It took the American cinema a good long time to understand and synthesize the nation's traumatic experience in the Vietnam War.
From 1984 to 1989, audiences saw Missing in Action (1984), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), The Hanoi Hilton (1987), and 84 Charlie MoPic (1989), to name just a few films.
Unlike the Vietnam conflict, which lasted through the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford, this effort was a short, contained engagement and one in which the Americans could readily and easily be declared victorious. There was no "mission creep," so-to-speak. In that new moment of American victory and clarity, it was easier, perhaps, to exorcise the demons of Vietnam than it had been in the 1970s, when new military failures such as President Carter's Operation Eagle Claw only reinforced the sense of America's inability to use armed force successfully.
Or as Hudson notes: "They're coming outta the walls. They're coming outta the goddamn walls!" The alien battle tactics are certainly guerrilla in nature, then. The beasts use natural cover (their resin-coated caverns), pools of water, and air ducting to engage the humans in conditions favorable to their extra-terrestrial strengths. This is not a "stand-up" fight in other words. Again, consider that in Vietnam the Viet Cong was famous for using a subterranean tunnel supply system. Once more, the aliens mirror that function, taking up residence in the "sub levels" of the battlefield, moving back and forth out of easy sight.
But suddenly, these high-tech soldiers are forced to use old-fashioned pistols and shotguns to fight their invisible, incredibly powerful enemy. Like the American forces in the jungles of Vietnam, the Colonial Marines thus wage a war with one hand tied behind their backs, and not surprisingly are unable to win that war in direct engagement.
On the urging of Burke, Gorman attempts to safeguard property (corporate property) ahead of actually winning a battle, or even safeguarding his men. Burke's agenda is to preserve an expensive "investment," not destroy the aliens, and so the bureaucratic agenda surfaces and, again, clouds the rules of war.
Naturally, Burke can't get on board with that idea, and he says that Hicks is just a corporal and "not qualified to make a decision like that." Again, he is attempting to impose limits on the nature of the fight. These are limits, by the way, that the aliens don't observe. Rightly, Hicks overrules the yuppie.
Importantly, Ripley's nuke-the-whole-site-from-orbit plan is a philosophy in direct contradiction to the "limited war" scenario engaged by both Gorman and by American generals in Vietnam. Ripley's suggestion, in the fictional case of Aliens at least, seems entirely reasonable. If the colony is overrun by deadly aliens, why engage them at all on ground level? Limited, bureaucratic war is not a blueprint for victory, the film seems to make note.
Again, this doesn't mean (at all...) that nuclear weapons should have been utilized in the Vietnam War, only that the bureaucratic, one-hand-behind-the-back strategy settled on by the American leadership was flawed, and in some sense, lacking in common sense. Why fight a war if you don't intend to leverage your own strengths and win it? Like Rambo before her, Ripley seems to be searching for a way to "win this time."
That way to win is, specifically, by avoiding the half-measures and limitations imposed by generals and bureaucrats. Accordingly, the end of the film sees the terra-firming station go up in an (accidental) nuclear blast, and the survivors returning home, their enemy vanquished. This is a victory (at least after a final "bump" with the Alien Queen) denied America in Vietnam. You may remember the shocking images of helicopters pushed off air craft carrier decks as the U.S. Armed Forces returned home in 1975, for instance. Aliens re-fights the war on better terms, and brings at least some of the boys (and girls) home from the battlefield. At least until the sequel.
There are other simple connections to Vietnam in Aliens as well. Many Americans felt that the Viet-Cong were primitives living in "rice paddies." Their tactics, experience and skill were not respected, nor honored. Because the Viet Cong weren't from a modern, high-tech, industrial Western culture we were lulled into believing that the war would be a cake walk. The opposite, of course, was true. In Aliens, the marines -- but never Ripley -- often underestimate the aliens in a similar fashion. When the aliens cut the power to plunge the hiding marines into darkness, Hudson wonders aloud how "animals" could have cut the power. Even at this late juncture, he is still making the mistake of underestimating his opponent. The aliens are not just animals: they are a highly organized hive mind, a surrogate, in some sci-fi way, for Communism, too, I should point out. And of course, Communism was the real American target in the Vietnam War.
Right down to the marines' manner of self-expression, Aliens very powerfully suggests the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s. "The dialog itself, the idiom, is pretty much Vietnam era," Cameron reported in an interview here. "It's the most contemporary American combat "war speak" that I had access to. I studied how soldiers talked in Vietnam, and I took certain specific bits of terminology, and a general sense of how they express themselves, and I used that for the dialogue, to try and make it seem like a realistic sort of military expedition, as opposed to a high tech, futuristic one. I wanted to create more of a sense of realism rather than that of an interesting future."
Another unique facet of The Vietnam War: many Americans did not understand why the war was fought. The notion, of course, was that if Vietnam fell to Communism, other countries (Laos, Thailand, etc.) would also fall like "dominoes" to that ideology. But who were our allies, exactly? What would victory look like? Why should the average American on the street, struggling to make ends meet, care about what was happening in Vietnam, half a world a way? This wasn't like World War II, for instance, where fascism was moving like a dark tide across free Europe, and the consequences were easily understood. Instead, the motives and strategies surrounding the Vietnam War were ones of intellectual gamesmanship. It was, as James Cameron himself noted "a weird and surreal kind of war."
In contrast to the military in Aliens and the American soldiers serving in Vietnam, Ripley boasts a very strong and clear personal motivation for fighting a war on LV-426. She has an individual connection to Newt...a "family" member of a sort. So she picks up arms to fight the aliens, and does so effectively. I have always believed that Ripley is an example of the everyman (or woman) here in America. When our families are attacked or threatened, we will fight. To the death. But to fight for simply a cerebral theory of geopolitics (the Domino Theory), and one ultimately proven wrong, hardly seems an effective use of military might. What Cameron appears to express in Aliens is his grave concern about the application of American military power in foreign land when there is not a clear and just cause. This idea resurfaces powerfully in both The Abyss (1989) and Avatar (2009).
All this established, I think it's important again to note that Cameron is not anti-military. The "grunts" in the film, from Hicks to Hudson to Vasquez are clearly heroic in nature. Hicks is effective as a leader. Ultimately, Hudson finds his sense of courage. Vasquez fights to the death to save her fellow marines and survivors. Even the green Gorman finds redemption at the end, taking out a handful of aliens in a final act of self-sacrifice. So I don't think that Cameron is reflexively against the military or so-called "just" wars. Rather, his stance reminds me of what President Obama once said that he isn't against wars; he's just against dumb wars. In other words, there are legitimate applications of military might; but you better think them through; and you better fight to win.
Game over, man! Game over! Aliens and the fog of war.
Instead, Cameron cuts repeatedly to the chaotic images on those video screens as all hell breaks loose. We see static, for instance. We register failed communications and see a "rolling" picture. We see herky-jerky, hard-to-interpret visuals of gunfire, and marines in action. Marines repeatedly run directly at camera (at us), screaming above the din of bullets and hissing aliens.
In essence, Cameron reveals to us a futuristic version of the Vietnam War's particular brand of "fog." If you go back and watch Oliver Stone's Platoon, you'll notice how there are almost no clear battle lines, no clear "sides" in the many scenes of combat. Soldiers seem to run endlessly through the jungle, back and forth, constantly under attack, while air strikes occur all around them. It's Death from Above...and everywhere else, for that matter. It's impossible to guess where the enemies are hidden, at least in terms of geography It is pandemonium on a vast scale. As viewers we have no sense of visual order; of the enemy being on the left or right. Instead, we sense danger everywhere.
In Aliens, Cameron cleverly pinpoints a corollary for that approach, giving us "electronic" fog of war, essentially, in the first battle sequence. He uses video imaging, failed communications, and grainy visuals to suggest the bewilderment and panic of the grunts on the ground as they are attacked from all sides by an enemy that seems to literally appear out of nowhere, melting out of the walls. The point, of course, is that our technology will do us no good when fighting the aliens. The fractured, indecipherable images on a video screen provide us our only clues about what is happening, but again, don't reflect relative positions of armies or fighters.
The prominent use of the video screen is especially important in Aliens. You may remember that Marshall McLuhan once wrote (in May of 1975, for the Montreal Gazette) that "television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America, not on the battlefields of Vietnam."
"I work for the company. But don't let that fool you, I'm really an okay guy" - The Yuppie Mentality in Aliens.
If James Cameron treats the "grunts" of Aliens with respect and admiration, he certainly doesn't hold back his venom for another demographic target: the yuppie movement of Reagan's America.
By and large, the Yuppies were baby boomers, and therefore former hippies. But these peaceniks had by Reagan's years traded their political activism for stock options, power suits, and corner offices. Primarily, yuppies were concerned with personal status and conspicuous consumption. In other words, making oodles of money. A side effect of this self-absorbed outlook was that many Americans who were not Yuppies were left behind. This was an America were the rich grew richer, and everyone else was getting squeezed out. By the end of the 1980s, horror films were obsessing with this class warfare gap in films such as They Live (1988) and The People Under the Stairs (1991).
In an early scene set in a smoky board room (replete with coffee cups, fancy business suits and clouds of cigarette smoke...) we watch as the Company Board stages an inquisition at Ripley's expense. The Board arrives at the pre-ordained conclusion that Ripley is a liar, and focuses simply on the bottom line. Ripley admits to having destroyed the Nostromo, a "very expensive piece of hardware" and is summarily dismissed for her negative contribution to the bottom line.
Appropriately, Ripley terms the concerns of the Company "bullshit" and walks away from it, but the Yuppies aren't done with her yet.
Notice the terminology there: "bad call."
It explicitly refers to Wall Street jargon (namely "call options"), but more importantly, Burke's comments share the attitudes of many "players" on Wall Street. For a living, they gamble with the retirement and pension funds of investors, and don't necessarily act responsibly in light of such responsibility. In essence, Burke does the exact same thing in Aliens, playing with the lives of the colonists on the chance that he could win "exclusive rights" to what he perceives as a treasure trove: the rights to alien biology and "bio-weapons" created from it.