“Colonel Trautman: You expect sympathy? You started this damn war! Now you’ll have to deal with it!
Zaysen: And we will. It is just a matter of time before we achieve a complete victory.
Colonel Trautman: Yeah, well, there won’t be a victory! Every day, your war machines lose ground to a bunch of POORLY-armed, POORLY-equipped freedom fighters! The fact is that you underestimated your competition. If you’d studied your history, you’d know that these people have never given up to anyone. They’d rather DIE, than be slaves to an invading army. You can’t defeat a people like that. We tried! We already had our Vietnam! Now you’re gonna have yours!”–Rambo III
Recently, I’ve been rewatching the Rambo series. The recent installment made me aware that there have been two more additions to the series since the original three, and I was curious how these films had aged.
The first film is still a classic of American action film. Its focus on police brutality resonates in the era of Black Lives Matter to the point of prescience. Or, as Bryant, the cop in charge in the original Blade Runner put it: “You know the score, pal. You’re not cop, you’re little people!” The original film cast the institutional structures of the United States as the villain, and it still feels relevant. It’s a popcorn movie, but there are ideas worth exploring in it.
It’s interesting how the subsequent films repurposed the character to work as an agent for the United States in Cold War conflict, where Cold War jingoism makes Russians into comic book villains with recognized tropes, such as the Husky Russkie and Torture Technician. But, this third film looks very different from when it first came out due to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan for almost 20 years after 9/11.
I don’t particularly buy this idea that Afghans are some kind of unbeatable enemy. The main difficulty is geography and the limited ability of conventional armies to project power within it. With the investment in the right infrastructure and troop size, probably on the scale of millions, it could be done. The question is: is it worth doing? And, no matter the time or place, it never is to imperial states.
That said, the quote above got me thinking about the American experience in Afghanistan and how it differs from the framing of Vietnam. In both cases, the outcome looks to be about the same. Vietnam has about 58,000 U.S. service members killed and 150,000 wounded. In the U.S. War in Afghanistan, it’s about 2,400 and 18,000 wounded. That figure doubles if you include contractors, which I suppose is the modern euphemism for mercenaries.
So, clearly the main difference is scale. Fewer people went to Afghanistan, so it weighs less on the national consciousness. Chances are that most Americans did not know anyone involved. And, I think that gets at one of the key ideas in the Rambo films, that beyond promoting the American nationalism and a token “thank you for your service”, veterans are mostly forgotten about, both during and after the wars they are asked to fight.
Rambo III is an exercise in cartoon violence. But, interestingly, it has become more relevant 30 years on. It’s not a great film, but it does provide some food for thought, given our collective experience of the War on Terror. It becomes much easier to draw the line from the first to the third film, and how American institutions are fundamentally correct, and perhaps have always been so since at least World War II.