The return of the Vietnam war veterans is a traumatic and far from glorious chapter in American history. The veterans suffered not only from the psychological trauma of the conflict, but also from the guilt of having taken part in an unjust, cruel and useless war, condemned by both the international community and a strong antimilitarist and anti-Vietnam war protest movement at home. The way in which most Vietnam veterans were ostracised was unprecedented, and the American cinema would bear witness to it.
Several films were made about these soldiers, broken by the “dirty war” and back in a deeply divided and disillusioned America. As with John Rambo, a Vietnam war hero drifting from town to town looking for his former comrades-in-arms and spurned by those around him (First Blood, 1982), American films depicted wounded veterans fighting their own war, symbols of the threat that Vietnam was for the ideal of the “American dream” (The Visitors, 1972), rekindling the hope of a possible national reconciliation through the tale of personal tragedies (Coming Home, 1978) or of limitless revenge, the echo of an endless war and the impossible return journey home (Rolling Thunder, 1977).
This conflict became an irreversible trauma in the American psyche, contaminating its fiction for many years. “For every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel”. This disheartened line by Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan takes its inspiration straight from the horror of Vietnam and the morning smell of napalm, the eternal symbol of universal uprooting.
- Hervé Bougon