Platoon and Full Metal Jacket each follow a group of soldiers through the Vietnam War, through both the thick jungles and the urban city of Hue respectively. The films focus on the dehumanizing effects of the war itself as well as the abusive and desensitizing training camps. Both films have been commended by veterans of the Vietnam for offering the most honest depictions of what went on.
Young men climb off the trucks for the first time while 30 feet away, young men are being loaded on to the same trucks in body bags. Every trace of individuality is taken away, their hair, their clothes, and is replaced with a uniform. Some men decorate their helmets in a last ditch effort of self-expression, but even the phrases they choose become uniform, “Born to Kill” being a popular one. Through verbal and physical abuse at the hand of their commanding officer, their humanity is also taken away. These boys are not human beings; they are “weapons,” pawns in a game played by those far away from the fight.
“You just don’t fucking get it,” Chris screams at his comrades when he intervenes on their attempted sexual assault of a Vietnamese woman from the village they had just burned down. “She’s a human fucking being!” The soldiers in both films have been trained to shoot before the enemy shoots you, to eliminate the threat before it has the opportunity to even reveal itself. This otherization goes beyond portraying the Vietnamese as less than and removes their status as fellow human beings entirely. It is exemplified in Full Metal Jacket as well when the door gunner shoots down Vietnamese civilians.
With crosses hanging around their necks and decorating their helmets, the men in Platoon murder innocent people, rape women, and burn an entire village to the ground. Sergeant Elias, a voice of sanity above the madness intervenes but a moment too late. Sergeant Barnes’ vicious, vengeful tactics are permitted by his rank. Sane men, men of compassion, do not fare well in war, but the enemy is not always his chief opponent as is illustrated by Barnes murder of Sergeant Elias in cold blood and his attempted murder of Chris. Barnes claims, “I am reality,” ignoring “the way it should be” in favoring of writing his own version of “the way it is.” Is Barnes’ death at the hands of Chris after the devastating battle an act of justice? Is it an act of rebellion against “the way it is?” Or, is it a surrender?
The same questions can be asked of Private Pyle’s actions in Full Metal Jacket. His murder-suicide follows the rules he has been taught to a tee. He is not a man, he is a weapon, designed to kill those that threaten or harm him or his comrades (e.g. Sergeant Hartman). He is to eliminate the weak and the worthless (e.g. himself).
All of the processes of war, from training to combat, eradicate humanity on both sides.