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.
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.