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There is a strange duality when analyzing the role of veterans in the United States. Indeed, for a nation that often fancies itself and bases a great share of its pride on its important military apparatus, the issue of veterans – and in particular veterans of color – opens a problematic dichotomy in the United States. From decorated war heroes to outcasts of society left without any social welfare and care from the country they have fought for and died to protect. Hence, with the recent Veteran’s Day in the United States, it is important to ponder on this issue. In this context, few are able to open up to the general public these issues of race struggles in the US as the master of Cinema Spike Lee, and his 2020 movie “Da 5 Bloods”.
On the surface, the movie follows a company of Vietnam veterans coming back to Ho Chi Minh City in the present day, to retrieve the spoils of their fallen commander, as well as secret cargo left there in the past. In reality, Spike Lee uses this war drama as a way to take a hard look at the treatment of veterans of color in the United States, and the general situation of black minorities in the post-Trump society.
The Situation of Veterans in the United States
At the core of the movie stands the difficult situation of war veterans in the United States. Based on a 2015 report by CNN, troubling data emerged which saw veterans being twice as likely as the average American to be homeless. According to the Veterans Affairs (VA), approximately 70 percent of homeless veterans suffer from substance abuse problems, and some 45 percent are suffering from mental illnesses, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This stems from a general situation of lack of welfare and issues with re-integration that veterans suffer since their return from the front lines.
Indeed, further data from this analysis shows that, according to the Bureau of Labor, of the country’s 21.2 million veterans, only half was properly employed; while over 10 million were not even looking for employment. Hence, according to this investigation, it becomes clear how veterans become desensitized and detached from society once they are back home, causing them to resort to substance abuse or live in extreme conditions of poverty.
These statistics have only gotten worse during the Trump administration. Indeed, millions of former soldiers and often wounded of wars have had their health-care coverage eroded, as Mark Esper proposed a budget cut of over $2 billion to the Military Health System. This would undermine the quality of medical care and related specialized research. Also, the expanded outsourcing of care by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has created the same negative impact on nine million veterans – a precarious situation which has been further destabilized by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as by race-based discrimination that has surged over the past years in the United States.
It is from this background that “Da 5 Bloods” sets its drama. The film initially lulls the audience into thinking that this is going to be a light-hearted reunion between old friends; only to then transform into a hard-hitting war drama that does not shy away from tackling many social and racial issues plaguing the United States today. From PTSD to drug addiction and political extremism, “Da 5 Bloods” paints a true and hard picture of the situation of veterans in the United States. It represents yet another attempt by director and ‘Maestro’ Spike Lee to hit clear on issues that most prefer to overlook.
The Anti-War Movement
The film is introduced through a compilation of speeches delivered by real-life, prominent figures who protested the Vietnam War. Muhammad Ali declares the War as a fight “for big, powerful America”, a fight in which, unlike the United States, ‘the enemy’ “never called me ‘n*****’…never lynched me…didn’t rob me of my nationality”.
Malcolm X mirrors the draft of Black men with the unjust treatment of Black people in America throughout the country’s history: “When you take twenty million Black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and you never give them any real recompense, sooner of later their allegiance towards you is going to wear thin”.
Angela Davis stresses the link “between what’s happening in Vietnam and what’s happening here”, with “here” being the US at the time. She warns of “full-blown fascism”. Finally, leader of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, reiterates: “Now here we go with the damn Vietnam War, and we still ain’t gettin’ nothin’ but racist police brutality, et cetera.”
Spike Lee immediately presents to us the anti-Vietnam War movement as part and parcel of the War itself. On a day like Veteran’s Day, the film serves as an eye-opening reminder of the broader social dynamics, primarily of race and class, that comprise a War played out on the other side of the world. Through real-life footage, as well as character experiences, we gain an insight into the racial discrimination faced by African-American men, that led to a high number being drafted into a war where they represented a country that, in reality, they made up only 11% of. “White boys who stayed in college, they’d dodge that shit. They put our poor Black asses on the frontline, killing us off like flies.”
One of the most significant moments in the film occurs when the group of soldiers listens to a Radio Hanoi broadcast. Hanoi Hannah announces the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. She emphasizes the revolutionary’s position in the anti-War movement, by addressing how Dr. King “heroically opposed the cruel racial discrimination in the USA” and “the US War in Vietnam”.
It’s not just that the War was unjust in itself; the film underlines the inextricable link between injustices faced by African Americans in the War and the injustices they face in the US. The use of Dr. King in the storyline brings us face-to-face with the fact that a Black public figure affirmed this link, yet was killed for it in return. Perhaps Veterans Day should also be an occasion to recognize the crucial voices surrounding the Vietnam War, voices who spoke to defend the helpless men sent off to fight it.
Reflections on Modern America
Although “Da 5 Bloods'” predominant focus is on the Vietnam War and the US’ involvement in it, the film also comments on the United States of America as we know it today. Spike Lee offers his two cents on an area that has been under a particularly close microscope over the last year: the US police, police brutality, and institutionalized racism.
“I see cops patrolling my neighborhood like it’s some kind of police state”; “Your soul sisters and soul brothers are enraged in over 122 cities. They kill them while you fight against us”; “We still ain’t getting nothing but racist police brutality”. Statements spoken throughout the film, by real and fictional characters, reveal to us the prevailing issues of American society; issues which occur today just as they occurred then. It is clear the film is allied with the anti-Vietnam War movement.
However, it also serves a dual role of joining conversations reignited by recent worldwide protests calling out police brutality and institutionalized racism, namely: Black Lives Matter. Whether the film was popular enough to provide a sizable contribution to the modern movement is debatable. Yet, “Da 5 Bloods” does contribute an insightful critique of US society which, in retrospect, still shares a vast number of similarities, in regards to the treatment of African Americans, between past and present.
Tied with this is Spike Lee’s lens of Trump’s America. A relatively minor, yet vivid, symbol throughout the film is Paul’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat. The mere presence of the hat creates a space for contemporary conversations about Donald Trump, new-wave nationalism, and the USA from an international perspective. In its simplest form, the hat is a symbol of the US. This is telling of its negative reception by other non-American characters in the film, such as the French businessman Delroche, or the Vietnamese officers who intercepted Paul and his friends in the jungle. Spike Lee was not afraid to cast a light on the reputation that Donald Trump and his MAGA movement created for the US beyond its borders. This enables a lead into conversations on US imperialism, as this reputation begins to closely mirror the US’ reputation at the time of the Vietnam War.
All-in-all, Da 5 Bloods is a unique, modern war drama that offers an insightful look into the racial and societal dynamics of the US war in Vietnam, and how such dynamics prevail in the US today. At its surface, the film showcases the harsh realities of the War for all those reluctantly involved in it. This however leaves space for a critique of commemorations of the War – commemorations which often glorify, or attempt to conceal, such realities. In doing so, “Da 5 Blood”’s 2020 release has served as a fitting addition to ferociously reignited conversations surrounding race relations in the USA.
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