Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Prisoners on leave: Vietnam veterans and the Golden Age Western

Edward Harvey 
Missoula, Montana, United States


US Marines approach a theater with Western figures outside it
Vietnam War – Hue, 17 Feb 1968 – US Marines Approaching Movie Theater Displays – Photo by Nik Wheeler. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS. Via Flickr.

“I think we all died a little in that damn war.” – The Outlaw Josey Wales


“So…what have you been up to?”

When screening combat Vietnam veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder, I will often ask them about their hobbies or interests, since PTSD often manifests as an inability to find pleasure in anything. In the thousands of interviews I have conducted over the course of my career, I am continually struck by how many retain an interest in watching Westerns when they find pleasure in little else, an interest they nurture through subscriptions to cable channels dedicated to the genre. Of course, most Vietnam veterans grew up during the 1950s, which is generally recognized as the “Golden Age of the Westerns,” a title conferred on the decade both for the quantity and quality of Westerns it produced. It is easy to suppose that in watching such films the veterans are simply reliving their childhood, but this cohort’s affection for the genre does not typically extend beyond films produced after the 1950s, which tend to be darker and more realistic in tone.

When discussing their favorite Western films, a Vietnam combat veteran is likely to declare his fondness for Shane and High Noon over contemporary classics such as Dances with Wolves or The Unforgiven. They also prefer such luminaries of the genre’s Golden Age as Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and John Wayne to present-day stars like Kevin Costner or Kurt Russell (though they might grouse that John Wayne was, in their opinion, a draft dodger). If Clint Eastwood is mentioned, it is often for his portrayal of Rowdy Yates in the TV serial Rawhide, which first aired in 1959, as opposed to “The Man with No Name” featured in director Sergio Leone’s gritty spaghetti Westerns from the mid-1960s. The distinction is relevant because it throws light upon the way these earlier films act as a counterpoint to the veterans’ subsequent experiences in Vietnam, particularly in their sanitized violence, moral clarity, and happy resolutions.

* * *

Vietnam combat veterans prefer Golden Age Westerns in part because they are restrained in their depiction of violence and are therefore less likely to trigger within them traumatic memories or flashbacks. When a character is shot in one of these films, we typically see him clutch his gut, absent of any blood, and then keel over. When a character is shot in more modern Westerns, he often dies a slow, agonizing death from multiple wounds, each marked by bloodstains. Is the latter more realistic? Perhaps, but such depictions are hardly helpful to a combat veteran with severe PTSD who must be scrupulous in his consumption of media lest it aggravate his illness.

Vietnam veterans also find comfort, I suspect, in the unambiguous terms in which Golden Age Westerns pit conflicts between good and evil. These films invariably feature a protagonist who selflessly puts himself in harm’s way to uphold justice and protect the weak against the dastardly plans of a villain and his cronies. In Shane, for example, we see a former gunfighter reluctantly come out of retirement to protect a group of homesteaders from a ruthless cattle baron who seeks to intimidate them into vacating their land. In High Noon, we see a marshal elect to protect a town from a vengeful outlaw and his gang despite the pleadings of his new wife who urges him to flee. In both films, the line demarcating the forces of good and evil is unblurred, and their protagonists comport themselves in an unquestionably heroic manner.

Real life is, of course, more complicated than events depicted in film, and this is particularly true when we examine a major historical drama, such as a war that involves a cast of millions. Arguing for or against the justness of America’s participation in the Vietnam War is beyond the scope of this article, but most will, I think, agree that is a knotty proposition. During the early involvement in Vietnam, most young American soldiers felt the war was their generational opportunity to “fight the good fight,” as had their parents during World War II, and protect a freedom-loving, democratic government against the naked aggression of a communist regime bent on replacing those freedoms with their autocratic rule. The South Vietnamese government proved less than lily-white, however, led as it was by a Catholic elite rife with nepotism and which frequently engaged in policies that discriminated against its majority Buddhist populace. Moreover, for many in the North Vietnamese government, the war was less about the propagation of Communist ideology than it was about freeing the whole of the country from foreign influence and establishing for the Vietnamese people a country of its own. Over much of its history, Vietnam had been ruled by a succession of foreign powers, including the Chinese, the Japanese, and the French, and many of its inhabitants felt the US effort to prop up the unpopular South Vietnamese government was a continuance of foreign meddling in its own affairs. Ho Chi Minh even wrote that “patriotism, not communism, was [his] inspiration” and that “I follow only one party: the Vietnamese party.”1 Moreover, the preservation of South Vietnam, while noble in theory, did not, in hindsight, rise to the level of an existential threat to US security. A motivating factor for US involvement in the Vietnam War was the belief that conquest of South Vietnam by Communist forces would have a domino effect and lead to the toppling of other nascent democracies in southeast Asia. These events failed to transpire, however, upon the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975, leading many veterans to suspect the whole debacle of American involvement in the war may have been unnecessary in the first place.

Some Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder also suffer from an abiding sense of guilt for their own real or imagined failings on the battlefield. They question not only whether the Vietnam War was a good war, but whether they are even good people. I have interviewed combat medics, for example, who express remorse for having failed to save a critically wounded member of their unit, and machine gunners who feel guilty over having fatally shot a civilian they mistook for a Viet Cong. None considered themselves the heroes of their own stories.

The ease with which one can identify friend from foe provides another aspect in which Golden Age Westerns differ from the lived experiences of Vietnam veterans. Hollywood usually casts better looking actors to play the parts of their protagonists and garbs them in costumes that underscore their virtue. The producers of Shane, for example, cast the conventionally handsome Alan Ladd to play the titular character and had him wear a white hat against hatched-faced Jack Palance in a black hat in the film’s final gunfight. Of course, in the Vietnam War it was often difficult to distinguish between friends, enemies, and unfortunate innocents stuck in the middle. The North Vietnamese Army and its Vietcong allies were unable to stand up against the US Army military in conventional battles because of the latter’s overwhelming superiority in firepower and so were forced to adopt a form of guerrilla warfare that utilized the civilian population as a guise for their operations. The Viet Cong, for example, often hid weapon caches within peasant villages and wore simple peasant attire that allowed them to blend in with the general population, tactics which invariably led to cases of mistaken identity and unintended civilian deaths.

Finally, many Vietnam veterans find satisfaction in the way most Golden Age Westerns resolve in a happy ending. For their efforts, the heroes of such films are typically rewarded with the gratitude of the beleaguered town, the hand of the local beauty, and a peaceable life. Vietnam Veterans, in contrast, often returned home to anti-war protestors and a public at large that tended to shun them. While such incidents were probably not as commonplace as first believed, there is good evidence to believe that some soldiers were even spat upon or accused of being “baby-killers” by American civilians upon returning home.2 This negative reception discouraged them from sharing their combat experiences, which probably contributed in turn to the development of mental illness. Research suggests that an individual is less likely to develop PTSD if they verbally process their traumatic experience(s) within a few years of its occurrence.3 Vietnam veterans, however, were discouraged from sharing their stories, and these “stuffed” experiences ultimately found less healthy outlets of expression in the form of domestic violence, substance abuse, and suicide.

* * *

J. R. R. Tolkien’s creation of The Lord of the Rings was inspired, in part, by a desire to find meaning in the personal tragedy he had experienced as an officer during the First World War. He lost all his friends but one to the war and almost the entirety of his battalion was wiped out in the Battle of the Somme. Tolkien himself might have been killed in combat had not numerous health problems, including trench fever, compelled him to return to England to convalesce. Rather than succumb to the disillusionment that afflicted many of his peers, however, Tolkien instead created an epic myth that extolled courage in the face of overwhelming odds and the importance of holding fast to goodness when evil seems triumphant. Many critics dismissed his works as mere escapism, with one critic from the London Guardian asserting it was “by any reckoning one of the worst books ever written.”4 Instead of ducking his critics, however, Tolkien defended escapism in fantasy literature, asking “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home. Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”5 Many Golden Age Westerns are escapist in nature, but the best examples of the genre perform a vital function in allowing veterans, who are imprisoned by memories of Vietnam, to escape for a time to a better place inhabited by their better selves.




  1. Karnow, Stanley, “Ho Chi Minh,” Time Magazine, April 13, 1998.
  2. Greene, Bob, Homecoming: When the Soldiers Returned from Vietnam (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989)
  3. Megan C. Kearns, Ph.D., Kerry J. Ressler, M.D., Ph.D., Doug Zatzick, M.D., and Barbara Olasov Rothbaum, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., “Early Interventions for PTSD: A Review,” Depression and Anxiety, Volume 29, Issue 10, October 2012.
  4. Walker, Steve, The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle-Earth’s Magical Style (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
  5. Tolkien, J. R. R., Tree and Leaf (George Allen & Unwin, 1964)



EDWARD HARVEY is a psychiatrist who has been working for the Veterans Health Administration for two decades. He currently practices medicine in a general outpatient clinic in Missoula, MT.


Summer 2020  |   Sections  |  War & Veterans

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.