Charley didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.
— Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), Apocalypse Now, (1979)
Last month, Army Times reported that senior U.S. Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal had ordered the closure of fast food outlets and other retail shops at FOBs throughout his AO. According to the article these will include “Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Popeyes, as well as new-car sales offices, jewelry stores, souvenir shops, and other retail outlets.” The number of first run movies will also be reduced.
“This is a war zone, not an amusement park,” Army Command Sgt. Major Michael Hall, command sergeant major of ISAF declared. “From the moment Gen. McChrystal and I arrived in Afghanistan last summer, we began looking for ways to do things more efficiently across the battlefield.”
Hall’s statement implies two different reasons for the order. Perhaps the most important is McChrystal’s hope of maximizing that which, like being too rich or too thin, one cannot have too much of: efficiency. Supplying these retail outlets adds to the military’s logistical burden; moreover, there is also the more urgent question of managing the peregrinations and security screening of non-essential civilian personnel.
But significantly, Hall offered another reason: these outlets, often crammed together in strip mall like settings, exist in stark contrast to the world outside the wire, often a strange, bleak place of anxiety, real danger, and extreme poverty. This contrast seems to have struck Hall and his general as incompatible with a war zone.
What exactly is the issue with having “an amusement park” near a battlefield? Is it just a question of bad aesthetics or perhaps poor taste, like boorish behavior or jokes at a funeral?
I think it is much more than this, and reflects a recent cultural trend.
One trope that has shadowed US forces at least since WWII is the perception that American soldiers have it “too good.” Readers may remember the apocryphal British complaint of that war: Yanks were “overfed, oversexed and over here.”
Understandably for those times, films, those great cultural reflecting pools, did not at first engage this issue. But that changed in the aftermath of Vietnam.
Perhaps searching for reasons to explain America’s Vietnam experience, Hollywood seized on part of the British complaint and then some: the level of amenities given American soldiers reflected national decadence, was contrary to the Spartan ethos that for millennia had defined soldiering, and stood in sharp contrast with the enemy, who was depicted as having a greater willingness to suffer for its victories. Thus, Francis Ford Coppola produced Captain Willard’s observation quoted above, not to mention the brutally Spartan character of Col. Kurtz, who was successful precisely because he lived off the land and ignored the constraints of “over-civilized” US tactics.
Coppola was not alone. A host of acclaimed Vietnam War films extended this trope. Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) similarly emphasized the decadence of life inside the wire versus the harsh realities that lay outside. Inside the wire were hot meals, showers, drugs, alcohol, mail, and music; outside the wire lay indescribable violence, death, and chaos.
These and other films clearly suggested a connection between military defeat, film characters’ personal dysfunctions and the soft living of the artificial “mini-Americas” depicted inside the wire.
Movies are not reality and screenwriters, directors and producers are no more expert about combat life or military morale than any other group of civilians. But movies are super-powerful meme conveyors; memes, repeated often enough, will embed deeply in culture; and once they become cultural assumptions, are ideas that no one, in or out of a uniform, can easily escape.
Captain Willard helped establish one of those memes, and it appears that whether it reflects reality or not, General McChrystal, like many of us, has read the script.
Richard F. Miller is a military historian and sometime journalist, with reporting stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. His next book is the forthcoming, “Fighting Words:Persuasive Strategies for War and Politics,” (Spring, 2010.) Miller may be contacted through his website, www.millerrf.com.