Wrong, Colonel Kilgore, this war isn’t going to end: the enduring power of the Vietnam War in American culture

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“Some day,” Colonel William Kilgore tells “young Captain” Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic, Apocalypse Now, “this war’s gonna end.” Kilgore’s remark to Willard – delivered as a lament, rather than a hope – raises important questions concerning American memories of their flawed attempt to thwart Vietnamese independence. Over a quarter of a century after what Americans continue to describe as the ‘fall’ of Saigon, the United States has still not reconciled itself to the war’s inglorious end. Clearly, America’s Vietnam debacle has been a significant imperative in shaping the nation’s foreign policy since the 1960s: while the United States has not retreated into isolationism, it has been more careful in selecting where, and how, it seeks to shape international relations. Accepting that the foreign policy of any nation – but especially the United States which has always imagined itself as an exemplar for the rest of the world to emulate – is closely connected to domestic imperatives, it is my contention that Americans did not in fact ‘learn’ significant lessons from the Vietnam War. Those domestic imperatives have of course been expressed in political terms. But there is also a cultural aspect to this process. In particular, Americans’ understanding of their ‘Vietnam experience’ has been shaped by, and reflected in, the various movies that have been made ‘about’ the conflict. As this paper will explain, while these films have grappled in various ways with the legacies of America’s failure in Indochina, they have also reflected and perpetuated many of the same assumptions and values that led the nation into what has been depicted as the ‘quagmire’ of Vietnam (Halberstam, 1990).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-59
Number of pages10
JournalInter-cultural studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


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