What the fuck does anything have to do with Vietnam!?

David Haglund has a piece on Slate about the politics of The Big Lebowski, as seen through the film’s two central characters: The Dude and Walter:

“Ten years on, though, the movie’s most striking role belongs to John Goodman as Walter Sobchak: a hawkish, slightly unhinged Vietnam vet and the Dude’s best friend and bowling partner. Watching The Big Lebowski in 2008, it becomes clear that appreciating Walter is essential to understanding what the Coen brothers are up to in this movie, which is slyer, more political, and more prescient than many of its fans have recognized. Perhaps that’s because Walter, with his bellowing, Old Testament righteousness and his deeply entrenched militarism, is an American type that barely registered on the pop-culture landscape 10 years ago. He’s a neocon.” (emphasis mine)

This is not an implausible claim, and Haglund presents credible evidence to support his claim:

“If that seems like a stretch, consider the traits Walter exhibits over the course of the film: faith in American military might (the Gulf War, he says, “is gonna be a piece of cake”; in the original script, he calls it “a fucking cakewalk“); nostalgia for the Cold War (“Charlie,” he says, referring to the Viet Cong, was a “worthy fuckin’ adversary”); strong support for the state of Israel (to judge from his reverent paraphrase of Theodor Herzl: “If you will it, Dude, it is no dream”); and even, perhaps, past affiliation with the left (he refers knowingly to Lenin’s given name and admits to having “dabbled in pacifism”).”

However, as plausible as this piece is, I think Haglund could have done a better job drawing a more explicit connection between contemporary neo-con policies with Walter. For example, Haglund references one of the most hilarious scenes in the movie, the “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!” scene in which Walter violently smashes up a Corvette in order to try to teach Larry a lesson.

This scene is symbolic on a number of levels. First, it is a perfect demonstration of Walter’s (and thus by extension, the neo-con’s) tendency to hastily resort to violence in the face of apparent diplomatic difficulties. Second, the fact that Walter ends up smashing the wrong car is the perfect demonstration of how neo-cons have fucked up their strategic priorities: focusing on Iraq while Iran is the real de-stabilizing force in the region, focusing on non-existent ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq when Afghanistan is still the real stronghold. Finally, Walter’s exhortation of Larry to “see what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass” can be seen not only as the neo-con’s tendency to use force, but also ironically as a statement about blow-back: when you fuck a stranger in the ass, they tend to fuck you back.

Also, there is an even more explicit connection between Walter and current American politics that Halgund fail to make: namely, that Walter is John McCain.

For both men, Vietnam is the central, and perhaps ONLY, lens through which they interpret reality. It is for them both, as Walter says, “a line in the sand” (or perhaps in McCain’s a case, a cross in the sand). It is the watershed event that constitute a clear “before” and “after,” a singular event that becomes the whole and only basis for their narratives. This should become clear to anyone, and I mean, anyone, who has watched McCain campaign in the general election this year. McCain has used his Vietnam experience to justify everything from his leadership qualifications to why he doesn’t know how many houses he owns.

But of course, the problem for any rational observer is, as The Dude puts it so much more eloquently than I can: “And what the fuck was all that about Vietnam, man!? What the fuck does anything have to do with Vietnam!? What the fuck are you talking about!?”

Then again, this could just be well, you know, like my opinion, man.


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