The Vietnam War in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

The Vietnam War in Literature and Film


The Vietnam War in Literature and Film

The United States's involvement in the Vietnam War, which ended in April, 1975 when the last American soldiers were withdrawn, has been the subject of an extensive and diverse body of creative works in a variety of genres, including drama, fiction, film, and poetry. Many of these efforts share such themes as a search for meaning and authenticity as well as a lack of faith in traditional values and forms. Vietnam War poetry, for instance, is primarily confessional, sardonic, and empirical rather than idealistic or transcendent, and the poems generally seek to instruct rather than delight or provide the affirmation and closure typical of traditional lyrics. Common subjects include atrocities and mass violence as well as records of sensory details and character sketches that evoke the soldier's experience in Vietnam. Efforts to confront anguish, guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, the conflict between poetic and political uses of language, and the reconciliation of memory with the present are among the poetry's common themes. W. D. Ehrhart's "The Generals' War," for instance, points with contempt at the ironic distinction between "paper orders" and their actual execution in the field, while Bruce Weigl's "Song of Napalm" shows wartime memories infiltrating a domestic scene. Commenting on the lessons Vietnam veteran poets have to offer, Lorrie Smith has stated: "By rooting Vietnam in our collective consciousness and connecting it to contemporary American life, these poets insist that their memories form part of our past, their anguish part of our present…. If we ask and listen and respond, we may finally relinquish our illusions of national innocence and personal neutrality and begin to chart a truer history of our involvement with Vietnam."

Vietnam War fiction shares many concerns with the poetry, particularly the search for meaning and the emphasis on finding explanations for the conflict's conduct and outcome. "Vietnam affected our literary imagination in ways that no other war has," Jerome Klinkowitz has stated, "and the result has been a body of fiction that relies on various innovative formal devices, similar to the experimental features that characterize other postmodern fiction, to capture a sense of that war's assault on language and on our sense of reality." Some of the more prominent writings about the war include Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955), which focuses on American involvement before the introduction of troops; Robin Moore's The Green Berets (1965), one of the few positive portrayals of American involvement; Tim O'Brien's Going after Cacciato (1978), a formally innovative work that combines the protagonist's memories of combat with an imaginary journey to Paris as it dramatizes the main character's coming to terms with the horrors of war; and John Del Vecchio's The 13th Valley (1982), a naturalistic account centering on the fate of a single patrol. Other works, such as Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country (1984) and Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story (1986), address the problems of veterans attempting to reenter civilian life. In their discussions of Vietnam War fiction, critics have remarked on the appropriation and reinterpretation of American myths, particularly those associated with the American frontier—in Going after Cacciato, for instance, the protagonist "goes West" in search of the deserter Cacciato—and have argued that the most provocative fiction about the war ultimately goes beyond the story of combat in a foreign environment to offer insight into the evolution of American society during the 1960s and 1970s.

Discussion regarding drama and film about the conflict center on themes of alienation from society due to military training and combat experience and the reinterpretation of American myths. Considered the most prominent playwright on the Vietnam experience, David Rabe addresses all of these themes in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1968), which dramatizes Hummel's failed search for identity and belonging in the social structure of the military and the unreliability of traditional assumptions and myths on which an understanding of reality is based. As J. W. Fenn has stated: "The overwhelmingly dominant themes of the war plays became those of both individual and social disintegration, internecine conflict, psychological fragmentation, alienation, and isolation; and a loss of cultural identity." In their commentaries on Vietnam War films, critics have highlighted such common elements as the binary opposition between the American military's technological superiority and the guerrilla warfare practiced by the Vietnamese, the futility and ineffectiveness of American involvement, and the depiction of the war and its veterans as catalysts for violence in the United States. Commentators have noted as well the explicit use and debunking of the American frontier mythos in such films as Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), and Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986). The parallels between James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer (1841) and The Deer Hunter are evident in the title as well as the protagonist's attachment to the wilderness. In Apocalypse Now, Coppola presents the American initiative in Vietnam in terms of Western/European man's attempt to civilize and exploit the "savage" wilderness; the film is based on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1902) and thus casts in an American context Conrad's themes of the hubris and folly of empire and colonization. Stone, on the other hand, contrasts competing views of American involvement and associates the right-wing military viewpoint with Sergeant Barnes, who speaks with a Western accent, plays poker, and drinks whiskey. As W. J. Hug has written, "In one way or another, the War in Vietnam becomes in each of [these films] America's failed effort to resurrect the frontier."

Representative Works Discussed Below

Balk, H. Wesley and Ronald J. Glasser
  The Dramatization of 365 Days (drama) 1972
Barry, Jan and W. D. Ehrhart
  Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam [editors] (poetry) 1976
Berry, David
  G. R. Point (drama) 1975
Bunting, Josiah
  The Lionheads (novel) 1972
Caputo, Philip
  Indian Country (novel) 1987
Cimino, Michael
  The Deer Hunter (film) 1978
Cole, Tom
  Medal of Honor Rag (drama) 1975
Coppola, Francis
  Apocalypse Now (film) 1979
Del Vecchio, John
  The 13th Valley (novel) 1982
DiFusco, John
  Tracers (drama) 1980
Ehrhart, W. D.
  To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired (poetry) 1984
  Carrying the Darkness [editor] (poetry) 1985
  Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier Poets of the Vietnam War [editor] (poetry) 1989
  Just For Laughs (poetry) 1990
Greene, Graham
  The Quiet American (novel) 1955
Halberstam, David
  One Very Hot Day (novel) 1967
Heinemann, Larry
  Paco's Story (novel) 1986
Herr, Michael
  Dispatches (nonfiction) 1978
Huong, Duong Thu
  ∗Novel Without a Name (novel) 1995
  ∗Paradise of the Blind (novel) 1995
Kellogg, Ray and John Wayne
  The Green Berets (film) 1968
Kennedy, Adrienne
  An Evening with Dead Essex (drama) 1973
Komunyakaa, Yusef
  Dien Cai Dau (poetry) 1988
Kubrick, Stanley
  †Full Metal Jacket (film) 1987
Mailer, Norman
  Why Are We in Vietnam (novel) 1967
Mann, Emily
  Still Life (drama) 1980
Mason, Bobbie Ann
  In Country (novel) 1984
McClure, James
  Private Wars (drama) 1979
Moore, Robin
  The Green Berets (novel) 1965
Mura, David
  After We Lost Our Way (poetry) 1989
Nemerov, Howard
  War Stories: Poems About Long Ago and Now (poetry) 1987
Ninh, Bao
  ∗The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam (novel) 1995
O'Brien, Tim
  Going after Cacciato (novel) 1978
Rabe, David
  The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (drama) 1968
Sticks and Bones (drama) 1969
  Streamers (drama) 1976
Rottmann, Larry, Jan Barry, and Basil T. Pacquet
  Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterams [editors] (poetry) 1972
Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg
  Buffalo Afternoon (novel) 1989
Sloan, James Park
  War Games (novel) 1971
Stanford, Frank
  The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (poem) 1977
Stone, Oliver
  Platoon (film) 1986
Weigl, Bruce
  Executioner (poetry) 1976
  A Romance (poetry) 1979
  The Monkey Wars (poetry) 1985
Woods, William Crawford
  The Killing Zone (novel) 1970
Wright, Stephen
  Meditations in Green (novel) 1983

∗These works were originally written and published in Vietnamese.

†The screenplay for this film was co-written by Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford, and Kubrick. The film is based on Hasford's novel The Short-timers (1979).


Philip K. Jason (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: An introduction to Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. ix-xix.

[In the essay below, Jason outlines the major issues and trends in Vietnam War literature and its criticism.]

There has always been a literature of war. The classical epics are among its early prototypes. In American literature, Whitman's Drum-Taps, Melville's Battle-Pieces, and Crane's The Red Badge of Courage form the nucleus of a significant literature of the Civil War—yet Whitman was the only major writer who put himself in some proximity to the horrors of battle. Melville was only a casual visitor, and Crane was born years after the war's close. From this beginning (though we could go back further), the war literature of American writers has been a mixture of testimony, commentary, and imaginative reconstruction. Though many more creative works about the Civil War were written, only these nineteenth-century visions of that war are read today—and Melville's just barely. The distant reconstructions of that past include Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize novel of 1974, The Killer Angels, which treats the battle of Gettysburg, and Stephen Vincent Benét's verse narrative, John Brown's Body, winner of a Pulitzer in 1928.

America's best-known literary treatment of World War I is A Farewell to Arms, though Hemingway's service was primarily as a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver. Somewhat less celebrated are John Dos Passos's Three Soldiers and E. E. Cummings's The Enormous Room. James Jones's From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line are among our classics of World War II, as are John Hersey's A Bell for Adano, Hiroshima, and The Wall. Alongside of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 are the retrospective epic treatments by Herman Wouk (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance) as well as The Caine Mutiny Court Martial drama based on his earlier novel. Of more recent vintage is Marge Piercy's highly acclaimed Gone to Soldiers (1987). M∗A∗S∗H is our major imaginative rendering of the Korean "conflict," though it is often imagined by the viewers of the television series as a work about Vietnam.

This short checklist of well-known literary responses to our earlier wars reminds us by its very brevity that the winnowing processes of popular and critical acclaim canonize only a small percentage of the imaginative works written on any subject. The rest are left to special-interest readers and scholars. How will the writings on the Vietnam War be filtered? Which will survive—and why? The critical enterprise now underway, to which the present volume is an addition, has begun to engage these questions.

Why is there such a rich literature about the Vietnam War, a war that for so many years no one wanted to hear about at all? How did that experience stir the nation and discover so many interpreters? There are no conclusive answers to such questions, though some suggestions may be offered.

In the two decades between the end of World War II and our military buildup in Vietnam, the American educational system reached out to embrace greater numbers. The proportion of young men and women who achieved a higher literacy (at the expense of a smaller elite no longer attaining the highest literacy) may account for the great number of significant literary responses to the Vietnam War.

Though we read much about the demography of the armed services during the war that describes the disproportionate sacrifice of the disadvantaged and the dropouts, the number of enlistees (and even draftees) who had some college education was not insignificant, and the educational attainment of the young officer corps was high. Which is to say that many of those who went to Vietnam had the equipment to turn their experiences into literary documents. And many others would, upon return, gain the skills needed to shape and reshape their memories.

We should note as well that among its literary fashions the sixties ushered in a personal journalism that employed novelistic techniques. Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968) is a classic of this kind. Such a genre was ready-made for the memoirs of the war and for the many autobiographical novels—often memoirs in thin disguise. (Ironically, Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, published twenty years earlier, is a model for most of the "old-fashioned" realistic-naturalistic combat narratives of Vietnam. Mailer's own treatment of this war is trendily oblique; his 1967 Why Are We in Vietnam is a grotesque stateside adventure in macho bloodletting, thus, a study in American character.) The related genre of the nonfiction novel—Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) and William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967)—also influenced the literary climate in which the first writings about the Vietnam War were nourished. And one can hardly imagine the stylistic hijinks of Michael Herr's Dispatches without the earlier work of Tom Wolfe.

Aside from anything one might say about the magnitude of cultural upheaval caused by the war, the circumstances of literacy and literature in the United States during the war years help explain the great numbers of writings and the generic outlines of this body of work—a corpus that began to gain momentum in the late seventies and a decade later became a significant facet of American publishing. The growing commercial viability of Vietnam fiction allowed early works like Ward Just's Stringer (1974) to be brought out ten years later in paperback and introduced a new generation of readers to Graham Greene's classic, The Quiet American (1955).

In fact, many bookstores have "Vietnam" shelves. The "Vietnam: Ground Zero" series by Eric Helm, now approaching twenty titles (including The Raid, Incident at Plei Soi, Cambodian Sanctuary, and Payback), is representative of the mass-market success of Vietnam material. The developing "Wings over Nam" series by Cat Branigan lengthens the bandwagon. Indeed, every paperback house has its Vietnam titles, both fiction and nonfiction, both serious and escapist. There are even a couple of bookstores dedicated exclusively to Vietnam War publications, and a few college libraries have undertaken special collections of Vietnam material. New Vietnam-related works keep tumbling onto the bookstore shelves. In 1989, Lucian K. Truscott IV's Army Blue, John Amos's The Medallion, and Franklin Allen Leib's The Fire Dream were among the most conspicuous, while 1990 has brought Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Gustav Hasford's The Phantom Blooper.

Of course, given the economics of publishing, it is easier to find a copy of James Webb's Fields of Fire than John Balaban's Lamont Prize poetry collection, After Our War. The same concern for the ledger that led Avon Books to drop W. D. Ehrhart's excellent poetry anthology, Carrying the Darkness (since reissued by Texas Tech Press), led Zebra Books to bring out a mass-market edition of his memoir, Vietnam-Perkasie, first published by a small press in North Carolina. Many titles receive a second life as they become the basis for films. Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July is a recent (and worthy) beneficiary of this marketing system. And who can tell what motivated the Bantam hardback publication of Steve Mason's Johnny's Song, a collection of mediocre poems wrapped in the flag and destined for coffee tables?

A number of works about the war have earned and gained recognition, most notably Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, Tim O'Brien's Going after Cacciato, Gloria Emerson's Winners and Losers, Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story, and Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie—all winners of National Book Awards. Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded to Sheehan's book and also to Frances FitzGerald's Fire in the Lake.

The battle among scholars and politicians who have tried to explain this war is a battle for our collective memory—for the "truth" that future generations will share about the reasons for, conduct of, and outcome of this conflict. Our novelists, playwrights, and poets are significant players in this engagement—few, if any, are above a political or moral vision, and many works are overtly propagandistic.

Certainly, the fact that the war was "witnessed" by the American public on television and, however tentatively, in movies does not escape the notice of the literary and dramatic artists who approach it. The constant allusions to John Wayne movies in Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers and elsewhere, the Ozzie and Harriet game played by David Rabe in Sticks and Bones in which the television doesn't work and David's movie can't be seen, the concern with photographic and cinematic images in Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green, Emmett's obsession with "M∗A∗S∗H" reruns in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, and Sgt. Krummel's comment in James Crumley's One to Count...

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Jerome Klinkowitz (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Writing Under Fire: Postmodern Fiction and the Vietnam War," in Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide, edited by Larry McCaffery, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 79-92.

[An American educator and critic, Klinkowitz has written extensively on contemporary American fiction and edited Writing Under Fire: Stories of the Vietnam War (1978). In the essay below, he surveys novels published during American involvement in the Vietnam War and focuses his analysis on innovative approaches to plot and structure.]

American novels and stories about Vietnam reveal a common, desperate search for...

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Film And Drama

David E. Whillock (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Defining the Fictive American Vietnam War Film: In Search of a Genre," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4, 1988, pp. 244-50.

[In the following essay, Whillock analyzes themes and images in Vietnam combat films and points out the disparities between these films and World War II combat films.]

What should the Vietnam War look like on film? What were the motifs, visual, and thematic, that would emerge as dominant, that would reappear in film after film—with greater or lesser variations—to evolve into a codified 'Vietnam style'?


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Lorrie Smith (essay date November-December 1986)

SOURCE: "A Sense-Making Perspective in Recent Poetry by Vietnam Veterans," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 15, No. 6, November-December, 1986, pp. 13-8.

[In the essay below, Smith comments on the distinctive traits of Vietnam veteran poetry and analyzes the work of W. D. Ehrhart and Bruce Weigl.]

Amid the flurry of special magazine issues, photo retrospectives, and television documentaries commemorating the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, one back-page item brought into focus our continuing failure to make sense of the Vietnam War. An ABC News-Washington Post poll found that...

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Further Reading


Calloway, Catherine. "Vietnam War Literature and Film: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources." Bulletin of Bibliography 43, No. 3 (September 1986): 149-58.

Provides listings for criticism on Vietnam War literature organized according to drama, film, poetry, and prose.

Colonnese, Tom, and Hogan, Jerry. "Vietnam War Literature, 1958–1979: A First Checklist." Bulletin of Bibliography 38, No. 1 (January-March 1981): 26-31, 51.

Bibliography of book-length works and short fiction dealing with the Vietnam War.


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