Film Portrayals of Counterinsurgency and Nation-building in Vietnam


In a recent article in a special issue of Small Wars & Insurgencies, we considered the contribution Hollywood has made to our understanding of counterinsurgency and nation-building during the Vietnam War.

The war has been the subject of so many blockbuster films that it is inevitable that they play a leading role in shaping perceptions of the conflict. Students who have never lifted up a copy of classic Vietnam books such as Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An or Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie can be sure to have sat through Platoon or Apocalypse Now. But are these films educational as well as entertaining?

In considering this question, we split films on the Vietnam War into three broad chronological categories. The first are those dealing with the earliest period of US involvement, when the focus was on CIA-led ‘political action’. The second is the advisory period, when US forces began to be deployed to advise and support the South Vietnamese military. Finally, we looked at films that deal with the full ferocity of the Americanized war of post-1965. Put another way, the films we looked at have three main groups of protagonists – spies, advisors, and grunts.

The first set of films deal with ‘CIA covert action’ and their attempt to carry out ‘democratic nation building’ – a pair of phrases that it appears odd to have in the same sentence.  Apart from the seemingly obvious contradiction of an outside power engineering a democracy by employing underhand means, the example of Vietnam provides a useful illustration of the limits of covert action and the corruption of idealism.


The New York Times Vietnam correspondent Neil Sheehan referred to South Vietnam as ‘the creation’ of Edward Lansdale, a US Air Force officer detailed to the CIA, who was instrumental in supporting the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem at a time when his hold on power was tenuous.  Although not based on Lansdale’s experience, the British author and ex-intelligence officer Graham Greene created a similar, albeit fictional, CIA operative working in Vietnam, named Alden Pyle, in his classic book The Quiet American.

Pyle is an idealist who arrives in Vietnam in the early 1950s whilst it is still under French control, and amidst the struggle with the Vietnamese communists.  His goal, inspired by a political theorist called York Harding, is to build up an anti-communist ‘Third Force’ consisting of Vietnamese nationalists that are opposed to both the communists and the French.  The 2002 film The Quiet American, based on Greene’s novel, demonstrates how this goes wrong. Though an idealist, Pyle employs sinister methods to promote his cause, methods that ultimately backfire. He promotes the Vietnamese nationalist General Thé by providing his forces lethal aid and arranging publicity stunts to boost his popularity.  In effect, Thé is a stage-managed puppet, and though he may be a nationalist, he is a brutal warlord rather than a democrat.

In attempting to justify his support, Pyle explains, ‘In a war you use the tools you’ve got and right now he’s the best we have’. To arouse American interest in this far-off conflict, Pyle arranges for Thé to conduct a terrorist bombing in Saigon that will then be falsely blamed on the communists. In the end though, Pyle’s covert activities result in a ‘catastrophic success’ for the Americans, and the conflict becomes a quagmire. A key reason for this, as Greene described, is that there is no gratitude in politics. Rather than being an American puppet, Thé, similar to Diem, could not be controlled. Diem’s corruption and autocratic rule, highlighted by his persecution of Vietnam’s Buddhist majority, would precipitate his downfall in 1963, setting off a train of events that would culminate in a large-scale US intervention beginning in 1965.


The period beginning with John F. Kennedy’s 1961 assumption of the US presidency through to the 1965 Americanization of the Vietnam War is often described as the ‘advisory period’, even though a US Military Advisory and Assistance Group had been present in Indochina since 1950.

As of the early-to-mid 1960s, US ‘advisors’ consisted of two groups: Special Forces working with South Vietnamese irregular formations and Montagnard tribesmen based mainly on the borders with Laos and Cambodia, and regular Army personnel attached to South Vietnamese military units. The term ‘advisors’ is typically placed in quotes as they were often engaged in combat. Two films that capture this period are the propagandistic The Green Berets, and the cynical Go Tell the Spartans.

Although glorifying the Special Forces, The Green Berets avoids providing any explanation of why their ‘winning hearts and minds’ activities were insufficient to stop the spread of the Viet Cong insurgency. By contrast, Go Tell the Spartans explores the failures of the advisors through its rich character portrayals. For example, the senior South Vietnamese officer shown in the film, Colonel ‘Lardass’ Minh, is corrupt and requires American bribes to fight, whereas Corporal Nguyen ‘Cowboy’ is militarily effective but is seen torturing and beheading Viet Cong prisoners.

The Americans fare little better. The naive Second Lieutenant Hamilton attempts to motivate the South Vietnamese by giving a speech in which he says their goal is to ‘establish a fortress for liberty and justice’. The Vietnamese laugh at this. Hamilton’s idealism is contrasted by Captain Olivetti. Rather than being in Vietnam for idealistic reasons, Olivetti is an upwardly mobile career officer who is simply using his job as an advisor in Vietnam to obtain a Combat Infantryman Badge, which will help facilitate future promotions. Another character is the bespectacled Lieutenant Wattsberg, who is more a systems analyst than a warrior, and his key job is to operate the Incident Flow Priority Indicator. Wattsberg represents the future of the US military and its emerging managerial and quantitative approach to waging war.  The film shows the advisors as having little positive impact, with Vietnam portrayed as a war that is ‘going nowhere, just around and around in circles’.


This theme also runs through the final group of films we considered – those dealing with the period of US combat operations which ran from 1965 to 1973. The futility of American strategy is most clearly illustrated in the pair of films We Were Soldiers and Hamburger Hill. The two films deal with major clashes between US forces and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in 1965 and 1969 respectively – in fact, given the quick pace of US withdrawals from 1969 onwards, some US generals considered the battle depicted in Hamburger Hill to be the last major US engagement of the war. The events of the two films hence bookend the conflict.

In both films, the US appears to win victories – albeit costly ones – but is incapable of translating them into long-term strategic gains. The US wins control of its objectives in both films, but then abandons them shortly afterwards – the real US goal was the attrition of NVA forces, not the capture of territory. After his forces take a beating in We Were Soldiers, a melancholy NVA commander dwells on the true tragedy of what has just transpired in the Ia Drang valley. Believing themselves to have won a great victory, he explains, the US will send more forces – but this will only mean that there is further delay and bloodshed before the ultimate Communist victory. That the US was still in the position of trading lives for temporary gains – and no closer to attriting the enemy – by the time of the events in Hamburger Hill seems to prove the NVA commander right.

The most sophisticated treatment of counterinsurgency method in Vietnam cinema is contained in Apocalypse Now. In this film, Captain Benjamin Willard is sent on a mission to assassinate a rogue Special Forces officer, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Kurtz is accused by the Army hierarchy of practicing “unsound methods” and transgressing the moral and legal rules of warfare.

Kurtz believes that the key to the success of the Viet Cong is their superior willpower and commitment to their cause, and has set out to create a guerrilla force which shares these characteristics. But in so doing he explicitly collapses the moral distinction between the Viet Cong and their opponents and uses his force to commit atrocities. As Willard travels across the country and witnesses the absurdities and moral depravities of the way the regular Army fights the war, he begins to question whether the only difference between the approach of the regular Army and Kurtz is that the latter operates without hypocrisy.

After finally meeting Kurtz, Willard eventually decides the Army hierarchy is right – the rogue colonel has indeed gone insane. Willard pronounces Kurtz to have “no method at all” and kills him, then refuses to take his place as the commander of the guerrilla force. Unable to accept either the hypocrisy of the regular Army or the brutality of Kurtz, Willard’s disillusionment with the war is complete.

Platoon takes a much closer look at the futility of search and destroy operations. The soldiers involved are mostly kids who were conscripted into service – they have no desire to be in Vietnam and plainly lack the commitment and willpower of the Viet Cong. The grunts wreak havoc on the civilian population, take drugs in their spare time, and eventually turn on each other. Platoon makes clear that a conscript Army will struggle to muster the personnel necessary for the sophistication of counterinsurgency. Instead, many of the troops involved face psychological and moral collapse.

It is in illustrating these emotional and psychological issues that cinema provides its greatest service in the study of the Vietnam War. Even the most engaging historical tomes struggle to render the absurdity of war as starkly as Apocalypse Now, or the corruption of idealism as humanly as The Quiet American. Even though education inevitably yields somewhat to entertainment when Hollywood goes to war, the results are still instructive – for students and scholars alike.

Image: Participants of the inter-agency counterinsurgency Operation PHOENIX administered by the CIA and activated under Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support Program in South Vietnam in 1967-1971 with the goal to break Viet Cong support in the countryside, July 1968. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One thought on “Film Portrayals of Counterinsurgency and Nation-building in Vietnam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s