I thought I’d never get over it. Here I’d just gotten out of the
Navy, and in the armed services people were still dying for their
country every day. Yet I saw soldiers returning to America from Vietnam
being hooted at and even spat on. It seemed to me I could never fight
for this ungrateful country again.
Of course I realized most Americans weren’t doing the spitting, but I
couldn’t even tell the spitters from the non-spitters. If you asked a
spitter straight out, he’d lie probably, and I soon realized that
separating the spitters from the non-spitters was impractical, not to
say ridiculous. As a former serving officer in the regular Navy, and an
honor graduate of the Naval Academy, all I saw my way clear to do was
resign and refuse a reserve commission. All my friends said I should
forget about the Navy and the whole thing. But I couldn’t.
Then a historically astonishing thing happened. The whole generation
immediately following mine — a result of the American defeat in Vietnam
among other things — became violently and contemptuously anti-war,
anti-military, anti-police, against the use of force as a corrective for
anything. I can’t count the number of motion pictures coming out in
those days whose sole message was a horror and contempt for war, and
even more so the saintliness of those who actively resisted wars, people
who at a glance one might well mistake for cowards. The films’ authors
were always at pains to make clear that the hero himself wasn’t
cowardly, he was just engaged in a fearless act of protest against war,
which itself of course was evil beyond debate.
Whereupon — another generation now come to the fore — I found to my
amazement that in America military bravery was fashionable again. Movie
houses were suddenly filled with people too young to even remember
Vietnam, the war protest movement, or “Hey, Hey, L.B.J.! How many kids
have you killed today?” In the new film
“Rules of Engagement” I was
astonished to find things were now quite reversed. Based on an
excellent novel by Jim Webb, a highly decorated Marine Corps veteran
from Vietnam, former Secretary of the Navy (and a personal friend), the
movie is directed by William Friedkin, whose opening sequences are among
the most brilliant battle shots filmed.
A U.S. Marine Corps detachment is called upon to defend a U.S.
Embassy in Yemen under attack from a violent, armed, anti-American mob.
When the attack is over, three Americans lay dead and over eighty of the
Arab attackers — including women and children.
The Marine higher-ups, worried about a charge of gratuitous violence,
promptly order a court martial for the Marine colonel who commanded the
unit (Samuel Jackson). (I myself have been both prosecutor and defense
counsel in such court martials. At the beginning I pleaded with my
superiors that I had never studied law, to which appeal they responded
by handing me some law books and telling when I would be expected to
present my first case in court. We were on the East China coast, near
the fighting, but the Navy court martial system continued undisturbed.)
In the film, Colonel Terry Childers (Jackson) who had commanded the
rescue mission, seems to be in a really tough spot. But his skin is
saved by another Marine colonel (Tommy Lee Jones), an old Vietnam buddy,
who accepts to be his defense counsel.
But the shocker for me in the movie was the loud shouts of approval
that went up from the audience at every speech from Tommy Lee Jones in defense of Samuel Jackson,
charged with murdering “innocent” civilians. There were no cheers for
Guy Pearce, Jackson’s prosecutor, intent on showing Jackson’s villainy.
Clearly seen by the audience as defending the enemy, Pearce was seen as
the enemy himself. It was as simple as that.
Another villain in the movie is an American security man who comes
into possession of a video cassette of the Yemeni attack on the American
embassy, which shows clearly the Arab crowd armed and firing — the
principal evidence for the defense. An American identified as a U.S.
National Security Advisor — a post presently held by Sandy Berger —
destroys the incriminating tape, and the situation looks bad for
To show how swiftly public opinion can swing around, consider last
year’s “The Thin Red Line,” another war movie, this one set in the
Pacific during World War II. It certainly doesn’t lack for stars: John
Travolta, Sean Penn, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte. In
“Rules of Engagement,” the closest we come to a villain is the National
Security Advisor, who tries to arrange things so that an American is
blamed for the massacre. The rest of the Marines are pretty decent
fellows and darn good Marines. In “The Thin Red Line,” by contrast,
the whole U.S. military is a gang of bloodthirsty killers. Our contact
with the natives of the Pacific Islands, however, turns them into
bloodthirsty killers also, just like us Americans.
Well acted, “Rules of Engagement’s” plot is certainly simple. The
Americans are honorable and brave. The Arabic-speaking Yemenis are
neither. The audience seemed to agree whole-heartedly. As I write
“Rules of Engagement” has been the country’s number-one film for almost
three weeks running.