‘Cobra Kai,’ John Kreese, and a Divided America

Beyond the nostalgia of Netflix’s Cobra Kai is a hard look at what it means to be American when you came of age during one of our most turbulent and divisive times: the Vietnam War. When the military and patriotism turned into cultism, and our soldiers were scarred by government-sanctioned abuse. Spoilers ahead as I discuss a major plot point from season three, and how it relates to the current political upheaval in the United States.

I want to talk about Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese’s military training and the final “Battle to the Death” that he and his commander, Captain Turner, have in the prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War.

To refresh, there are several flashbacks over the season showing when our villainous sensei enlisted in the military in the late 1960s (here played by Barrett Carnahan). He goes through training and is sent to Vietnam. There, Turner (Terry Serpico) picks Kreese for a special assignment. Teaching him Tang Soo Do and how to be more than just a soldier, but the absolute best (killer is implied).

During a mission, Kreese hesitates to blow up an enemy encampment because one of his fellow soldiers isn’t clear. His hesitation gets the whole team captured, one executed in front of them. The rest are taken to a prisoner camp where their captors force the men to fight to the death over a pit of deadly snakes for their entertainment. Kreese ends up fighting Turner who has shown his true colours by revealing to Kreese that his sweetheart back home has died. A fact he kept secret so as not to make Kreese lose focus during the mission. Turner believes telling him now will weaken Kreese and give himself an advantage.

This only enrages Kreese, who subsequently defeats his mentor, leaving him dangling over the pit of snakes. But thanks to a serendipitous bombing raid, the soldiers flee and Kreese has a chance to save Turner. Instead, he stomps on his hands, sending him into the snakes, declaring the Cobra Kai mantra: No Mercy.

The entire backstory subplot is meant to explain why Kreese is how he is, where the name Cobra Kai comes from, and set up the return of Karate Kid III’s villain in season four. But inside that narration is the distilled essence of why the United States is currently in the situation that it’s in. Because a lot of it stems from the Vietnam War, specifically: how our troops were trained, government propaganda, and of course, racism.

For transparency, I am not a Vietnam veteran myself, but I am the child of one.

Let’s start with a short military history lesson. The Crimean War (1850s) was when everything changed. Modern weapons and technology started to come into use, making previous forms of warfare obsolete. The two World Wars continued that trend and improved upon it (if that’s the right word to use for finding easier ways to kill each other).

The troops returned home after World War II and the baby boom began in the 1940s. But soon these new parents were facing yet another war, the Korean War of the 1950s. Then came the Vietnam War of the1960s and 1970s, right when the baby boomers reached their formable 20s. The USA never officially declared war, and, let’s be honest, the whole thing was a hot mess dumpster fire. Anti-war sentiment boiled over from war-weary parents and students being sent off to what was deemed a hopeless fight.

Resistance to the draft was at an all-time high, and once again, warfare had to adapt itself. Previous tactics wouldn’t work on the guerrilla fighting of the North Vietnamese Army or the Viet Cong. What the US government chose to do in response would have lasting consequences, culminating in what we see happening in the country today.

The American military decided that if they could improve their military weaponry, then they could improve their soldiers. This led to a new approach towards training that started at the end of WWII, but hit its height during Vietnam. The idea was to turn soldiers into trained killers. The keyword here is “trained.” Like one might train a dog to roll over, the idea was to make soldiers kill just as easily on command. The standard operating procedure was to “kill anything that moved.”

We see this in Kreese’s flashbacks with his training. Turner is the personification of this approach. He says it flat out: “Don’t think. Your enemy wants you dead, you have two choices: kill or be killed. No hesitation, no second thoughts, and no mercy.” There was a concerted effort to strip the humanity out of our soldiers. They were taught to dehumanize the enemy so they would be more efficient at killing them on the battlefield.

Of course, individuals responded differently, but the rate at which soldiers fired at an enemy versus at nothing increased around 70% between WWII and Vietnam. This led to hundreds of atrocities committed by American troops against unarmed civilians, including the horrifying Mỹ Lai Massacre.

It’s only in more recent years that those involved in the war have started to accept how traumatic and unacceptable it was. We now understand that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a thing that exists, and we’re barely touching the full scope of just how insidious it can be. Something that older Kreese (Martin Kove) understands quite well and uses to his advantage.

When Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and his wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) go to issue a restraining order against Kreese, they discover he’s already put one against her for slapping him. The policeman says, “Those guys suffered a lot of turmoil. The mental health stigma is real. You oughta be more considerate.” He’s… not wrong. But Kreese using it for manipulative purposes is a slap in the face of Vietnam veterans. Many of whom, to this day, haven’t fully recovered from not just being in a war, but being abused by their very military training.

The US government was facing widespread unpopularity for the war from civilians and members of the military alike. One consequence of this being the killing of American students by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio. Soldiers exposed to literal toxic conditions returned home with severe physical and mental health conditions, wondering if it had been worth it. It had to have been worth it, right?

A divide started to open up in the country, further wedged by government propaganda.

Of course, America had to fight in Vietnam! If we didn’t, then what was the point of fighting for freedom in the two World Wars and Korea? You’re an American, right? You fight for freedom, right? You don’t want our boys’ sacrifices being for nothing, right? And, uh, returning soldiers were not spit on by those nasty, mean protestors! Our boys didn’t see their friends die, suffer horribly, for what you’re accurately calling a pointless war! How could you say that? So mean! Sad.

It’s not hard to draw a short straight line from this sentiment to today’s polarization of “American values” and a near hero-worship of the industrial-military complex. Patriotism = militarism. That’s why you see old white men shouting “America!” and “My Freedoms!” as they hold up assault rifles and play pretend soldier. (Or steal mail, a federal offence btw.) Our police forces let them because they’re littered with ex-military and wannabe-military types who see any criticism against them as an assault on American freedoms.

The military and Americanism became intrinsically linked, and we’ve been paying for it ever since.

When Kreese is at the council meeting regarding the All Valley Karate Tournament, there is something inherently sinister when the councilwoman says, “Thank you for your service.” We know that Kreese is once again manipulating people to get what he wants by using social norms as a precision weapon. Every time he leans on the fact he’s a military vet, it’s because he knows he can use that against his target, like a con-man.

You can’t criticize or doubt a veteran under any circumstances, that would be un-American.

But let’s go back to that snake pit fight. The moment the episode ended, I messaged my friend from Northern Vietnam. I told them about the Battle to the Death scenario. Their response was that it was dumb because the Vietnamese don’t really have a concept of a battle to the death. It’s a very western thing that lately seems to be popular to impose on other cultures (side-eye to live-action Mulan).

Okay, so the writers decided to embellish in order to get across the whole Cobra Kai/No Mercy motif. Happens all the time, so what’s the big deal? Well, it directly ties to the last point I made above: America is full of racists, many refusing to accept that they are.

Now, to be clear, being a prisoner of war is terrifying and brutal regardless of who has captured who. American POWs could be put in solitary confinement, tortured, or simply be imprisoned. But nothing that we didn’t do to them. Waterboarding is awful, but a far cry from battles to the death over a snake pit for your captor’s entertainment.

But racists don’t care about facts, nor do they care about regional, cultural, and religious borders. If someone looks vaguely like “the enemy,” then they are a target. After the racist rhetoric started regarding COVID and China, racists started to wrongly attack anyone who was remotely Chinese looking. It’s the same scenario each time: strike first, strike hard, never ask later.

The United States is full of South Vietnamese who fled the war. It’s also full of individuals from all regions of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, etc, and their children. They came here for a variety of reasons before, during, and after the Vietnam War. But racists don’t care if someone is North or South Vietnamese, or Vietnamese at all. They take exaggerated portrayals of brutality like this and don’t even question it. They file it away as yet another reason to hate on the dirty barbarous immigrants.

And for those who are simply ignorant of the realities… instead of educating themselves, they see this and take it as fact, thereby colouring their view of an entire people.

I don’t believe the writers meant to do harm. They had this grand idea for an epic scene but didn’t consider how it could be perceived. This isn’t just a Cobra Kai issue, it’s one running rampant through a media dominated by white men. Racism is so American that even when writers aren’t actively trying to be racist… they still end up being racist.

Cobra Kai depicts a war which divided our country along political and military lines, warping the idea of what it means to be American into an ideology of cultism. And it does so through the character of John Kreese… who is in his 70s.

Our highest offices are full of people in their 60s and 70s. And since the 1970s, nearly three-fourths of federal lawmakers have served in the military. Either in Vietnam itself, or the toxic military environment left in its wake. Others dodged the draft due to “medical” reasons.

Not only are these men in charge, but they are the mentors, the Kreese’s, to the incoming Cobra Kai students of the political landscape. And they’re holding onto power because 52% of registered voters are 50 or older.

Our country is being run by a generation whose parents were traumatized by three wars, a generation who grew up believing patriotism was the same as belligerent militarism, a generation who was taught to dehumanize others so they could be better killers…

Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy.