Conflicting accounts: Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

Conflicting accounts: Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam – Film As Text

Mark Freeman

Bill Couturie’s Dear America (1987) provides a view of the American involvement in Vietnam in a way that proves both bipartisan and viscerally emotional. The film achieves a tenuous balance between the relay of facts and an impartial, unbiased investigation of the conflict, with a running commentary that is intimate, telling, and above all intensely human. The subtitle to the film–Letters Home from Vietnam–identifies the central form the director has chosen to shape his film. But these letters provide only the commentary to the images, which are comprised of a number of different media. There are photographs, footage from newsreels, clips from news and current affairs shows, interviews with soldiers and contemporary images at the Washington Monument. In aural terms, as well as the letters home that are read by well-known actors, there are the voices of the soldiers, the sounds of battle, the voices of journalists and a range of music from the era.

A study of this film demonstrates the impact each of these elements has upon the spectator and the way Dear America directs our understanding of the complexity of the issues which surrounded the war in Vietnam. Through these various media, both visual and aural, Couturie confronts the beliefs that inspired American involvement in the region, and the shifting concerns in Vietnam and on the home front which characterized the conflict. But it is also through these diverse strategies that he manages to expose the relationship between the individual and the larger structures which demand his/her commitment and fealty: the ‘grunt’ and the army, the soldier and governmental policy, the mother and society. Dear America uses the personal experience of those who went to war in an effort to explore the complexity and tension of the relationship between the beliefs and ideals of the individual and the institutions which demand conformity and compliance.

To tackle a film such as Dear America, it’s important to come to some understanding of the documentary form itself. This is a mode of expression removed from fiction film in a number of significant ways. The fiction film constructs pre-arranged characters with appropriate character traits, and places them in a constructed environment where action, reaction, events and resolution are all carefully pre-planned and preordained. The documentary, however, deals with a different series of elements. It is concerned with real people in real situations; their responses are unplanned, their reactions are honest and human. The resolution of conflicts sometimes may not be resolved as neatly as we would expect, nor may people’s choices and decisions appear readily comprehensible. What becomes significant in documentary film, however, is the construction of the ‘reality’ it aims to present. The director is faced with many options–what is included, what is omitted, what kind of materials will be utilized and in what sequence the events will be presented. The construction of the documentary film, then, acts as a guide to the film-maker’s intention, the arrangement of scenes in the film construct a ‘reality’ of the director’s choice.

Consider the construction of Dear America, and the deliberate choices that the director has made to convey information and ideas. Couturie adopts a basic chronological format to tell this story, beginning in 1964 and proceeding annually through to the 1970s and the conclusion of the conflict. This has obvious benefits: it gives the film a clear narrative line, almost like a classic fiction film, with the early events leading to subsequent events and so on, in a staircase-like fashion, until we reach the pinnacle–the conclusion of the war. This construction makes the war easy to comprehend for the audience, and focuses our attention on its slowly accruing ‘messiness’. It could also be viewed as a compacted tour of duty, taking us through basic training, initial battles, a break for R&R and eventual homecoming. But the chronological structure also works to emphasize the more human toll as the war drags on year after year. An annual tally of the dead and wounded is repeatedly shown on screen at year’s end, and the rapid increase in numbers of those lost to the war means the structure works not just for ease of comprehension, but also as a way for us to chart the horrific rising toll of war dead. And, just as each year brings further casualties, so too appears a growing disillusionment through the letters home, a gradual questioning of the American role in the conflict, as well as images of the protest movement and the deaths at Kent State University.

The horror of the war itself seems to increase in tandem with these elements. Compare the early visions of beach volleyball and basic training and the letters of optimism and determination, with the brutal footage of the dead and wounded, the stories of Khe Sahn and My Lai, and the letters that expose a deepening despair over the US role in the war. Couturie uses this structure very deliberately, and it’s important to recognize the methods he has employed to chart a history of this conflict. Whilst he avoids direct argument or bias, there is a clear methodological strategy that he employs, and it’s a significant factor in the way we ‘read’ the film and the impact it has on us both intellectually and emotionally.

The early sequences paint a very clear position of society at the time. President Johnson outlines his reasons for the commitment of troops to Vietnam, and what ensues are several scenes that are quite light-hearted in tone. We see soldiers undergoing basic training, at camp in Vietnam, taking out their teeth, dancing, goofing around. The letters that are utilized at this time aim to identify the rationale behind those who have voluntarily signed up for the conflict. One soldier, Bob, reassures his parents the conflict ‘… is nothing I can’t handle’. Another soldier, Jack, tells his uncle and aunt, ‘I would rather fight and stop communism in North Vietnam than in Kincaid, Humbolt and Kansas City, because that’s pretty much what it would end up being’. These letters highlight two of the main positions adopted by both the individual and the government early on in the conflict: this was a war that was containable, winnable and could be resolved with some expediency. It was also symbolic of something far greater–a fear of the perceived encroachment of the communist system–the ‘domino effect’–which was seen to directly jeopardize American democracy.

Dear America makes it clear that both the soldiers and the governmental policy are in synch at this point in history. Couturie shows us images of General Westmoreland inspecting the troops, whilst songs such as ‘Walk Like a Man’ comment upon the responsibilities placed on the shoulders of these young recruits. But this honeymoon period is short-lived, the music fades and we cut to tense footage of a patrol, where Couturie evokes the fear felt by the soldiers in contrast to the cocky affirmations which have preceded it. The footage slows down to emphasize the expression of fear on the face of a soldier, then rapidly speeds into action with explosions and screams and the horrific scene of the soldier who carried his own leg back to the hospital. The innocence and determination that is established in these early scenes is soon overwhelmed by the harsh realities of the conflict.

Dear America begins to signal the growing understanding of the nature of this war towards the end of 1965. Despite repeated assertions that ‘This is the only war we’ve got. Don’t knock it’, Couturie includes two important sequences: one of an NBC newsman stating ‘We have recognized there is not going to be an easy, quick or painless way out of this struggle’; and one of General Westmoreland stating that the ‘situation could drag out for some time’. Thus, the film demonstrates to us the ways that both social and political forces have underestimated the scope of the war, the resources needed to win it, the human toll that must be exacted to attain that victory. This reflection of the institutional understanding of the war is then juxtaposed with a more intimate, personal account, with Richard Cantale’s letter home concerning the death of his friend Donald Rankin. The tenuous relationship between the individual’s commitment to his/her governing institutions and the government’s attempts to use the individual for its own purposes, seems to be at crisis point, and indeed this is when we begin to see the first signs of dissent, with reports of the burgeoning protest movement.

At this half-way point in the film, it’s worthwhile pausing to consider the ways we have come to reach the intellectual and emotional position that Dear America directs us towards. Certainly facts have been supplied to us–maps, rationale, the key figures of Johnson and Westmoreland, the basic experiences of soldiers in Vietnam–but through both images and the letters home, a tension that is separate from the soldiers’ patriotic duty and the demands placed upon them by Johnson and Westmoreland, seems to be surfacing. There is the difference in tone in comparison to the early letters, specifically evident in Cantale’s description of his identification of PFC Rankin. Think also of the director’s decision to slowly pan in on the image of Rankin, his eyes dark and hollow, until we are so close to the image Rankin seems to disintegrate, and is no longer the man Cantale memorializes in his letter.

The individual’s role in the conflict is portrayed increasingly, not as a matter of command and compliance, but of simple survival, of individual experiences of kindness and tragedy rather than as a part of a wider movement. Both the media and Westmoreland state quite clearly that a greater commitment is required, that more lives will need to be lost, that the level of effort needs to be lifted, and more must be given. This institutional push for an increased commitment comes at the very time that the optimism and commitment of the individual seems to waver–and out of this, as Couturie demonstrates to us, comes the protest movement. The growing dissent over the war is matched by an organized patriotic rally with a parade and marching band; clearly this is an attempt to maintain commitment to the war in the face of increasing criticism of the government’s handling of the conflict.

Dear America begins to concentrate on 1967, and the way opinion has begun to turn against the Vietnam War. The letters reflect an attempt at optimism, detailing the dreams of and inspirations for the soldiers, their desire to be home with their loved ones. Some confess truths that they don’t want to be shared with their parents; there’s a real attempt to obscure the harsh reality the soldiers face to protect their loved ones from further worry. These letters are then sometimes accompanied by a photograph, and an explanation of how each soldier lost their life soon after. Interviews with soldiers suggest that what had seemed so clear earlier has now become a vague, questionable motivation, with a pervasive belief that the ‘war’s being run incorrectly’. General Westmoreland seems less confident now–the soldiers look haunted and battle weary, and the General’s attempts at confidence seem out of place with the outlook of the soldiers. Notice his pleasure at finding one amongst the number who seems in better spirits and able to smile; it only serves to make the war machine appear increasingly out of touch with the experiences of the soldier on the ground.

Dear America then includes several significant turning points in the war in Vietnam, with the battle at Khe Sahn explored in some depth and a brief discussion of the significance of the Tet Offensive. This is soon followed by the ‘war’ at home, concentrating on the assassination culture which claimed the lives of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Soon after this comes the report of the My Lai massacre, and the attacks on student protesters at Kent State. In Dear America these events are arranged with deliberate precision. Just as the war in Vietnam seems to be slipping from their grasp, the American people turn upon themselves, killing those who epitomise hope and peace, annihilating those who waver from the governmental line. The killing of the villagers at My Lai only serves to underscore the change that has taken place within the soldiers themselves. No longer filled with optimism or even abject fear, the soldiers have slowly descended into heartlessness, brutality, acquiring the ‘mean streak’ which seems to obscure reason and deaden their basic humanity. The film poses several avenues through which to explore the background to this change in character–this descent into viciousness–and it may be worthwhile exploring the exact position the soldiers have found themselves in, as both social and administrative upheaval occurs away from the battle fields. One by-product of this radical change in attitude to the war is that the soldiers themselves question their participation in the war, just as the protest movement at home grows louder and louder.

Ultimately, the government caves to the will of the people, and the troops are withdrawn from Vietnam. The final sequences at the Washington memorial, with the march of the Vietnam Veterans, are a recognition of both those who were lost, and those who survived. Couturie’s decision to bring the conflict into a contemporary setting is a deliberate one, with the march and ‘Born in the USA’ playing over the credits. It is important to consider what the director aims to achieve by the inclusion of these final sequences, and the way that they aim to bring some closure to the problems that are raised throughout Dear America.

Dear America uses these personal experiences to tell the story of the Vietnam War without obvious political bias or specific agenda. The soundtrack acts as both an historicising element in the narrative of the film, and also as a comment upon the action (you might like to look at the ways songs such as ‘The Beat Goes On’, ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘For What It’s Worth’ are used within the film itself). Our experience of the film is shaped by the intimacy of the letters home and the often shocking news footage shot on location. Dear America moves fluidly between these two states, the blunt objectivity of the camera, watching as this human drama unfolds, and the secrets that aren’t revealed in the image, the dreams and deep fears, the optimism, naivete and defeat that characterize the letters home. In this film, Couturie delineates the experiences of the lone soldier and the army, and the government and society which claim to support them. But it also documents the shifting strategies, the methods of coping, the efforts to lift spirits and recognize failures, and attempts at action as social values change as a result of the conflict. Other films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), or Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland (2000), have tackled similar issues of conformity, compliance and dissent over the Vietnam conflict. Yet as a documentary–an unadorned, largely unscripted depiction of the war–Dear America retains an urgency and a clarity unburdened by the demands of the fiction film. Its use of a range of media to tell its story encourages us to view the film not just as a whole narrative from the beginning to the end of the conflict, but as a series of elements, each with their own stories to tell. As a mosaic of personal experience, Dear America becomes a wider, more human presentation of a conflict which not only changed lives, but changed governments, and changed the values and ideals held by a society.

Mark Freeman is a teacher and writer on film who has published work in both online and print journals and is currently a tutor in Cinema Studies at La Trobe University

COPYRIGHT 2003 Australian Teachers of Media

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group