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Monday, 17 May 2010 05:37

There is no Honor Here: What Rambo Taught us About Afghanistan

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by Meg White

If I could add one war movie to the White House movie theater collection, it'd be Rambo: First Blood Part III

Over the weekend, my boyfriend and I spent 102 minutes of our lives watching the final installment in the Ramborambo 3 trilogy. Instead of what I expected -- an adrenaline-soaked, action spectacular from my embarrassingly short-sighted but thoroughly patriotic countrymen -- I got an incredibly prescient lesson in power and terror.

At the time of its release in 1988, Rambo III was widely panned. Not only is it pretty corny, but audiences must have thought that the way Russians were portrayed -- like stupid, sadistic drones -- seemed anachronistic by the late 1980s. Perestroika was already in place and the film was released some 17 months before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Back then, the film must have looked like an artifact of a bygone era. Watching it now, it seems like a bizarre back-to-the-future exercise.

The plot is basically this: Vietnam vet John Rambo -- after fighting to restore his good name against a fascist small-town cop in First Blood and saving stranded American veterans from the Viet Cong years after the police action there ended in Rambo: First Blood Part II -- has settled into the life of a handyman/weekend warrior in a Thai monastery. He's approached by his former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman, and asked if he wants to go to Afghanistan and help the freedom fighters (or mujahideen) fend off the Russian invasion there. Rambo refuses, but after Trautman is captured, Rambo volunteers to go save his former mentor from the Russians.

All of the sudden, Rambo is fighting Charlie Wilson's war. Perhaps the most instructive piece of this movie comes when viewed as part of a trilogy. The first two Rambo movies operate with a subtext that is a mixture of American shame and defensiveness in the wake of the war in Vietnam. Rambo twice plays the part of an abandoned killing machine, eventually redeeming himself and allowing the soldier (and by extension, his country) to return to the realm of humanity.

By the time Rambo III rolls around, we're lording our newly rediscovered humanity over the godless Russians. "Someday you'll understand," we say to them, shaking our heads and half smiling. But, as my boyfriend glumly quipped during our screening this weekend, "We are the Russians now."

Along the way, Rambo learns the bare minimum about Afghan culture, which is to say enough to know that the Russians were incredibly foolish to invade the country. His first lesson comes from his contact in the country, known as Mousa. As the two approach the mountainous Afghan border on horseback, Mousa gestures with a wide sweep and begins the lesson:

Mousa: This is Afghanistan. Alexander the Great tried to conquer this country. Then Genghis Khan. Then the British. Now the Russians. But Afghan people fight hard. They never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer about these people. You wish to hear?

Rambo: Uh-hm.

Mousa: Very good. It says, "May God deliver us from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger and the vengeance of the Afghan." You understand what this means?

Rambo: That you guys don't take any shit?

Lesson learned. But the Russians need a little help understanding their fate. In a scene just prior to Rambo's education on the futility of a war against the Afghan people, Trautman is trying to explain to his captor, Russian Colonel Zaysen, that his country is repeating the mistakes of the American military in East Asia (emphasis mine):

Trautman: The Kremlin's got a hell of a sense of humor.

Zaysen: Please explain.

Trautman:& You talk peace and disarmament to the world. Yet here you are, wiping out a race of people.

Zaysen: We are wiping out no one. I think you are too intelligent to believe such absurd propaganda...

Trautman: You expect sympathy? You started this damn war; now you have to deal with it. 

Zaysen: And we will. It is just a matter of time before we achieve complete victory.

Trautman: You know 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 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.

Just go back and reread that with U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal subbing in for the Zaysen character, and I think you'll get why Rambo III is somehow more painful than The Hurt Locker.

As if to underscore the similarities, Zaysen orders Trautman to be tortured, that they might determine just where those pesky stinger missiles are. Of course, torture only works to strengthen Trautman's resolve (and sharpen his sense of humor, as he tells Zaysen the missiles can be found in the Russian commander's behind. Hilarious).

The similarities even play out in language, in a way only American cinema can achieve. At one point, Zaysen asks of Rambo, "Who is this terrorist?" Little did the otherwise clunky screenwriters know that the Bush Administration would turn the tables on Rambo and his mujahideen friends some 15 years later. 

The concept of inequity of military strength is displayed when a Soviet fighter helicopter chases down Rambo and an Afghan fighter while they're on horseback. It's a sneak attack of sorts, and demonstrates the lack of sportsmanship on the part of the Soviets. Afterward, Masoud, whose character represents a mujahideen leader, says this to Rambo:

Now you see how it is here. Somewhere in a war there's supposed to be honor. Where's the honor here? Where?

I wouldn't be surprised if the same conversation could be heard today from Afghans and Pakistanis wondering about the honor of unmanned drone attacks.

Of course in the end, the Rambo terrorists -- I mean rebels -- win. Though movie-goers at the time saw Rambo and Trautman drive off into the sunset together, giggling about how they're too old for this crap, there was an alternate ending available to me as a DVD viewer. In it, Rambo decides to stay with his freedom fighter friends. 

"Does that mean Rambo joined up with the Taliban to fight us?" mused my boyfriend.

Both versions of the ending of Rambo III feature script that reads: "This film is dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan."

Gallant they are. But if the filmmakers were really looking out for the future of Afghanistan, they should have dedicated the movie to the future leaders of the United States.