Reshaping the narrative and tapping into the timeless mythology of what it means to be an American . . . . and how we view our shared history.
essay by Donn K. Harris, February 2020
I. THE CHAMP FIGHTS TO A DRAW
Following WWII, America was the reigning, undefeated, undisputed Superpower World Champion, a Rocky Marciano/Mike Tyson invincibility like a force field around us. We had defeated Adolf Hitler, a come-from-behind victory that tested our will, skill, endurance and unity. Soldiers came home to a grateful, glowing nation, uncharted prosperity, and a world of opportunity for the industrious and diligent. Perhaps the largest middle class the world had ever seen was available to the white families willing to play by the rules and join the herd. There were opportunities for some minorities in certain places, but America was largely homogeneous within neighborhoods, racially segregated in all aspects of life. This included the military — while we celebrated our triumph in 1945, we didn’t necessarily do it together.
The ultimate victory was secured with the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945; we obliterated two cities that combined held 600,000 people. Americans held the shared belief that we had no choice: Hitler had to be eliminated, and Japan had attacked a U.S. military base. The Pacific theater of the war may have dragged on for years following Hitler’s spring 1945 suicide, as no path to victory in the East could be easily determined — except the nuclear option. President Harry S. Truman authorized the use of atomic bombs, and by mid-August the devastation was complete. Japan formally surrendered in the first week of September. Battered but proud, damaged but intact, America took the mantel of world-sheriff and except for a few dissenters and periods of intense internal debate, has held it ever since despite formidable, but ultimately unsustainable, opposition. The USSR presented a massive, occasionally dangerous, barrier to our capitalistic aspirations and USA supremacy in the world, but many would say we won the Cold War. Our forays into Korea and Vietnam, Central America, Chile, and lately the Middle East demonstrate our view of America in theory and practice as protector and aggressor, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Worth mentioning is that we did not intervene in Sudan during the Darfur massacre that began in 2003 and continued into 2020, claiming over a half-million lives, nor in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina after the 1989 break-up of the Soviet Union, where the former Yugoslavian provinces attempted to recreate their pre-WWI status and fell immediately into armed conflict. Both the Darfur and Yugoslav conflicts held unmistakable, unapologetic overtones of racial cleansing …… but there were few American interests in these nations, whereas our chosen battles in Korea and Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism were considered a vital national priority, and of course the Middle East held vast oil reserves, which we have tried to control since the CIA’s covert overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected president, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1952. Central and South America were too close for comfort in allowing alternate economic systems to flourish: with Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Chile and to some extent Peru either wholly rejecting or trending away from capitalism, and with the Catholic church embracing liberation theology, a God-approved economic justice initiative, any leniency for these socialist/ communist regimes was considered a foolish indulgence. We tried to invade Cuba with a rogue group of Cuban nationals from the elite class in 1961; supported brutal dictatorships and homicidal megalomaniacs in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador throughout the murderous 1980s; did everything possible to overturn a legitimate election in Nicaragua in 1984, failed, then spitefully pulled aid and froze out the Daniel Ortega government from trade agreements and blocked imports of essentials like medicine and communication equipment; and finally we allowed scheming academics to mastermind an economic fiasco in Chile — all in the name of protecting America’s interests, of which reverence for human life and human rights did not seem to be counted.
Humanitarian intervention was not part of the strategic direction we had charted, and so Darfur and Yugoslavia were allowed to carry on to their brutal ends. Now after 9/11/2001 all measures of peace and diplomacy are turned upside down. Classifying conflicts after that date requires a different lens, but one more unexamined conflict requires our attention before we move on: Korea, where the first skirmish of the Cold War took place.
Undefeated after WWII, we were back in the ring 5 years later, trying to beat back the flow of Communism, spurred by Soviet-backed North Korea.
American combat troops in Korea were eager to continue the tradition of their elder brothers by fighting in a righteous war. It seemed to the unenlightened like a continuation of the same Good vs. Evil battle that had always been waged. But there was no Hitler and no one had attacked America. Communism was the enemy now, an abstraction, an idea that was godless, un-American.
This lack of precision, the blunt arrogance of an entitled American population, is part of what allowed the Milton Friedman experimental social laboratory atrocity to take place in Chile a decade later, a manipulation of an economic crisis so that democratically elected Salvador Allende could be toppled by a military coup. The new leader was General Augusto Pinochet, and he welcomed Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys (youthful Chilean economists studying under Friedman at the University of Chicago) back into leadership roles in Chile. They moved quickly to implement free-market liberalization and related policies, creating some statistical triumphs early on but ultimately leading to the establishment of an upper elite class and the entrenchment of the poor. Americans knew little of this; the country trusted that Friedman and Kissinger and even Nixon were protecting us from Communism in our hemisphere as the Vietnam war raged on half-a-world away.
Tellingly, Friedman, in his extensive autobiographical writing for the Nobel Foundation after his 1976 Economics award, does not mention Chile even in passing. Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize three years earlier for his part in a ceasefire with Vietnam that did not hold. Two members of the Nobel Prize Board of Directors resigned over that choice. Kissinger unsuccessfully tried to give back the award when the conflict picked up again, but there were no takers. It all gets a bit murky when we start looking for finalities long before we understand what is really taking place, and so we have the awkwardness of resignations, returned awards, political expediencies masked as conviction, and the underlying foundation of war and why combatants in our world are fighting somewhere at every single moment -- this begins to blur the specifics as we come to sense the situation is dire. The popular notions of security and protecting one’s interests soon overrides common sense and we can see the pieces fall into place on their own – we have created a perception of inevitability, and resistance fades away in stages, until we have passive acceptance of war, aggression, uncomfortable coalitions and Ronald Reagan’s New World Order, about which we know nothing except that America will be great again very soon and there’s some kind of interstellar weaponry creating consternation and stimulating reactions in other parts of the globe, although it was a random phrase with no basis in reality. This space weapons program was named Star Wars, after the George Lucas science fiction movie series, bringing us back to the comfortable world of celluloid and symbolism, where much of what we think of as real resides.
The Korean War, the 1951-1953 conflict in which American might did not prevail, was the first of the abstract Cold War interventions America took on. Victory was not achieved, but there was just enough propaganda to keep that truth from cutting too deeply into the American bravado.
II. MYTHOLOGICAL TRUTH
Viet Nam and Central America, disparate as they were in terms of military tactics and objectives, seemed like natural extensions of our role as the global watchdog against Communism. While a national identity crisis is said to have undermined American confidence following Vietnam, it didn’t take long or any great effort to restore our swagger: during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979–1980, Ronald Reagan was swept into office with the manner and updraft of a man born to a throne that was at once regal and humble. An actor with an innate sense of timing and an earnest, folksy midwest appeal (there you go again, he chided Jimmy Carter lightly during the debates when he claimed to be misrepresented, sounding no more perturbed than an uncle whose nephew left a mess), Reagan brought with him the iconic Norman Rockwell imagery, the veneer of understated humility, references to America as the shining city on the hill, and his own self-deprecating humor (he famously said to Carter when Reagan’s advanced age became a campaign issue, I won’t hold my opponent’s relative youth and inexperience against him.)
Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter by a landslide in 1980, ushering in an era noted for the appearance of a sizable homeless population, destructive Central American intervention, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the return of Wall Street as an American symbol of capitalism and strength, and the War on Drugs as cocaine and crack began to hold sway over various segments of the population. This was to be the foundation for the partisan, harsh, black-and-white views that today dominate all aspects of life from TV news to food choices to where people go on vacation. For all his avuncular charm and golly-gee affectations, there was an inherent cold-bloodedness to the Ronald Reagan panorama, which owed more to the Crusades and the Apocalypse than to the cherry pies and church steeples of his beloved Norman Rockwell. The lesson here is that the unanticipated consequences of decisions, especially ones on the scale of national policy, are worth anticipating if at all possible: by way of an example, in closing hospitals and reducing support for the indigent as an economic measure, the rise of America’s seemingly permanent homeless population created an environment of desperation and fear for the inner cities— not what America voted for in 1980.
Nor did we care to bring Newt Gingrich, Oliver North or Pat Buchanan into the realm of thought leaders and cultural trend-setters, but they were along for the ride. The AIDS crisis became yet another divisive display of denial and cruelty. The eight years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency seem like a century, so much was packed into them and so much changed. Not even 16 of 24 years between 1992 and 2016 with leaders as charismatic and gifted as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama made much of a dent in the us-and-them fallout of the Reagan legacy. The eight years of George W. Bush sandwiched between those two Democrats energized the Reaganites enough to successfully thwart much of Obama’s progressive agenda and to bring the caricature of Donald Trump into the international arena.
Ultimately, the Korean fight was a draw. North and South split, 4400 yards of a Demilitarized Zone marked the 150-mile long border, and from 1954 until today it has remained that way. North Korea is now known only through carefully released stories and images and the cartoon buffoonery of its ruling family. But these buffoons have nuclear weapons, or the rudimentary beginnings of them, and that makes them impossible to ignore, which was their point in having a nuclear program in the first place. The current leader, basketball-loving frat boy Kim Jong Il, is a thorn in the American side, infantile, unpredictable and dangerous — disaster written all over him.
And who is responsible for this proliferation of nuclear armament, this fantasy of power? The United States developed the technology and used it twice, two more times than anyone else. ‘But we had to!’ is the American response, and while that may ring true to many, what we get ultimately are more nuclear weapons – another unintended consequence: drop a bomb, subdue your adversary and the neighbor next door thinks, ‘Hey that worked! Where do I get one?’ – it took some time, but a few decades later he’s referred to Uganda to pick up enriched uranium; our suspicion of WMDs in Iraq that prompted the 2003 invasion reportedly was based on Iraqi presence in Uganda: where the science of destruction meets the black market – an unintended consequence that we should have been able to foresee.
We clearly lost the war in Vietnam, as the north captured the southern territory and re-named Saigon Ho Chi Minh City almost immediately following our departure. We were bereft with national shame for not only failing to win, but for our unforgivable ethical collapses: to our elected and military leaders, the truth was merely one option among many, often seen as a liability in the public arena and buried in obscure narratives if mentioned at all; the refusal in Vietnam to follow Geneva Convention accords in our conduct of war was dishonorable, bordering on criminal, and the blatant and unconscionable abandonment of our fighting forces both on the battlefront and at home, as well as the legitimacy of the domestic protests when the facts emerged — all this rankled on the national conscience, and the presence in later years of Vietnamese refugees assimilating into America served as a reminder of our failure. One legitimate position — that we shouldn’t have been involved at all — was not publicly recognized; and in subsequent years we continued fighting wars based on symbols and ideology, depending on image-conscious and media-skilled leaders like Ronald Reagan to bury the memories of Vietnam.
To help the President, an actor himself, handle all this baggage for us we have actor, writer and producer Sylvester Stallone, the creative force behind the Rocky Balboa boxing movies, as disrespected and brooding Vietnam veteran John Rambo, whose epic saga began with the novel turned film, First Blood. John Rambo is a spiritually wounded human arsenal possessing every conceivable weapon that can be shot, thrust, exploded, radar-directed, strapped, hidden, sheathed and propelled by the human body or by any manner of mechanized force; Rambo doesn’t know the nature of the next attack, so he’s prepared. It’s clear the over-the-top weaponry is expressive of the roiled inner state of the abandoned hero, returning to Vietnam and later other hot spots to avenge the victimization of his American brothers. Rambo was encouraged but disavowed by bureaucrats in summer suits — we don’t know you, never heard of you, wouldn’t endorse you if we did, and good luck soldier — and we hear the pain of this betrayal in a voice not unlike Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, the Philadelphia inner city boxer’s punch-drunk slur, still seeming to cry out from a lifetime of pain and loneliness for Rocky’s shy girlfriend Adrian (Yo, I’m gonna kiss ya, ya don’t have to kiss me back). Flawed and broken John Rambo is going to win it all back for us, because it’s not just his inner state the movie reflects, it’s ours as well, and John Rambo is going to bring the trophy home, no matter how tarnished.
In films 2, 3 and 4 of the 5-film Rambo franchise, he is set upon all the enemies the American psyche can conjure from our recent wars: in the jungle (the Vietnamese, the Chinese, other Southeast Asian mercenaries and desperadoes, the heartless communist puppets of Myanmar <Burma at the time of the movies>), the desert (Afghanistan, Pakistani Tribal Lands, Waziristan) and the inexplicable connection with the mujahideen (the Osama bin Laden cohort who outlasted the Russians in Afghanistan) in conquering a massive Russian army (let’s make sure we know the Cold War has been won too). In the final film, Rambo: Last Blood, he conquers the threat to the domestic tranquility he fought so hard to give us and wanted to partake of himself, that of the Mexican drug cartels, who kidnaped the granddaughter of the Arizona ranch proprietress on whose property Rambo was tending horses in a fragile retirement. Through violence, weaponry, trying-hard-to-be-iconic-dialogue, tenderness to horses and the unforgettable visual image of an aging but still brave John Rambo, cut like an Adonis, weapons as much a part of his body as a baseball bat was to Babe Ruth’s, ready to battle for us one last time — we are given our final catharsis, our righteous victory in the battle we’ve been fighting since the Crusades, long before there was an America. The final image in Last Blood is of Rambo on horseback, riding off into a sunset, paying homage to John Wayne and the conquering of the American West. It is true, it has been verified, the Europeans beat the natives back and appropriated their land, and that history is also part of the Rambo DNA. That single image gives closure, in this mythological landscape, to the totality of the American combat experience. For those who never fought, the myth could easily replace the cold reality. Victory was even sweeter this second time around; we got to control the narrative. Truth was an option we chose not to exercise.
Even with that extended reference across centuries, the 37-year Rambo saga (1982 First Blood — 2019 Last Blood) seems to encompass eons, and through John Rambo we have finally defeated almost everyone: the Southeast Asians who began our descent in Vietnam; the Somali and East African Muslims trying to expel us from their land and waters; the Afghans from the Khyber Pass; the terrorist cells training in the caves on the Pakistani side of the Pass, in the tribal lands known as Waziristan; the Soviet army in Afghanistan. In semi-retirement, we can be confident John Rambo watched and cheered while the American Patriots in Zero Dark Thirty, United 93 and The Hurt Locker took up the challenge in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan and in our own skies. We saw the heart-rending acts of bravery and sacrifice of the passengers on United 93 on Sept.11, 2001 — the deliberate crash of a passenger flight when brave hijack victims downed a plane that may have been headed for a US monument. There was gnawing uneasiness over the thrill of Osama bin Laden’s assassination. In these films, we had fictionalized accounts of our superiority and a vague sense of triumph for our bravery and moral stance— but to the credit of the modern script writers, they did not pretend we achieved an actual victory. They gave us moral victories, characters to admire, a sense of the complexity of their roles in a terrorist environment ……. but fell short of a trumped-up Rambo-esque triumph. We don’t need it yet in the Middle East. We’ve conquered quite a bit there, and may ultimately win this one outright.
Then again, maybe not. The remnants of cultures, the charred and nearly-obliterated fragments of humanity we have left without country or purpose, may ultimately rise up to return the favor. Al Qaeda was an early version of that, and ISIS broke the 100 year border imposition, created by the English and the French after WWI, by temporarily claiming that Iraq-Syria was now an ISIS caliphate, a single massive Sunni Muslim entity of 40,000 square miles, larger than 90 countries, about the size of South Korea or Ohio. By 2017, ISIS lost most of its territory. Still, it is reasonable to believe that there have been seeds planted which will later sprout and mutate into the next iteration of fatwa or caliphate, stronger and less forgiving than its predecessors, as the latter quality is almost non-existent now, even to its own countrymen.
In the desert and town/village warfare that in many ways began in 1979 with the seizure of the American Embassy in Iran, traditional concepts of victory and defeat don’t apply. Afghanistan doesn’t win or lose — it endures. Iran made us look stupid, and historically cruel and imperialist. Vietnam should have humbled us; instead we were stubbornly unrepentant. In addition, we looked old, obsolete, all muscle and no finesse. Smaller nations or unaffiliated groups may engage in tactics dependent on surprise, show no concern if civilians are involved (in fact target civilians in many cases), and we call this terrorism. But it was entirely predictable. Of course we will retaliate and assassinate when we’ve been attacked and harmed, and we will do our best to round up or take out the terrorist perpetrators and devise more ways to get to our enemies, and, being bigger and owning more armor, we will hurt less than them – for now. But we will have very likely fomented a deeper rage against America, and the escalation continues. The future ain’t what it used to be.
John Rambo fought back — and won, at least on celluloid. Given that we now watch actual wars on TV, what’s to tell the young viewer that the Rambo spin isn’t real? President Reagan told Sylvester Stallone that after watching the Rambo movies, he knew what to do in Libya. After watching Super Bowl XVIII, Reagan joked that Marcus Allen’s 74 yard touchdown run had the Soviets worried: ‘They think we have a new secret weapon and they want us to dismantle it.’ The mythology becomes more and more embedded in the national consciousness when the President of the United States blurs the lines between movies, reality and the truth. This distance from the horrors of war makes it more likely that military conflict will be a quick option when we are at an impasse with another country.
III. REDEMPTION, REVENGE, REVISIONISM, REALISM
Beyond the stylized and controlled Rambo world there were honest cinematic attempts at portraying the horrific essence of the Vietnam experience. We had the personal, the ultra-real, the super-real and surreal (respectively, with director and lead actors): Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe), Platoon (Oliver Stone, Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe), The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken) and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando) — serious works of art perhaps exorcising some demons but not bestowing upon America an unearned victory; in fact in all of these films atrocity and tragedy are portrayed unflinchingly, and America gets no pass in the realm of cruel brutality.
In the context of the Rambo films, however, we have come to uneasy fictional terms with the Vietnam debacle, given John Rambo’s heroic efforts and mythologically corrected course. Myths do matter; we revere myths of a certain type. Not lies, which many see right through, but stories of an ancient time that illuminate a truth or explain how things came to be as they are. The only things the Rambo myth illuminates is America’s infantile denial of defeat and its need for a façade that maintains the illusion of invincibility. Rambo is Popeye, not Hercules, and whereas we could learn from Hercules, from Popeye there nothing more than the opening of a can. Brutus would kick his ass if it weren’t for the performance enhancing qualities of spinach, and he’d abscond with Olive Oyl, who was exasperated with Popeye anyway. Rambo is equally vulnerable despite the macho intensity and the righteousness of his rage: take away all the trappings and the obviously contrived revenge plots he manages to infiltrate and we have Rocky Balboa —a lovable American loser giving us his one shot at courageous defeat, occupying a place far different than the Rambo dreamtime, which still holds sway over generations of heartland testosterone patriots.
So we try to move on from Vietnam, somewhat buoyed by the repression of reality. Next we transferred retribution to the Holy Lands. The Biblical overtones to the Middle East desert are unmistakable, and there are so many entities with historical ties to that time and region, there is no end to the possibility of finding a group to fictionalize and thrash in the quest for redemption. In the world of Middle East conflict, however, you stand no chance of winning if you don’t claim it early and keep on shouting it out like a muezzin from a prayer tower. The show of victory was at least of equal importance as actual victory; if the latter were secret it was not a victory at all; and the former did not necessarily need to be tied to anything resembling a win and in fact was most useful after a loss. Stage a parade in Iraq in 1991 and declare the war is over and the imperialist has been put in his place. The expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and Saddam Hussein’s claim of victory seemed to be one of those truth is just one option byproducts.
But then I re-thought it. Given the aftermath of the Gulf War, with all the PTSD and the enmity created in parts of the Middle East, and the war’s thematic connection to the 9/11 attack — Saddam Hussein’s claim of victory in 1991 can be viewed in a new light. He forced us to utilize military resources and to exhaust the public will by mobilizing against his counter-provocation, the original provocation being the United States’ encouragement of Kuwaiti over-production of oil, driving prices down worldwide, including Iraq’s — it was this economic threat that spurred Iraq’s invasion. The righteousness of that cause and the nature of waging war against a vastly superior power, where victory must look different and long-term results overshadow the immediate call of a win or a loss, make Saddam Hussein seem a bit less the lying charlatan. Standing in line in an airport, knowing this security ritual – frazzling, fear-inducing, reactionary – was our permanent state, Saddam Hussein’s claims of victory seem less delusional, and Osama bin Laden won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
IV. ANTHEMS AND SYMBOLS
You inherit the sins, you inherit the pain, Bruce Springsteen sang in 1978’s Adam Raised A Cain, reminding us that the blood-dimmed tide of our inheritances, like the Crusades, can’t be easily denied. Darkness On the Edge of Town, the album which Adam …. opens with a blood-curdling scream and guitar chords that evoke the sonic nightmare of a medieval dungeon, was released four years before the first Rambo film, which ironically was not about Vietnam or national redemption or our collective enemies — in 1982’s First Blood John Rambo was a war vet, yes, but a lone man who got into a tussle with a local sheriff and exploded in an apocalyptic rage, was nearly killed by legions of law enforcement before eventually surrendering. But it touched something in the national consciousness, and Stallone, ever sensitive to that pulse, enlarged the lone soldier into the savior of a lost America in films 2–5; as I mentioned previously, in the closing images of 2019’s Last Blood he even rides off into the sunset on horseback, managing to fit yet another bit of iconography into the already densely packed visuals of the Rambo brand.
Stallone and Springsteen have been associated with the rise of a new patriotism in the 1980s, a nostalgic yearning for the America of the 1950s evoked by the simplistic avuncular presence and message of Ronald Reagan. Both men were unfairly and unwillingly co-opted into the Reagan “Morning in America” dreamscape. Stallone disavows politics, attends no events or fund-raisers and did not vote in the 2016 presidential election; he disliked both candidates. ‘I know Rocky and Rambo seem like Republicans,’ he told Variety in a July 2019 interview. ‘Other people told me that. Reagan had a bumper sticker that said: RAMBO IS A REPUBLICAN. Reagan was a nice guy but when he told me that he knew what to do in Libya after seeing Rambo, I thought: No, STOP! It’s a movie.’
First Blood is reminiscent of another Springsteen song, 1984’s Born in the USA, cited by President Reagan as part of the “Morning in America” renaissance. The dark lyrics open with:
Born down in a dead man’s town, first kick I took was when I hit the ground
……… then crashing disorganized chords threaten to derail the song midway through, and the dead brother of the anti-hero further darkens the landscape. The closing stanza reveals the American dream is his prison cell:
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary, out by the gas fires of the refinery,
I’m burning ten years down the road …….
…….. by any reasonable interpretation, Born in the USA was not the kind of patriotic anthem its catchy chorus might indicate, and Reagan may have grabbed superficial elements of the Springsteen/Stallone fictional universe and foolishly used them to add weight to his own hold over America. In Springsteen’s case that was particularly unfair, as he has expressed across four decades of his career a consistently populist message, both musically and at public events, is a registered Democrat who campaigns with passion for candidates, includes political statements in his concerts and the cover songs he chooses (War, Edwin Starr; This Land is Your Land, Woody Guthrie; an entire album of Pete Seeger protest songs), and wrote We Take Care of Our Own in 2008 as a theme song for Barack Obama …….
wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own
……. and deserves to have his political affiliation accurately identified, and not used at cross purposes to his very clear intent by the President of the United States.
But …….. did he have to include the flag in the chorus? Republicans should not have a monopoly on flag imagery, and Springsteen comes as close as anyone to embodying the Democrat patriot, the old union worker who was so staunchly Democratic, but upon hearing the song for the first time in 2008 at a live event as the Democratic candidate for President Barack Obama was about to speak, I knew it was Springsteen, and that it was written for Obama. The song made Obama seem less distinctive, more of a sloganeer than the thoughtful, deep-thinking candidate we craved. He was running against John McCain, a former POW; perhaps Obama thought his campaign should tack in that direction.
While I believe that both men were exploited for partisan purposes, there is more than a touch of the disingenuous here from both Stallone and Springsteen. These are two savvy, accomplished artists whose business is communicating through word and symbol, and to not see the automatic American response to Rambo’s flag waving and revenge obsession, and to deny the emotional Americana that is infused into every aspect of Born in the USA — the album cover, the catchy chorus of the title tune, the “Glory Days” and “My Hometown” nostalgia, the “heartland rock” genre title that this album inspired (not a bad trick for a Jersey boy)………I can almost feel the excitement Bruce must have felt growing each day as they recorded this album and the dark tones and blistering critiques found their way into a commercially viable frame that produced 7 hit singles, worked in discos as well as coffee houses, and in effect made Bruce Springsteen the next Mick Jagger, when he started out as a combination of Eric Burdon and Bob Dylan.
As for Stallone, his intentions were always commercial, and I never once thought of politics when Rocky Balboa ran up those million steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art and a thousand seven year-olds were right behind him. His insistence that he was apolitical holds up here, in Rocky I, but that’s it. By the time Rocky is fighting Russians and Rambo is destroying everyone whoever raised an eyebrow at an American decision — Rambo after the first film being fully Stallone’s creation — Sylvester Stallone knew very well what he was doing and what he had tapped into. Mel Gibson can claim that he was unaware of the anti-Semitic caricature of a group of Jews in his film “The Passion of the Christ.” They were one group in one film, and no one thinks of Mel Gibson as racially aware or culturally sensitive or even sane when it comes to a multicultural world. But Sly Stallone stretched out this franchise across 37 years and had artistic control over the product, and the politics that grew from his choices are predictable, recognizable and changeable, but the latter at a price: risk of commercial backlash or reduced revenue, an option which Stallone declined to exercise if he ever considered it at all. Rambo bulldozed his enemies, Stallone watched the box office avalanche, and neither made an apology for it.
Springsteen’s Born in the USA vet is First Blood’s John Rambo, the one envisioned by author David Morrell when he wrote the 1972 book of the same name: he can’t do squat about the nightmare America laid on him in the Vietnam jungle, so back home he goes bat-shit crazy from disrespect and rage. The song doesn’t give us the full story; it’s enough to know that our vet is doing ten years for torching the factory that didn’t have a job for him. John Rambo was somehow rehabilitated between films I and II, as during his First Blood fury they called in old mentors and important people who didn’t just let Rambo fall into reality after that — over the course of three decades-plus Rambo got all the save-the-western-world assignments, succeeded, and now with that final horse ride we’re almost all caught up, although no one knows what to do about North Korea.
V. CLOSURE, FOR A MOMENT
On the heels of WWII, Korea was the pre-Vietnam blemish on our unbeaten record, our one draw, coming about partly because we were too fatigued from our epic knockouts of Germany and Japan. Looking back, it may be the first sign that we didn’t understand certain types of warfare, certainly not the physical topography and internal workings of another country’s civil war. We still have not learned that lesson, not in Vietnam, not in Iraq.
Today South Korea is wildly prosperous and is clearly a capitalist beacon: orderly, upwardly mobile and possessing an immersive wedding culture that is scientifically and technologically advanced and guarantees a blissful future for its ritual-oriented, lovestruck population. Its dark sibling to the north is a threat in its unpredictable weirdness, its sterile, empty landscapes and subdued populace supporting, or unable to oppose, their government’s toying with nuclear weapons. In reality North Korea is probably more like a movie set — all façade and no depth, all marching and fairground displays and no idea how to fight. We could live with all that, but a nuclear threat looms, unsubstantiated or not.
The Cold War Korean experience did not scar our national consciousness. We didn’t need John Rambo to exorcise any demons on that front. If we did, somebody let Sly Stallone know, although he may want that sunset image to close out the Rambo franchise. It’s pretty damn perfect and would be hard to top in the iconic category. We could move this last score to settle over to the Rocky series where one of the boxers in Rocky’s stable is ready to take on the evil robotic Kim Jong-un Junior, and Rocky could get involved in some intrigue in Pyongyang while the boxers train.
Here’s an angle: Former 4-weight boxing champion Roy Jones Jr., today a fight analyst for TV and pay- per-view networks, is widely considered to be the victim of the worst decision in boxing history, amateur or pro. In the 1988 Seoul Olympics Jones dominated boxing’s middleweight competition all the way through the championship fight, but the decision for the gold medal went to a Korean fighter in a scandal that resulted in the lifetime ban of two judges from the Olympics for accepting bribes. Maybe Roy can join in the Rocky series and we will see his final redemption. They can seek out the judges in nursing homes, force teary confessions about their error and how it ruined their lives, and then back in the boxing ring a rising Roy Jones III, son of RJ Jr., can vanquish a North Korean now that they participate in the competition. Maybe RJIII will fight a relative of the boxer who was given the false victory over his father. Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un (the basketball loving dictator who worshiped Michael Jordan and got his sidekick, the bizarre and untethered Dennis Rodman, to visit the hermit kingdom in 2018 against all American advice), Roy Jones Jr., hell, Hilary Clinton, she got screwed somewhere in here, maybe the Electoral College gets zapped, and you know, the Cubans never felt fully resolved about the Bay of Pigs, nor the nation about the JFK, MLK and RFK assassinations……. this is a bit of a crowded field, but it is shaping up nicely, and that’s what artists do: find clarity in chaos. We’ve gone this far in bolstering America through warrior archetypes like Rambo, hometown heroes like Springsteen and the noble assassins who killed Osama bin Laden, this latter activity actually having taken place. Is there a reason to stop now? We’re on a roll; let’s get all the surgery done while the anesthesia drip is in place. And then we really do have to move on.
Word is that Sly is writing a prequel, the story of John Rambo as a teenager. (Young Blood?) There’s a debate among studio executives — is Young Johnny a brooding loner, waiting for his chance to be a hero? Stallone’s view is generous. ‘He was the perfect guy,’ Sly informs us, ‘until the war ruined him.’ Is he shy with girls but the beautiful cheerleader finds him and brings out his best while her former boyfriend, the rejected alcoholic quarterback, slashes the tires on Johnny’s Camaro, forcing the hero to walk home, where he comes upon some cruelty he must make right, a foreshadow of the Rambo we will come to depend on? Dallas in 1963 could produce some teenage heroics with Oswald and Ruby and the Secret Service ….was Johnny Rambo on the grassy knoll? The ages almost match up (a 16 year-old Johnny Rambo in 1963 would be 67 if the drug cartel fight was in 2014), and future Rambo would certainly have a lot to brood about then. We have a ton of raw material here, enough for 3-4 movies. I’m going to urge Sly to stick to the prequel and maybe leave all these attempts to wrap it up alone – this has got to end at some point, and now is about right. We’re already running into gasps of panic. Who can play a high school-aged Rambo? What should the cheerleader do to help craft the savior persona and leave a mark on civilization? And how to make sense out of the fragments of Rambo’s life so that we have the artistic sense and confidence that truth is being told, if it ever were? Do we dare open the door to explore the sociopathy of Donald Trump and what that says about millennial America? And if we go further, don’t we need to see John Rambo married off, flourishing under the ministrations of a strong, purposeful woman?
Sly has said that he sees the Rambo character’s final sanctuary set on an Indian Reservation, and that would really be closure. A tie-in with the Crusades is tempting, but that’s outside the scope of an American story, while the choice of closing on an Indian reservation seals off the early days of America perfectly, and maybe that one is too perfect to pass up – but then we have to be done. And what will the final image be? The possibilities are frightening and exhilarating. Marlon Brando, at least his image, has got to be in there somewhere, if you remember his refusal of the Oscar in 1973, when his name was announced to honor his performance in The Godfather. In his place, a stoic young Apache leader, Sachin Littlefeather, took the podium and with precise diction and a proper, almost British accent, asked for love and understanding moving forward in Tribal - US Government relations.
Once we wrap it all up, we can go on to our next threat. This one stands out. There are millions of Yemeni boys under 15 years old, over 20% of the country’s population, and this is a scary prospect: a huge angry cohort entering an economy that has little for them, schooled from birth on American evil and armed to the teeth, owning the second most guns per capita for a sizable sovereignty, after, guess who? The United States — maybe we should reach out now, through a Rocky movie. It might do better than Kim Jong-un with Dennis Rodman. We can conjure a Yemeni heavyweight who gives up chewing qaat, the national cocaine-like drug, and shows the world what a devout, loving Muslim can do for his family and people. But who should he vanquish? It shouldn’t be the USA, as the point was to settle that score in friendship. China is one possibility, and France comes to mind with their ill-advised attempt to have Muslims become westernized with the ban on hijab and other centuries-old customs. If you saw American heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder dismantle the sturdy Frenchman Johann Duhaupas in 2015, you’re confident we have a French boxer who would fit the bill. Wilder, a charismatic motivator and man of good will outside the ring, can serve as an unofficial advisor to the Yemeni, and as Wilder has connected with Cuban opponent Luis Ortiz through their daughters, our Yemeni hero should have a young daughter, and now we have an international peace force building. Springsteen can write the theme song; he already wrote the haunting ballad that brought actor Mickey Rourke back to national prominence in The Wrestler, so he knows the redemption turf. Cameos for Stallone, Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump now that he survived impeachment, Joe Biden if he’s not president …… I’m sure we’re leaving someone out, but we have a bit of time. A bigger problem: Can we avoid creating a whole new enemy as we try to make this final peace?
Without John Rambo, none of this is possible. Hell, I’m grateful to even have this opportunity to discuss it. We Americans live in a polarized political environment, and here’s a chance to heal some of that in a movie, of all places. The Springsteen tune could be called “Make the Desert Bloom” and you can even rhyme Khartoum in there, a nod to East Africa, who we don’t want to forget. Didn’t a ship have trouble there, and a helicopter, or was that the 1979 Iranian Revolution? There was a movie, right? (I checked, it was Blackhawk Down, set in Mogadishu, Somalia, East Africa). Do we have to account for that too? What other hidden shameful episodes are out there?
The belief in some kind of closure is quickly eroding as we peel away the onion skin and realize that sagas of this type never end. It seems we may need to come to grips with some ambiguity, a large amount of unfinished business, even a few unknowns. It is time to consider the useful if contrived concept of the deus ex machina — god of the machine — a Greek theatrical convention in which a savior flies in at the end of a play to solve all problems and bring equilibrium to a frazzled and fearful citizenry who would have perished without the last-minute miracle. I had been avoiding this easy out, but it may be time to play that card. I have no other ideas, and I need some help. Martin Scorcese, the director of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, has shown himself to have a conflicted relationship with God in his confused film, The Last Temptation of Christ, so maybe this is his chance at redemption while we’re doing the work anyway. Scorcese can direct the final film that sorts out all that is possible and — get this — when he can go no further, we bring out Anthony Hopkins as the Pope of Peace, John Paul II. He absolves America; we in turn absolve the universe - with a few important exceptions.
In what has to be divine synchronicity, Anthony Hopkins portrayed Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s maudlin biopic of the dethroned president, slurring his way through the last hours of his presidency with a tumbler of bourbon and a dissociated air that could have realistically ended with Nixon in a strait jacket on his way to Bellevue. The knighted actor portrayed Pope Benedict in the recent film, The Two Popes, so we know he can carry the papal aura. Hopkins as John Paul II can forgive his former film self, the disgraced Quaker President. Rambo the Republican doesn’t want to deal with the unappealing Nixon; Springsteen has never mentioned the man to my knowledge; still Nixon needs to be included in the papal blessing. He is repulsive, but compelling, the train wreck we are unable to ignore. And he is one of us: we cast him out as we needed to, but it doesn’t have to be for eternity. That’s why they created the god of the machine.
The Hopkins/JP II speech needs to have the celestial gravitas and innocent sweetness of the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount. To my view, only 3 American speeches have reached that level: MLK’s I Have A Dream, JFK’s inaugural address in Jan. ‘61 and Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address.
JP II needs to touch the hearts of Jews, Protestants, Muslims, atheists, pagans, wiccans, animists, Communists, Jainists, Zoroaster devotees, the 144 true Sufis spinning somewhere in the Sahara, 37 deposed leaders once backed by America now hiding in unknown places, silent majority Americans, Ba’hai universalists, Quaker pragmatists, all manner of Buddhists, Hindu poly-god worshipers, American mix-and-match spiritualists…….. the screenwriters have their work cut out for them. We need to be careful not to taint forgiveness by including the likes of Josef Stalin, Christopher Columbus, Adolf Hitler, others selected by a Committee of the Unforgiven. I envision an ending that wraps it all up in a package suffused with love and hope, if only I can stop certain names from taking residence in my brain ……. Donald Trump, Imelda Marcos, the wacko dude from Turkmenistan who built the huge heads in his own honor …… it may be that if John Rambo did not emerge full-blown into our collective unconscious, we wouldn’t have to consider all these murderous sociopaths who will have front row seats in Hell should the place actually exist ….. I’m going to put my hand in the cookie dough and start writing the final speech now and get it to Scorcese. Morgan Freeman is another strong possibility for the closing savior; The Shawshank Redemption gets at what we’re hoping for here – spiritual but not religious: a millennial quality I see on all the dating apps.
If Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman are unavailable, keeping with the redemption theme, how about Winona Ryder, lost since her inexplicable shoplifting conviction, as Mother Teresa? It would be interesting, but I would put a shrink on the set, and make sure to keep Winona’s husband Keanu Reeves away. There will NOT be a part for him in this epic. There is no forgiveness, or any recognizable human emotion, in The Matrix.
I’m also considering Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as a resurrected Thelma and Louise. Their fiery, flying ending rivals the Stallone sunset, and the last shot was frozen with their car in freefall, high above a gaping abyss – maybe they miraculously survived by catching a river current that carried them to the Gulf of Mexico and then the open ocean, eventually landing in Peru where they took out the communist cell El Sendero Luminoso, good Americans to the end, Arkansas homicide notwithstanding. They could deliver the Absolution Speech from their tent high in the Andes.
Now I really am done, spent after this last burst of cinema-fueled hope, finally out of ideas. I need a little rest. This is an exhausting history and it makes the future look bleak. Check in with me in an eon. I’m optimistic, but not blind. I can wait, for a while anyway. I’ll watch John Rambo ride off on that horse. He’s doing it for all of us.