Revisiting ‘Hamburger Hill’: How an Underrated Vietnam Classic Mirrors Afghanistan’s Waste

February 17, 2022Mac Caltrider
Hamburger Hill

Hamburger Hill is often overlooked among the other Vietnam War movies to come out of the 1980s. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

The popularity of Vietnam War movies exploded during the 1980s. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Born on the Fourth of July are just a few of the Vietnam flicks that hit theaters in the decade following the end of the war. Each movie contributed its own aspect of the war to the Vietnam film canon, but one film that’s too often lost in the stack is Hamburger Hill. Looking back at the film through a post-Afghanistan War lens reveals how the underrated movie tragically doubles as an Afghanistan War film. 

John Irvin directed the squad-based story that follows soldiers from the 101st Airborne’s 187th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Rakkasans, as they spend the movie’s entire hour and 50 minutes sacrificing everything to seize Hill 937 — nicknamed Hamburger Hill for its similarity to a meat grinder.

hamburger hill
Jan. 23, 1966. Soldiers of the 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, prepare to move across a rice field in search of Viet Cong. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Rakkasans ultimately take the hill at the cost of most of the characters. It would be a comically simple plot if it weren’t true. 

In May of 1969, the Rakkasans were tasked with capturing a prominent ridge on Dong Ap Bia, a mountain near the Laotian border. The steep terrain required the Americans to attack uphill against a well-entrenched enemy. After one week of frontal assaults, the Rakkasans controlled the hill, but at the steep cost of 72 soldiers killed in action and 372 wounded. 

Just like Hill 937, places in Afghanistan like Marjah, Korengal, and the Pech Valley were seized for loosely defined reasons and at a heavy cost. And like Hamburger Hill, which was abandoned less than one month after it was taken, each piece of hard-won terrain Americans had held in Afghanistan was recaptured by Taliban forces soon after the Americans left.

Marines with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, patrol through Sangin district during their deployment to Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2010. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Ned Johnson.

In Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan, America injected battalion after battalion of Marines into the enemy-occupied district. And like the Rakkasans slogging their way up Hamburger Hill, the Marines seized Sangin only after 76 Americans were killed and countless more wounded. Sangin quickly fell back into the hands of the Taliban following the US’s withdrawal from the district. 

Watching the film with Vietnam and Afghanistan in the rearview mirror, one can’t help but notice the glaring lack of clear objectives in both wars. Seemingly arbitrary pieces of terrain were deemed strategically vital objectives where inches of real estate were bought with the lives of American service members. But that’s the story of both Vietnam and Afghanistan: American forces steadily accruing tactical victories in a war with no definable strategic importance.

U.S. Army Bell UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area, during Operation "Wahiawa," a search and destroy mission conducted by the 25th Infantry Division, northeast of Cu Chi, South Vietnam, 1966. Photo by SFC James K. F. Dung, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
US Army Bell UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area during Operation “Wahiawa,” a search and destroy mission conducted by the 25th Infantry Division northeast of Cu Chi, South Vietnam, 1966. National Archives and Records Administration photo by Sgt. 1st Class James K. F. Dung.

Hamburger Hill is far from a perfect war movie (if such a thing exists). There’s plenty of ’80s cheese, like the death of Pvt. Vincent Languilli, who utters a cliche “remember me” with an expression resembling that of someone suffering through all the pain of a tummy ache, and none of the panic or agony one might expect of a man fully aware he is about to die. But while you can knock it for its synth-heavy score and flat dialogue, Hamburger Hill is a rock-solid war movie that remains true to the sometimes absurd and often expendable institution of wartime infantry. If Apocalypse Now captures the insanity of war and Full Metal Jacket reveals the loss of innocence, then Hamburger Hill tackles the eerily timeless theme of the waste that comes with ever-shifting objectives.

Read Next: 3 War-Movie Actors Who Took Method Acting to a Whole New Level

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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