U.S. military in Vietnam. A serviceman was “in country” for just over a year and then rotated home, and this is thought to have destroyed the cohesiveness and effectiveness of U.S. infantry units. There is even sporadic talk of going over to a British-style “regimental” system where continuity of personnel is emphasized and the troops are in combat for as long as their units are. But this debate almost always ignores the reasons for the rotation system in the first place. This was to make the war bearable to draftees drawn from a population that hasn’t got much enthusiasm for America’s wars in the third world including Indochina. In a sense, the U.S. military was forced to make a deal with the American teenager: if you do your time, we’ll (1) keep your length of service short and your combat tour shorter, (2) give you the best medical attention possible, and (3) employ tactics and firepower that will keep your casualties very low. They delivered on the first two but, the failure to deliver on the third brought mutinies later in the war. In the time of the film, which is when I was there, the game the grunts played was the game of solitary survival of their tours “in country,” which didn’t rule out a kind of bitter camaraderie and hostility to outsiders while they were there. Later this left veterans with the problem of trying to make sense of an experience of being so close to and dependent on others who then disappeared out of their lives forever. Stone limits his film to the brackets of Private Taylor’s joining and then leaving his unit because of wounds, and this is a correct choice that conveys more than it at first seems to.

It is somehow fitting that Sylvester Stallone, a millionaire and a draft dodger during the war, should have mythologized the Vietnam War during the Age of Reagan. The FVFW are being drenched in the pleasures of electronic violence without the experience of pain. Now, through Stone, the myth has been changed. To say this is the best Vietnam war movie to date is to say far too little. It is the first to break a silence about aspects of the Vietnam War that we have been silent about too long.

2012, Volume 64, Issue 06 (November)
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