Rambo rescue

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 November, 1998, 12:00am

Rambo: First Blood II (World, 9.30pm) is only a movie, and it is always dangerous to credit movies with doing anything other than entertaining, or appalling, the movie-going public. But the film certainly didn't do anything to help US-Vietnamese relations, which when it came out in 1985 were still terrible.

The film caught the public imagination because it dealt with the one subject Middle America can never quite come to terms with: the end of the Vietnam War. John Rambo is released from jail for a secret mission to rescue some of his former buddies, who the US military thinks are still in Vietnam, hidden in the jungle by a spiteful, vengeful Vietnamese government that cannot forgive the United States for the war.

The myth that there were several thousand MIAs (servicemen missing in action) after the end of the war has long had a powerful grasp on the American psyche. Politicians won elections campaigning on the subject, and from time to time, so-called evidence of white faces spotted deep in the Vietnamese countryside was seized on as proof that there were servicemen that needed rescuing.

It was this mood that Rambo reflected. What made it so popular was not just that Rambo overcomes impossible odds, but that those odds included the opposition of the very American military leaders who had sent him to Vietnam in the first place.

It is this suspicion that the American establishment would rather forget about the MIAs that has made pressure groups campaigning for action so bitter over the years. When President Bill Clinton belatedly lifted the US trade embargo in February 1994, Congress followed with a bill stating that accounting for the 2000 MIAs should remain the most important plank of American policy in Vietnam.

Then in 1997 a real-life Vietnam veteran, Douglas Peterson, was appointed the first American ambassador to Vietnam. He rather embarrassed his advisers by declaring that the search for the remains of the MIAs (by now no-one was claiming any were still alive) must continue for '100 years' if that was what it would take.

Although tonight Rambo pretty much has to go it alone, armed with not much more than his muscles, the reality is that no country on Earth has spent so much time and money looking for the remains of its war dead. It costs about US$1 million (HK$7.74 million) a week to keep up the search for the 1,500 or so men still missing.

American servicemen, among them those not even born when the Vietnamese war ended, are sent to Vietnam and Laos to trek through jungles, pick their way through minefields, dredge the ocean and in one famous case, divert a river to find some identifying clues.