Greetings, Ducks! So I had a super bad day yesterday–one of my depressive episodes, just didn’t want to do anything–which explains why there wasn’t a post. (Also: why I still haven’t touched some work for one of my clients, yikes.) I slept late and blew off most of my responsibilities besides feeding the cats, and watched some TV.
One of the things I watched was an old movie–I shudder to think how old, because I remember when it came out: Uncommon Valor. In case you never heard the name before, it was a Reagan-era film about a mission to rescue POWs still being held by the Vietnamese.
As a movie, it’s not bad: it has a decent cast (Gene Hackman, Fred Ward, a pre-Dirty Dancing Patrick Swayze among others) and gives the idea an above-average treatment. I won’t comment too much on the circumstances of the era the movie was made–Reagan-era macho posturing, the very real question about whether there were any POWs still in Indochina, and the overall wish-fulfillment the whole back-to-Vietnam genre invoked.
What was interesting to me, watching the movie for the first time in, hmm, over 20 years, was my reaction to it now as opposed to how I might have viewed the movie at different points in my life.
I first saw Uncommon Valor when I was in a, a, um, Scouting organization. Okay? Nuff said. So it was a decidedly masculine environment, we were all kids–I was 11, there were some teenagers–and we probably grooved off the well-done action sequences. (And the foul language–it was an R-rated film.) The film became a favorite of mine, and my brother and I borrowed it several times from the local library.
Since then, many things have changed, of course: I’ve grown up, I’ve changed genders, I’ve lost a lot of my taste for war movies. But maybe most important of all, I’ve become politically awakened. And that has radically changed how I see–everything.
Now, I know I’m caught up in the first flush of all this activism, that there’s nothing so zealous as a new convert, and that I could be a bit of a prig under the best of circumstances. But at the same time, having begun to look at the world in terms of dominance and oppression, privilege and denial–well, it’s like eating one potato chip: you just can’t stop yourself.
So, watching Uncommon Valor brought up a lot of thoughts that frankly might not have occurred to me even after I transitioned, but do occur to me now, such as (spoilers follow):
Is it really true that men have to fight each other to resolve their issues? Early on in the film, Patrick Swayze–a skilled soldier with no combat experience–ends up fighting Randall “Tex” Cobb, the toughest of the Vietnam vets on the team. The vets resent Swayze for treating them like recruits while he trains them; he feels he has to prove to them he won’t fail in combat. So they fight, as custom, law, and generic Hollywood screenwriting all demand.
But seriously? Is that the only way he could have proved himself to them? Why do we just assume so? Why do men think that’s so? Isn’t that a poisonous thing to indoctrinate our children with? Aren’t there alternatives?
Wait a minute, you’re the good guys?: When Hackman’s outfit arrives in Thailand to pick up their weapons, they are seized by the CIA and the Thai police. Hackman, obsessed with rescuing his son (whom he believes is held in the prison camp that is their target) decides to continue on anyway, buying weapons in the Golden Triangle. He sends out some of his men to get a vehicle, instructing them to “Steal it!”
So they come back with a truck that is clearly owned by a Thai–it’s decorated with Buddha imagery. And clearly not a rich Thai, because the back of the truck is covered with plastic, not the tarpulin it comes with. So WTF? They just stole some local poor guy’s livlihood? Presumably, somebody used that truck to feed their family, earn a living, escape from poverty. Yet we’re supposed to overlook this, because our “heros” are on a noble mission…that will involve killing some more poor people. Nice.
Speaking of the locals: Depsite spending the last half of the movie in Thailand and Indochina, the only people of color our heros have any interaction with is a porter/guide, Mr. Chang, and his two daughters. Purpose: to die (two of them are killed in the mission), and serve as a sex interest for one of the white characters. No other people of color have any major interactions with the main characters except to get shot or provide a service–even the arms dealer they meet in the Golden Triangle is French. (And a poorly-done stereotype he is as well.)
And speaking of people of color, who are we rescuing?: In the end, the mission succeeds, and four American POWs are rescued. All of whom are white.
It’s not exactly a secret that the Vietnam War was proportionally worse on African-American than on white soldiers:
African Americans often did supply a disproportionate number of combat troops, a high percentage of whom had voluntarily enlisted. Although they made up less than 10 percent of American men in arms and about 13 percent of the U.S. population between 1961 and 1966, they accounted for almost 20 percent of all combat-related deaths in Vietnam during that period. In 1965 alone African Americans represented almost one-fourth of the Army’s killed in action. In 1968 African Americans, who made up roughly 12 percent of Army and Marine total strengths, frequently contributed half the men in front-line combat units, especially in rifle squads and fire teams. Under heavy criticism, Army and Marine commanders worked to lessen black casualties after 1966, and by the end of the conflict, African American combat deaths amounted to approximately 12 percent—more in line with national population figures. Final casualty estimates do not support the assertion that African Americans suffered disproportionate losses in Vietnam, but this in no way diminishes the fact that they bore a heavy share of the fighting burden, especially early in the conflict.
So the odds are that at least one of those POWs should have been black, unless there was some Vietcong/NVA policy to not capture black soldiers. (There may have been, perhaps motivated by both Vietnamese and American racism–white prisoners would have been more valuable, sigh.) But somehow I don’t think a movie to go in and rescue black, Latino, or even Asian-descended POWs would have sold as well, especially not in Reagan-era America. Instead, a bunch of white guys (plus one African-American, who to give the film its due, is a highly decorated helicopter pilot and an officer) recuse some other white guys, and kill a bunch of brown people along the way.
This isn’t to come down too hard on Uncommon Valor, which is what it is and is very much a movie of its times. Rather, I wanted to show you what my thought processes look like now–how becoming more engaged keeps me from just letting things slide; how learning about my own privilege makes it difficult for me to just ignore it and go with the flow.
Maybe this has made me “humorless” or “shrill” or “a pain in the ass.” Actually, it probably has. And that makes me sad; I don’t want to be those things, I don’t want to alienate people or always be harping about things.
But we live in a violence soaked world, filled with oppressions and petty tyrannies, and they drive me to distraction. How can I not be outraged? How can I not feel sympathy with the downtrodden? How can I not acknowledge how I am complicit with these horrors?
I don’t know. But it seems to have cost me my sense of humor. If that’s what it was.