Not Your Typical Vietnam War Documentary
February 16, 2012 4:59 PM   Subscribe

"First Kill is a war documentary that explores the dark side of man and the psychology of soldiers at war. Vietnam veterans are interviewed about their experiences and what war does to the human mind and soul." [1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8]
posted by gman (9 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I read Dispatches years ago and found it fantastic. Other journalists I admire have called Herr a dilettante, and I can't disagree with them in general, but he's still one of the best, objective voices who covered that war. So thanks for this.

Also, I had no idea he was involved with Apocalypse Now. Learn something new every day.
posted by clarknova at 7:54 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow. Riveting, but I feel like I've been kicked in the gut. The tunnel rat with 39 kills - Billy Heflin - is a case study in psychopathology. I can only wonder at the profound dissonances Vietnam produced in him; the visceral thrills of killing he describes vs. his conservative dyed-in-the-wool Baptist upbringing.

Hell - I think he's been there, grew to love it and now he misses it. Unsettling.
posted by isopraxis at 10:24 PM on February 16, 2012

Speaking of Apocalyse Now: when it was originally edited for theatre, the film was practically cut in half. This was unfortunate because it stripped the film, and hence the war, of all historical context.

Here's one of the brilliant scenes from the original cut: the French dinner scene part 1, part 2

The full film is available as the Redux
posted by clarknova at 11:09 PM on February 16, 2012

See also Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like To Go to War
posted by IndigoJones at 5:48 AM on February 17, 2012

The footage of the tunnel rat guy, rolling in the tunnel in his wheelchair was epic.
posted by thisisdrew at 6:31 AM on February 17, 2012

> Other journalists I admire have called Herr a dilettante, and I can't disagree with them in general

Really? I'm not surprised journalists with self-esteem issues might say such a thing, but why would you agree? Michael Herr wrote probably the best single book on the Vietnam War, one of the best books on war in general; is it the fact that he didn't put in his time writing reports of local water board meetings and covering mayoral campaigns that's the problem? Hell, don't take my word for it; John le Carré said it was "the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time."

I'm very much looking forward to watching the documentary when I have the time; meanwhile, thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 9:14 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a bright side to the psychology of soldiers at war?
posted by cmoj at 11:09 AM on February 17, 2012

Absolutely bone chilling documentary with some masterful editing. I haven't had a film do that to me in a long time, that body flush you feel when sensory input just overwhelms you. I'm sure the guys interviewed might have had problems with the way they were portrayed, but I hope not. It felt, from this safe distance, like the raw truth of observation, much like Michael Herr's style in Dispatches. Shocking, but shocking more for its clarity and honesty, its utter lack of judgment on the bit players in war, than anything else. The horror stories just add to the unreality, and to the thankfulness I have for not going through anything close to what goes on in war.

When the title of the film is baldly laid out to one of the guys being's the pause that is devastating.

This makes me wonder: will there be something like this in thirty-plus years for the Gulf wars, for Afghanistan? It's not like the American press has the freedom to cover military action the way they did in the 60s and early 70s. Could there be a Michael Herr today?
posted by Chichibio at 12:15 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some people do heroin. Know what it does to them. And continue to do it. Unsettling.
Plenty of ways the biochemistry of our brains and the primitive systems and wiring subverts or interferes with what we think or believe.
All principles erode in the face of this.
If I offer you $1 million to go a week without sleep, by day 6 you'll have excellent, perhaps even cogent and well reasoned, but convincing in any case, reasons why the money isn't worth it.
But there are people who are born to do it.
That's less unsettling to me than the power by proxy folks or people who have their hands turned to it.

Maggot is right about sex and killing. But hell, that's been a theme of literature for thousands of years, eros and death. This is shocking? There is next to nothing in human experience to compare to sex or killing.
Space travel perhaps. Religious vision. Intellectual enlightenment. But almost no one reaches those peaks as they require a discipline and rigor.
And, until fairly recently, so did killing. Samurai, knights, etc. had a monopoly on killing.
There exists a sort of dichotomy now between elites and Joe rank and file.

But killing wasn't experienced en masse, even in war, until training became common and mechanization - so many points, not just the points where you'd put seasoned veterans - were exposed to killing.

People used to watch battles, bring a picnic lunch.
And I think there's still this sense of "other" to warfare, as though warfighters are disassociated from civilians, the people that send them, the motivations, etc.

Kind of the interesting thing here. Not that it's not an excellent documentary. There's sort of this virginal surprise to the interviewer "I could be a killer?" sort of thing.

Well, yeah, you are though already. Ever eat a hamburger? Oh, but you didn't actually swing a hammer at the slaughterhouse, so your hands are clean.

It's not a "war" thing, it's a human thing. And one of the bring points here is the journalist sort of recognizing that (e.g. the newsmen, otherwise reasonable individuals, asking "how could this happen" at every scene of violence and - "the pathetic thing is they do know how it happens, we all know how it happens").

What's dangerous is not what we don't know, it's what we think we know and we don't. I do get people saying they're afraid - of me, of veterans in general - the funny thing is, at least as far as I'm concerned, I am a killer. Probably one of the most lethal men you'll ever have firsthand contact with, and yet, I'm far less dangerous for that in general, because (in addition to discipline, etc) I kill with deliberation. I know what I'm capable of. And most of my life I've been involved in that one way or the other.

Most of these guys STILL don't know. That's, in part, why they're so screwed up. They are surrounded by people who have no knowledge of the experience and hold beliefs - about themselves, about society, life in general - based on ignorance and lack of self-knowlege.

Lovecraftian really.

Not that war is required for a test of fire of belief or action, but that's the subject. And too, you can tell someone everything about sex and until they have it, they don't know.
Hell, look at 'Cosmo' in the checkout line. "25 new sex positions" etc. Yeah, they didn't know anything about sex in ancient Rome. Or the ten thousand years before television at night. yup.

And too - the beauty thing. Most people move through their lives without purpose. F'rinstance, you go out in the woods, stomp around, you might not see natural beauty unless you're looking for it. Or you're moving with purpose, then you really see the environment. City. Whatever it is. For what it is. In intense detail. So you *really* experience it. That's with purpose and intensity in any sort of thing. War is typically the most purposeful and intense thing anyone will experience in their lives (again, certain caveats with the added barriers in reaching those in mastery).
So people go through their lives, not having this huge purposeful thing in their lives. Then too, they might not be able to reach it.
A malnourished child might want to throw off their oppression. They have a just cause. Nothing they can do about it though. Their underfed and limited in resources, mental and physical.
So, in the case of mass warfare in general and Vietnam in particular, you have better training (because of WWII) and greater expertise in execution for the common soldier. And you can perform powerful actions within this sphere of purpose.

All this with regard to the moral right/wrong context which is in some sense an artifice of ignorance and a belief that "war" and "peace" are interchangeable states for an individual human being (which can be turned on or off at will) rather than a social construct.
And excepting the arguments concerning morality in war and of war.

So then, with the above bit in mind, the return home, regardless of the relative lauding or lambasting (because again, both are predicated on an illusion) from the population, the warfighter finds that there is no longer this broad purpose, nor does any potency of action have merit - except in past regard - and are often completely useless skills in the civilian world.

I think that's a big thing with what a lot of vets are saying in this piece. Killing is associated with that potency and meaning. And indeed, the biological reaction reinforced it mentally.

One can see this even on a very small scale. I have firearms. My visceral reaction to them is exactly the same as holding a drill or some other tool. It has meaning and power only with regard to what I can accomplish with it. And there are many people like this.
Some folks have a more symbolic relationship with it. The thing itself has power, and is emblematic of meaning rather than being one mere component of means.

So too, in war, particularly in Vietnam, nationalism, etc, fostered this emblematic kind of thinking. Went on in Iraq too. It's one (primitive) means for mobilization.
And it has an extremely corrosive effect on how the war itself is prosecuted. Since it gives form to how warfighters think about engagement. Not the particular engagement, Vietnam, Iraq, whatever, that's done on a different level. But engagement itself.
And that is tremendously destructive and a mistake we're doomed to repeat unless we stop separating out war and the people we send to fight wars as something unique or "other" in society. Peace is not merely the absence of war. It requires a certain kind of thinking about war, on not only the social, but individual level.
A lot of those guys are still at war. And that's because we never brought them home because we don't want to see war as something that not only can come into, but can be rooted in, our home.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:43 PM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

« Older wltm someone very specific   |   "Such laws would require gyms and health clubs to... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments