In his highly praised first novel, newspaper editor Jack Fuller attempts to go beyond the Vietnam experience to examine issues related to metaphysical assumptions that guide our behavior and help us to explain our actions. The war in Vietnam—a war that was never declared—and the complex of ambiguities surrounding it provide for Fuller a basic metaphor, an “objective correlative,” as some would say, for an inquiry into the essential nature of reality. This is not to say that the tangible experience of Vietnam is glossed over in favor of abstruse arguments, but rather, the experiential becomes the base for the conclusions to be drawn. The horror of Vietnam is always present even before the narrator, Bill Morgan, goes to war and certainly after he returns from it, fragmented and seeking connections.
The first-person point of view provides a credibility and closeness not possible in a third-person narration. The reader experiences with the young narrator the anguish of his decision to allow himself to be drafted, the anxieties of his first days and months in the army, his growing friendship with Jim Neumann, the anguish and horror of conflict, the dreadful ambiguities of wartime Vietnam and its people, the total fragmenting of personalities, and the fearful and hesitant gropings for bondings that were lost in a dreadful experience.
The novel is divided into six sections: “Neumann,” “Green,” “The Blues,” “Xuan The,” “Fragments,” and “Connections.” These section titles outline the major concerns and thematic areas explored. Action begins in medias res after Morgan has been wounded by shrapnel, fragments of exploding steel, and while he is waiting for a flight to take him home. Now that he is on his way home, he is able finally to look around him, to consider why he came to Vietnam, and to seek explanations for a persistent questioning of his belief in chance and necessity, a belief that for Morgan accounted for his being in the army in the first place and for his comforting notion that there was no great moral issue involved. Something has happened to shake Morgan’s belief in necessity: Events somehow conspired to cause his friend Jim Neumann to kill civilians in Xuan The. At a hearing to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the Le family, Neumann had refused to explain his act and would not even acknowledge the presence of his friends in the same room. Though Neumann is exonerated of any responsibility, Morgan is shattered by his friend’s action and can find no comfort in a philosophy that leaves the odds to chance and assigns no room for blame.
It was his philosophic conviction that prompted Morgan to allow himself to be drafted and provoked his breakup with Sharon, a young woman about whom he thought he was serious. She believed in right and wrong, he in a complex vectoring of forces that determined who he was, and who he was left him no alternative to the draft. Jim Neumann, inducted into the army with Morgan, has a different opinion; Jim believes that a man can shape his destiny, and that if a man does not act, then others will act for him. Since others do not have Jim’s natural aptitude for leadership, they could lead him into places he does not want to go. Jim is everyone’s hero, the best part of each man magnified, but, though Morgan takes Neumann as a close friend and even agrees to attend Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) School, he does not accept Jim’s philosophy that one needs to get into a position where one can call some of the shots. Their contrasting viewpoints are imaged in the novel in the symbolic opposition between “Green” and “Blue.” Green represents the shelter of the green machine, the great amoral army, tumbling through punch cards as if dealt from a deck. Blue represents the blues that Neumann plays on his silver flute, the search within the self for meaning and responsibility.
All of Neumann’s actions make sense to Morgan in the light of his friend’s philosophy—beginning with the first fight that Neumann has with a “bad” brother (a fight in which, though he is the victor, Neumann refuses to humiliate his opponent and so naturally takes over the leadership of a squadron). Though Neumann invites him, however, Morgan refuses to join a Blue Team, a special unit that makes quick trips into enemy territory in order to do specific jobs.
In the Blues, the men believe that errors are the cause of problems and subsequent deaths and that they are each responsible for the life of the others. It is this belief that gets Neumann his Silver Star after he saves half of his company from the sure death of an ambush in a Vietnamese village. The awarding of the Silver Star for acts of carnage, however, whether or not heroically performed, troubles Neumann, and he will not talk about the experience—nor, even when asked, will he play his flute. During a lull in the fighting, he plans to adopt a village, the village of Xuan The, which he will help the people rebuild, to balance in a small way the destruction in which he has taken part. When Morgan tries to discourage Neumann, by pointing out that there is a line between war and peace, Neumann insists that there is not, that war and peace are the same thing—two sides of the same coin. The force of Neumann’s personality causes his company to join him in its first undertaking, the rebuilding of a dispensary built by the French in 1950.
Reference to the French in 1950 recalls for a reader the fact that Vietnam had been a battleground for many years, even before the arrival of the Americans. In the ongoing civil war in Vietnam, there is no way to tell the Vietnamese apart except by their uniforms, and the village people have been harboring first one side, then another. The point is made in several ways in the novel but is perhaps most strikingly illustrated in the story of a young Vietnamese woman, Nguwen Ba The, whom Morgan visits in Saigon. He carries a message from Neumann—that he will not be going back to her in Saigon. She takes the news calmly, without bitterness or apparent regret. She was reared in the Mekong Delta until she was six; then she went to live with her uncle in Saigon. Her mother had been killed by terrorists, her father, conscripted by the government. She worked for the Ministry of Information, reading American newspapers for a living. Had she remained in the village, she would by now be a prostitute or mother “who suckled soldiers,” as Morgan notes, “and their widows and whores.”
Neumann’s involvement with Nguwen makes more credible his involvement with another Vietnamese woman, Tuyet, and helps to explain his behavior later in the novel. Morgan believes...
(The entire section is 2736 words.)