From the left, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, and Tom Berenger on location while filming Platoon in 1986. Photo courtesy of Pictorial Press Ltd./Alamy Stock Photo.
“There are no atheists in foxholes.”
“I used to believe, but after years of war, I realized that, if there was a God, he left this place a long time ago.”
Some form of these two statements is often uttered by soldiers who have left the battlefield as if they were fundamental truths. Who is right? Every soldier who has seen the great curtain of life torn down by the thorns of combat has a different story to tell that may come in direct opposition to stories told by those who fought at their side.
It would be difficult to find these contradictions displayed in greater strength than in the film Platoon by Oliver Stone.
As green between the ears as one can get, Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen, is a newcomer to the Vietnam War. He finds himself caught in the middle of a struggle between two NCOs: Barnes, a ruthless, war-hardened leader, and Elias, a capable but honorable leader. Both appear to understand the nature of the war in which they fight, and both bestow their knowledge on the young Taylor in their own ways.
Some have felt that they resonated with Barnes. He is harsh, he is relentless, but he understands that war is ultimately violent, and to survive it, one must embrace violence not just as an act, but as a kind of ethos. He’s not the sadist of the film — that title goes to Bunny — but he preaches the simple realities: If you’re not my friend, you’re my enemy. Barnes is a believer in the military machine in that it’s practical and it works to defeat the enemy. Because if you’re not there to defeat the enemy at any and all costs, then what are you there for?
Others have championed Elias as the force for good in the film. Elias is an experienced warrior whom soldiers want to follow, and he is as dedicated and competent as any in the platoon. Still, Elias is able to keep his moral compass as straight as one can, even in the throes of combat and even when understanding that life is more complicated than simple ideas — he just wants to do what’s right as often as possible. Because if you’re not there to fight for what’s right, to be an entity separate from the enemy, then what are you there for?
So who is right? Who better reflects the true nature of things? There is no answer in the context of this film. Who is right or real is an answer people can only seek for themselves.
As Taylor puts it in the film, “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy … was in us.”
The clashing souls of Barnes and Elias exist in the heart of every man on the ground in Platoon. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “The line separating good and evil passes […] right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
This is portrayed in the conversations between every man on the ground in Platoon. Between the ambushes and patrols, the American soldiers are almost constantly at odds with one another and themselves. Chris Taylor is just one man falling right in the middle when every single other soldier falls somewhere else.
Elias and Barnes are just two extremes of a spectrum on which everyone falls. Even that, perhaps, is an oversimplification. The point of the film is not the tug of war between good and evil but the nature of war itself. It illustrates the explosion of human experience that occurs on the battlefield and how that explosion pushes people together as it tears them to pieces. It rips through their hearts as it rips through their flesh.
The complexities of war are so severe that even the characters of Barnes and Elias have their own contradictions. Elias, the beacon of morality, fights and kills in a war he outright states he does not believe in. Barnes, the man who purports to depend upon the war machine, intentionally kills his own brother in arms because that man wants to seek redress internally through the same machine that Barnes supposedly upholds.
By the end, the film Platoon is not about who is right or wrong. Again, that’s something viewers have to determine for themselves, and the answer isn’t found in the midst of this narrative. It’s about Chris Taylor — the man whose shoes we inhabit while watching the events play out on screen — and how he is torn between two forces within his own heart. It’s not about which way the man tears; it’s about the act of tearing itself and what to do once the tearing has been done.
“The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days,” Taylor says at the end of the film. “As I’m sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called ‘possession of my soul.’ There are times since, I’ve felt like a child, born of those two fathers. But be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again — to teach to others what we know and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.”
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine as “Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon’: A Child Born of Two Fathers.”
Luke Ryan is the author of two books of war poetry: The Gun and the Scythe and A Moment of Violence. Luke grew up overseas in Pakistan and Thailand, the son of aid workers. Later, he served as an Army Ranger and conducted four deployments to Afghanistan, leaving as a team leader. He has published over 600 written works on a variety of platforms, including the New York Times.
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