Far from being mere action films, the five installments of the Rambo franchise present us with the tragic history of how our foreign policy went awry, of our innocence stolen, our paradise lost.
American intervention in Vietnam might arguably be viewed as the beginning of the end. The fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident mirrors other fabrications by which we were duped into supporting wars, such as the intelligence agencies’ assurances of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. More recently, staged “chemical attacks” in Syria were promoted to attempt to draw us into yet another perpetual desert war. The nightmare of Vietnam left permanent pockmarks on the national psyche, and fully completed the separation of military from civilian life. Vietnam shattered the myth of American military hegemony and left legions of veterans permanently and irreparably physically and psychologically hobbled, unable to reintegrate themselves into and enjoy that which they suffered so much to save. My use in the preceding sentence of that word “save” is not meant to imply that the Vietnam War, or in any of our wars since the War of 1812, was waged in order to “save” America, or even a single American. But while this must be recognized, it is vital that, without devolving into military deification, we never lose sight of the fact that our soldiers do fight for us, regardless of the outcome. The men that serve in our armed forces did so because they believed they were serving their nation.
There are several great films about the foreign policy disaster. The Deer Hunter captures the hollowing-out of our industrial core and working class, the consequences of a citizenry that has turned its back on veterans, and the dark reality of post-traumatic stress disorder. Deathdream, a retelling of Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”, illustrates the Vietnam-induced addiction and psychological trauma that prevented veterans from rejoining society through the vehicle of allegorical horror, depicting a killed veteran being wished back home by his mother; upon his return, he is a vampiric zombie that destroys his family and home. The narrative follows the pyrrhic logic of the war itself, whereby the village was burned in order to save the village, as well as the peril of empire. We reap the blowback, destroying ourselves through intervention just as the boy’s mother suffers the consequences of her intervention in her son’s death. In one key moment, as the undead veteran kills a doctor, he says, “I died for you, doc. Why don’t you return the favor?” Southern Comfort is another Vietnam allegory, wherein a detachment of Army National Guardsmen in Louisiana is stalked and murdered Viet Cong-style in the swamp by local Cajuns. It is First Blood, though, that claims the prize for most devastating Vietnam film, because it most fully examines the aftermath, the false homecoming that our veterans were treated to.
As John Rambo enters the frame, he comes upon a Northwestern idyll, replete with a sparkling lake and children playing, the America that he believed he fought for. He sees a woman outside, hanging clothes up to dry, and makes his way toward her. Rambo asks her where he can find an old Army buddy; she replies that he was killed by cancer, the result of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, that it “cut him down to nothing.” Rambo now realizes that he is alone in the world, the man having been his last surviving friend. This reference to the invisible wounds of Agent Orange foreshadows the psychic scars that Rambo is afflicted by.
He continues up the road, with nothing but his standard-issue duffel bag. Walking along the road into Hope, Washington, Rambo is spotted by the Sheriff; the policeman slows, and asks him what he’s doing. Immediately and unilaterally hostile, the Sheriff says, “You know, wearing that flag on that jacket, looking the way you do, you’re asking for trouble around here, friend.”
He orders Rambo to get in the car, and proceeds to drive him to the outskirts of town. As they pass through the town, the veteran asks where he can get something to eat, and the Sheriff replies that he can stop somewhere thirty miles up the highway. The following exchange ensues:
“Is there any law against me getting something here?”
“Why are you pushing me?”
“What did you say?”
“I haven’t done anything to you.”
“I ask the questions…we don’t want guys like you in this town. Drifters. First thing you know we’ll have a whole bunch of you guys…this is a quiet little town…boring. That’s the way we like it.”
After dropping Rambo off just past the bridge exiting Hope, the Sheriff smugly says, “Hope this ride helped you out.” The flag on Rambo’s jacket, the one which the Sheriff said was “asking for trouble”, is the same flag that the Sheriff wears on his: the American flag, like the Sphinx a blank screen onto which anyone may project his ideology. To be sure, our flag has one objective meaning; it has simply been obscured by hundreds of years of misuse, of being coopted by the rulers of the darkness of this world, of giving glory to damnation and salvation alike. To accomplish the sinister ends of faceless men, the ruling class packages its lies in an American flag perfumed with the aromas of freshly-mown lawn and apple pie; the sons of the South that are deluded into this Big Lie enlist to serve as expendable pieces on a chessboard drenched in shadow. This disquieting interaction, rage quietly bubbling below the surface, is the first of many illustrations throughout the film of the resentment underlying the dichotomy of civilian and military. A simplified description of this tension is civilian fear of and revulsion and shame for the military which acts in its name, and the concurrent military disdain for the varyingly apathetic, ungrateful, and disconnected civilian whose name it acts in.
The Sheriff drives away, and the defiant Rambo walks back across the bridge. The policeman observes him in the rearview, and reverses, asking, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” He exits his car, hand on his gun, and with excessive force arrests Rambo. Though he tells the Sheriff that his Bowie knife is for hunting, the Sheriff dismisses the explanation; the weapon serves as his pretext for the arrest. He confiscates the knife, and charges the veteran, whom he calls “just another smart-ass drifter”, with vagrancy, resisting arrest, and carrying a concealed weapon.
Inside the jail at the police station, Rambo gazes at the bars on the windows and experiences a nearly debilitating flashback to his time as a prisoner-of-war, wherein he lies in darkness at the bottom of a pit, excrement is poured on him from the slats above, and the deafening sounds of the impenetrable Vietnamese jungle surround him. A particularly sadistic police officer rips Rambo’s dog tags from his neck, further stripping him of what little of his identity still clings to him. The officers then physically strip him, revealing his torture-scarred body; one officer is taken aback, saying, “What the hell has he been into? We should report this.” The aforementioned sadist beats Rambo to the floor with a nightstick and brutally pressure washes him. To forcibly shave him, the same officer chokes him with a baton, provoking another of the memories indelibly imprinted on the veteran’s psyche. Ropes bind Rambo to a wooden cross, displayed in a tableau of the crucifixion; a rope drawn across his neck tightens and chokes him, just as the Hope police officer is. As the sadist sharpens the razor, Rambo sees a North Vietnamese officer brandishing a knife against his cheek.
His civilian American tormentors are thus made inseparable from his enemies in Vietnam, one tyranny exchanged for another. Is this the government that he pledged his life to? This begs the profound question of just what it is that our soldiers enlist to defend: is it the Nation, or the State? Is it the people, or the abstracted and corrupt government? Multiple Supreme Court rulings have already clarified this with respect to our police officers; policemen, sworn “to protect and serve”, have no duty to protect individuals unless several stringent qualifications are met. Their duty is to the State.
Rambo fights his way out, reclaiming his knife but not his jacket, and escapes on a motorbike. He leads the Sheriff on a high-speed pursuit into the forest; when the Sheriff crashes his car, Rambo waits to see him exit the car before continuing deeper into the wilderness. The Sheriff presses dogs and a helicopter into service. Cornered, Rambo climbs down a sheer cliffside into a massive gorge. The sadistic officer from the jail, armed now with a high-powered hunting rifle rather than a baton or a razor, shoots at him from the helicopter, aiming to kill the veteran. Rambo is thus forced to take a leap of faith into a tree, seriously injuring himself on the way down. As the sadist continues to fire, Rambo throws a rock at the helicopter. The rock hits the windshield, and the startled pilot wavers, causing the police officer to fall to his death.
Trying to de-escalate the situation, Rambo, his hands up, attempts to negotiate. The officers atop the cliff open fire, striking him. He runs into the woods, and the Sheriff sends his men and the dogs after him. They discover that Rambo was a Green Beret in Vietnam and a war hero, the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. One officer exclaims, “Jesus, that freak?” The Sheriff vows to “pin that Medal of Honor on his liver.” As the officers pursue Rambo in dense forest, he employs the guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong, the abyss which gazed back. He disables each officer, one by one, concluding with the Sheriff. Allowing the man one more chance to de-escalate the conflict, Rambo says, “I could’ve killed them all. I could’ve killed you. In town, you’re the law. Out here, it’s me. Don’t push it, or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe. Let it go.”
But of course, the Sheriff cannot let go. He calls for a mobilization of the State Police and the National Guard. We are treated to a newscast from the lying press, the fraudulent media whose well-deserved moniker is the Enemy of the People. The journalist, a seal barking the party line, tells the credulous citizenry that Rambo “killed one deputy sheriff and tried to kill six others. Only their skilled training and police enforcement techniques saved their lives. Word now is that the fugitive will be in custody in a matter of hours.” Never fear, the brilliant authorities have the crazed veteran under control. Nothing to see here.
An officer reports that the deputies, including the sadist, had brutalized Rambo and provoked this conflagration; the Sheriff dismisses this, inexplicably and disingenuously claiming that Rambo could have come to him about it. U.S. Army Colonel Samuel Trautman appears at the operational camp, telling the Sheriff that he was Rambo’s commanding officer in Vietnam. He says, “I’ve come to get my boy…I didn’t come to rescue him from you. I came to rescue you from him.” The Sheriff derisively declines Trautman’s offer of assistance, stating that Trautman simply wants to cover the situation up because “one of [his] machines blew a gasket.” This throwaway mechanical metaphor is often used to speak of combat veterans; they are ‘broken down’ and ‘rebuilt’ in training, à la Full Metal Jacket, and when they return home, any issues they may suffer, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, is explained in these terms as some sort of catastrophic mechanical failure. This furthers the dehumanization that our apathetic, if not outright hostile, society treats veterans with.
Trautman warns the Sheriff that Rambo is a master of attritional guerrilla warfare, and tells him that if he continues to pursue Rambo, he had best not forget “a good supply of body bags.” Trautman surmises that Rambo took a radio from one of his pursuers, and advises the police that he will likely maintain radio silence. One officer attempts to lull Rambo into surrender by declaring, “You have our word that your services to your country will be taken into consideration, and you will receive fair treatment.” Cold comfort. The Sheriff requests Trautman to get on the radio, and successfully elicits a response from Rambo. In their conversation, Rambo makes several telling statements, including: “They’re all gone, sir. They’re all dead…down to the bone. I’m the last one, sir.”; “There are no friendly civilians.”; and “There wouldn’t be any trouble if it weren’t for that cop. All I wanted was something to eat. But the man kept pushing…they drew first blood, not me. They drew first blood.”
Rambo has lost every single one of his band of brothers. All of his friends are gone. He is now damned to wander the lonely roadways of an inhospitable country. He might be said to exist behind enemy lines; the eyes of a grateful nation once fixed now turn away, afraid to meet his gaze and reckon with the consequences of what the men that they elected have done, afraid to reckon with the actions taken in their name, the enormity of pain borne in their honor. Rambo also emphasizes that he did nothing wrong to initiate this war; all that he asked was for a place where he could get a bite to eat. This appeal to “first blood” is a deceptively simple formulation of just war as retaliation for injustice; he did nothing but mind his own business and try to live his life in whatever small modicum of freedom that remained to him, and he was attacked. He was hounded and browbeaten for no reason other than that he served his country. Any nation that does not hate itself should, as our Founders did, promulgate this noninterventionist doctrine. America First is First Blood; in other words, we respond if and when our blood is drawn.
A group of National Guardsmen, having finally tracked Rambo down using the radio signal, are too terrified to follow him into the abandoned mineshaft that they think he is hiding in. One speaks for all of them, including the leader, when he says, “I do this part-time. I didn’t sign up for this to get killed.” These weekend warriors signed up to play G.I. Joe, to feel like men, not to put their lives on the line. They have no sense of duty, nor of honor. They employ a rocket launcher to fire into the mine and kill Rambo, a move presaging our current era of military decline and rise of war at a distance. Our best and brightest now rarely enlist in the armed forces, and as time passes our military engages less and less in combat and more and more in the desensitized video-game simulacrum of remote drone strikes. After thinking they have killed Rambo, they pose on the ruins for a photograph; their leader promises to mail it in to Soldier of Fortune. When the Sheriff orders them to dig to recover the body, one protests, “I gotta be back at the drugstore tomorrow!”
The Sheriff gloats to Trautman, “Special, my ass. He was just another drifter that broke the laws.” Trautman replies, “Vagrancy, wasn’t it? That’s gonna look real good on his gravestone at Arlington. Here lies John Rambo, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, survivor of countless incursions behind enemy lines. Killed for vagrancy in Jerkwater, USA.” This yet again underlines the horrific treatment that veterans receive at the hands of the country they signed up to fight for. Whether or not we agree with the wars our leaders and their ventriloquists engage us in, we must acknowledge it is we who allow them to retain their positions of power, that it is we who allow ourselves to be deceived and maneuvered into war after war, and that although our wars are meaningless and the deaths they engender unnecessary, the soldier still fights for his country. For us. His death, and his life, is everything but meaningless.
A country that treats its soldiers this way is manifestly sick, ailing with a terminal illness. The acrimonious divorce between civilian and military, coinciding with the decline of American military power generally, appears to have occurred in the aftermath of World War Two, appearing during the Korean War but not being fully realized until Vietnam. As a result, most Americans are totally untethered from the institution of the military; though we do not hesitate to adorn our vehicles and businesses with “Support Our Troops” stickers, we only deign to notice the military in order to criticize it for perceived atrocities. Noblesse oblige has died; the heirs of aristocracy used to serve as leaders on the frontlines, and now the ruling class participates in war only by deciding to send in more working class deplorables to die for whatever oligarchic interests have been deemed to be “American.” In the absence of civilian investment, the institution was allowed to degenerate into an experimental social justice laboratory under the Obama Administration, as is documented by Hasson’s Stand Down.
Rambo escapes the mineshaft the Sheriff believes him to be buried under and hijacks a transport carrying an M60 machinegun. He crashes through a police roadblock and enters the town, proceeding to wreak havoc on Hope by blowing up a car dealership, gas station, and gun store. He disables the electricity and shoots out a storefront, creating disorienting chaos. Rambo then launches his final assault, firing on the police station. As he stands over the Sheriff, military looming over civilian, ready to make the kill and end the war he never wanted, Trautman intervenes. He orders Rambo to stand down, saying, “It’s over.” Rambo replies, sobbing in a miserable rage:
“Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war. You asked me, I didn’t ask you. I did what I had to do to win, for somebody who wouldn’t let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting, calling me a baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me…Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about! …civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honor…I was in charge of million-dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!”
He continues by telling the story of a Vietnamese child that approached Rambo and a friend with a shoeshine box. The boy pestered the two soldiers, and Rambo’s compatriot finally assented. Rambo stepped away for a moment, and his friend opened the box. It was wired with explosives, and blew him to pieces. Every day for seven years, Rambo remembers: “My friend is all over me! …I’m trying to hold him together, I put him together, his fucking insides keep coming out, and nobody would help!”
Rambo thus elucidates the psychic trauma that constantly reverberates in his mind, the ceaseless barrage of images that he is assaulted by day after day. From the moment he returned to America, he was met with unjustifiable vilification. This extreme form of antiwar activism, a performative expression of moral superiority, included spitting on returning veterans, throwing blood on them, and calling them “baby killers.” This last is especially vexing, for it takes quite a bit of gall for the infanticide-worshipping Left to refer to a veteran as a “baby killer.” The antiwar movement at this time was coopted by the anti-American Left, maneuvering the patriotic Right into supporting the Vietnam War, full steam ahead, when it should have fought against it tooth and nail. If you did not support the war, you were deemed to be a Communist; unhelpfully, the antiwar dissidents generally were.
Something similar occurred with respect to the Old Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, itself manipulated into being by Roosevelt. By wrapping the war in an American flag and presenting it as inextricable from patriotism, the interventionists of the Roosevelt Administration dealt the coup de grâce to the America First Committee. If you did not support the war, you were deemed an unpatriotic dissident, and perhaps even a National Socialist. In the aftermath of World War Two, the Cold War was inseminated, and the Old Right subsumed into the general anticommunist Right that eventually gave birth to the neoconservatives.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Rambo: First Blood Part II, much like Rambo: Last Blood would be over three decades later, was dismissed as a reactionary “right-wing conspiracy theory”. Its plot, which will be explored in full detail, deals with Rambo rescuing American prisoners-of-war, or POWs, that had been intentionally left behind in Vietnam by our government. Though swept aside as the mere narrative machinations of a mindless action film, the POWs referenced in the film were almost certainly real; this film thus sheds light on what is undoubtedly one of the greatest single betrayals ever committed against our nation by the ruling class.
Ron Unz rediscovered an explosive, yet virtually ignored in the mendacious press, exposé by the late Sydney Schanberg. Their work is here summarized; all of the research here detailed comes from their labors. Schanberg was considered one of, if not the, foremost journalistic authorities on the Vietnam War; his work netted him a Pulitzer Prize, two George Polk awards, two Overseas Press Club awards, and the Sigma Delta Chi prize for distinguished journalism. His book on Cambodia formed the basis of the Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields. Schanberg also served as one of the senior editors at The New York Times, when that paper’s name still meant something. For years, Schanberg gathered exhaustively sourced documentary evidence, both of the intentional abandonment of hundreds of American POWs and of the subsequent cover-up, that could easily be investigated, yet the lying press breathed not a word of it. This is all the more surprising considering that Schanberg pointed to the late Republican Presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, as the central figure in the cover-up.
Unz has documented seriously compelling evidence to suggest that McCain’s war record was largely fabricated, including the torture claims that catapulted him into political stardom as the ur-patriot; in reality, there is evidence to demonstrate that McCain collaborated with the enemy as a propagandist, a fact which was later forgotten so as not to embarrass McCain’s high-ranking father, who had been a central figure in the cover-up of the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, in which hundreds of Americans were killed or wounded. It appears from Schanberg’s reporting that McCain used his likely-fabricated POW status to sweep the abandoned POWs under the proverbial rug.
After the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Vietnamese ransomed their French POWs; the French government paid the price, and their men were returned. Schanberg’s sources revealed that after the American withdrawal, the Vietnamese made the same demand; though President Nixon assented to a $3.25 billion payment and 591 prisoners were released in 1973, including John McCain, Congress refused to authorize the “humanitarian assistance” funds because of the shattered maxim that “America doesn’t lose wars.” As the years dragged on and nothing was done, the existence of the POWs became nothing but a political liability to be hidden at all costs. As such, the American public was kept in the dark, our POWs condemned to a lingering death.
According to Schanberg, “there exists a telling mass of official documents, radio intercepts, witness depositions, satellite photos of rescue symbols that pilots were trained to use, electronic messages from the ground containing the individual code numbers given to airmen, a rescue mission by a special forces unit that was aborted twice by Washington—and even sworn testimony by two Defense secretaries that ‘men were left behind.’” Schanberg believed that the number was “probably hundreds.”
Schanberg discovered that throughout his Senate tenure, McCain worked tirelessly to hide this information by codifying prohibitions to keep POW documents classified. Presenting himself to the public as a champion of veterans and our most famous POW, McCain instead behaved as the opposite. In 1991, veteran and family pressure resulted in the creation of a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, chaired by John Kerry, although McCain was the most important figure on the committee. McCain was not alone, though; every Administration since Nixon’s was complicit in the tragedy. Schanberg concluded that the Senate committee, though publicly pledging to finally get to the bottom of the issue, privately colluded with the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Future Vice President Dick Cheney and future Secretary of Defense Robert Gates led the respective organizations at the time.
In 1990 and 1991, the ‘Truth Bill’ was introduced to unseal all POW documents from World War Two, Korea, and Vietnam. The legislation was killed both times. Instead, in 1991 the ‘McCain Bill’ was enacted, which had the effect of making it virtually impossible to unseal any POW records. In 1995, POW advocates had strengthened the Missing Service Personnel Act to make officials criminally liable for intentionally concealing POW evidence. In 1996, McCain led the attachment of an amendment which eliminated the criminal liability and reduced the military’s obligation to search for and report missing men. McCain consistently referred to all of the evidence (“documents, witnesses, satellite photos, two Pentagon chiefs’ sworn testimony, aborted rescue missions, ransom offers apparently scorned”) as the “bizarre rantings of the MIA hobbyists.”
McCain smeared POW activists, all of whom were veterans and the family members of the missing, as “hoaxers,” “charlatans,” “conspiracy theorists,” and “dime-store Rambos.” He “browbeat” witnesses who offered evidence before the committee, ruthlessly attempting to discredit them. Some of the family members were screamed at, insulted, and brought to tears; one group of family members, including an elderly mother in a wheelchair, were “roughly pushed aside.” His common refrain was that his patriotism was beyond reproach, a totally misdirected obfuscation. One of the men who had been in McCain’s prison camp, Col. Ted Guy, wrote an open letter to the Senator taking him to task for the abuses he hurled at activists, asking, “John, does this include Senator Bob Smith and other concerned elected officials? Does this include the families of the missing where there is overwhelming evidence that their loved ones were ‘last known alive’? Does this include some of your fellow POWs?”
Dolores Alfond, the sister of a missing airman, was one such target of McCain’s abuse. She asked the committee about PAVE SPIKE, a program by which motion sensors were dropped by the Air Force to pick up enemy troop movements; the sensors were regularly monitored. The devices also allowed men on the ground, such as downed airmen or POWs, to manually enter data into the device. All data were regularly collected electronically by U.S. planes flying overhead. Alfond stated, “without any challenge or contradiction by the committee, that in 1974, a year after the supposedly complete return of prisoners, the gathered data showed that a person or people had manually entered into the sensors- as U.S. pilots had been trained to do- no less than 20 authenticator numbers that corresponded exactly to the classified authenticator numbers of 20 U.S. POWs who were lost in Laos.” A scarlet-faced McCain screamed at the woman, accusing her of “denigrating” his “patriotism.” His victim reduced to tears, his mission complete, McCain left the hearing.
In 1993, an American scholar, Stephen Morris of Harvard, found a damning document in the recently opened Soviet archives. The document, a 1973 briefing of the Vietnamese Politburo by General Tran Van Quang, stated that 1,205 Americans were held in prison camps- a far cry from the 591 that were released. The briefing stated that many would be held for ransom after the peace accords as bargaining chips. Despite former National Security Advisers Brzezinski and Kissinger contending that the document appeared to be genuine, American and Vietnamese officials both disavowed the document, contending that decades earlier, parties unknown had placed a fabricated document in the Soviet archives. A February 2, 1973, New York Times article quotes intelligence officials as expressing shock at the low number, stating a massive discrepancy between the number of released men and their intelligence estimates.
On the same day that the aforementioned New York Times article was published, President Nixon himself relayed to the Vietnamese Prime Minister that “U.S. records show there are 317 American military men unaccounted for in Laos and it is inconceivable that only ten of these men would be held prisoner in Laos.” Nixon must have reconciled the irreconcilable when he announced less than two months later that “all of our American POWs are on their way home.” That April, the Pentagon followed suit, announcing “that there was no evidence of any further live prisoners in Indochina.” Schanberg reports that the then-head of the Pentagon’s POW/MIA Task Force, Roger Shields, was summoned to the office of Deputy Secretary of Defense (and future Texas Governor) Bill Clements, to hash out “a new public formulation” of the POW issue. Shields swore before the Senate committee that Clements had told him, “All the American POWs are dead.” Shields replied, “You can’t say that.” Clements then repeated, “You didn’t hear me. They are all dead.”
In 1992, two Secretaries of Defense, James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird, testified before the committee that there were unreturned prisoners. Schlesinger said that based on all of the evidence collected over the years, including letters and direct radio communication, he “can come to no other conclusion … some were left behind.” During the 1973 repatriation of the 591 POWs, President Nixon had said on national television speech that “the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come. For the first time in 12 years, no American military forces are in Vietnam. All our American POWs are on their way home.” Since-discovered documents show that Nixon likely knew this to be false. When asked why Nixon would have lied, Schlesinger replied that “the bargaining position of the United States … was quite weak. We were anxious to get our troops out and we were not going to roil the waters.” No less a figure than Lt. Gen. Eugene Tighe, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1977-1981 (as well as deputy director from 1974-1976 and acting director from 1975-1976), stated that all of the evidence contradicted the Pentagon’s position that there were no living POWs.
Former National Security Adviser Richard Allen gave sworn testimony before the Senate committee that in 1981, President Reagan had received a ransom offer for American POWs in Vietnam, and that the offer was discussed in a meeting attended by Reagan, Vice President Bush, CIA Director Casey, and Allen. Though Allen’s testimony was held behind closed doors, San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Robert Caldwell obtained the testimony and reported it. Allen immediately recanted, but one Secret Service agent, John Syphrit, a Vietnam veteran, came forward and said that he had overheard the conversation and was willing to testify under subpoena. He was not subpoenaed, nor, of course, were Bush or Reagan.
The Senate committee did not question any living President; then-President Bush, CIA Director from 1976-1977, was never approached, Reagan declined to testify, and Nixon was excused. Committee staff determined “credible” reports that “there can be no doubt that POWs were alive…as late as 1989.” The whitewashed Executive Summary of the committee’s final report stated that only “a small number” of POWs could have been left behind in 1973 and that all of those were almost certainly dead. However, the full 1,221-page Report on POW/MIAs contained documentary evidence which “established that a significant number of prisoners were left behind- and that top government officials knew this from the start.” The full report gave varying estimates, ranging from 150 to 600 American soldiers left to die, some wasting away for over sixteen years after the end of American involvement in Vietnam.
As Schanberg reported, a footnote to the report revealed that Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Adviser, told Select Committee Vice-Chairman Bob Smith “that he had informed President Nixon during the 60-day period after the peace agreement was signed that U.S. intelligence officials believed that the list of prisoners captured in Laos was incomplete.” Kissinger stated that Nixon said that he would resume a bombing campaign if the remaining POWs were unaccounted for after the return of the 591 prisoners of Operation Homecoming, but that Nixon “was later unwilling to carry through on this threat.” Kissinger, through his ally McCain, attempted unsuccessfully to have the footnote expunged prior to publication. In Kissinger’s own memoirs, he acknowledged communications and photographs in Laos that evidenced “at least 80 instances in which an American serviceman had been captured alive and subsequently disappeared.” Despite this admission, Kissinger swore under oath before the committee “that he never had any information that specific, named soldiers were captured alive and hadn’t been returned by Vietnam.”
The DIA and CIA had thousands of first-hand sightings, as well as tens of thousands of second-hand reports, of live American POWs. Many of these witnesses were interrogated, given lie detector tests, and determined to be credible; the DIA nevertheless concluded that these witness reports did “not constitute evidence.” In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Thai communications officers trained by the National Security Agency intercepted communications from the Laotian military referencing the transportation of American POWs. When these communications were reported to Washington, they were disregarded. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, American satellites captured images of what appear to be the very distress signals that our pilots and soldiers had been specifically trained to make, including “certain letters, like X or K, drawn in a special way” and “secret four-digit authenticator numbers.”
American officials claimed that these markings were “shadows and vegetation.”
According to Schanberg, on one occasion a missing soldier’s name was clearly “gouged into a field”; when one Pentagon expert refused to debunk the evidence, an outside contractor was brought in and summarily declared that it was nothing but “shadows and vegetation.” One photographic investigator on the Senate committee staff, Bob Taylor, told Schanberg that “if grass can spell out people’s names and secret digit codes, then I have a newfound respect for grass.” The committee’s final report noted that until 1992, “no branch of the intelligence community that dealt with analysis of satellite and lower-altitude photos had ever been informed of the specific distress signals U.S. personnel were trained to use in the Vietnam War, nor had they ever been tasked to look for any such signals at all from possible prisoners on the ground.”
The committee did not request a review of old photographs, which might “have turned up lots of distress-signal numbers that nobody in the government was looking for from 1973 to 1991, when the committee opened shop.” The DIA was found to have “lost or destroyed” the lists of individual authenticator numbers for Army, Navy, and Marine pilots, though the Air Force list had been preserved in another agency. The report concluded, “In theory, therefore, if a POW still living in captivity were to attempt to communicate by ground signal, smuggling out a note or by whatever means possible, and he used his personal authenticator number to confirm his identity, the U.S. government would be unable to provide such confirmation, if his number happened to be among those numbers DIA cannot locate.” This is in direct contradiction with the White House of every Administration through 1973 to 1991 claiming that POWS were the “highest national priority.”
In his 2002 book, Inside Delta Force, Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Haney described how in 1981 “his Special Forces unit, after rigorous training for a POW rescue mission, had the mission suddenly aborted, revived a year later, and again abruptly aborted.” Haney also wrote, “Years later, I spoke at length with a former highly placed member of the North Vietnamese diplomatic corps, and this person asked me point-blank: ‘Why did the Americans never attempt to recover their remaining POWs after the conclusion of the war?’”
Schanberg claims to have been told by senior CIA officials in 1992 that with each passing year with the ransom left unpaid, it became increasingly undesirable for both our government and the Vietnamese government to admit the existence of the POWs. The knowledge that these men had been totally discarded and left to languish in the jungle for decades after the end of the war would discredit the ruling classes of both nations. These officials, said Schanberg, told him that their intelligence indicated “that the remaining men- those who had not died from illness or hard labor or torture- were eventually executed.”
Schanberg further reported that in 1991, Col. Millard Peck, a Vietnam veteran, resigned from his position as the head of the DIA Special Office for Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. Peck had sought the position to restore its integrity as “sort of a holy crusade” because he had discovered that the POW/MIA office had “had been turned into a waste-disposal unit for getting rid of unwanted evidence about live prisoners- a ‘black hole.’” After eight months, Peck resigned from the military altogether, detailing “a cover-up.” Peck claimed that the Department of Defense wanted only to debunk all evidence of men left behind, declaring that “the entire charade does not appear to be an honest effort, and may never have been…Practically all analysis is directed to finding fault with the source. Rarely has there been any effective, active follow through on any of the sightings, nor is there a responsive ‘action arm’ to routinely and aggressively pursue leads.”
Peck continued by acknowledging that he “became painfully aware that I was…merely a figurehead or whipping boy for a larger and totally Machiavellian group of players outside of DIA … I feel strongly that this issue is being manipulated and controlled at a higher level, not with the goal of resolving it, but more to obfuscate the question of live prisoners and give the illusion of progress through hyperactivity.” Peck did not name any officials in particular, but referred to the office as having been used expressly as a “‘toxic waste dump’ to bury the whole ‘mess’ out of sight.” Peck’s dismal conclusion was that, “From what I have witnessed, it appears that any soldier left in Vietnam, even inadvertently, was, in fact, abandoned years ago, and that the farce that is being played is no more than political legerdemain done with ‘smoke and mirrors’ to stall the issue until it dies a natural death.”
McCain concluded that, despite all of the preceding evidence, “We found no compelling evidence to prove that Americans are alive in captivity today. There is some evidence- though no proof- to suggest only the possibility that a few Americans may have been kept behind after the end of America’s military involvement in Vietnam.” As Schanberg repeated McCain’s phrase, “evidence though no proof”, he remarked, “Clearly, no one could meet McCain’s standard of proof as long as he is leading a government crusade to keep the truth buried.” As Unz put it:
“In the troubled aftermath of America’s military defeat and the Nixon resignation, our entire country sought to forget Vietnam, and neither elected officials nor journalists were eager to revisit the issue, let alone investigate one of the war’s dirtiest secrets. The Vietnamese continued to hold their American prisoners for most of the next twenty years, periodically making attempts to negotiate their release in exchange for the money they were still owed, but never found an American leader daring enough to take such a bold step. The Big Lie had grown just too enormous to be overturned.”
Unz further noted that “even as American filmgoers watched Sylvester Stallone heroically free desperate American servicemen from Vietnamese prisons, the real-life American POWs were still being held under much those same horrible conditions, with no American leader willing to take the enormous political risk of attempting either to rescue or ransom them. Over the years, many of the POWs had died from ill-treatment, and the return of the miserable survivors after their secret captivity would unleash a firestorm of popular anger, surely destroying the many powerful individuals who had long known of their abandonment.”
It is in this context that First Blood Part II must be acknowledged as particularly brilliant. As the film begins, Rambo slaves away in the labor camp he was sentenced to after the events of First Blood. He receives a visit from Colonel Trautman, who apologizes for the conditions of Rambo’s detention. He replies, “At least in here I know where I stand.” Trautman offers Rambo a covert reconnaissance mission to gather evidence of American POWs left behind in Vietnam, to which he replies by asking, “Why now?” Before he accedes, Rambo asks, “Do we get to win this time?” Trautman replies, “This time, it’s up to you.”
In this brief conversation, Rambo yet again references his estrangement from civilian life, more comfortable as a declared prisoner in a hard labor camp than in the undeclared psychological war waged against him in the world that he would happily lay down his life for. Rambo and Trautman both reveal that they believe Vietnam could actually have been won, had they been “allowed” to. This is an area that seems ripe for research, illustrating a divide between the combat soldier and the military and civilian bureaucracies; evidently, atop the echelons of power, there is none of the tension between civilian and military that pervades the daily life of the nation.
Arriving at the operational base in Thailand, Rambo is introduced to Murdock, the Pentagon bureaucrat in charge of Special Operations. The smarmy snake runs through Rambo’s combat record, noting the highly decorated veteran’s fifty-nine confirmed kills in service. Murdock tells Rambo that there are roughly 2,500 MIAs in Southeast Asia, saying that “most of these boys are presumed killed, but…to many Americans it’s still a very emotional issue.” Murdock is manifestly not one of these “many Americans.” He charges Rambo with gathering photographic evidence, ordering that he not engage any enemy combatants or attempt to rescue any POW. He declares “the old Vietnam” to be dead. Rambo replies, in an oblique reference to his psychological trauma, “If I’m still alive, it’s still alive.” Murdock proudly shows the skeptical Rambo gleaming banks of computers and outfits him with the most advanced equipment available.
As Rambo embarks on his mission, Trautman assures Murdock that the veteran is a “pure fighting machine, with only a desire to win a war that someone else lost. If winning means he’ll have to die, he’ll die. No fear, no regrets…what you choose to call Hell, he calls home.” Murdock, who clearly could not care less, replies that Vietnam “wasn’t my war…I’m just here to clean up the mess.” On Rambo’s insertion from the air, his pack gets hung on the plane, and he immediately frees himself by cutting away all of the expensive, top-of-the-line equipment that he neither wanted nor needed.
Rambo meets with a local guide, who converses with him about his combat experience. He laments his triage of a homecoming, speaking of the “quiet war…against the soldiers that were returning.” He also tells the guide that “to survive a war, you’ve got to become war.” Vietnam is forever a part of him; not only did he become war, but war became him, waged in his heart and soul every day for the rest of his days. Rambo continues by referring to himself as “expendable”; the guide is unfamiliar with the word, and Rambo explains it thus: “It’s like someone invites you to a party, and you don’t show up, and it doesn’t matter.” He recognizes his Übermensch stature in combat, the significance of his life as defined by his role as savior and warrior, but cannot help but realize the insignificance with which his life is valued by his government, and by the nation he believes he serves. Though invaluable in battle, he will forever be disposable at “the party”, the life he killed to preserve but is cursed never to enjoy.
Rambo’s guide arranges for river pirates to transport them to the vicinity of the prison camp, and Rambo locates the jungle gulag. He discovers dozens of Americans in horrific condition, including one POW, Banks, who has been crucified and left to die of exposure. Rambo cannot help but disregard his orders and rescue his brother in arms. Banks tells Rambo how just providential his arrival is, commenting that the prisoners are frequently moved from location to location. The present camp has been abandoned for about one year. It instantly dawns on Rambo that his mission was designed to fail; the government specifically chose that camp for his inspection precisely because it was supposed to be empty.
The alarm is raised, and Rambo and Banks make their escape. Against overwhelming odds, Rambo manages to get the two of them to the extraction point. Under a barrage of mortar fire, Vietnamese soldiers swarm the rice paddy. From the approaching helicopter, Trautman and two of Murdock’s men, both intelligence agents of some sort, radio to the base camp that Rambo succeeded, announcing, “He found one of ours!” The enlisted men cheer, but the furious Murdock orders everyone to exit the building. Just as the helicopter is landing to extract Rambo and Banks, Murdock orders the rescue aborted, leaving the men to die. Banks has now been abandoned twice, and Rambo’s expendability reified. At gunpoint, Murdock’s men prevent Trautman from interfering and hijacking the helicopter. He angrily exclaims, “You’re damn mercenaries…those are own our men down there!” One of the Pentagon operatives replies that Rambo and Banks, and presumably the remaining POWs, are “not our men. Your men. Don’t be a hero.” Mercenaries, indeed, much as the ruling class has transformed our entire military into a mercenary force for international finance, or “American interests.”
Back at the operational base, Trautman confronts Murdock. Their exchange:
“Don’t act so innocent.”
“It was a lie, wasn’t it? Just like the whole damn war! That camp was supposed to be empty. Rambo goes in, a decorated veteran. He finds no POWs, the Congress buys it, case closed. And if he happens to get caught, nobody knows he’s alive except you and your computers. And you can reprogram them, can’t you? And if those pictures had showed something, they would’ve just gotten lost, wouldn’t they?”
Murdock explains that he is not covering his, but rather “the nation’s ass”, and lays the blame on Rambo for disobeying orders. He admits that “in ’72 we were supposed to pay the Cong…war reparations. We reneged. They kept the POWs.” He challenges Trautman:
“What the hell would you do, Trautman? Pay blackmail money to ransom our own men and finance the war effort against our allies? What if some burnout POW shows up on the 6:00 news, what’re you gonna do, start the war all over again? You want to bomb Hanoi, have everybody screaming for an armed invasion? You think somebody’s going to get up on the floor of the U.S. Senate and ask for billions of dollars for a couple of forgotten ghosts?”
Trautman fires back, “Men, dammit! Men who fought for the country!”
Murdock’s arguments belie the cynical evil of the ruling class that abandoned our men, or in his parlance, our “forgotten ghosts.” I wonder if their families forgot these suffering “ghosts.” Murdock claims that by condemning these POWs to a gruesome and wretched death, he is acting in the nation’s best interest. He has conflated, as so many do, the national government with the people of our nation. He correctly concludes that if the American people were ever to know the truth, political heads would roll, perhaps even resulting in criminal charges; he understands that the people would clamor for war, that this indignation could never be tolerated by a nation that does not hate itself. Murdock further elucidates his position by noting that, much as America is above negotiating with terrorists, America is above paying ransoms for its disposable heroes. He would rather our servicemen be tortured to death than allow the projection of our strength to be diminished or allow “the war effort against our allies” to be financed, even incidentally.
While Murdock justifies the highest treason a government can commit against its men, Rambo is tortured, strung up and submerged in a retention pond full of pig excrement. A group of Soviet officers arrives, the USSR being engaged in the funding and training of their Vietnamese counterparts. The Soviets torture Rambo by electrocution. They show Rambo the intercepted transcript of Murdock’s order to abort, and demand that Rambo broadcast a message to the American base. He speaks into the microphone, “Murdock. I’m coming to get you.” He then escapes, killing the Soviets and Vietnamese, and hijacks a helicopter. Rambo destroys the camp, frees the prisoners, and returns with the freed POWs to base.
Upon arrival, the enlisted men celebrate while Murdock runs. Rambo pursues him and destroys the bureaucrat’s precious technology, blowing the computer banks to pieces with a machinegun. Murdock tries to slither his way out of the situation, excusing himself by saying, “Rambo, I don’t make the orders. I take ‘em, just like you. I swear to God, I didn’t know it was supposed to happen like this. It was just supposed to be another assignment.” This time, Trautman does not intervene to save the man; perhaps this has to do with Murdock having told Trautman earlier that he is in charge, and that Trautman was “just a tool.” Rambo throws Murdock down, and, standing over him with a knife, thrusts it into the table. He leaves the terrified bureaucrat by promising, “Mission accomplished. You know there are more men out there. You know where they are. Find them, or I’ll find you.”
Trautman walks with Rambo, and they converse:
“John, where are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ll get a second Medal of Honor for this.”
“You should give it to them. They deserve it more.”
“You’re free now. Come back with us.”
“Back to what? My friends died here. Part of me died here.”
“The war, everything that happened here might be wrong, but dammit, don’t hate your country for it.”
“Hate? I’d die for it.”
“Then what is it you want?”
“I want what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilt his guts and gave everything he had wants: for our country to love us as much as we love it. That’s what I want.”
“How will you live, John?”
“Day by day.”
The profundity of this final exchange cannot be overstated. Rambo knows that he will never be free, that the toxic fog of Vietnam will loom over his memories every day, that he can only hope to live with his burden one day at a time. He doesn’t care about a Medal of Honor, and simultaneously indicts the criminally nefarious government for leaving these heroes for dead because it was convenient to do so. Their lives were not important enough to be saved; are they important enough now to be awarded medals? Trautman is well aware that the war was a fraud, that what officials acting under our glorious flag did was unspeakable, but implores Rambo not to hate his country. That he could ever feel hatred, or anything aside from love, for his country lies beyond the pale, in uninhabited wasteland, for Rambo. Taken aback, he states that far from hating his country, he loves it such that he would die for it, that he would, as he has so many times, kill for it. What higher expression of love could there be for a people? Rambo knows that Murdock and the metastatic rot that he represents is not what he fought for. He simply desires for the object of his affection to reciprocate with feelings in kind.
Neil Kumar is a graduate of the University of Chicago and is currently a student at the University of South Carolina School of Law. He is a proud member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, with roots in South Carolina that extend to the Revolutionary War. He calls Bentonville, Arkansas, home.