Oh, dear reader, the things I do for you. I have been shot at. I have eaten awful food. I have interviewed despots, stood out in the rain, weathered heat and cold, seen "Rambo." But I will not -- absolutely not -- see "Rocky IV." So I sent my son.
Now that I know something about both movies, I can say that they share the theme that the Russians are inexplicably evil -- cartoon characters who do bad for the sake of doing bad. In "Rambo," for instance, the Russians and the North Vietnamese together hold American prisoners of war long after the war itself is over and all the POWs are said to have been sent home. They hold these unfortunate men for no reason except that they choose to do so. This is the way it is with evil people.
Rocky-Rambo (sounds like an ice cream flavor) would be nothing more than a joke on the people who have paid the price of a ticket if they were not saying something that is also being said by others. For instance, a considerable number of people seem convinced that the North Vietnamese (or the Laotian or Cambodian communists) are still holding American prisoners of war and that -- shades of Rambo -- the government knows it. They are told this not only by Rambo-Rocky, but also by some political figures for whom the caricature of the senselessly evil communist is, like an ideological Rosetta stone, something that explains all.
You will not get this correspondent to defend either communism or communists but he would be hard pressed to explain why anyone -- even an (ugh!) Vietnamese Red -- would continue to hold Americans prisoner 10 years after the end of the war. After all, this has got to be an expensive proposition and, if revealed, a mighty risky one at that. You don't have to be Rambo incarnate to suggest that the proper American response to such a discovery should be something pretty close to war itself. Indeed, by now it would be counterproductive for anyone to keep American POWs alive.
This sort of logic finds a hostile reception among those who are either genuinely convinced of the genetic evil of communists or -- a kind of evil itself -- those who would use the bogeyman of the satanic communist to advance certain foreign policy goals. A vigorously anticommunist foreign policy is all the more vigorous, not to mention amply funded, if the enemy is simply demonized. Among other things it justifies a policy in which leftist insurgencies are deemed bad, rightist ones good and no atttempt is made to differentiate among them. We must fund the contras in Nicaragua and Jonas Savimbi in Angola for the same reason: they are both fighting the devil.
The suddenly sensitive Soviets have complained about the new breed of American movies, saying that they have crossed a line from antigovernment to anti-people. They have a point. It is as if the anguished complexities of the Carter years has left us too weary to deal with any complexities whatever. Don't tell us about Soviet insecurities or how what they're doing in Afghanistan is not all that different from what we did in Vietnam. The commies are just plain bad. The truth is, it feels good just to say it -- as good as it did when as a kid I yelled, "Remember Pearl Harbor!" Never mind that years later the caricature of the cruel "Jap" was run over by a Toyota we never saw coming.
Most of the time this sort of mindlessness is without consequence. In some ways, the cardboard Russians of Stallone films are just updated Indians for contemporary cowboys. But the families of the 2,441 MIAs from the Vietnam war are real. Having been victimized once by the war, they are being victimized yet again by politicians and "patriotic" actors. The families are told of "sightings" of Americans, and their own government is accused of withholding the truth -- although why it should do so is never explained. This is Ronald Reagan's government, isn't it?
Diligently, the government has gone about the business of trying to account for the MIAs. A U.S. delegation has just been in Vietnam and others have been there before. The task is as endless as it is hopeless. There are MIAs after all wars, but those of Vietnam are a bit different. In life they were used to fight communists. In death, they are used to fight reason.