PRINT December 1987



IT HAS BEEN AS THOUGH the Vietnam war had been on stage again recently, on television, in the print media, and above all in movie theaters, as it was once almost ten years ago, in that war’s aftermath, when The Deer Hunter, 1978, and Apocalypse Now, 1979, dispensed their strange tortured fantasies, huge and rugged and difficult. In those films directors Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola avoided many of the conventions of the Hollywood war-movie genre based primarily on World War II, suggesting in doing so that the reception of the Vietnam war was recognized as being different from the American public’s fantasies of other faraway wars. By being unbreakably tough, intolerably bitter, and irremediably itself, the Vietnam war would stick in America’s throat as a new kind of war-to-end-all-wars—the war we had lost, and the war that had revealed the falsity of war. In search of the war’s moral issues, both directors offered up allegorical fantasies and a “mythical operatic style,” as Coppola has said of Apocalypse. But these elements of fantasy became so dominant as to cut the films loose from the history, the issues, and the reality they supposedly addressed.

Now, after a lull of several years, another spate of films about the Vietnam war has been widely taken to signify that we are ready to face the war. This may be directly wrong. As of 1981 the film critic Gilbert Adair, in his book Hollywood’s Vietnam, could still say “there is no Vietnam war genre.” In 1987, this seems no longer the case. Various World War II subgenres have been adapted distinctively for Vietnam, the prisoner-of-war subgenre, for example, becoming the MIA-rescue film, and so on. The popularity of these films, whether patriotic, like the Rambo movies, or heavily ironic, like Swimming to Cambodia, may signify that we have managed to turn our darkness around the Vietnam war into a variety of formulas. When such reflexes develop with regard to a subject matter previously felt to be ungraspable, they reflect social mechanisms of adjustment that speak to the culture that is producing them. In this case it does not seem to be a culture engaged in a critique of its history, though an iconography about history and the war is bubbling up all around.

For a while, in the years after the war, Vietnam made the use of military imagery—guns, helicopters, uniforms—at the very least controversial and volatile, demanding sensitive phrasing. The television series MASH, for example, achieved its considerable popularity in the ’70s by evading the Vietnam war, which was surely its real subject, in favor of the Korean, and by taking a skeptical liberal stance toward the military. Today, by contrast, military imagery is casually phrased and widespread. It goes beyond the new spate of movies, appearing in art, advertising, television, and fashion. A new prime-time television show, Tour of Duty, sets itself in the Vietnam war, and lacks the ironic distance of MASH or its parody of the military personality. A similar shift has occurred in the visual arts. In the ’70s, serious artwork that addressed the issues of the war was mostly neglected, or brushed aside as political illustration. Shortly after the turning of the decade, the dedication of the Vietnam war memorial in Washington, D.C., made public for the first time the question of the relationship between art and the war. The controversy surrounding that memorial, and the addition of a second memorial, focused the dichotomies “abstract/figurative,” and “art/kitsch,” on the style with which the war was to be remembered, but did not get beyond a polarization. The issue was still too hot to handle. Today it has cooled to the touch. This fall Washington saw a serious exhibition, at the WPA space, that “came out of the reaction we’ve witnessed to the Vietnam Memorial,” according to a spokesperson quoted by the New York Times. The show gathered old and new works relating to the war by dozens of artists, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, and, in an accompanying book, writers. Not the least interesting point about the flood of Vietnam-related subject matter in recent American culture is the alacrity with which many journalists noticed it—it felt almost as though the articles had been written before, and were lying in wait—and then dropped it.

This is not the first time since the Vietnam war that civilians in camouflage clothing have stood out noticeably in the city streets. Camouflage is a multifaceted icon. In the early ’70s, for example, on some people it signified the desire for symbolic prolongation of the rebellious ’60s, but on some it often also verged on the style of radical chic. In terms of contemporary America, through a twist, camouflage can reinforce a nostalgic feeling about the ’60s, a feeling that those years offered a liberal solidarity that must be preserved against increasing disregard for it, and that the war, as the stimulus of so much social change, and of the forced development of our perceptions, is an essential symbol of that era in which we were reshaped as a nation. On a more sinister level, today’s camouflage fashions and the whole military iconography around them suggest a bellicose element in the national mood. But clearly what is behind this iconography is broader than an American mood, broader than the question of our memory of Vietnam. America is a prime symbol of militarization right now, and the camouflage it developed for the Vietnamese jungles may be found beyond American borders, as well as camouflage in other formations, patterns, and shades. Camouflage clothing is worn on the streets of Europe and Asia as well as of America. With war in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Central America, and elsewhere, military aggression and the consciousness of it (anti and pro) are worldwide phenomena.

The usual point of camouflage is that it transcends identity and adapts in varying relationships to its context. This is not always the case: in Northern Ireland, for example, the armed British soldier in full camouflage in a shopping mall is there to stand out; camouflage is associated with occupying troops, and is not a fashion among civilians. In Nicaragua, on the other hand, both military and civilian wear a variety of military garb, often involving camouflage, in part, it seems, as a show of support for the Sandinista government. Factors such as the supply and availability of different types of clothing affect these developments, but, more important, there remains a question of how camouflage functions in each circumstance. In contemporary use in America camouflage is a symbol that has become common in indigent and affluent neighborhoods alike, although at different prices. It is not just a matter of trousers: camouflage bikinis, chiffon evening gowns, wallets, and shoes can be sighted. Camouflage is above all associated with the jungle, and the jungle evokes an idea of nature in its least domesticated form, the pure form of nature in which it dissolves into process. To wear camouflage in a modern city has an effect opposite to that of merging one into the background. Against the urban jungle’s concrete and glass, a gray suit allows one to disappear into the fabric of the city, and camouflage sticks out. In such a man-made landscape, camouflage can represent the waning of the Modernist belief that culture and nature are rigorously separate. For camouflage worn in the city suggests something quite different from that view: that culture has become like a part of nature, as out of control as any rampaging flood, forest fire, or hurricane.

In terms of the selfhood that seeks to adapt to the junglelike city, camouflage suggests double urges which clash in most of us: the desire for anonymity conflicting with the wish to be noticed. Of course camouflage has aggressive implications, but they seem secondary to the increasing sense of ambiguity that these patterns suggest in the distinction between the self and its surroundings. With camouflage, the self is symbolically decentered, and merges into its environment. Andy Warhol’s silk screens of different camouflage designs are a fitting late testament from a great advocate of the chameleonlike self, an artist whose art took its pattern from the contemporary environment.

All this camouflage is about more than a moment, about more than Vietnam, and about more than camouflage. In a sense, it marks the end of an aeon. Wars have always functioned as markers of history. They are the stuff of and around which history is structured; they have been used to mark the changes of ages, like a knife slicing through time, dividing the before from the after. Herodotus tells how a conversation between people newly met would begin in his day: “How old were you when the Persians came, stranger?” The feeling that wars had purpose and were about something is part of what once made history meaningful. For American culture in particular, the Vietnam war put an end to this, and for the world at large today’s annihilatory weapons of war have no doubt influenced the transition between a view of history as meaningful and the possible view of history as leading to meaninglessness.

When the idea of history’s clear directives is shaken, selfhood is inevitably shaken too. To inhabit a certain kind of history you have to be a certain kind of self. To inhabit modern life—and here I’m discussing the general phenomenon of Modernism’s optimism about itself, not the doubts and qualifications that individuals within the Modern movement have surely had—one was supposed to feel oneself as a center of will, a figure standing out from the ground and dominating it, or pretending to. To inhabit the model of history that is called post-Modern, or the transition to it, a different kind of self has been expressed—a self that seems, for the time being anyway, idealless and without definition, a self that dons camouflage in a variety of roles like a multiple personality, a figure that melts into the ground, that hides or drifts like a nomad through the jungle of civilization.

Finally camouflage may be seen as a veil, like a skin that will shed, when it’s ready, disclosing, for better or worse, the next skin—the figures to come. Perhaps these figures will wipe out the view of history that is given meaning by war, or perhaps they will reembrace it with a new passion. They are us, as well as the unknown figures of the future. The mystery of who we will become may be symbolized by the camouflage wristwatch sold commonly on the streets, suggesting that the meaning of time, seen either as a march of history or as a cycle, has disappeared, has faded away and hidden—while the clock ticks on.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at Rice University, Houston. His novel North of Yesterday was published in October by McPherson & Co., New Paltz, New York.