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Scruffy John Rambo, carrying a bedroll and wearing a field jacket emblazoned with an American flag, stares down at a quaint country house by the side of a sparkling lake, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. A black woman hangs freshly laundered clothes on a line.
The first scene in the 1982 movie First Blood appears idyllic. But tension lurks beneath the surface. Rambo tells the woman he's looking for a friend; they served on the same team in Vietnam. She looks at the picture he gives her with bitterness. "Delmar's dead," she says with quiet pain. "Cancer. Brought it back from 'Nam. All that orange stuff they spread around."
Stunned, bewildered, resigned, Rambo heads for the highway and walks toward the small town of Hope. He's just looking for something to eat when he's accosted by Sheriff Will Teasle. Burly, blustering, Teasle literally runs the unshaven, longhaired veteran out of town. But Rambo refuses to be bullied. Deliberately, he walks back toward Hope (get it?), only to have the hard-assed sheriff toss his butt in jail.
As a deputy takes Rambo's fingerprints, the falsely accused vet catches a glimpse of a window crisscrossed with bars. Flashback to Vietnam--Rambo in a bamboo cage, being abused by his North Vietnamese captors. Following Teasle's orders to clean up Rambo, a deputy orders him to strip, gaping as Rambo removes his shirt to reveal a sculpted back and chest viciously scarred by a whip, a legacy of his days as a POW. Pounded by water from a fire hose, unnerved by the flashbacks, pushed to his limit by the sadistic sheriff, Rambo goes berserk, attacking the deputies, fighting his way to freedom.
But the war has just begun. Rambo, using nothing more than his wits and a hunting knife, takes on the sheriff's posse. He survives a leap from a cliff, evades a park of hunting hounds, kills a helicopter sniper using only a rock, rigs booby traps in the forest to incapacitate (but not kill) the sheriff and his deputies, and escapes from an abandoned mine, collapsed by a bunch of weekend warriors with a rocket launcher.
Through the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, clearly a metaphor for the jungles of Vietnam, Sheriff Teasle and his deputies pursue their resourceful quarry, but they become the hunted.
Exciting, suspenseful, with spectacular stunts, First Blood is a stunning film, an adolescent male's fantasy of the super war hero, misunderstood by the society that turned him into a killer and then abandoned him--first by refusing to let him win the war they sent him to fight, then by rejecting him when he returned to the nation he loves.
Rambo can see no life for himself in the real world. "You just can't turn it off!" Rambo howls. "Back there I flew helicopters. I could drive a tank. I was in charge of million-dollar equipment. Here, I can't get a job!" Flashing back to the horror when a friend was blown up at his side, Rambo the Green Beret, the hardened combat hero--dissolves into an incoherent mess.
First Blood was a turning point. Before 1982, other movies about Vietnam featured the victimized, suicidal Vietnam veteran, traumatized by his memories. He was often portrayed as a vagrant, dirty, drifting through life. The other option: He was crazy as a loon. Prior to Rambo, the two most successful Vietnam movies were not likely to encourage anyone to identify with the soldiers in them. The Deer Hunter, winner of five Oscars, was not a hero's story. And Apocalypse Now was a surrealist exercise in absurdist excess.
But First Blood perfectly captured The Hero as Victim of society, of war, of his own inner demons. It was because he is the perfect fighting machine that the Vietnam veteran can't cope with the world, because he is a real man. Rambo's ire was directed toward the government, always a safe target. The government is evil. The government betrayed us. Hollywood finally caught up with the image of the dysfunctional vet created first by the antiwar movement and veterans' advocates and added its own mythic twist: Vietnam vet as dysfunctional superman.
There are several ironies about the movie and its two sequels, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Rambo III. They introduced a new word in the American lexicon: "He's a Rambo." Now Vietnam veterans are forever identified with macho-gone-berserk.
And both actors who starred in the original film are, to be charitable, pretenders. Sylvester Stallone, who played steroidal fighting machine John Rambo, now the epitome of the Vietnam veteran, managed to avoid military service and spent 1965 to 1967 as girls' athletic coach at the American College of Switzerland in Leysin. (Ironically, in one of his earliest movies, the 1969 Rebel, Stallone portrayed Jerry Savage, a college student and "modern-day, urban rebel" who drops out of school to protest the Vietnam War.)
And the sadistic sheriff is portrayed by character actor Brian Dennehy, who appeared in dozens of movies, such as Presumed Innocent, Cocoon, Semi-Tough, Foul Play, Gorky Park, Silverado, F/X, Legal Eagles, Best Seller, and Street Legal, as well as numerous TV movies and the series Birdland.
The actor publicly maintained for years that he was a Vietnam veteran. Dennehy told a New York Times reporter in 1989 that he had suffered a concussion and shrapnel wounds during combat. In a Playboy interview in 1993, Dennehy was described as serving a "five-year" tour as a Marine in Vietnam, where he suffered minor wounds in combat.
"Ever kill anyone?" asked Playboy. "Is there a Vietnam movie that nails the experience?"
"As for killing someone, anyone in combat would agree that it's pretty much accidental," Dennehy said. "It's not what you're thinking about. You spend a considerable amount of time just trying not to be in a combat situation. You're trying to avoid coming face-to-face with anything. So when something bad happens, it's usually accidental. But the implication in war movies is that war has this rational beginning, middle, and end. And of course none of it does. It's absolutely fucking chaos. Apocalypse Now is the movie. Even more interesting is that it was made so soon after the war was over. It was about the war and a parable about the war. It was and is the most sophisticated overview of the experience."
Dennehy seems like a nice guy, and he is a terrific actor. At six foot three, with the build and the craggy face of an Irish boxer, Dennehy looks the part of the combat-hardened Marine. (He played the tough Marine gunny sergeant in A Rumor of War.) But he's not a Vietnam veteran. A scholar athlete while attending Columbia University, Brian Manion Dennehy was on active duty from September 15, 1959, to June 4, 1963. His military record contains no Vietnam Service Medal, no Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, no Combat Action Ribbon, no Purple Heart, and no transit orders showing him going to Vietnam. His records show no indication Dennehy was ever wounded, unless he suffered a sprained knee from his duty on his only overseas assignment--as a Marine football player in Okinawa during 1962.
After obtaining the record, I contacted Dennehy's agent and told him there were discrepancies. At his suggestion, I wrote Dennehy a letter; there was no immediate response. I suspected that Dennehy's exaggeration of his military experience started as a way for the actor to gain credibility as a tough guy for the movies.
Just before my book went to publication I did hear from Dennehy. A handwritten, six page letter from him appeared in my mailbox. In his letter Dennehy confessed to having completely fabricated his military war record. Dennehy admitted he never set foot in Vietnam. Still, he pleaded with me to keep his name of out my book, or any mention of his decades long deception about being a war hero. I re-read Dennehy's letter several times. Dennehy argued that his war stories were nothing more than an attempt to actually help the true Vietnam vets. He wrote that his make-believe war experiences were intended to give himself credibility when arguing with anti-war liberals in, and out, of the media business. While Dennehy's sentiments were apparently noble, they were also somewhat difficult to believe. A struggling Hollywood actor would take up the cause of the real Vietnam vets, especially when supporting the war was not in vogue in Hollywood?
Dennehy's letter to me was written by a brilliant actor. His explanation was a new twist from the many explanations given by bogus Vietnam war heroes. Dennehy was essentially saying he acted as a Vietnam vet to help us guys.
Dennehy's arguments didn't resonate with me. For one thing, Dennehy's public comments about the war were not about setting the record straight. In his 1993 interview with Playboy, Dennehy said the war was just like the film Apocalypse Now. Of course, anyone who served in Vietnam knew that film didn't represent what really transpired there. Instead, Apocalyspse Now fed into almost every negative stereotype about the war.
Soon after the publication of my book, Dennehy tried to get in front of my story about his phony record by confessing. He did so in an exclusive interview with the supermarket tabloid the Globe. Dennehy told the Globe, "[Burkett] was right in what he said. I did steal valor. That was very wrong of me. There is no real excuse for that. I was a peace time Marine and I got out in 1963 without ever serving in Vietnam."
Dennehy's confession to the Globe was a smart maneuver. He lanced the boil of his dishonesty, while making the revelation in a supermarket tabloid not taken seriously by the mainstream press.
Dennehy also told the Globe he did not fabricate the stories to help his career or make an image for himself in Hollywood. He told the Globe, "I thought the veterans should have been treated better. I figured it sounded better when I spoke out about that if I said I'd been there."
Dennehy's "I lied to help them" defense still doesn't wash. Just months before this book went to publication, Dennehy called a highly decorated Vietnam Veteran who had written a best selling book that was to be made into a movie. Dennehy called the author, indicating an interest in directing the film. Dennehy began the conversation regaling the author about his experiences as a Marine in Vietnam.
Dennehy has included his Vietnam experience in recent biographical entries in Who's Who. These facts don't jibe with his claims today that his Vietnam lies "started when I was shooting my mouth off in bars 35 years ago. ...It was just something I did when I was young and stupid -- to impress people."
Rambos 'R' Us
First Blood became a touchstone for pretenders, a pattern to follow consciously and unconsciously. Released one year after the completion of the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the movie marked a change in our nation's perception of Vietnam veterans.
During the decade after the war, few real Vietnam veterans wanted to identify themselves as such. The divisiveness, the anger, the confusion made it safer, wiser to file that part of ourselves away. As a Vietnam veteran, society rejected me. But as long as I did not identify myself as a Vietnam veteran, I was accepted. So I assumed my other identities: Vanderbilt graduate, golfer, stockbroker, husband, father.
But Rambo made it okay, even heroic, to be a Vietnam vet. Politicians began to claim Vietnam service while campaigning for office. Sen. John Kerry, who had made a dramatic public splash with his antiwar stand, now wrapped himself in his Vietnam veteran status.
After the release of the second Rambo movie in 1985, counselors in Vet Centers across the country saw an influx of Vietnam veterans seeking help to vanquish their inner demons. Even to counselors who had never been in the military, some were clearly impostors, like the man who went into a Pittsburgh Vet Center in 1988 wearing a Marine Corps shirt and claiming he had served in Da Nang. He was not a day over thirty, making him a pre-teen during the war. Others wove their stories so well genuine combat veterans were fooled.
Many of these pretenders became "professional" Vietnam vets. Today, they fool psychiatrists, reporters, editors, even the military hierarchy. They learn how from Hollywood and from journalists and authors who swallow their tales and print them for others to study.
The Bogus Vet Phenomenon
Phony war heroes are nothing new. They sprout after every war, claiming heroism they never displayed and wearing medals they never earned.
Since the dawn of civilization it has been the lot of men to be warriors. We go out to the hunt, to protect our women, to fight our enemies. In Greek mythology, the Spartans were regarded as the most ferocious fighters in the ancient world. Spartan mothers were said to give their young sons this grim admonishment as they went off to war: "Come back with your shield or upon it." The saying meant fight well and return to me, or fight well and die honorably. But don't dare be a coward.
Some men fight and return; some stay home and say they went. Military writer and Vietnam vet Dan Cragg has written that phonies claiming combat may have something to do with the feeling of failing an important test of manhood. He pointed to a stanza spoken by King Henry V, on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, in Shakespeare's famous play:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Cragg served two tours in Vietnam without ever being shot at or firing a shot. "I can relate to those 'gentlemen in England now a-bed.'"
Cragg said, "when the battles at the Ia Drang were raging I was back in Saigon on General Westmoreland's staff. I didn't know then how lucky I was!" Cragg actually served in the military in Vietnam and felt left out because he wasn't in the thick of combat. Others who were never anywhere near a battlefield may feel that regret even more intensely and make up stories to compensate.
Part II - Welcome Home, Babykiller
Part III - Will the Real Vietnam Vet Stand Up?
Part IV - The Ragtag Brigade
Part V - Would I Lie To You?