Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Vietnam's legacy into the 1980s

'In the mid-1980s, the U.S. and Vietnam increased the frequency of high-level policy and technical meetings to help resolve the POW/MIA issue. The U.S. government viewed this work as a humanitarian obligation. The Vietnamese slowly began to return American remains that they had previously collected and stored; eventually they permitted the U.S. to excavate a few crash sites.'

American military involvement in the Vietnam War officially ended on 15 August 1973. There were, however, ramifications and debates surrounding the conflict that either emerged in, or continued into, the 1980s. The quote above highlights the fact that there was somewhat of an "awakening" - when the conflict in Vietnam once again entered the psyche of the American influentials, and the American public. Culturally, there was a wealth of films and songs centred on, or with links to, the Vietnam war. Uncommon Valor, for instance, is just one example of a film which has its roots based in the repercussions of the Vietnam conflict. An awareness of troops whose locations were subsequently unknown, troops who were classified as "missing in action" came to the fore, and was therefore represented through film. Released in late 1983, Uncommon Valor presents a Marine officer who puts together a team to try to rescue his son, who he believes is among those still held in Laos after the Vietnam War. The film, albeit not widely well-received, is one of many which fits well into an emerging genre of films based on the domestic fallout of the conflict - Rambo I, II and III (1982, 85 and 1988) and Missing In Action (1984), for instance.

The long-lasting effects of the conflict were also evident in music of the decade. Following on from my post from last week, I feel it unavoidable to refer to a particular song which overtly presents residual sentiment - 'Goodnight Saigon,' by Billy Joel:

I have picked out some key lines from the song, with accompanying comment, below:

'And we were so gung ho to lay down our lives' - highlighting the evident level of patriotism . Indeed, the video features pronounced images of the American flag, and photos symbolising a distinct level of comradery. In the initial stages, there was (and had to be) a feeling the the war was justified and that the cause fought for was just.

'We left in plastic as numbered corpses' - alluding to the number of casualties. The chart on the left shows the number of U.S fatalities. There was a growing sentiment of Vietnam veterans not receiving the support that they were perhaps entitled to. This coupled with the shear number of war dead, and there does seem to be a semblance of "faceless-ness" - the perception that troops were betrayed by their government, with individuals eventually being reduced to being referred to as a mere troop number.

'And we would all go down together' - again, reiterating the increasing feeling of somewhat of an inevitable failure. America does, of course, have a difficult relationship with the idea of "failing" - something which perpetuated the dissatisifaction and anger which reemerged in the 1980s. The time at which this song was released (1983) signifies a point at which the US public were becoming more aware of the plight of veterans and the treatment they received from the powers that be. I, personally, cannot dub this song as a "protest song" per se, purely for the fact that it is commenting on an event which has long ended and it is not aiming to actively casue change. It does however function to comment on and critique residual aspects of the conflict in Vietnam which were beginning to re-enter public awareness.

Contextually, Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) is the largest city in Vietnam. During the conflict in the country, Saigon was the location of many major combat operations with it being the capital of South Vietnam between 1955 and 1975. South Vietnam, an anti-communist state, fought against the communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong during the conflict in the country. Billy Joel wrote the song as a tribute to many of his friends who had served in the war, but did not serve in the armed forces himself. Therefore, Joel imagines what it must have been like to be embroiled with combat. And, to this end, Joel has been known to bring Vietnam veterans onto the stage when performing this song live, functioning to keep the memories alive, and putting faces to the statistics/anonymous accounts. Commenting on 'Goodnight Saigon,' its producer Phil Ramone said that 'we never thought it would be a hit, but we knew it meant a lot to Billy Joel and to the people we lost in Vietnam. Then later, when he does it once in a while in a show, the place just comes apart. I think that happens a lot that we don't think something will be as powerful and it turns out that it does come out powerful.' [ ]

The precise details of each example demonstrating longstanding feeling concerning the Vietnam war, of course, have credence. But what is potentially more revealing, however, is the proliferation of said examples. If one takes the idea that "art mirrors life" as realistic, the very fact that there were numerable productions based on the events in Vietnam demonstrates somewhat of a revival in anti-Vietnam feeling.

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