Casualties of War subverts the conventional guilty pleasures of the Vietnam genre by stressing the guilt and blunting the pleasure. Alternating between classical and modernist modes, the film employs subversive techniques at its several narrative climaxes to break open a space for the audience to interrogate its modes of representation and their own complicity in the spectacle. Testing but ultimately disregarding the naturalized conventions and stereotypes that fail to accommodate its verboten subject, director Brian De Palma advances the genre into the territory of American atrocity, specifically the rape and murder of a female civilian whose brutalized body represents the decimated topography of her country. Treating the Vietnam conflict not as the exception to Western codes of behavior but as its ultimate patriarchal manifestation, the film exposes the origins of war at the level of sexual difference and castration anxiety. Although based on a true story, the narrative is framed as a dream of the protagonist, a strategy demonstrating a suspicion of the cinema’s capacity to objectify personal ideology and private experience, and in the process misrepresent the Vietnam War film as an objective, historical document.
CASUALTIES OF GENRE
Released in 1989, near the end of Hollywood’s Vietnam cycle, Casualties of War typifies the genre in its mature stage. Drawing upon documented events as its subject, the film nevertheless inscribes much of its narrative within the conventions of Vietnam films that precede it, thereby conflating historical and cinematic memory. Based upon Daniel Lang’s 1969 report in The New Yorker about the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a Vietnamese farm girl by a patrol of five American soldiers, the script by David Rabe for the most part adheres scrupulously to the particulars of the trial depositions and interviews on which Lang’s account is based. Where the scenario veers into speculation is in its expository sequences in the jungle, village, and base camp. Within these fictional sequences, which on the surface appear to provide a psychological and ethnographic explanation for the atrocity that follows, De Palma reveals that the sentiments and ideologies playing for the viewer’s sympathies are little more than exhausted stereotypes that ultimately fail to rationalize the patrol’s criminal behavior. The film’s first half hour, therefore, functions paradoxically as both narrative realism and an interrogation of the cinematic conventions that have come to signify popular conceptions of American troops in Vietnam.
The jungle sequence
The opening sequence in the jungle commences with an analogy comparing the experience of making war to the experience of making movies, both activities requiring a mastery of sound and image, and the split-second mobilization of personnel to achieve the desired effect. Much of the dialogue concerns questions of vision, sound, and character position: conjecture about hidden VC tunnels “as far as the eye can see”; endeavors to “fix that sound”; and inquiries about positioning (“Is that Third Platoon over there?). Organizing the elements of their mise-en-scene with sense-making procedures, the projects of the soldiers and the filmmaker coincide.
Employing the “in-the-trenches” style of combat films, the frame closes tight on the GIs to evoke their feelings of isolation and vulnerability within the dense foliage and darkness that all the more obscure the inscrutable enemy. Eliding the long shot and collapsing the viewer’s scopic field to the grunt’s point of view, the camera conceals the “big picture” by equating the war’s reality with the grunt’s experience of it. The soldier’s view of the war becomes the view; or at least in combat films such as Platoon, it becomes an objectification of the director’s view, propped up by conventions of psychological realism, which may be mistaken as history itself. In its earliest moments, Casualties of War mimics Platoon’s framing mise-en-scene as a transparent window onto the American troops’ experience of Vietnam, a strategy that sets up spectators to anticipate that the film’s central dramatic experience will focus on the plight of GIs, as is most typical of the genre. Soon after, however, and for the remainder of the film, De Palma will continue to expand the focus to include the plight of the Vietnamese, both literally within his wide-screen framing, and figuratively by using a variety of distancing techniques to decrease the spectator’s empathy for the American soldiers.
For example, the latter portion of the sequence deconstructs the realism posited at the beginning by revealing the filmmaking process and italicizing the conventions of heroic action-adventure from which the combat film is derived. At the onset of the mortar attack, De Palma manipulates imagery, music, dialogue, and rhythmic editing to such an artificial degree that spectators are thrust out of their conventional sense of transparent verisimilitude and into a self-conscious awareness of the film’s highly stylized technique. This transition from conventional realism to heightened artifice makes visible the conventions of the combat film that generally lie beneath the surface just deep enough for spectators to suspend disbelief and trust the verity of the world being presented to them.
At the climax of the mortar attack, Eriksson is forced waist-deep into a tunnel by the pressure of an explosion. Only moments earlier, Hatcher had mused about the possibility of the tunnel’s existence concealed from their sight, reinforcing the opacity of the scene to human vision (and of the genre’s conventions to the spectator). Yet, rather than remain above ground or cut to the tunnel’s interior in an effort to preserve the verisimilitude of the jungle environment, the camera audaciously pans vertically in front of Eriksson and below ground level to reveal the tunnel and the jungle as a set (as far as the camera, if not the eye, can see). Here the film enunciates itself at the level of technique and production design. In the distance, Meserve regroups, notes the absence of Eriksson, and heralds his decision to rescue him: “Here comes Audie.” Here the film enunciates itself at the level of allusion, recalling the conventional heroics of the World War II Audie Murphy action serials.
At this juncture, the sequence gradually swells in operatic abandon, rhythmically punctuated by Eriksson’s cries for help timed perfectly with exploding shells and camera edits. Intercutting between Eriksson’s prostration, Meserve’s intrepid quest, and the Viet Cong soldier’s approach underground, the camera constructs the classic imperilment triangle: Eriksson as damsel in distress; Meserve as White Knight; and the VC as Red Dragon. Meserve’s heroics are hyperbolically choreographed to strains of martial music; diving through the brush, crawling on hands and knees, and stopping momentarily to comfort an amputee, he recalls John Wayne of The Green Berets and his too-good-to-be-true descendants like Michael (The Deer Hunter), Elias (Platoon) and Rambo. In contrast, the VC creeps ant-like in the dirt, knife lodged in his gritted teeth like Magua in Tourneur’s Last of the Mohicans. The lurid music, subjective tracking camera from the VC’s point of view, and Eriksson’s dangling feet reminiscent of Jaws create for the spectator a stereotypical image of the enemy as the alien, stealthy Asian. By coding these initial impressions of the Vietnamese as monstrous and the Americans as heroic, only later to subvert that polarity, the film will eventually disturb the viewer’s conventional recognition of virtue and malevolence, of right and wrong.
Punctuating and arresting the sequence, Meserve pulls Eriksson from the tunnel, suddenly thrusts him to the ground, and to Eriksson’s wide-eyed bewilderment, shoots wildly at the emerging VC. Shot from a severe Dutch angle, his primal screams drowning out the music track, Meserve appears momentarily insane: the psychopathology driving his heroics has been unearthed. The White Knight is tarnished, the romance of battle deflated. The film must look elsewhere for insight beyond American wartime heroism.
Unlike Full Metal Jacket’s satire that questions the conventions of the Vietnam War film from the outside, the jungle sequence impudently risks self-parody, providing spectators visceral excitement while reminding them of their manipulation. Foregrounding the Vietnam film’s emphasis on how rather than what events take place, the sequence exaggerates the conventions of the genre, only to subvert them at the end. The spectator’s identification with the grunts thus alternates between involvement and estrangement, a rhythm sustained throughout the film.
The village sequence
The film’s next sequence introduces and ultimately demystifies a motif predominant in Vietnam films: the education of the “Cherry” by the war-weary but wise black veteran. Whereas the jungle sequence manipulated the conventions of combat, the village sequence overdetermines the character of “Brownie,” a stereotype of the ineluctable black grunt derived from characters like Manny (Platoon), Snowball (Full Metal Jacket), OD (84 Charlie MoPic), and Doc (Hamburger Hill). Jiving in the language of the ghetto, these characters provide comic, choral relief in the form of witty banter and pithy asides. They also function as teachers, educating the new recruits in combat, as if their African roots, urban street smarts, and heritage of Western oppression have somehow conditioned them as naturally superior in jungle warfare. Their good-natured wisdom and exemplary soldiership break down racial barriers between them and their white “brothers,” for whom they are most often sacrificed in a stirring death scene, during which they try to make sense of their lives.
These vaguely racist figurations come together in Brownie, whose instantly recognizable characteristics (evoked by his name alone) function as a nexus of identification and cross-examination. Although these characteristics can be understood primarily as stereotypes, they have become naturalized, being so ubiquitous throughout films in the genre. In the construction of Brownie’s character and through the actor’s stylized performance, however, the excess compression of these stereotypes generates a distortion that allows the viewer to negotiate Brownie’s significance. The components of his personality, which in classical narrative would emerge more gradually over the course of the plot, are instead telescoped in a quick series of scenes, only to be as quickly shattered by his abrupt demise at the pinnacle of the viewer’s identification with him. Moments before the fatal shooting, Brownie urges Hatcher to “wake up,” a warning directed as much to the passive viewer lulled by the facile, comforting conventions that Brownie personifies.
Other than staying alive—the primary motivation for spectator identification that trumps all others in the war genre—Brownie’s virtues are something of a mockery. His tidbits of wisdom include recommendations to stop “ballin’ them slanty-eyed bitches” and to stick with the unit so that he can “get home to do his own plowin’.” In contrast to the sincere but equally inadequate Methodist chaplain at the film’s end, when Brownie plays “priest,” he merely wants to force Eriksson into a confession of humiliation: “Did you pee in your pants, motherfucker?” Brownie smokes pot while on duty, can’t remember “what the fuck” he’s been talking about, and disparages the villagers. Only his charm and his ability to survive his tour of duty recommend him to his fellow platoon members, and through identification with their fear, to the viewer as well.
In this way, Brownie’s role as educator is ironic. Reminiscent of Rooney in Rabe’s stage play, Streamers, Brownie simultaneously epitomizes and undermines the typical Vietnam narrative’s subscription to the grunt code of ethics that valorizes the “valid” in-country experience of the vet over the “invalid” state-side training of the new recruit: “Without the Sarge, you ain’t nothin’ but a sack of monkey shit ... You’d so much be bagged and tagged that your raggedy-assed people is pissin’ and moanin’ all their heart-broken lives.” Later Meserve will reveal the travesty of Brownie’s loyalty by mocking this line when he threatens Eriksson’s life. Meanwhile, undercut by his own hubris, Brownie and his code of ethics are literally and figuratively shot down: in country only three weeks, Eriksson, in fact, not only demonstrates his skill during the ambush by shooting a hand-grenade in mid-air, thus saving the patrol, but will maintain his integrity in the face of Meserve’s moral degeneration. Thus, in the village sequence, the dramatic discontinuity between the rise in the viewer’s emotional identification with Brownie and the shattering collapse of the values he represents breaks open a space for the viewer to question Vietnam’s “natural” order.
Brownie dies melodramatically, but without offering viewers the ennobled death scene typical of the black grunt, whose only revelation about his experience here is the senseless, now ironic repetition of his previously comic slogan: “I’m armor-plated, motherfucker.” Brownie leaves Meserve and his troops no legacy other than being “on the dead frequency.” Once again echoing the conventions of Platoon, the remainder of the sequence is overlaid with plaintive music and photographed with a heightened documentary realism. The spectacle of Brownie’s death—his gasping, bleeding, and struggling to stay alive in naïve hope—imitates his antecedents with one significant exception: his last words are “Fuck this shit!” Lacking the haunting pieta in Apocalypse Now or the dignified dissertation on racial oppression in 84 Charlie MoPic, Brownie’s death draws the audience in by ironic use of sentimental conventions, only to deprive them of the genre’s typical payoffs. “Fuck this shit!” denounces the conventions that lead the black grunt to his noble sacrifice: in his last moments, Brownie ultimately transcends the stereotype by crying out in despair. Like Meserve at the end of the jungle sequence, he shatters what we have been led to feel about him by De Palma’s subversion of predictable conventions.
As the only American casualty at the hands of the enemy in a film populated with Vietnamese killings, Brownie’s death implicitly critiques the motivating strategies of films like Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and 84 Charlie MoPic, whose narratives and structures of suspense focus primarily on GI casualties and effectively rewrite the history of the Vietnam struggle as the history of American suffering. Leaving Brownie behind, Casualties of War will in fact take the opposite course, by focusing on a Vietnamese casualty and redirecting viewer sympathy for the enemy, thereby transforming the protagonists of this early sequence into antagonists later on. The “schizophrenic” Vietnamese, whom Brownie affirms cannot be trusted, will be outdone by their “dubious” American liberators.
The base camp sequence
The base camp, conventionally the site of narrative regrouping, character exposition, and increased spectator identification, is in the next sequence the site instead of an interrogation into pathological male bonding. Spare in its details of camp life, the film conspicuously rejects the pot parties, drunken confessions, deep conversations and public letter readings of its predecessors. Prior to the atrocity, we learn few details about the personal histories of the individual patrol members. Introduced briefly and matter-of-factly, for instance, Diaz replaces Brownie like a movable part, a cog in the war’s machinery de-emphasizing his individuality. Nevertheless, each character exhibits at least one strong, distinctive personality trait that De Palma and Rabe resolutely refuse to subsume within the single-minded conformity of the homosocial peer group. By highlighting each patrol member’s difference from the others, the sequence preserves for the viewer some moral clarity by which to evaluate each soldier’s individual participation in the scandal.
Opening the sequence with the film’s farthest long shot to this point, the camera will maintain an omniscient distance from the characters to prevent increased viewer identification. The characters themselves are grouped in isolating configurations. For example, a towel concealing Meserve from his men splits the screen in half, illustrating his permanent severance and self-isolation from his men. In the group shower scene, during which Hatcher, Clark, and Eriksson are framed in a static horizontal line-up, their dialogue is entirely uncommunicative: Hatcher complains about his tour of duty, Eriksson defends the draft policy, and Clark rants about wiping out the Vietnamese. Later, they lie in their racks, shot from above in another horizontal line-up, detached in their private worlds: Clark hiding behind his sunglasses, Eriksson sucking a beer, and Hatcher wondering aloud whether he’s talking or not, since the others pay him little attention.
Caressing a bottle of Jack Daniels between his legs, Hatcher covets a Playboy magazine to help relieve his sexual tension, having been denied access to the whorehouse in town. Tellingly, it is only during the scene in which the patrol visits the brothel that the characters move as a fluid, compact, integrated group. Dressed alike, walking together, holding up their passes in unison, the patrol bridges its individual differences of rank, experience, and personality in the prospect of having sex. This unity suggests that male bonding is defined less by the group’s internal similarities (they seem to have nothing in common but their tour of duty), and more by external disparities—sexual and racial difference—that draw them together in concerted opposition to the “Other.” Thus, when they are denied access to the Vietnamese prostitutes because “Charlie’s in the whorehouse,” the threat of castration sets in on both fronts. The enemy has defeated them not only on the battlefield, but in the bedroom as well.
Having been nearly killed by the village civilians, the patrol’s phallic power has been severely undercut. Clark’s first impulse off-duty is to rectify this usurpation: “I’m gonna get shitfaced and go hump the brains out of them dink hoagies.” Meserve echoes Clark: “I’m going into town to get laid.” The viewer is spared, however, the genre’s inevitable whorehouse bonding scenes that tend to stereotype young Vietnamese girls as desperate prostitutes (“Me so horny” having now become a common catchphrase). The elision of the scene not only blocks the remasculization of the patrol, more importantly, it allows the viewer’s first impression of Oahn to remain free from any connotations of immorality. For it is onto this innocent farm girl that Meserve will project his castration anxiety by constructing her as a “whore” in need of punishment. Shaving before a mirror, his “Audie Murphy” image shattered, Meserve nervously wields his razor, the mark of his castration (a disturbing, illuminating echo of De Palma’s Dressed to Kill). At the same time, the razor represents his reconstituted image, a perverse double-edged phallus with which he will threaten his men and murder his prisoner.
At this point in the narrative, Meserve initiates the narrative’s central event and presents both Eriksson and the viewer with the film’s central enigma: to what extent will deciphering Meserve’s behavior unlock the perverted essence of the American involvement in Vietnam? Eriksson spends an equal amount of time watching Meserve as he does Oahn, wondering like the viewer, “What are we doing Sarge?” Unlike the classical hermeneutic agency that eventually resolves the enigma and closes the narrative, Meserve’s character grows more plural as his psychological profile grows unstable. A stylized characterization recalling the mannerisms of both Robert De Niro and John Wayne, Sean Penn’s Meserve is fraught with contradictions: crying for his friend Brownie, he later mocks him; affirming the value of mutual dependence, he expects authoritarian obedience; adhering to rank order, he hates the army; objectifying a young girl, he calls her a “real” woman; feeding Oahn aspirin for her pain, he later rapes and beats her.
Meserve moves the film into virgin territory. Having never seen the rape and murder of a civilian as the central focus of the Vietnam War film before the release of Casualties of War, the viewer echoes Rowan’s disbelief just prior to the kidnapping: “That’ll never happen GI.” As it did in history, so it does in the film, whose next scene opens the atrocity sequence with a first person point-of-view tracking shot that shifts the spectator’s role from outside observer to implicit witness.