War Movies 3: “Hamburger Hill.”

“Hamburger Hill” (1987) follows the misfortunes of a squad (the smallest Army unit) of the 101st Airborne Division[1] in the Spring 1969 fighting in Vietnam, Republic of.

The squad is led by Sergeant (Sgt.) Frantz, an able veteran who is returned to the unit after the military police arrested him for over-staying leave.  His squad mixes blacks and whites; and “short-timers” (men counting down their year-and-a-day tour of duty), veterans, and “FNGs” (Fucking New Guys who don’t know how to do anything and who will be killed or cause other people to be killed through their ignorance).  The constant bickering inside the group reflects these tensions, but slowly gives way to group solidarity; the FNGs rapidly mature into good soldiers.  In both cases, it is the shared experience of combat that changes men.

The squad forms part of a platoon, nominally under the command of a new lieutenant named Eden, but actually run by the veteran top sergeant, Worcester.  That is as far as visible authority goes in the movie.  The higher order–company, battalion, regiment, and division—appear only briefly as disembodied voices on the radio.

One common image of the Vietnam War is of a guerrilla war: suspicion of a civilian population that seems uninvolved in the war and only interested in gouging money out of the G.I.s; big sweeps through the boonies by American forces searching for contact with the Viet Cong (VC, Victor Charlie); brief fire-fights before the enemy fades away into the jungle.

That is not what happens in this movie.  Instead, we witness an assault on a heavily entrenched position defended by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars.  The “American way of war” portrayed here relies upon the use of technology.  On the one hand, soldiers ride to war in helicopters that move them rapidly over long distances.[2]  On the other hand, the Americans apply massive firepower.  The infantry spray fire from automatic rifles (M-16s), light machine guns (M-60s), and grenade launchers (M-1s); they call in “fire missions” from artillery (whenever they talk to “Coldsteel” on the radio); they are supported by airstrikes from helicopter gunners and jets dropping napalm (jellied gasoline).  Even so, it all comes down to the “grunts.”          References to American popular culture of the era show the men to be part of mainstream culture: they listen to Motown or country-and-Western music (which is meant to show the distortions of military recruiting); they admire muscle cars in Road and Track and the Zeppelin-breasted models in Playboy.  Yet the references to “hairheads” and college students back home, and the lack of support from both politicians and the media show a growing estrangement from that society.  Back home, people were discussing the “Generation Gap.”  In this movie we see a different gap, one that continues to trouble us to this day: the gap between those who do military service and those who do not.[3]  What can a country ask of it citizens, what does a citizen owe?

[1] The “Screaming Eagles,” are also at the center of the HBO series “Band of Brothers.”

[2] The origins and first use of this method is portrayed in “We Were Soldiers” (2002), based on the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young (1992) by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore (ret.) and Joseph Galloway.

[3] Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican Senator John McCain, Democratic Senator John Kerry, and former Democratic Senator Bob Kerry all served in Vietnam.  Former Presidents Bill Clinton, Democrat, and George W, Bush, Republican, did not.  Nor did I…nor did anyone I know.

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