The Vietnam War was a complex and controversial war inIndochina that spanned three decades from 1957 to 1975. The war was plagued with many challenges,such as how to fight an often reclusive enemy. The war also had many ambiguities, such as why America was involved andwhat would define a victory.
Given theprominence of this war in modern American cultural history, there is a vastamount of published materials on the Vietnam War. However, addressing the topic of the VietnamWar effectively in a two hour mainstream movie can be a difficult undertaking. Based on a microcosm of U.S. military life inSaigon, Good Morning Vietnam (1987) uses the joy of comedy, music andfriendship juxtaposed sharply against the backdrop of a full scale war to helpviewers experience the tragedies of war more emotionally than non-comedic wardramas.The historical background of the Vietnam War is helpful tounderstanding the full impact of Good Morning Vietnam. The U.S.
was first drawn into the Vietnamconflict to aid the French who were attempting to re-establish their Vietnamesecolony which was lost to the Japanese during World War II. The French were combating the Viet Minh(Vietnamese League for Independence) who struggled for an independent stateunder the leadership of Ho Chi Minh (Isserman 1). Although President Franklin D. Rooseveltsupported an independent Vietnam that “should not go back to France” (Isserman4), subsequent presidents such as Truman were more concerned about the advanceof communism than the independence of Vietnam (Tindall 1290). This U.S. policy “to oppose the advancementof communism anywhere in the world” is known as the Truman Doctrine (Tindall1290). Adhering to this doctrine, theU.
S. backed our French ally’s attempt to re-colonize Vietnam, since they wereconsidered important in the fight against communism. After the French were defeated by the VietMinh and North Vietnamese Army in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, they gave up theirstruggle to re-colonize Vietnam. Thesubsequent Geneva Accords officially split Vietnam into North and South Vietnamat the 17th parallel. U.S.
militaryadvisors, however, stayed in South Vietnam to help them fight against a communisttakeover from North Vietnam.Good Morning Vietnam opens with idealistic scenes of life in Saigon in the mid1960’s. Although South Vietnam was in acontinual struggle for independence and democracy, everyday life continued inthe big city despite the escalating military conflicts. After Ngo Dinh Diem, an unpopular SouthVietnamese president, was overthrown in a military coup in 1963 and after thecontroversial Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, President Lyndon B.
Johnson feltcompelled to escalate the U.S. involvement to direct military engagementagainst communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong (Evans 528). The Viet Cong (National Liberation Front) wasa South Vietnamese insurgency group supported by communist North Vietnam. Much of their resistance utilized guerrillawarfare; however, they also participated in more organized military attacksagainst the South Vietnamese Army (Army of Republic of Vietnam) and the Americanforces (***).
Ultimately, Johnson hoped that overwhelming North Vietnamese causalitieswould force the North to capitulate (Tindall 1288). Throughout the movie, we are reminded of theincreasing commitment of military troops to Vietnam via teletype news feedsfrom the States. Against this tense backdrop of a developing nationthreatened by the continual escalation of war, Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams)enters Saigon as a popular comedic disc jockey broadcasting on the AFRS (ArmedForces Radio Saigon). Not only wasCronauer funny, but he was a free spirit who was often disrespectful andignored the directives of his superiors. For example, Cronauer broadcast news about a bombing incident at amilitary bar owned by Jimmy Wah (Cu Ba Nguyen) in Saigon where he was almost killed.
The incident was officially censored. However, Cronauer ignored his boss, SargentMajor Dickerson (J. T. Walsh), and announced the bombing over the radio.
Cronauer developed a crush on a SouthVietnamese girl name Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana) he met while teaching anEnglish class. He also developed a closefriendship with Trinh’s brother Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran). However, his friendship and trust in Tuan wasbetrayed when he later discovered that Tuan was Viet Cong and was responsiblefor the bombing in Saigon.
Although Tuanensured Cronauer left the bar before the blast to protect him, two Americansoldiers were killed and three were injured. When confronted by Cronauer, Tuan protests that the Americans are theenemy since his family and neighbors were killed by American soldiers. One emotional technique used effectivelyin Good Morning Vietnam is to display strong emotional switches fromlight to serious. The most dramaticemotional switch occurs after the sudden bombing of Jimmy Wah’s café. Prior to the bombing, the movie’s atmospherewas light and happy. Cronauer is adisrespectful character who often wears non-military outfits and makes jokes inalmost all situations, even when he is reprimanded by his superiors, LieutenantHauk (Bruno Kirvy) and Major Dickerson. It is rare for Cronauer to lose his smile and everyone looked forward tohis comedic radio hour.
His anticsfilled the radio waves with jokes and imitations of celebrities and politicianssuch as Vice President Richard Nixon. His parody of Nixon is crude and disrespectful. This is a nice example of laugher being”linked to the overturning of authority” as expressed by the Russianphilosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (No Laughing Matter 5).Suddenly,the bombing incident happens directly behind him, and the movie turns starklyserious with scenes of commotion, destruction and death. We also see this shift in behavior from JimmyWah, the café owner. Typically, Jimmynever loses his smile even when he encounters rude and racist behavior. However, after his cafe is bombed and soldierare maimed and killed, Jimmy erupts in despair.
This sudden shift to serious emotion by light-hearted characters helpsto dramatize the tragic nature of war. The effect is like falling down thefirst hill of a rollercoaster after a long ride to the top.Anotheremotional shift occurs after Cronauer entertains a group of soldiers headed tothe front battle lines. He wasencouraged by his assistant Sargent Garlic (Forest Whitaker) to provideimpromptu entertainment to the troops waiting to head out. Cronauer does a wonderful job of entertainingthe young men and making them laugh and feel comradery. Yet, the task before them is fraught withdeath and destruction. In this touchingscene, we see a prime example of laughter being used to cope with the fear ofwar.
Bakhtin viewed the use of laughterto counteract fear, especially in a group setting, as a “socially regenerativeexperience” (No Laughing Matter 5). Clearly, in this scene the group context adds to the value of the banterand laughter.This scene also depicts the contradictory human components oflaughter. The ability to laugh in theface of certain tragedy is a trait found only in humans and not the animalkingdom.
Kobena Mercer states that laughter “brings our lofty ideals and our nobleaspirations back down to earth, for it reveals us to be the creatures of afinite and contingent world, with little ultimate control over our materialconditions” (Mercer). Certainly, in the theaterof war, soldiers feel as if they have little control over their fate. In this situation, laughter and comedy seemsto humanize the tragic realities of life.Asthe young men leave to the dangerous North, the gravity of the situation can suddenlybe seen on Cronauer’s face. He nervouslyflip-flops between light hearted jokes and serious well wishes: “You guys take care of yourselves. I won’t forget you.
” The acting is superbly realistic andtouching. The sentimental scene drawsthe viewer into the seriousness of the situation and the challenges these youngmen will face.Throughout the movie, Good Morning Vietnam toucheson many aspects of the war which many believe to be the “greatest Americanforeign policy debacle of the century” (Tindall 1274). Several dimensions of the war are addressedin some depth such as difficulties identifying the enemy, Viet Cong terrorism,governmental censorship and the 1960’s counterculture.
Since many Viet Cong insurgents lived in country villages,it was difficult for U.S. forces to effectively combat a loosely knitorganization that could attack suddenly, and then quickly exit a conflict bydisappearing into the country side, never leaving their dead behind. It was hard for U.S. troops to track down insurgents in theVietnamese countryside that was dense with trees and brush and often riddenwith landmines, traps and tunnels.
Inone movie scene, Cronauer and Sargent Garlic barely escaped fire from the VietCong and found themselves walking in circles in the woods until they arerescued by Tuan. Cronauer aptly statesthat wondering in this forest is like “hunting with Ray Charles.”Also, as portrayed in Good Morning Vietnam, manyViet Cong lived among regular South Vietnamese citizen and hid their true identity. By hiding his true identity, Tuan was able to travelfreely in Saigon, even into locations frequented by American militarypersonnel. In this way, he assisted his fellowViet Cong soldiers in the bombing of Jimmy Wah’s café. Although Tuan was a willing Viet Congfighter, it should be noted that not all Viet Cong were willingvolunteers.
In many cases, youngVietnamese recruits were kidnapped or threatened into joining the Viet Cong(Gettleman 154).As a result of the Viet Cong guerilla warfare, Americanforces often destroyed small hamlets they believed to support or house the VietCong. In particular, napalm was oftenused to “sanitize suspected enemy troop concentrations and hostile hamlets”(Wallechinsky 241).
The use of suchindiscriminate weapons further added to the distrust of many South Vietnamesepeople. Good Morning Vietnam usedstriking scenes of napalm attacks to portray the context in which the plotprogressed.The U.S. failure in Vietnam was in part due to censorshipand misinformation. The impact of amisinformed public came to a head after the Tet Offensive in 1968. This was a surprise offensive organized bythe North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. The day after an agreed truce during the lunar New Year, CommunistsGeneral Vo Nguyen Giap launched simultaneous attacks on major South Vietnamesecities, capitals and military installations.
With much of the South Vietnamese soldiers on holiday leave, the offensivewas initially a surprise. Ultimately,the South Vietnamese and U.S.
troops fought back with overwhelming forceresulting in over 60,000 communists soldiers killed compared to 2,600 Americansand South Vietnamese (Wallechinsky 221). Prior to the Tet Offensive, daily military reports on thewar gave the impression that victory was in sight based on a large imbalance of”kill ratios” (North Vietnamese casualties versus the South Vietnamese and U.S.casualties). Thus, the American publicwas shocked that North Vietnamese forces could launch such a large andcoordinated offensive. The Tet Offensivewas a psychological victory for North Vietnam.
It also demonstrated America’s misunderstanding of the enemy. The U.S. assumed that superior firepower andextreme losses would break the morale of the North Vietnamese. However, after the Tet Offensive, a stunnedAmerica finally realized that the enemy would never give in. This verified the statement by Ho Chi Minhthat, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even atthose odd you will lose and I will win” (Evens 535). Government censorship during the war was also highlightedfrequently during Good Morning Vietnam.
Increased troop deployments to South Vietnamwere typically censored from the airwaves and even local terrorist attacks werenot aired. The censorship portrayed wasso stringent that listeners were clearly being misled about the gravity of theconflict. In fact, after the bombing ofJimmy Wah’s cafe, Major Dickerson demands that Cronauer censor this incidentfrom the broadcast.
Cronauer thencomplains to Major Dickerson, “You want everyone going under the assumptionthat it’s safe here. It’s not.”Cronauer then decide that he will ignore thiscommand and announce the bombing using irony. He locked himself in the broadcasting room and proceeded to create ascene of typewriters and sounds form a newsroom. He then ironically pretends to obey hiscommander by prefacing his disclosure with the word “unofficially.” “One thing that didn’t officially happen wasa bomb didn’t officially explode. Twomen…were unofficially dead.
” Thelisteners will obviously get the truth behind this ironic double-negative spiel. This is an example of truth revealing ironywhich David Beers calls “Ironic Engagement” or “the real stuff.” By this he means, “The kind of irony that drove Socrates’ queries,the irony that lies at the heart of much great literature and great religion,the irony that pays attention to contradictions and embraces paradoxes”(Beers). When Cronauer uses irony tohighlight the real tragedies around him, he is telling the truth with comedyeven at the risk of his own career.
Notbecause he is a frivolous comedian, but instead because he truly cares. Randolph Bourne declared that “Theironist is ironical, not because he does not care, but because he cares toomuch” (Beers).Although the movie doesn’t address all facets of the 1960’scounterculture, the topic is highlighted by the controversies over therock-and-roll music that Cronauer played during his radio stints. His superiors favored wholesome music such asthe light hearted sounds of Jim Nabors, instead of degrading rock and rollmusic from someone like James Brown. However, Cronauer addressed the soldiers need to find ways to escape thestresses of war.
He understood the powerof both music and comedy to help troop morale in a war setting.The use of comedy during a war is a central theme in GoodMorning Vietnam. In fact, the use ofentertainers, especially comedians, has been used in many military conflictssuch as when Bob Hope performed for troops during World War II. Comedy and laugher in a profound warsituation seems to violate an expected solemn behavior, yet they have great psychologicalvalue.
This aspect of laughter is oftenreferred to as Incongruity Theory and has been address by variousphilosophers. Schopenhauer remarks “that’life and even its very adversities’ provide the material for laughter” (Lewis49). Charlie Chaplin,also recognized the relationship between tragedy and comedy when he said, “Lifeis a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot” (Weissman128). In Good Morning Vietnam, Major Dickerson seemed to miss value ofcomedy in a tragic situation. He becameupset when he was informed that an unconventional comedic deejay is coming tohis radio station. When his superiorGeneral Taylor (Noble Willingham) suggested that he not worry about “only a deejay”,Major Dickerson bluntly states, “Frankly, I do not understand … there is nosuch thing as “only” anymore, not now, not in Saigon.
” Good Morning Vietnam uses several panoramic sequences to display other eventsthat transpired during the war. In orderto create contrast, uplifting music such as “What a Wonderful World” byLouis Armstrong is played in the background as war scenes are displayed on thescreen. These sequences depict eventssuch as indiscriminate napalm attacks on Viet Cong villages; anti-war protestsin the streets of Vietnam; executions of Viet Cong by soldiers fighting forSouth Vietnam; and increasing build-up of U.S. military bases. Interlaced with such tragic war scenes arepictures of everyday life in a beautiful country side of mountains and ricefields about to be ripped apart by a tragic war. The impact of these general war scenescombined with the main story line creates an encompassing dramatic effect.
Due to the many comedic elements, Good Morning Vietnamhas a less serious tone than other Vietnam War movies such as Apocalypse Nowor The Deer Hunter. These moreserious war movies almost seem limited to the dramatic emotions related tobattle death and pain, or psychological stresses from combat. Many war movies have this same rather limitedor singular emotional effect. Forexample, Saving Private Ryan is a story of loyalty and sacrifice duringWorld War II. Although the opening scenedepicting the invasion of Normandy on D-Day is impressively horrific andimpactful, the movie is generally cold and gory throughout. This seems to limit the range of emotions andmay cause the audience to disconnect from the tragedies they arewitnessing. The cinematography isimpressive and invokes a strong emotion. Yet, the emotions addressed seemlimited to the inevitable horrors of war.
As stated by Keith Beattie in The Scar That Binds, “War is blood,war is body fragments, war is the dismemberment of the body” (Beattie,11). Friendship and forgiveness also add to the emotionalrealism conveyed in Good Morning Vietnam. By the end of the movie, Tuan has becomeCronauer’s best friend and has saved his life several times. When Cronauer discovers Tuan is really VietCong, this is emotionally stressful since Tuan is surely the enemy. Yet, he feels compelled to warn Tuan that theU.S. Army will be searching for him and they know his true identity. Although Cronauer is unable to reconcile hisfriendship with Tuan directly, he does seem able to reconcile this dilemma inhis heart since Tuan was also a victim of war.
Instead, Cronauer reconnects with his Vietnamese friends and studentsfrom his English class. They joyfullylaugh and act silly playing a game of softball together as he prepares to saygoodbye to Vietnam.In Good Morning Vietnam, the comedic elements andjoyful music contrasted against the sadness of a complex war creates a verybroad and dramatic emotional response. This is supplemented by an array of war struggles such as censorship andterrorism.
The additional story line offriendship and betrayal helps the viewers relate to the characters moreclosely. The movie’s storyline and useof comedy juxtaposed against an array of war topics creates an enjoyable,engaging tour de force of the Vietnam War that transcends the limited emotionscreated by other darker and more serious war movies.