the secret war: remembered & repressed

dan edwards on movies at odds over the war against laos

Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE TWO FILMS MORE DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED THAN RESCUE DAWN AND BOMB HARVEST, BOTH OF WHICH HAD THEIR AUSTRALIAN DEBUT AT THIS YEAR’S SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL. THEY EACH DEAL WITH THE SECRET BOMBING OF LAOS BY THE UNITED STATES BETWEEN 1964 AND 1973 AS AN ADJUNCT TO THE WAR IN VIETNAM. NINE YEARS OF AERIAL BOMBARDMENT SAW THE US DUMP MORE BOMBS ON THE COUNTRY THAN WERE DROPPED BY ALL THE ALLIES IN THE ENTIRE COURSE OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR.

The Australian documentary, Bomb Harvest, starkly depicts the ongoing human and material cost of this protracted campaign, while Rescue Dawn is a Hollywood drama that takes America’s ‘we were the victims in Vietnam’ line to new heights of self-congratulatory delusion and historical whitewashing. What’s really surprising is that this politically extremist film was written and directed by Werner Herzog, a filmmaker usually known for his complex, politically ambiguous cinema.

Herzog has never been overtly aligned with the left nor concerned with politics in the manner of fellow New German Cinema directors like Fassbinder. From the beginning of his directorial career, Herzog’s obsessions have revolved around the epic struggle of tortured men (his protagonists are invariably male) to assert themselves in the face of societal structures, the tide of history or the forces of nature. From his 1967 debut feature, Signs of Life, to classic dramas of the 1970s such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, to recent documentaries like Grizzly Man, Herzog’s thematics have remained remarkably consistent.

rescue dawn

On the surface at least, Rescue Dawn remains in familiar Herzog territory. The film dramatises the true story of German-born US navy pilot Dieter Dengler who was shot down while bombing Laos in 1966, a tale Herzog has already explored in his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). Dengler endured harsh conditions in a primitive prisoner of war camp before escaping into the jungle and suffering even greater depravations as a fugitive. He managed to evade capture, survive disease and fend off starvation to be eventually plucked from the jungle by a passing US helicopter. Rescue Dawn contains all the elements of a classic Herzog narrative: a crazed individual pursuing an impossible dream, an unwilling group press-ganged into following him, and the overcoming of enormous physical hardship. But the director’s great features of the 1970s and 80s depict man’s often selfish and destructive attempts to assert himself in the face of overwhelming odds with detachment, humour and a sense of tragedy. In contrast, Rescue Dawn unequivocally celebrates Dengler’s heroic posturing as the epitome of US military culture and white American manhood. The stridently masculine histrionics climax in the final, horrendously cliched scene in which Dengler is welcomed back to his ship with a chest-beating all-male group hug from the entire crew.

Throughout the film US military personnel appear as simple, straight-talking, likeable men of action who never question what they do. On the other hand, reflective characters are shown in a uniformly negative light. Dengler’s fellow prisoners, for example, are introverted, emaciated types hoping that peace talks in Paris will bring about their release. After Dengler is finally rescued from the jungle, he is whisked into hiding by shady CIA operatives who are portrayed as dubious, secretive characters, partly because of their unmanly appearance (well-tailored suits, ties and spectacles as opposed to fatigues and army boots), and partly because of their propensity for talk and analysis. Military action is exciting work, while CIA intelligence is the realm of feminised intellectuals.

More troubling than the cliched nature of the characters, however, is the fact that Rescue Dawn seems to unambiguously endorse—or even glorify—a political and military culture that saw the US carpet bomb a largely defenceless Third World nation for nearly a decade without the knowledge of Congress, let alone the American public. The secret nature of the bombing campaign is only referred to fleetingly in the film, and is never interrogated. If anything it only adds to the ‘boy’s own adventure’ feeling of the opening scenes in which the pilots are briefed for their mission.

The uncritical celebration of one military culture generally requires the denigration of another, and Rescue Dawn serves up stereotypes of the crazed Asian ‘other’ in spades. With the sole exception of a simpleton dwarf on the prison camp staff, the Laotian characters are primitive, violent and completely alien. The guards in the camp are shown to be inexplicably cruel and irrational for abusing the prisoners every time US jets scream overhead. No connection is ever made between the guards’ attitude and the murderous payloads being dumped on their country, or the fact that the prisoners were dropping these when they were shot down. When Dengler’s limbs are placed in stocks upon his arrival at the camp, he protests “What is this, the middle ages?” Primitive cruelties, it seems, offend American sensibilities—modern weapons of indiscriminate destruction, like napalm and cluster bombs, are the civilised West’s preferred means of inflicting pain.
Bomb Harvest

Bomb Harvest

bomb harvest

To understand the degree to which Rescue Dawn provides an American-centric view of the war in Laos, audiences at the Sydney Film Festival needed to look no further than the documentary Bomb Harvest, by Sydney-based filmmaker Kim Mordaunt. This film centres on Laith Stevens, an Australian bomb disposal technician attempting to clean up the mess left by 580,000 US missions over Laos. It is estimated that as many as 30 per cent of the US bombs failed to explode, leaving an appalling legacy across the country. In some areas the explosives lie so densely that any kind of agriculture is impossible. The smallest bombs are frequently mistaken by children for balls or pieces of fruit. In one of the film’s more stomach-churning moments, we see a photograph graphically illustrating what these tiny ‘bombies’ can do—the head and upper torso of a young boy lie virtually untouched, while his arms and lower half have been shredded into a bloodied pulp. Around 12,000 Laotians have been killed by unexploded weapons since the bombing ceased in 1973.

The film follows Laith Stevens as he instructs a group of Laotians in bomb disposal techniques at the country’s National Unexploded Ordnance Training Centre. Much of the screen time is taken up following the students through the second half of their training, as they deal with live bombs in the province of Ta Oi, where the Ho Chi Minh Trail once crossed into Vietnam. The area was subject to some of the most intense bombardments of the war as the Americans tried to sever North Vietnamese supply lines. When Stevens and his team arrive in their base village, they are greeted by a line of amputees—peasant victims of unexploded ordnance.

In the course of clearing the area, Stevens’ team is forced to evacuate several villages, and the film’s most moving sequence unfolds around one old man’s refusal to leave his house. Stevens talks to the 96-year-old, who relates how bombs dropped day and night during the war: “I lost my wife…My brother died also because of a bomb. My children died. Then nobody was left.” The man looks away, utterly distraught. The film cuts to archival footage of a US military chaplain praying with B-52 pilots before a mission: “…we give thee thanks for the ability to serve as thy servants, to seek freedom for the world as we know it…” Returning to the present, we see the old man eventually agreeing to leave the village, muttering bitterly, “They come back to disturb us again…drop bombs, clear bombs…it’s all too much.” As Stevens’ team detonates some nearby bombs, close-ups on the faces of the older villagers reveal the horror of their memories. The sequence is illustrative of the way Bomb Harvest skilfully weaves together the drama of the team’s work, stunning archival footage and the locals’ experiences to explore how the trauma of the bombing lives on 35 years later.

Bomb Harvest is an emotional look at the horrific aftermath of one of the Vietnam War’s lesser known atrocities, but coming at a time when the US and the West generally are increasingly enthusiastic about military interventions, it also lays bare the hypocrisy of concepts like ‘just war’ and ‘precision bombing.’ The ongoing suffering in places like Laos makes a mockery of our supposed ideals, especially when films like Rescue Dawn continue to focus exclusively on the tribulations of Western servicemen while denigrating the people of Indo-China. However much we comfort ourselves with self-serving myths about the Vietnam War, the fact is the US and its allies slaughtered untold numbers of civilians in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, while their grandchildren continue to be maimed, deformed and killed by the legacy we left behind.

Rescue Dawn, director, writer Werner Herzog, producers Steve Marlton, Elton Brand, Harry Knapp, performers Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davis, USA; Bomb Harvest, director Kim Mordaunt, producer Sylvia Wilcynski, writers Sylvia Wilcynski, Kim Mordaunt; Australia
54th Sydney Film Festival, various venues, Sydney, June 8-24

An hour-long version of Bomb Harvest will screen in late 2007-early 2008 on ABC TV.

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 31

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2007