Military

Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon’: A Child Born of 2 Fathers

September 15, 2021Luke Ryan
stone

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.


platoon
The point of the film is not the tug of war between good and evil but the nature of war itself. Screenshot from Platoon.

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?


Sgt. Barnes, played by Tom Berenger. Screenshot from Platoon.

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.”


Sgt. Elias just wants to do what’s right as often as possible. Screenshot from Platoon.

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.


Platoon
Sgt. Barnes embraces his role in what he describes as “the machine.” Screenshot from Platoon.

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.


The death of Sgt. Elias in Platoon. Photo courtesy of Pictorial Press Ltd./Alamy Stock Photos.

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.”


Read Next: How Actor Wes Studi Taps Vietnam Experience for Performances 



Luke Ryan
Luke Ryan

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.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Grizzly Forge BRCC shirt
Limited Edition: Grizzly Forge Blades on an Awesome BRCC Shirt

Lucas O'Hara of Grizzly Forge has teamed up with BRCC for a badass, exclusive Shirt Club T-shirt design featuring his most popular knife and tiomahawk.

BRCC Limited Edition Josh Raulerson Blackbeard Skull Shirt
From Naval Service to Creative Canvas: BRCC Veteran Artist Josh Raulerson

Coffee or Die sits down with one of the graphic designers behind Black Rifle Coffee's signature look and vibe.

Medal of Honor is held up.
Biden Will Award Medal of Honor to Army Helicopter Pilot Who Rescued Soldiers in Vietnam Firefight

Biden will award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot who risked his life to save a reconnaissance team from almost certain death.

dear jack mandaville
Dear Jack: Which Historic Battle Would You Want To Witness?

Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.

west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

Ouija Board aircraft carrier
Low-Tech ‘Ouija Boards’ Have Helped Aircraft Carriers Operate for Decades

Since the 1920s, a low-tech tabletop replica of an aircraft carrier’s flight deck has been an essential tool in coordinating air operations.

Army vs. Navy mascot
The Navy Goat vs. the Army Mule: Mascot Origin Stories

For nearly as long as the Army-Navy football rivalry, the academies’ hoofed mascots have stared each other down from the sidelines. Here are their stories.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
Contact Us
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved