Chuck Norris has been around for ever, it seems. In addition to discovering the fountain of youth and famously brawling with Kung-Fu legend Bruce Lee, he’s also been in a bunch of movies. For much of the last twenty years, however, he’s been flying under the radar, having spent much of this time as the star of “Walker: Texas Ranger” which, I’m ashamed—or, depending on how you look at it, proud—to say I’ve never watched. But now he’s enjoying a bit of a resurgence in celebrity, thanks to the ubiquitous “Chuck Norris Facts,” and his appearance on Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s campaign ads.
Huckabee opens one of these ads with
My plan for securing the border? Two words: Chuck Norris.”
I cannot think of a better person than Chuck Norris to secure the US border, and I’m happy Mike Huckabee agrees. Because long before Chuck Norris became anybody’s “plan to secure the border,” he was fighting—and killing—America’s most-feared people. On the screen, of course.
Although Chuck Norris had been making movies since 1968, I discovered his work roughly two decades later, due to a series of coincidences, chief among which was the fact that I had yet to be born when he got his first movie role. As it turned out, it was already the mid-1980s when I saw my first Chuck Norris film and by then, it seemed like he was starring in a new movie every year. Three of these—Missing in Action (1984), Invasion U.S.A. (1985), and The Delta Force (1986)—really stayed with me and, thanks to the power of nostalgia and the internet, I’ve had the opportunity to rediscover Chuck Norris. It all started with Chuck Norris Facts and, next thing I knew—thanks to Netflix—Missing in Action was in my DVD player.
I remember watching Missing in Action in the ’80s and at the time thinking it was pretty cool. I mean, here’s badass Chuck Norris in Viet Nam killing people and blowing sh*t up like it was going out of style! What could be more awesome? Or racist, as I realized in watching the movie again. In case you’ve never seen Missing in Action, it stars Chuck Norris as Corporal Braddock, a Viet Nam veteran and former POW who managed to survive excteme cruelty at the hands of his captors and eventually escape from the camp where he and other GIs were being held. He returns soon after as part of a US-government delegation hoping to ascertain whether the Vietnamese government was—despite its official denials—holding POWs and MIAs. Of course, Braddock very quickly gets down to business, i.e., the business of killing people and blowing stuff up. He also rescues some POWs, but not before breaking into the home of a top general and killing him in his bed.
When I first watched the movie, my prepubescent moral framework only registered satisfaction at seeing Chuck Norris dispatch the “villains” without so much as a flinch. After all, despite my politically unformed mind, it was quite easy to pick out the villains—they were the brown-skinned ones. Watching the movie again as an adult, however, I found myself deeply troubled by the wanton violence committed against the Vietnamese characters. I mean, Braddock kills almost every Vietnamese soldier he encounters, even stopping in one scene to kill four whose greatest crime was being out on patrol nowhere near the POW camp Chuck Norris was heading for.
Even worse than the grotesque violence was the completely warped political and moral message of the film. At no point do we get to see why or in what context US soldiers were in Viet Nam. There’s no way to know that these GIs were embroiled in a civil war thousands of miles away from their own country. The Vietnamese, for their part, are simply bad guys. Nowhere is the US role in Viet Nam even remotely examined. In one scene, the Vietnamese generals organized a press conference during which they accused Braddock of committing war crimes, arguing that he was imprisoned on war crimes charges and not as a POW. A group of bedraggled Vietnamese peasants are then brought in and asked to publicly accuse Braddock of war crimes. Instead, the shamefaced peasants all avoid eye contact with him and the last one, a frail old man, apologizes to him in Vietnamese. Braddock accepts his apology and forgives the peasants’ betrayal.
Of course, anyone who knows even a little about the war in Viet Nam knows that war crimes were par for the course for US soldiers. From “free-fire zones” to napalm to Agent Orange, it seems there were few war crimes that were not committed in Viet Nam. But you wouldn’t know any of this from watching Missing in Action. On the contrary, the movie takes a legitimate Vietnamese claim and makes it look ridiculous. What you see instead is a heroic American soldier who was so good to the Vietnamese that the peasants brought in to incriminate him are too guilt-ridden to even look him in the eye. And we know that Braddock cares about Southeast Asians because he’s deeply hurt when a Vietnamese assassin botches an attempt on his life in Bangkok, instead killing several Thai bystanders. Braddock cares so much that, as he uses his bare hands to shove an axe head into the would-be-assassin’s chest, he lets him know how much he was affected by the death of those innocent Thais.
I realize now that the point of Missing in Action was neither to inform nor to educate. But I’m also sure it was not meant solely to entertain. It was meant to assuage Americans’ guilt over the outcome of the Viet Nam War, not to mention revise history to portray GIs as kind and compassionate towards the Vietnamese people. But the ’80s was also the coldest decade of the Cold War, and no chance was missed to propagandize against Communism. So naturally, Chuck Norris’ adversaries were the Communist Vietnamese, whom he casually kills whenever the opportunity presents itself, which was often, considering he was in a country full of Vietnamese people.
What’s noteworthy is that American politicians have a long history of using bêtes noires as political footballs, and the film industry is often a willing accomplice. After all, the manipulation of fear is an age-old political strategy, and candidates have long used people’s fears and insecurities to win votes. Wherever there is fear, there is political gain to be made. Once upon a time, Native Americans, slaves, and the Irish were feared. Then it was Communists and Anarchists. Then it was homosexuals and Arabs. Now it’s Latinos. And Arabs. And Muslims.
Because Chuck Norris has such a long history of battling America’s bogeymen—from Asian drug gangs to Communists—it’s only natural that he would be called on to secure America’s borders against our latest national nightmares. Today’s bogeymen, however, are not Communists. They are terrorists and illegal immigrants. It’s fitting then that Chuck Norris—who has so much experience in fighting America’s cinematic enemies—would be recruited on TV to fight against the illegal immigrants/terrorists who, we are told every night on TV, are trying to sneak across the US border to take away our jobs and blow up our shopping malls.