The frontier hero in Vietnam - Reconstruction of a myth

Seminar Paper 2008 19 Pages

History - America


Table of Contents

1. Introduction. Trauma, myth-making and collective memory

2. Collective memory

3. The myth of the American frontier

4. The Hollywood Vietnam hero on the new frontier
4.1 “Rambo - First Blood Part II”
4.2 “The Deer Hunter”
4.3 “Apocalypse Now”

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

“ You couldn ’ t find two people who agreed about when it began, how could you say when it began going off? [ … ] Anyway, you couldn ’ t use standard methods to date the doom; might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along, the turnaround point where it would touch and come back to form a containing perimeter. ” - Michael Herr, Dispatches1

1. Introduction. Trauma, myth-making and collective memory

The above quotation from Michael Herr’s Dispatches implies that the Vietnam War did not simply turn out as a major traumatic event on account of errors and wrong assumptions with regard to its particular circumstances, but that there are more profound ideological premises which can be dated back much further. The description of the Vietnam War as a “traumatic event” in American history and for the society of the United States has by now become almost a cliché in itself. The originally Greek word trauma can be literally translated as “ wound ” . According to the general definition by the World Health Organization from 1994, a trauma entails the “response to a stressful event or situation (of either brief or long duration) of an exceptionally threatening or catastrophic nature, which is likely to cause pervasive distress in almost anyone. ” 2

Apart from still remaining vague, this definition as such is applicable to individuals rather than a society. The USA have been traumatized in the sense that many of the individual soldiers who were sent to the Vietnam War have suffered from post- traumatic stress disorders, but how could the term trauma be rendered more accurate when applied to society as a collective? There appears to be no definitive other than a metaphorical understanding of what it actually means to speak of a trauma for society. In academic metaphysics, ethics and ontology, there is a current discussion about what in fact constitutes collectives as “ plural subjects ”, if they are reducible to their individual members or not and in how far these plural subjects should be held responsible for their actions as a collective. This discussion however is entirely philosophical and does not cover trauma.3

Nevertheless, it is at least indicative of a profound analogy between individual and collective consciousness. Just like any biography of an individual person will in hindsight produce a much more consistent version of their life than they have in fact lived, nations imbue their own histories with a consistent meaning and sense of progress that relies to a large extent on mythology. As mythology provides individuals with the opportunity to find their respective places within society and to share a feeling of commonality, it serves as a glue to hold society together. If the society of the United States has been traumatized, it makes sense to ask in which ways the mythology of the USA as a nation was “ exceptionally threatened ” by the Vietnam War, so that it proved essentially traumatic for its self-understanding, and how this becomes observable. In how far can cultural productions be seen as a “ response to this stressful event ” ?

Maurice Halbwachs has developed the notion of collective memory as a process that continuously and inevitably omits, transforms and emphasizes certain elements of a nation’s history, in order to guarantee solidarity for society’s present and to establish continuity into its future. In this sense, the so-called frontier myth has been an element of paramount importance for the collective memory of the United States, because it provides a framework for the way in which things should be remembered.4 It was first explicitly formulated by Frederick Jackson Turner and delivered as a speech to the American Historical Association at the World Exhibition in Chicago of 1893. Very shortly preceding the Vietnam War, the frontier myth was freshly invoked by John F. Kennedy, who proclaimed a “New Frontier” as the core element of his successful election campaign against Richard Nixon.

If the Vietnam War has traumatized US society, then how has the frontier myth been affected by it? It would be most relevant to explore, how this becomes visible in film as a major cultural product confronting the recent past, since “ movie-watching is the social equivalent of the individual process of dreaming. We speak of movies as mass dreams, for we recognize that the movie screen is the place where we watch culture- wide anxieties answered with compensating wishes played out in the spectacles before us. ” 5

In terms of methodology it will be worthwhile first to take a closer look at the theory of collective memory in order to understand its relevance for a nation’s self- understanding and the way that society’s individual members rely on it. In a next step, the concepts of Turner’s frontier myth thesis as well as Kennedy’s New Frontier will be outlined in order to point out the contents of the nation’s mythology and to determine elements to look out for in films. As we will see, the figure of the individual frontier hero will be of paramount importance. Finally, the main part will focus on the way in which the U.S. frontier myth and particularly the frontier hero actually figure within some Hollywood representations of the war. What is the appearance of the frontier heroes and what experiences do they make on the New Frontier in Vietnam? How can these experiences be characterized and set against the traditional qualities of the frontier myth?

Within the framework of this paper, the choice of films must necessarily be exemplary. The three films that will be discussed here are among the most widely distributed films dealing with the Vietnam War. Moreover, as I hope to demonstrate in this paper, they are exemplary for three different ways of responding to the threat that this war posed to the frontier myth: its assertion, its transformation and its dismissal.

2. Collective memory

As already alluded to in the introduction, a nation’s view of its own past depends very much on the process of recollecting it in the present. It is not made up by the sum of historical facts and events, but depends on the process of their recollection in a given present. According to Maurice Halbwachs people normally acquire, recall and localize their memories in society. When people think about the past in general, their own past and the past of their society as a collective, they are spurned on by the thoughts of others. In Halbwachs’ words, “ there is no point in seeking where they [the memories; H.B.] are preserved in my brain [ … ]: for they are recalled to me externally, and the groups of which I am a part at any time give me the means to reconstruct them upon condition, to be sure, that I turn toward them and adopt, at least for the moment, their way of thinking. But why should this not be so in all cases? ” 6

Halbwachs therefore suggests the existence of a social framework for memory that determines its contents, “ in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society. ” 7 Since these predominant thoughts are subject to changing needs, namely the integration of new experiences within the framework of memory, the representation of new experiences as well as the inherited narrative will inevitably be distorted to a certain extent, in order to render them both plausible and consistent.8 In the extreme event that such a conversion of the two could not be reached, the collective would experience internal ruptures or even, ultimately, cease to exist as a unit. The basis for all collective memory is provided by symbols and symbolic practices, such as for instance the singing of the national anthem as a symbolic practice that invokes collective patriotism. Such symbolic embodiment makes remembrance communicable in the collective sphere, as it is easily understood and acted upon by the members of a collective.9

With regard to the representation of the frontier myth within films on the Vietnam War, the attention of this paper will therefore try to pay special attention to the way that symbols are being incorporated and transformed or distorted in these films, in order to trace the war’s possible effect on the frontier mythology.

3. The myth of the American frontier

In the following section I will try to put in a nutshell the frontier thesis as it was presented by Frederick Jackson Turner to the American Historical Association in 1893. Furthermore I will point out the characteristics that are generally attributed to the “hero” of the frontier in American mythology and describe how they were taken up by the administration of John F. Kennedy in relation with America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Turner points to the closing of the frontier of settlement according to the report of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890, interpreting this as the terminus of “ a great historic movement ” which represents the key to “ explain American development. ” 10 Up to that point there had not only always been a continuous westward movement, but this movement had never encountered any boundaries either, because in contrast to the expansion of other nations there had always been further resources of free land available. Life in this frontier land entailed “ a return to primitive conditions ” and encapsulated “ the meeting point between savagery and civilization. ” 11

According to Turner, these exceptionally American conditions provide the basis for a unique national character that distinguishes itself from that of European countries. Thus, it is also much more the frontier experience than European roots that account for the character of American people and their institutions: “ The wilderness masters the colonist. [ … ] It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips him off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and moccasin. ” The settler does not have any other choice but to discard the old habits that he may have brought along from his former civilized home in Europe. Therefore he first has to fit in with the wilderness that he encounters in order to survive. “ Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe [ … ]. ”

Instead, the European colonist becomes truly American by subduing savagery in the process of civilization.12

However, the conditions which were peculiar to the American wilderness also created certain expectations that are intrinsic to the American view of the world. “ Turner saw Americans as aggressive, humanitarian, philanthropic, and experimental ” on account of the ever present abundance of more land, more resources, more people and more space.13 Since this affluence implied the guarantee of freedom for Americans, they took it for granted that they could always extend “civilization” beyond existing limits, because they generally experienced such limits to be transient.

As there have been a number of progressive frontiers (i.e. several progressive frontier lines) over the course of American westward expansion, the frontier experience was repeated over and over again in American history. Turner emphasizes that since “ each frontier has made similar contributions to American character, ”14 the United States are therefore “ to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states [ … ]. ” Moreover, the continued presence of the Native Americans fostered a spirit of cooperation, “ keeping alive the power of resistance against aggression, and developing the stalwart and rugged qualities of the frontiersman. ” 15

J. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur had asked already in his “Letters from an American farmer” from 1782: “ What then is the American, this new man? ” and explained himself that “[ h]e is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. [ … ] Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. ” 16

Turner summarizes the resulting traits of the American intellect as follows: “ That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom ” .17


1 Herr, Michael (1978), Pan Books.

2 http://www.who.int/classifications/apps/icd/icd10online/ cf. § F43.1 . Viewed last: October 13, 2008, 23:04.

3 Cf. Gilbert, Margaret (2006), Collective moral responsibility and its implications, in: French, Peter A. (ed.): Shared intentions and collective responsibility. (Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Volume 30) Blackwell Publishing, pp. 94 - 114; Pettit, Philip (2003): Groups with minds of their own, in: Schmitt, Frederik (ed.): Socializing metaphysics. Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 167-193.

4 There are of course further mythical concepts of high importance for the USA, such as Manifest Destiny, the American Dream or the City-upon-a-Hill myth. However, as this paper seeks to demonstrate, the frontier myth is of particular relevance with regard to the Vietnam War.

5 Hellmann, John (1997), The Vietnam film and American memory, in: Evans, Martin (ed.), War and memory in the twentieth century, Berg, p. 180.

6 Halbwachs, Maurice (1992), On collective memory, The University of Chicago Press, p. 38.

7 Ibid., p. 40.

8 Ibid., p. 183-84.

9 Barash, Jeffrey (2007), Analyzing collective memory, in: Mendels, Doron (ed.), On memory. An interdisciplinary approach, Peter Lang, pp. 101-06.

10 Turner, Frederick Jackson (1962), The Significance of the frontier in American history, in: id., The frontier in American history, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, p. 1.

11 Ibid., p. 2-3.

12 Ibid., p. 4.

13 Winks, Robin (1971), The myth of the American frontier. Its relevance to America, Canada and Australia, Leicester University Press, pp. 9-12.

14 Turner., p. 10.

15 Ibid., p. 15.

16 J. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American farmer. Letter III, pp. 54-55. Cf. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/CREV/letter03.html. Last viewed: October 22, 2008, 11:48.

17 Turner, p. 37.


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University of Cape Town – Department of Historical Studies
vietnam reconstruction



Title: The frontier hero in Vietnam - Reconstruction of a myth