My Essay before edited on War in Vietnam
This paper explores nihilism in terms of the Vietnam War, a Cold War conflict against Communism, in terms of the movie Causalities of War. Nihilism is prominent in some political philosophies including Communism and the horrors of war tend to bring out nihilistic tendencies. Interestingly, this term was coined in Russia during the 1830s and 1840s and was more commonly used after the publishing of Ivan Turgenev’s book Fathers and Sons. According to the novel, first translated and published in English in 1862, this “most advanced idea” (Bolshevism) was brewing in Russia. One of the main characters, Yevgeny Bazarov, is referred to as the "first Bolshevik" for his revolutionary rejection of the old order and nihilistic beliefs. Wikipedia similarly states that that the nihilist movement started with the Russian anarchist movement in the 1860s which rejected existing authorities and values. It was after the assassination of the Tsar in 1881, that the nihilists became known throughout Europe as promoters of the use of violence as a tool for political change.
Dmitri Pisarev, a contemporary of Turgenev, addressed the struggles of old and new ideas among the younger generation’s growing nihilistic approach, the liberals of the 1830s and 1840s who wanted western modernization, and the conservative Slavophiles who remained steeped in spiritual tradition Nihilism includes disdain for tradition and authority. This latter force reacted to the atheist’s dispensing with moral norms and instead gravitating towards a callous, selfish, even criminal state. Nihilism is derived from Latin word nihil, meaning "nothing", and refers to no life with God as meaningless and despairing as well as the triviality of human existence. In the 1850’s and 60’s the nihilist position in Russia was expressed by Pisarev’s frequently quoted, extreme statement:
“Here is the ultimatum of our camp: what can be smashed should be smashed; what will stand the blow is good; what will fly into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and left—there will and can be no harm from it”, this quote originated in Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution, p. 120. (Olson. 514)
The characteristics of Nihilism are not a modern manifestation but timeless as noted in the book of “Romans” in the New Testament that some people, “…prefer to deny intrinsic principles and values which are imprinted upon every heart and mind”. The question, therefore, becomes, “Is it true that a loss of faith in God or cosmic purpose produces a sense of despair over the emptiness and triviality of life, consequently stimulating selfishness and callousness?” The answer becomes evident in the analysis of the film, Casualties of War that centers upon three examples of nihilism that thrived in the wartime environment in Vietnam. However, before taking a look at the movie, it’s important to first take a look at the historical context.
During the Cold War, the United States became embroiled with the Soviet Union in a power struggle for world power. Frequently, this resulted in warfare in secondary countries, with the Communists supporting one side and the United States supporting the other. In a speech given by John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state for President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, Dulles explains that support of a free and independent Southeast Asia is strategically important to American security, but that the war in Vietnam is part of a “worldwide pattern of Communist-supported aggression against free nations”(Dulles 40). He emphasized this in his recommendation for “a strong United States response to the Communist threat in Vietnam” (Dulles 40). The French had been at war with HO Chi Minh’s Vietminh guerrillas in Vietnam since 1946. In 1953 the Truman administration officially supported Bao Dai regime in South Vietnam and authorized US military aid to the French forces. The escalation began with an approved $780 million package of aid. Dulles also authored the “containment” policy of using U.S. economic, diplomatic, and military resources to counter communist aggression anywhere it emerged in the world (39). However, it was not until 1954, after the War in Korea and an incident at the Laos border, that the United States would heighten the commitment. The French feared defeat followed by Communist takeover of South Vietnam. A significant number of Congressman, most notably Senator John F Kennedy and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, initially opposed further involvement in Vietnam. Still, the perceived threat of Communism was real on many fronts and suggested that the spread of nihilistic revolutionary philosophy needed to be stopped. According to Max Frankel in his Pulitzer Prize book: HIGH NOON IN THE COLD WAR the threat was real.
…Khrushchev had to prove to his associates that he was not abandoning his Marxist-Leninist duty to proletarians around the world. So he argued that concentrating on Soviet economic progress would bring communists “the initiative” in world affairs (49). And he promised to support anti-colonial “wars of national liberation” in places like Vietnam…
The movie Casualties of War is based on an actual incident that occurred during the Vietnam War. It was first reported by Daniel Lang in The New Yorker magazine in 1969. The movie begins with PFC Ericson back in the states, as he is riding a bus he has a flashback, and so the scene goes back to Vietnam. This story basically focuses around six soldiers and a young Vietnamese girl who gets kidnapped from a village. These particular men are so affected by the horrors of war all but one succumbs to nihilistic behavior. The growing hatred appears contagious, not just spreading from one person to another, but increasing with intensity and aggression as it spread. The movie suggests that the hideous force feeds upon itself and knows no limit. It cannot be contained by moral or ethical values.
The first war scene puts the unit over top underground tunnels of the V.C. The setting demonstrates clearly the chaos of the jungle where no one knows where the enemy is and shooting at your fears only reveals your position. The new guy Ericson has to get introduced to the realities of Vietnam, throughout the movies he learns no one can trust anyone; not each other not the villagers not even the children. After the unit suffers a loss of life while at a Vietnamese village they think they can trust, their morale is shot.
The nihilistic tendencies begin manifesting in the sergeant. A contributing factor in nihilistic behavior reaches a breaking point when the sergeant and 3 others tried to go into town to “get laid” but their pass is canceled. This causes the sergeant to go ballistic stating the "VC is in town getting laid". He adds that the VC has been working hard killing the Americans. The sergeant tells the small team of men that they will be embarking on a mission to Hill 209 to look for tunnels, bunkers etc, but in addition; will detour to kidnap a female to have fun with. The plan is to take a detour 2000 meters south to a village and kidnap the woman. The village is terrorized by the unit of 6 men. When they reach their destination, five of the six carry out the rape, only one of the six, Ericson, remains steadfast to his values and argues "This is wrong", and stands up to the sergeant who has become the law, very nihilistic. He is outnumbered by the frenzied nihilistic behavior of the sergeant. They considered the woman to be VC enemy which in their eyes reduced her to nothing. He made the statement to the sergeant "This is not the army"! In a determining moment, Fox could have stopped the death of the young woman but felt helpless, so he carried the guilt of not stopping the madness, when he could have. This movie is based on an actual
One example of nihilism in the movie is the kidnapping, rape, and eventual brutal killing of a young Vietnamese girl by a group of soldiers.
A second example is the failure of the military to address the brutal atrocities toward the Vietnamese girl and thereby indirectly supporting nihilistic behavior. We observe in the following that nihilism manifests in the actions of the system in control. In a conversation with another soldier, Fox states he should have gone to speak directly with Captain Hill, he went to Reilly in his chain of command with zero results. When he reports to Captain Hill, Hill would rather not expose the incident and he says to Ericson: "This could cause a major international incident." We see here how concerning it the system was on how the outside world would view atrocities like this. As their conversation continues the very fact that PFC Ericson wants to "bring this thing out", report it causes Captain Hill to yell at Ericson, excusing Penn of being a kid only 20 years old, that even though it was wrong what happened with the girl- -Ericson is going to ruin Penn's life, when Penn had saved his life when fell into a V.C. tunnel and pulled him out. The nihilistic behavior knows no boundaries when a little later two of the men from his squad attempt to kill Ericson with a grenade but are unsuccessful, and so Ericson faces the team of men. Ericson with a shovel he uses to smash one of the guys as he makes a wisecrack. With their attention, Ericson tells them that they no longer need to kill him because he told everyone about what they did to the girls and they don’t care. These actions confirm how desensitized to nihilistic behavior the system was. This insensitive attitude is also confirmed in the book: Warning To The West, the author writes:
...a senseless, incomprehensible, non-guaranteed truce in Vietnam was
negotiated. There was such a hurry to make this truce that they forgot to
liberate your own American from captivity...that some three thousand Americans
were left there: "Well, they have vanished; we can get by without them." How
was this done? How can this be? (Solzhenitsyn.31)
The final example takes a look at the way in which nihilistic behavior can affect some people and not others. Soldier PFC Ericson has suffered a crisis of conscience when the men on his patrol team kidnap rape and murder a Vietnamese girl and later even try to kill Fox because he has gone up the chain of command to report the crime. The men try to cover up the incident and this is true up the chain. When Fox is speaking to Soldier Michael J. Fox suffers a crisis of conscience when the men on his patrol rape and murder a Vietnamese girl and then try to cover up the crime.
In a civilized society, it is difficult to accept or imagine that there are people who live only to seek and destroy. Certainly, political leaders appear more “evil,” most notably Adolph Hitler. This may be an appropriate reason why “good men” have had to come together for battle with others over the centuries. A nihilistic view denies accepted values and morals which the majority depend on to maintain order. Nihilism affirms that life has no intrinsic worth. The author, Helmut Thielicke, in Nihilism: Its Origin and Nature, writes, “Victory of Nihilism, characterized by profound hatred and pathological destruction, and incalculable death”, demonstrates we are left with no alternative but to destroy or stop its spread. It was evident in Casualties of War that nihilism left unchecked will destroy morality, subvert traditional law and order, and threaten the survival of mankind, as we know it.
Dulles, John Foster. “The United States Should Consider Intervention in Vietnam”.
The Vietnam War: Great Speeches in History. Eds. Ryn, Shane-Armstrong and Lynn Armstrong. San Diego. Greenhaven Press, 2003 39-40.
Frankel, Max. High Noon In The Cold War. Random House, Inc., New York.
Presidio Press Book. 2004. 49.
Olson, Robert G. “Nihilism” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Paul Edwards. Vol. 5
New York: The Macmillan Co. and The Free Press. 1967. 514-517.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. 1975. Warning to the West. 1976. (Bodley Head, Ltd “Trans”.).
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 31.