Writing About Film

The Green Berets, 1968Barry Sadler and "The Ballad of the Green Berets"

The Green Berets (Ray Kellogg, John Wayne, and Mervyn LeRoy, 1968)

Paper for Vietnam and the Cinema class, 1988


What’s there to say about The Green Berets? Unbelievable. It says more about the 60s than it does anything else: I find it hard to believe that a film such as that could have been conceived and executed in 1968 (I wish it were executed!); I’d have thought it would have caused riots. The film is so bad, so full of lies and misrepresentations, that it is laughable.

If I had been around at the time, I probably would not have been so forgiving. I have trouble being outraged by the film because my own experiences are so removed from the situations surrounding its release. Seeing the film in a relaxing classroom, fifteen years or more after U.S. troops were removed from Vietnam, is light-years difference from being a nervous, draft-age kid in a crowded, small-town movie theater. I imagine how I would have reacted to such drivel in 1968, at the height of anti-War hysteria, but I can’t feel it emotionally, and therefore, I have trouble being disturbed by the film in anything other than an abstract sense. I guess what upsets and surprises me the most is how popular the film was — presumably among the same type of people who follow Rambo’s exploits today — both at its release and over the years afterward.

What really bothers me is Barry Sadler’s story, the man who wrote the song, “The Green Berets,” the film’s theme, which was the most popular song of 1966. Sadler was a Green Beret medic and weapons specialist in Vietnam who became so popular due to the song that he was removed from active duty, so that he could promote it throughout Vietnam and the United States. After his discharge, Sadler moved on to largely unsuccessful follow-up albums, a few attempts at acting, and finally pulp novel writing, at where he has been quite successful. (Though, as usual, his critical reviews don’t match up to his sales.) His brand of macho, pro-war, misanthropic writing doesn’t even deserve repetition; serve it to say that his novels are replete with twisted sexual-violence metamorphoses that would make the “normal” person blush, if not become violently ill.

Before his well-publicized gunshot wound in the head late last year, Sadler spent time in Nashville and on a Guatemalen ranch, where he spent his time whoring and drinking, churning out a novel a year. At relatively calm points in his life, Sadler had the occasion to marry a floozy, and father a son (named Thor!), who grew up in Arizona (of course) and joined the army. After the ”accident,” Sadler has been returned to Nashville under the care of his mother, where his mind and body seem to slowly be deteriorating. Sadler’s politics were reactionary and violent, and he served in at least ten foreign countries, either promoting terror or actively participating as a mercenary.

What saddens me is not that Sadler has been reduced to near-vegetable status by the mysterious gunshot wound, but rather that an individual such as himself could exist and be part of the same species to which I belong. Sadler represents a generation, or rather an ongoing evolution, of fighting men who see the horrors of war and somehow do not vow to end it forever. Like Dispatches’ Tim Page, Sadler was so fascinated by war’s glamor that he sought it out, rather than run from it. Instead of taking the now seen as traditional, or correct, step, Sadler saw action in Vietnam and still chose to promote the war, to promote the Green Berets as heroes, as do-gooders. Was he brainwashed from the start, or is the Army powerful enough to warp someone so much that human horror and atrocity couldn’t bring him right? There are so many others likes Sadler, so many vets who were there, who did see war at its worst — and Vietnam was certainly that — who have not renounced it, who retain their jingoistic idealism, their old notions of decency and morality. I’ve come to believe that people like Sadler, like the other hundreds of thousands of under-educated veterans from poor and mistreated stations of the American quilt, have somehow been prevented from achieving closure with their experiences. They seem so horrible, so irreconcilable with normal “civilized” experience, that these dis-educated, abused souls have been brainwashed, peer-pressured, and coerced into a state of mind where they can never reach “cognitive liberation,” never see the war for the monstrosity and curse on humanity that it was. This is the typical white, educated, liberal response, I’m aware, but it’s the only way I know to begin understanding these societal products exemplified by Sadler and his ilk (i.e, Ollie North, et al.).

I can “forgive” The Green Berets because it was made by a bunch of people who were career actors and had never served in a war, and was sponsored by the Army as if it were some sort of melodramatic training film (though not a very realistic or useful one, to be sure), but Sadler is beyond me because he was there. I can forgive him for his delusions, but I can’t reconcile my feelings for him, or for those who pushed his song to the top of the charts in 1966, when opposition to the war was not exactly dormant. This goes beyond simply making a film, a form of entertainment, because Sadler’s song and Wayne’s film are documents of an era, they shape people’s perceptions, and contribute to the twisted, poisoned mentality that personifies the worst of the America First culture.

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