John Rambo, the brooding Vietnam vet and Green Beret warrior played by Sylvester Stallone in First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II, perfectly tapped into the impotent rage engendered by America‘s loss of the Vietnam War. By Rambo III (1988), his one-man army was off to aid the rebels in Afghanistan — many of those same mujahideen freedom fighters who now comprise the Taliban government — against the occupying Soviet scourge.
As the movie begins, Rambo alternates his time between stick-fighting in a Bangkok gaming pit and, with a hand-fashioned rebar, repairing a kind of Angkor Watts Towers at the Buddhist monastery. He is tracked down at the latter by his Vietnam superior, Colonel Trautman (a role reprised by Richard Crenna), and an unctuous embassy official named Griggs.
”I don’t know how much you know about Afghanistan,“ Griggs begins his pitch. ”Most people can‘t even find it on a map. But over two-million civilians, mostly peasant farmers and their families, have been systematically slaughtered by invading Russian armies . . . After nine years of fighting, the Afghan forces are now getting shipments of Stinger missiles and are beginning to hold their own against air strikes. So, we want to . . .“ — and here he gives a stage pause — ”. . . investigate the problem firsthand.“
Rambo declines the chance to go to Afghanistan. It’s not his war.
Then Trautman is captured inside the Afghani border, imprisoned and tortured by a simpering Russian commandant who fingers chess pieces as he speaks. Rambo is immediately spirited to Peshawar, Pakistan, on Afghanistan‘s eastern border and makes his way undetected through the teeming medina (even though his denim work shirt must be worth a fortune on the black market), where he finds the expatriate terrorist cell that will spirit him through the treacherous mountain terrain on horseback. He’s led by a guide who speaks comic pidgin-Americanese:
GUIDE: This is Afghanistan. Alexander the Great tried to capture this country. Then Genghis Khan, then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard. They never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer to these people. You wish to hear? It says, ”May God deliver us from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger and the vengeance of the Afghan.“ You understand what this means?
RAMBO: That you guys don‘t take any shit.
GUIDE: (triumphantly) Yes. Something like this.
Across the Afghan border, Rambo is taken to a rebel camp, where he meets a council elder who quite plainly labels the ongoing conflict a ”holy war,“ stating unequivocally, ”There is no true death for the mujahideen, because we have taken our last rites and consider ourselves dead already.“ Underscoring the futility of protracted technological warfare, Rambo easily eludes the Soviet MI-24 Hind helicopters that target him in battle, at one point downing them with explosive-tipped arrows. He finally liberates Colonel Trautman from the makeshift mountain gulag, just before the final credits read, ”This film is dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan,“ against a soulful rendition of the Hollies’ ”He Ain‘t Heavy, He’s My Brother.“
The jingoist sentiments of the Rambo franchise may have been America‘s equivalent of passing out candy to children or dancing in the streets — a smirking, doctrinaire delight at the Soviet Union coming undone — but every turgid point it raises now stands poised to come back to haunt us. If even Rambo knows you can’t win a ground war in Afghanistan, we might want to think twice.