The challenges, such as how to fight

The Vietnam War was a complex and controversial war in
Indochina that spanned three decades from 1957 to 1975.  The war was plagued with many challenges,
such as how to fight an often reclusive enemy. 
The war also had many ambiguities, such as why America was involved and
what would define a victory.  Given the
prominence of this war in modern American cultural history, there is a vast
amount of published materials on the Vietnam War.  However, addressing the topic of the Vietnam
War effectively in a two hour mainstream movie can be a difficult undertaking.  Based on a microcosm of U.S. military life in
Saigon, Good Morning Vietnam (1987) uses the joy of comedy, music and
friendship juxtaposed sharply against the backdrop of a full scale war to help
viewers experience the tragedies of war more emotionally than non-comedic war
dramas.

The historical background of the Vietnam War is helpful to
understanding the full impact of Good Morning Vietnam.  The U.S. was first drawn into the Vietnam
conflict to aid the French who were attempting to re-establish their Vietnamese
colony which was lost to the Japanese during World War II.  The French were combating the Viet Minh
(Vietnamese League for Independence) who struggled for an independent state
under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh (Isserman 1).  Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt
supported an independent Vietnam that “should not go back to France” (Isserman
4), subsequent presidents such as Truman were more concerned about the advance
of communism than the independence of Vietnam (Tindall 1290).  This U.S. policy “to oppose the advancement
of communism anywhere in the world” is known as the Truman Doctrine (Tindall
1290).  Adhering to this doctrine, the
U.S. backed our French ally’s attempt to re-colonize Vietnam, since they were
considered important in the fight against communism.  After the French were defeated by the Viet
Minh and North Vietnamese Army in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, they gave up their
struggle to re-colonize Vietnam.  The
subsequent Geneva Accords officially split Vietnam into North and South Vietnam
at the 17th parallel.  U.S. military
advisors, however, stayed in South Vietnam to help them fight against a communist
takeover from North Vietnam.

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Good Morning Vietnam opens with idealistic scenes of life in Saigon in the mid
1960’s.  Although South Vietnam was in a
continual struggle for independence and democracy, everyday life continued in
the big city despite the escalating military conflicts.  After Ngo Dinh Diem, an unpopular South
Vietnamese president, was overthrown in a military coup in 1963 and after the
controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson felt
compelled to escalate the U.S. involvement to direct military engagement
against communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong (Evans 528).  The Viet Cong (National Liberation Front) was
a South Vietnamese insurgency group supported by communist North Vietnam.  Much of their resistance utilized guerrilla
warfare; however, they also participated in more organized military attacks
against the South Vietnamese Army (Army of Republic of Vietnam) and the American
forces (***). 
Ultimately, Johnson hoped that overwhelming North Vietnamese causalities
would force the North to capitulate (Tindall 1288).  Throughout the movie, we are reminded of the
increasing commitment of military troops to Vietnam via teletype news feeds
from the States. 

Against this tense backdrop of a developing nation
threatened by the continual escalation of war, Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams)
enters Saigon as a popular comedic disc jockey broadcasting on the AFRS (Armed
Forces Radio Saigon).  Not only was
Cronauer funny, but he was a free spirit who was often disrespectful and
ignored the directives of his superiors. 
For example, Cronauer broadcast news about a bombing incident at a
military bar owned by Jimmy Wah (Cu Ba Nguyen) in Saigon where he was almost killed.  The incident was officially censored.  However, Cronauer ignored his boss, Sargent
Major Dickerson (J. T. Walsh), and announced the bombing over the radio.  Cronauer developed a crush on a South
Vietnamese girl name Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana) he met while teaching an
English class.  He also developed a close
friendship with Trinh’s brother Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran).  However, his friendship and trust in Tuan was
betrayed when he later discovered that Tuan was Viet Cong and was responsible
for the bombing in Saigon.  Although Tuan
ensured Cronauer left the bar before the blast to protect him, two American
soldiers were killed and three were injured. 
When confronted by Cronauer, Tuan protests that the Americans are the
enemy since his family and neighbors were killed by American soldiers.

            One emotional technique used effectively
in Good Morning Vietnam is to display strong emotional switches from
light to serious.  The most dramatic
emotional switch occurs after the sudden bombing of Jimmy Wah’s café.  Prior to the bombing, the movie’s atmosphere
was light and happy.  Cronauer is a
disrespectful character who often wears non-military outfits and makes jokes in
almost all situations, even when he is reprimanded by his superiors, Lieutenant
Hauk (Bruno Kirvy) and Major Dickerson. 
It is rare for Cronauer to lose his smile and everyone looked forward to
his comedic radio hour.  His antics
filled the radio waves with jokes and imitations of celebrities and politicians
such as Vice President Richard Nixon. 
His parody of Nixon is crude and disrespectful.  This is a nice example of laugher being
“linked to the overturning of authority” as expressed by the Russian
philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (No Laughing Matter 5).

Suddenly,
the bombing incident happens directly behind him, and the movie turns starkly
serious with scenes of commotion, destruction and death.  We also see this shift in behavior from Jimmy
Wah, the café owner.  Typically, Jimmy
never loses his smile even when he encounters rude and racist behavior.  However, after his cafe is bombed and soldier
are maimed and killed, Jimmy erupts in despair. 
This sudden shift to serious emotion by light-hearted characters helps
to dramatize the tragic nature of war. The effect is like falling down the
first hill of a rollercoaster after a long ride to the top.

Another
emotional shift occurs after Cronauer entertains a group of soldiers headed to
the front battle lines.  He was
encouraged by his assistant Sargent Garlic (Forest Whitaker) to provide
impromptu entertainment to the troops waiting to head out.  Cronauer does a wonderful job of entertaining
the young men and making them laugh and feel comradery.  Yet, the task before them is fraught with
death and destruction.  In this touching
scene, we see a prime example of laughter being used to cope with the fear of
war.  Bakhtin viewed the use of laughter
to counteract fear, especially in a group setting, as a “socially regenerative
experience” (No Laughing Matter 5). 
Clearly, in this scene the group context adds to the value of the banter
and laughter.

This scene also depicts the contradictory human components of
laughter.  The ability to laugh in the
face of certain tragedy is a trait found only in humans and not the animal
kingdom.  Kobena Mercer states that laughter “brings our lofty ideals and our noble
aspirations back down to earth, for it reveals us to be the creatures of a
finite and contingent world, with little ultimate control over our material
conditions” (Mercer).  Certainly, in the theater
of war, soldiers feel as if they have little control over their fate.  In this situation, laughter and comedy seems
to humanize the tragic realities of life.

As
the young men leave to the dangerous North, the gravity of the situation can suddenly
be seen on Cronauer’s face.  He nervously
flip-flops between light hearted jokes and serious well wishes:  “You guys take care of yourselves.  I won’t forget you.”  The acting is superbly realistic and
touching.  The sentimental scene draws
the viewer into the seriousness of the situation and the challenges these young
men will face.

Throughout the movie, Good Morning Vietnam touches
on many aspects of the war which many believe to be the “greatest American
foreign policy debacle of the century” (Tindall 1274).  Several dimensions of the war are addressed
in some depth such as difficulties identifying the enemy, Viet Cong terrorism,
governmental censorship and the 1960’s counterculture.

Since many Viet Cong insurgents lived in country villages,
it was difficult for U.S. forces to effectively combat a loosely knit
organization that could attack suddenly, and then quickly exit a conflict by
disappearing into the country side, never leaving their dead behind.  It was hard for U.S. troops to track down insurgents in the
Vietnamese countryside that was dense with trees and brush and often ridden
with landmines, traps and tunnels.  In
one movie scene, Cronauer and Sargent Garlic barely escaped fire from the Viet
Cong and found themselves walking in circles in the woods until they are
rescued by Tuan.  Cronauer aptly states
that wondering in this forest is like “hunting with Ray Charles.”

Also, as portrayed in Good Morning Vietnam, many
Viet Cong lived among regular South Vietnamese citizen and hid their true identity.  By hiding his true identity, Tuan was able to travel
freely in Saigon, even into locations frequented by American military
personnel.  In this way, he assisted his fellow
Viet Cong soldiers in the bombing of Jimmy Wah’s café.  Although Tuan was a willing Viet Cong
fighter, it should be noted that not all Viet Cong were willing
volunteers.  In many cases, young
Vietnamese recruits were kidnapped or threatened into joining the Viet Cong
(Gettleman 154).

As a result of the Viet Cong guerilla warfare, American
forces often destroyed small hamlets they believed to support or house the Viet
Cong.  In particular, napalm was often
used to “sanitize suspected enemy troop concentrations and hostile hamlets”
(Wallechinsky 241).  The use of such
indiscriminate weapons further added to the distrust of many South Vietnamese
people.  Good Morning Vietnam used
striking scenes of napalm attacks to portray the context in which the plot
progressed.

The U.S. failure in Vietnam was in part due to censorship
and misinformation.  The impact of a
misinformed public came to a head after the Tet Offensive in 1968.  This was a surprise offensive organized by
the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. 
The day after an agreed truce during the lunar New Year, Communists
General Vo Nguyen Giap launched simultaneous attacks on major South Vietnamese
cities, capitals and military installations. 
With much of the South Vietnamese soldiers on holiday leave, the offensive
was initially a surprise.  Ultimately,
the South Vietnamese and U.S. troops fought back with overwhelming force
resulting in over 60,000 communists soldiers killed compared to 2,600 Americans
and South Vietnamese (Wallechinsky 221). 

Prior to the Tet Offensive, daily military reports on the
war gave the impression that victory was in sight based on a large imbalance of
“kill ratios” (North Vietnamese casualties versus the South Vietnamese and U.S.
casualties).  Thus, the American public
was shocked that North Vietnamese forces could launch such a large and
coordinated offensive.  The Tet Offensive
was a psychological victory for North Vietnam. 
It also demonstrated America’s misunderstanding of the enemy.  The U.S. assumed that superior firepower and
extreme losses would break the morale of the North Vietnamese.  However, after the Tet Offensive, a stunned
America finally realized that the enemy would never give in.  This verified the statement by Ho Chi Minh
that, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at
those odd you will lose and I will win” (Evens 535).

Government censorship during the war was also highlighted
frequently during Good Morning Vietnam.  Increased troop deployments to South Vietnam
were typically censored from the airwaves and even local terrorist attacks were
not aired.  The censorship portrayed was
so stringent that listeners were clearly being misled about the gravity of the
conflict.  In fact, after the bombing of
Jimmy Wah’s cafe, Major Dickerson demands that Cronauer censor this incident
from the broadcast.  Cronauer then
complains to Major Dickerson, “You want everyone going under the assumption
that it’s safe here.  It’s not.”

Cronauer then decide that he will ignore this
command and announce the bombing using irony. 
He locked himself in the broadcasting room and proceeded to create a
scene of typewriters and sounds form a newsroom.  He then ironically pretends to obey his
commander by prefacing his disclosure with the word “unofficially.”  “One thing that didn’t officially happen was
a bomb didn’t officially explode.  Two
men…were unofficially dead.”  The
listeners will obviously get the truth behind this ironic double-negative spiel.  This is an example of truth revealing irony
which David Beers calls “Ironic Engagement” or “the real stuff.”  By this he means, “The kind of irony that drove Socrates’ queries,
the irony that lies at the heart of much great literature and great religion,
the irony that pays attention to contradictions and embraces paradoxes”
(Beers).  When Cronauer uses irony to
highlight the real tragedies around him, he is telling the truth with comedy
even at the risk of his own career.  Not
because he is a frivolous comedian, but instead because he truly cares.  Randolph Bourne declared that “The
ironist is ironical, not because he does not care, but because he cares too
much” (Beers).

Although the movie doesn’t address all facets of the 1960’s
counterculture, the topic is highlighted by the controversies over the
rock-and-roll music that Cronauer played during his radio stints.  His superiors favored wholesome music such as
the light hearted sounds of Jim Nabors, instead of degrading rock and roll
music from someone like James Brown. 
However, Cronauer addressed the soldiers need to find ways to escape the
stresses of war.  He understood the power
of both music and comedy to help troop morale in a war setting.

The use of comedy during a war is a central theme in Good
Morning Vietnam.  In fact, the use of
entertainers, especially comedians, has been used in many military conflicts
such as when Bob Hope performed for troops during World War II.  Comedy and laugher in a profound war
situation seems to violate an expected solemn behavior, yet they have great psychological
value.  This aspect of laughter is often
referred to as Incongruity Theory and has been address by various
philosophers.  Schopenhauer remarks “that
‘life and even its very adversities’ provide the material for laughter” (Lewis
49).  Charlie Chaplin,
also recognized the relationship between tragedy and comedy when he said, “Life
is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot” (Weissman
128).  In Good Morning Vietnam, Major Dickerson seemed to miss value of
comedy in a tragic situation.  He became
upset when he was informed that an unconventional comedic deejay is coming to
his radio station.  When his superior
General Taylor (Noble Willingham) suggested that he not worry about “only a deejay”,
Major Dickerson bluntly states, “Frankly, I do not understand … there is no
such thing as “only” anymore, not now, not in Saigon.”

  Good Morning Vietnam uses several panoramic sequences to display other events
that transpired during the war.  In order
to create contrast, uplifting music such as “What a Wonderful World” by
Louis Armstrong is played in the background as war scenes are displayed on the
screen.  These sequences depict events
such as indiscriminate napalm attacks on Viet Cong villages; anti-war protests
in the streets of Vietnam; executions of Viet Cong by soldiers fighting for
South Vietnam; and increasing build-up of U.S. military bases.  Interlaced with such tragic war scenes are
pictures of everyday life in a beautiful country side of mountains and rice
fields about to be ripped apart by a tragic war.  The impact of these general war scenes
combined with the main story line creates an encompassing dramatic effect.

Due to the many comedic elements, Good Morning Vietnam
has a less serious tone than other Vietnam War movies such as Apocalypse Now
or The Deer Hunter.  These more
serious war movies almost seem limited to the dramatic emotions related to
battle death and pain, or psychological stresses from combat.  Many war movies have this same rather limited
or singular emotional effect.  For
example, Saving Private Ryan is a story of loyalty and sacrifice during
World War II.  Although the opening scene
depicting the invasion of Normandy on D-Day is impressively horrific and
impactful, the movie is generally cold and gory throughout.  This seems to limit the range of emotions and
may cause the audience to disconnect from the tragedies they are
witnessing.  The cinematography is
impressive and invokes a strong emotion. Yet, the emotions addressed seem
limited to the inevitable horrors of war. 
As stated by Keith Beattie in The Scar That Binds, “War is blood,
war is body fragments, war is the dismemberment of the body” (Beattie,
11). 

Friendship and forgiveness also add to the emotional
realism conveyed in Good Morning Vietnam.  By the end of the movie, Tuan has become
Cronauer’s best friend and has saved his life several times.  When Cronauer discovers Tuan is really Viet
Cong, this is emotionally stressful since Tuan is surely the enemy.  Yet, he feels compelled to warn Tuan that the
U.S. Army will be searching for him and they know his true identity.  Although Cronauer is unable to reconcile his
friendship with Tuan directly, he does seem able to reconcile this dilemma in
his heart since Tuan was also a victim of war. 
Instead, Cronauer reconnects with his Vietnamese friends and students
from his English class.  They joyfully
laugh and act silly playing a game of softball together as he prepares to say
goodbye to Vietnam.

In Good Morning Vietnam, the comedic elements and
joyful music contrasted against the sadness of a complex war creates a very
broad and dramatic emotional response. 
This is supplemented by an array of war struggles such as censorship and
terrorism.  The additional story line of
friendship and betrayal helps the viewers relate to the characters more
closely.  The movie’s storyline and use
of comedy juxtaposed against an array of war topics creates an enjoyable,
engaging tour de force of the Vietnam War that transcends the limited emotions
created by other darker and more serious war movies.