Kicking the Vietnam syndrome? Collective memory of the Vietnam War in fictional American cinema following the 1991 Gulf War

Ferguson, Laura Elizabeth (2011) Kicking the Vietnam syndrome? Collective memory of the Vietnam War in fictional American cinema following the 1991 Gulf War. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis analyses the concept of the “Vietnam Syndrome” and its continuing manifestation in fictional American films produced after the 1991 Gulf War, with reference to depictions of the Vietnam, Gulf and Iraq Wars. Based on contemporary press reports as source material and critical analysis, it identifies the “Vietnam Syndrome” as a flexible and altering national psychological issue characterised initially as a simple aversion to military engagement, but which grew to include collective feelings of shame, guilt and a desire to rewrite history. The thesis argues that the “Syndrome” was not quashed by the victory of the Gulf War in 1991, as had been speculated at the time. Rather, the thesis argues that it was only temporarily displaced and continues to be an ingrained feature of the collective American psyche in current times. The argument is based on theories of collective memory, according to which social attitudes are expressed in cultural products such as films.

The relationships between memory and history, and between memory and national identity are explored as two highly relevant branches of collective memory research. The first of these combines the theories of Bodnar (1992), Sturken (1997), Winter and Sivan (1999) and Wertsch (2002), among others, to define memory’s relationship with history and position in the present. The discussion of the relationship between memory and national identity describes the process by which memory is adopted into the national collective, based on the research of Schudson (1992) and Hall (1999). Consideration is given to the alternative theories of Comolli and Narboni (1992 [1969]), Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) and Miller (2005) that propose a unified representation from a dominant ideology and of The Popular Memory Group (1982) who argue a counter-hegemonic popular memory. The thesis argues that both are insufficient to account for public memory, establishing a multi-sourced collective memory as the basis for its arguments, as described by Hynes (1999) and Wertsch (2002).

Successive chapters provide a close analysis of films in relation to the “Vietnam Syndrome”. Each of the films shows the different approaches to the conflicts and ways the “Vietnam Syndrome” manifests itself. Chapter 3 provides a summary of Vietnam War films released prior to the main period focused upon in this thesis, in order to contextualise the post-Gulf War texts. Chapter 4 analyses Heaven and Earth (1993, Dir. Oliver Stone) as a revolutionary depiction of the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese depiction. Chapter 5 discusses The War (1994, Dir. Jon Avnet) as a late revisionist text. The focus of Chapter 6 is Apocalypse Now Redux (2001, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola), a revision of a vision, in which the additional scenes are analysed for their contribution to this later, more reflective version of the 1970s text Apocalypse Now. The last Vietnam film analysed, We Were Soldiers (2002, Dir. Randall Wallace), is the subject of Chapter 7 and is discussed with reference to post-September 11 American society and the dormant period of the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Chapter 8 brings the previous Vietnam War film analysis chapters together to form intermediate conclusions prior to the progression to Gulf War films.

Chapter 9 provides a break in the film analysis chapters to consider the press coverage of the Gulf War, compared to that of Vietnam, paving the way for the following discussion of Gulf War films. Press coverage of the Gulf War influences the visual depiction of the Gulf War in both Three Kings (1999, Dir. David O’Russell) in Chapter 10 and Jarhead (2005, Dir. Sam Mendes) in Chapter 11. The reading of Three Kings also analyses the narrative as a metaphor for American concerns over the American-led coalition’s conduct during the conflict, while Chapter 11 argues the use of Vietnam War films as media templates (Kitzinger, 2000) in Jarhead. Finally, Chapter 13 brings the film analysis to a close by discussing the early representations of the Iraq War that have emerged in recent years, including: American Soldiers: A Day in Iraq (2005, Dir. Sidney J. Furie), Home of The Brave (2006, Dir. Irwin Winkler), Stop-Loss (2008, Dir. Kimberley Peirce), Lions For Lambs (2007, Dir. Robert Redford) Redacted (2008, Dir. Brian de Palma) and The Hurt Locker (2008, Dir. Kathryn Bigelow).

The main, but not exclusive, features typifying the “Vietnam Syndrome” expressed through the films include: a reluctance to engage in or support foreign military intervention; use of “good war” and “bad war” discourse; signs of a collective national trauma of defeat; expressions of guilt for the consequences of American actions and failings of policy; attempts to restore the national self-image. This thesis concludes that the “Vietnam Syndrome” is still relevant to American society and that it is expressed through films in a variety of ways. It argues that the Vietnam War and the “Vietnam Syndrome” have become frames of reference for the discussion and representation of conflict and that the American collective psyche suffers a mixture of syndromes, some mutually enforcing and some contradictory, that are triggered by a variety of circumstances. The “Vietnam Syndrome” is identified as the most prolific of these and through its construction and circulation in media products, including cinema, this thesis argues it has become an umbrella term for the remnants of angst over Vietnam and new concerns over other conflicts.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Vietnam War, Vietnam Syndrome, collective memory, war films, war journalism, Gulf War.
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1993 Motion Pictures
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Culture and Creative Arts > Theatre Film and TV Studies
Supervisor's Name: Johnston, Dr. Sean and Franks, Dr. Benjamin
Date of Award: 2011
Depositing User: Miss Laura E Ferguson
Unique ID: glathesis:2011-2672
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 29 Jun 2011
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:58

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