A guitar warbles. Helicopter blades thud like a gentle heartbeat. Jim Morrison melodically murmurs, “This is the end,” as trees burst into hypnotic napalm flames.
For many people, this opening montage of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, is one of the most searing images of the Vietnam War. The emotional heft of The Doors’ lyrics—irrevocably linked to the burning beauty of the bombs—seems a fitting testament to the power of not just music, but language itself. Yet the iconic opening imagery of the film is not the best representation of the power of language during the Vietnam era. For that, one must look no further than a can of pears.
In the story of one Vietnam veteran, told in Mark Baker’s Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There, the soldier describes his and his comrades’ rage at encountering a Vietnamese father and daughter in possession of a can of pears. Foot soldiers, or “grunts,” survived largely on C-rations, and the author and his buddies were infuriated by the fact that two Vietnamese peasants, whom many Americans regarded as sub-human, had access to the luxury of canned fruit. As revenge, the American soldiers gang-raped the young woman and murdered both father and daughter.
This can of pears is testament to the powerful internalization of sexualized language that fueled American ideology during the Vietnam War. During this era, American English was sexualized to an astounding degree: policymakers, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, vulgarly used metaphors of hetero- and homosexual conquest, while soldiers used phrases such as “cocksucker” nearly indiscriminately. The impact of such highly sexualized language cannot be overstated, as it became intertwined with, and helped breed, ideas of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and American exceptionalism.
The “American Fighting Man”
In order to understand the way in which the language of Vietnam was infused with sexualized power, it is necessary to have a sense of the larger narrative into which such language fit, namely the idealization of heroic American masculinity predicated on violent and virile heterosexual prowess. This conception of American manhood arose in part as pushback against politicians of the 1950s who had been “soft” on communism. Democratic policymakers, especially, felt responsible for the “loss” of China to communist forces, and they consequently harbored an almost pathological desire to fulfill the role of vital American frontiersman: tough on communism, fiercely protective of democracy and freedom.
During the Vietnam War, the idea of being an “American fighting man” was a central concept of the Code of Conduct for Members of the U.S. Armed Forces and revolved around the idea of the strong American male body as the protector of American ideals. Sylvester Stallone’s turn as protagonist John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part II shows this concept on painfully obvious display. In the film, Rambo undergoes torture at the hands of Soviets in league with the communist North Vietnamese. Stallone’s muscular, glistening body—practically a caricature of masculinity—serves as a barrier between the communist enemies and important U.S. Army information. Rambo’s willingness to suffer such bodily harm demonstrates his fulfillment of American manhood.
This concept of manhood focused not only on the male body as the protector of American ideals, but also as the active and often violent enactor of American values. On a macroscopic level, the result of this conceptualization of masculinity was that Americans often framed intervention in terms of sexual conquest and painted any failure to uphold American credibility as a demeaning, demoralizing, and often homosexual encounter.
Perhaps nowhere is this kind of hypersexualized language on more obvious display than in the private communications of President Johnson, whose words functioned as oppressive tools of power. Johnson’s sexual metaphors demeaned women and linked true American manhood to heterosexual conquest. In 1965, for instance, he said of the bombing campaigns in Vietnam, “I’m going up her leg an inch at a time … I’ll get the snatch before they know what’s happening.”
Johnson’s use of sexual metaphor is disturbing on many levels, from its bellicose rhetoric to its offensive slang for female genitalia. The President’s self-congratulation for his metaphorical rape of the Vietnamese demonstrates how successful American foreign policy during the Vietnam Era was inextricably linked not only to heterosexual male prowess, but also to sexual subjugation of the “other.” Furthermore, the allusion to the non-consent of the Vietnamese people remains all the more nauseating given the dark shadow that mass rape at My Lai and throughout the Vietnam War casts across this period in American history. This kind of rhetoric reverberated at the level of common culture: in Oliver Stone’s 1986 war film Platoon, the soldiers openly refer to new recruits as “cherries,” further underscoring the misogyny that grew entwined with this view of masculinity.
Johnson’s sexualized rhetoric was also predicated on homophobia. In a 1965 meeting, for example, he declared, “I’ll tell you what happens when there is a bombing halt. I halt and then Ho Chi Minh shoves his trucks right up my ass. That’s your bombing halt.” Such language clearly privileges the heterosexual American man, and language that reviled homosexuality became a means of reasserting the power of heroic American manhood.
Sex and Race
This kind of sexualized language was thus used as a means of leveraging power. But it also became a way to reinforce and underscore the intensely racialized language of this era. In Hal Ashby’s classic 1978 film Coming Home, Bob returns home from service in Vietnam to find his wife, Sally, engaged in a passionate affair with the paralyzed Vietnam veteran Luke. Ultimately, Bob drowns himself, but not before he holds Luke and Sally at gunpoint. In this scene, Bob calls Sally a “slope cunt.” Bob’s use of the word “cunt,” though extreme, is in line with the misogynist behavior he has demonstrated towards Sally over the entire film. Thus, the suddenly crude dialogue is cinematically underplayed in the standoff scene and throughout the rest of the movie.
Yet Bob’s use of the word “slope,” a derogatory term for a Vietnamese person, is intensely problematic, not merely because it is a disgusting racial slur, but also because it links the adulterous actions of Sally, a white woman, with the very identity of being Vietnamese. The outburst could be read as a commentary on Bob’s view of the Vietnamese as dirty, or perhaps as representative of his opinion that, since Sally has been unfaithful, she is no better than the communist Vietnamese. Regardless, this moment demonstrates that at the intersection of racialized and sexualized language, both lexicons upheld oppressive and heteronormative masculinity.
In Baker’s narrative of violence, too, racialized and sexualized languages overlap. The narrator describes how, after raping the young woman and shooting her father “until he didn’t have a face anymore,” he and the other soldiers observed, “Baby-san, she was crying.” One of the other soldiers shot and killed the young woman as casually as he had raped her, and as casually as the author had branded her with an infantilizing racial epithet.
A Continuing Journey
Perhaps no other era of American history was witness to such intensely sexualized language used as a tool of political power. Yet this dominant narrative of masculine American heroism, framed in terms of conquest, by no means existed solely within the vacuum of the Vietnam War. Rhetoric that prizes the American frontiersman who protects the purity of American ideals continued to persist during the Iraq War. In a 2007 article in Race, Gender, and Class, Joane Nagel and Lindsey Feitz of the University of Kansas contend that this war fostered the rise of a “damsels in distress” phenomenon that framed captive white American servicewomen, such as Jessica Lynch, were framed as vulnerable and in need of rescue from the clutches of native Iraqis by brave American servicemen. The American military certainly has far to go before it can be deemed to have fully shed the poisonous legacy of the lexicon that loomed over the Vietnam era. Probing the implications of sexualized language during the Vietnam War thus highlights the disturbing reality that American society—and its rhetoric—remains influenced by heteronormativity and confining ideas of “manhood.” Contrary to Jim Morrison’s immortal words, this is far from the end.
Image Credit: Flickr / Manhhai