The Rambo Mystique: Forgotten Lessons from First Blood

Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

I remember seeing the first Rambo flick (“First Blood”) in a movie theater in 1982 when I was nineteen and rooting for Sly Stallone’s character against the police and national guardsmen who are sent to kill him.  The police think it’ll be easy to subdue one man, but we the viewers know better.  As Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s former commanding officer, says in the movie: In war, it’s wise to have “a good supply of body bags” on hand, a telling reminder about the harsh reality of combat.

In “First Blood,” military clothing and the flag offer no protection to John Rambo, who’s treated as a lowlife by the local sheriff

Yet, there’s a deeper meaning to “First Blood” captured near the end of the movie, when John Rambo, having improbably acted as a one-man invincible army (a true “Army of One”), bitterly reflects on his own post-Vietnam experiences.  Rambo, breaking down, admits he can’t adapt to regular civilian life.  A loner, he feels himself to be a loser, even though he was decorated for heroism in war with the Medal of Honor.  Wounded and haunted by war, his soul seared by violence, he surrenders to Colonel Trautman.

The original Rambo movie wasn’t necessarily deep, but it did remind us that soldiers like Rambo carried hidden wounds of war; it also highlighted a societal suspicion, whether just or unjust, of military veterans.  The sheriff in “First Blood” has no respect for Rambo as a military “hero”; he sees him as a disreputable and dangerous outsider and just wants to be rid of him, one way or another.

Subsequent Rambo films would portray him as a virtually unstoppable killing machine. In the first sequel, Rambo is sent back to Vietnam to rescue American POWs betrayed and abandoned by the U.S. government.  Perhaps the most famous line from that movie is when Rambo asks Colonel Trautman whether, in returning to Vietnam, the government will finally allow U.S. soldiers to win this time.  It was a concise statement of the stab-in-the-back myth, the idea the U.S. military would have won the war in Vietnam if only it hadn’t been betrayed by a duplicitous and spineless government.

“Do we get to win this time?”  That’s a question that should haunt all Americans, since we haven’t won a war since 1945.  But who is to blame for not winning?  And have the wars America has fought since World War II really been worth fighting to begin with?

Update (9/2923): A lot has changed in forty years, as a couple of my friends pointed out in response to this article. We could imagine at least two scenarios for a revised Rambo made in 2023:

Version 1: In 2023, the sheriff wouldn’t have to call in the National Guard.  All his deputies would gear up with assault rifles, sniper rifles, body armor, and MRAPs donated by the Pentagon as excess gear and the local SWAT team would be mobilized and deployed to find and kill Rambo.

Version 2: Perhaps the most likely one: Rambo would be wearing a “blue lives matter” flag, the sheriff’s patrol car would be festooned with “support our troops” stickers, and they’d call a town meeting to give Rambo the keys to the town as a Medal of Honor winner.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.

4 thoughts on “The Rambo Mystique: Forgotten Lessons from First Blood

  1. I was an unwilling participant in General Hershey’s first sweepstakes (i.e. draft lottery) as a soon-to-graduate college student. Prior to my draft physical, I did everything that I could (no-lethally) to screw up the exam. Having failed in that sabotage, I enlisted a close friend–a Catholic priest–to accompany me to the draft board to ratify my hard-to-support (as a Catholic) arguments for being a “conscientious objector”. IOW, I gamed the system as best as a 19-yo could. My personal, unspoken bottom line was this: I could not justify the sacrifice of so much as the nail of my left pinkie to a war which–clearly, by that time–the perpetrators had no intention whatsoever of winning. I beat the draft.

    I remained committed to finding any better way of defeating Communism in the US. To this day, I might add. Especially at the present.

    I look back now from my seventies. I can think of nothing I could have said or done better 50+ years ago.

  2. Hidden wounds of war? As aggressors, American soldiers should be suffering from a moral injury. Only psychopaths and sociopaths are unmoved by the injury they unjustly inflict upon others. Submission to authority is no excuse for this and they know it. They have been subjected to psychological manipulation through the understanding of group dynamics and other measures. They were left with no tools such as critical thinking after years of abuse in the public school system. They were merely a weapon of war and they have come to realize that. Sucks to be them.

  3. Worth mentioning that Rambo III featured the titular hero backing mujahadeen rebels against the Hated Soviets in Afghanistan; and the original cut & home releases of the film praised those same (future Al Qaedenese) “freedom fighters” in the end credits.

    Before, of course, 9/11 forced a quick and un-self-aware deletion of this pointed political statement.

Comments are closed.