The Vietnam War in Short Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

The Vietnam War in Short Fiction


The Vietnam War in Short Fiction

The involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War has been the subject of an extensive and diverse body of creative works in a variety of genres, including drama, fiction, film, and poetry. Writers of short fiction inspired by the Vietnam War and its aftermath have approached the conflict from various perspectives. The earliest short stories on the subject were written by veterans and often focused on the combat experience of the American soldier in Vietnam, as well as his assimilation into American society upon returning home. These works are predominantly concerned with the search for truth and meaning amid the chaos and brutality of war. Critics assert that these stories offer insight into the evolution of American society during the 1960s and 1970s and underscore a loss of innocence during these turbulent years.

In recent decades, critics have acknowledged works by female authors for their valuable contribution to Vietnam War literature. Recurring themes in these short stories include the effect of the war on male-female relationships, the combat experience from the standpoint of female participants, the reintegration of Vietnam veterans into American society, and the impact of the war on family dynamics and successive generations. Moreover, these stories emphasize the victimization of women as a result of the war, from those who participated in combat to those whose lives were touched by its consequences.

Vietnamese authors have also utilized the Vietnam War as a literary subject. These writers have examined the severity of war and its devastating impact on individuals and families, as well as the repurcussions of the conflict on Vietnamese culture and society. Both Vietnamese and American authors have written stories concerning Vietnamese immigrants living in the United States. Chronicling the myriad of challenges confronted by these individuals, this fiction highlights the coping strategies of Vietnamese immigrants in the face of anger and discrimination, and explores their struggle to thrive in an unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcoming environment.

Representative Works

Free Fire Zone: Short Stories by Vietnam Veterans [edited by Wayne Karlin, Basil T. Paquet, and Larry Rottmann] 1973
Vietnamese Short Stories: An Introduction [edited by James Banerian] 1985
In the Field of Fire [edited by Jeanne Van Buren Dann and Jack Dann] 1987
Adventures in Hell: Vietnam War Stories by Vietnam Vets [edited by David “Doc” Andersen] 1990
Aftermath: An Anthology of Post-Vietnam Fiction [edited by Donald Anderson] 1995
The Other Side of Heaven: Postwar Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers [edited by Wayne Karlin, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vi] (short stories and novel excerpts) 1995
Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam [edited by Ling Dinh] 1996
Touring Nam: Vietnam War Stories [edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Augustus Richard Norton] (short stories, memoirs, and essays) 1997
In the Shadow of the Wall: An Anthology of Vietnam Stories That Might Have Been [edited by Byron R. Tetrick] 2002

Robert Olen Butler
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories 1992

Diana Dell
A Saigon Party, and Other Vietnam War Short Stories 1998

Barry Hannah
Airships 1978

Lee Henschel, Jr.
Short Stories of Vietnam 1981

Ho Anh Thai
Trong suong hong hien ra: tieu thuyet [Behind the Red Mist: Fiction by Ho Anh Thai] 1997

Hoàng Thi Dáo-Tiêp
Vâng trăng lé ban [The Lonesome Moon] 1992

Le Minh Khue
The Stars, the Earth, the River: Short Fiction by Le Minh Khue 1997

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Word for World Is Forest 1976

Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried 1990

Susan O'Neill
Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam 2001

Grace Paley
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute 1974
Later the Same Day 1985

Aimee Phan
We Should Never Meet: Stories 2004

Tobias Wolff
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs 1981
The Barracks Thief 1984
Back in the World: Stories 1985

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Caroline Slocock (essay date April 1982)

SOURCE: Slocock, Caroline. “Winning Hearts and Minds: The 1st Casualty Press.” Journal of American Studies 16, no. 1 (April 1982): 107-17.

[In the following essay, Slocock chronicles the origins and growth of 1st Casualty Press, which was founded to publish the work of Vietnam veterans.]

In the early 1970s, a number of Vietnam veterans sought publication for a collection of veterans' creative writing which they felt could make an important contribution to a political understanding of the war in Indochina. However, efforts to find a commercial publisher for their anthology met with no success. Their conviction that this literature both deserved and could find a...

(The entire section is 4605 words.)

Milton J. Bates (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Bates, Milton J. “The Generation War.” In The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling, pp. 174-213. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Bates explores the father-son relationships at the heart of Tobias Wolff's memoir In Pharoah's Army and Walter Howerton's story “The Persistence of Memory.”]

[There is a] kind of Vietnam war story in which the son feels initially superior to his father because he has the courage either to go to Vietnam or to resist the war. Two narratives of this type, Tobias Wolff's memoir In Pharoah's Army (1994) and Walter Howerton's short story “The...

(The entire section is 3046 words.)

Criticism: Women Authors Of Vietnam War Short Fiction

Susanne Carter (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Carter, Susanne. “Variations on Vietnam: Women's Innovative Interpretations of the Vietnam War Experience.” Extrapolation 32, no. 2 (summer 1991): 170-83.

[In the following essay, Carter focuses on the writings of female authors who have experimented with various literary modes in their interpretations of the Vietnam War experience.]

As the Vietnam War literary genre continued to evolve, writers of both genders have experimented with literary expression in search of the most representative interpretation possible for a war that still begs for definition, where absolutes appear to be missing and reality remains obscure. Of all literary expression, innovation...

(The entire section is 5978 words.)

Maureen Ryan (essay date fall 1994)

SOURCE: Ryan, Maureen. “The Other Side of Grief: American Women and the Vietnam War.” Critique 36, no. 1 (fall 1994): 41-57.

[In the following essay, Ryan analyzes several works written by women on the subject of the Vietnam War.]

Contemporary American society is saturated with books, movies, television shows, and college courses that offer a variety of revisionary interpretations of the Vietnam War. As Thomas Myers has noted, the Vietnam War “has become an intellectual industry in America” (“Dispatches for Ghost Country” 411). Why now? Why the almost obsessive preoccupation with a war now twenty-five years in the past? A number of commentators have...

(The entire section is 8299 words.)

William J. Searle (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Searle, William J. “Women, Vietnamese, Other: The Depiction of Women in Vietnamese Short Fiction.” War, Literature & the Arts 13, nos. 1-2 (2001): 314-27.

[In the following essay, Searle traces the depiction of women in the short fiction of female Vietnamese authors, specifically highlighting stories inspired by war.]

If heaven forces us to be naked,
Then we are naked.
If heaven allows us to have an undershirt,
Then we wear it.

The Tale of the Kieu

Writing to artists in 1951, Ho Chi Minh stated: “To fulfill his task, the cultural fighter needs a firm point of view and correct ideas … The goods of the...

(The entire section is 5258 words.)

Criticism: Robert Olen Butler: A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain (1992)

Monique T. D. Truong (essay date fall 1997)

SOURCE: Truong, Monique T. D. “The Reception of Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain: Ventriloquism and the Pulitzer Prize.” Viet Nam Forum 16 (fall 1997): 75-94.

[In the following essay, Truong examines Robert Olen Butler's characterizations of Vietnamese Americans in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.]

The white man is always trying to know into somebody else' business. All right, I'll set something outside the door of my mind for him to play with and handle. He can read my writing but he sho' can't read my mind. I'll put this play toy in his hand, and he will seize it and go away. Then I'll say my say and sing my...

(The entire section is 7609 words.)

Erin E. Campbell Cash (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Cash, Erin E. Campbell. “Locating Community in Contemporary Southern Fiction: A Cultural Analysis of Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.” In Songs of the New South: Writing Contemporary Louisiana, edited by Suzanne Disheroon Green and Lisa Abney, pp. 37-45. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Cash explores the concept of community in Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain within the context of Southern literature.]

The psychic blow of defeat in Vietnam shapes Southern survivors in ways similar to the effects of the idealized Lost Cause on Southern Renaissance writers. The...

(The entire section is 4471 words.)

Criticism: Barry Hannah: Airships (1978)

Mark J. Charney (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Charney, Mark J. “‘Crucified by Truth’: Narrative Voices in Airships.” In Barry Hannah, pp. 21-41. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

[In the following essay, Charney classifies the stories in Barry Hannah's Airships as works about the literal and figurative battlefields of the Civil and Vietnam wars.]

In “Water Liars,” the first story in Hannah's collection Airships (1978), the narrator and his wife share stories of past sexual liaisons during a drunken, late-night truth session: “I had a mildly exciting and usual history, and she had about the same, which surprised me. For ten years she'd sworn I was the first. I could not...

(The entire section is 9751 words.)

Owen W. Gilman, Jr. (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Gilman, Jr., Owen W. “Regenerative Violence; or, Grab Your Saber, Ray.” In Vietnam and the Southern Imagination, pp. 77-93. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Gilman underscores the significant role of violence in Barry Hannah's fiction and surveys his Vietnam War short stories from a Southern perspective.]

In an early overview of Hannah's fiction, Donald R. Noble noted in “‘Tragic and Meaningful to an Insane Degree’: Barry Hannah” [Southern Literary Journal 15, no. 1 (fall 1982)] that “Hannah's violence is a subject sure to get much attention in the future” (40); more recently, Allen Shepherd's...

(The entire section is 2761 words.)

Ruth D. Weston (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Weston, Ruth D. “Debunking the Unitary Self and Story in the War Stories of Barry Hannah.” Southern Literary Journal 27, no. 2 (spring 1995): 96-106.

[In the following essay, Weston suggests that Barry Hannah's Vietnam stories attempt to make sense out of the violence of the Vietnam era, and views his stories within the context of Southern history and literature.]

In a new book on storytellers of the Vietnam generation, David Wyatt argues that literary generations are defined by, among other things, “the impact of a traumatic historical incident or episode … [which] creates the sense of a rupture in time and gathers those who confront it into a shared...

(The entire section is 4816 words.)

Criticism: Tim O'Brien: The Things They Carried (1990)

Steven Kaplan (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Kaplan, Steven. “The Things They Carried.” In Understanding Tim O'Brien, pp. 169-92. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Kaplan contends that in The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien “emphasizes the magical powers of storytelling,” incorporating both factual writing and memoir to create fiction that is “truer than fact.”]

Before America became militarily involved in defending the sovereignty of South Vietnam, it had to, as one historian recently put it, “invent” the country and the political issues at stake there.1 The Vietnam War was in many ways a wild and terrible work of...

(The entire section is 5902 words.)

Alex Vernon (essay date December 2003)

SOURCE: Vernon, Alex. “Salvation, Storytelling, and Pilgrimage in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.Mosaic 36, no. 4 (December 2003): 171-88.

[In the following essay, Vernon considers Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in relation to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, viewing the former “as a mechanism for questioning the possibility of spiritual gain through waging modern war.”]

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried participates in a tradition of literary revision unique to twentieth-century American war literature, joining e. e. cummings's World War I novel The Enormous Room and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s World War II...

(The entire section is 8011 words.)

Criticism: Tobias Wolff: Back In The World (1985)

David Montrose (review date 24 January 1986)

SOURCE: Montrose, David. “Waiting for the Future.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4321 (24 January 1986): 82.

[In the following mixed review, Montrose provides a stylistic overview of the stories in Tobias Wolff's Back in the World.]

The title of Tobias Wolff's second collection of stories comes from a passage in “Soldier's Joy”, in which his protagonist, Hooper, reminisces about the certainty found on combat duty in Vietnam:

We didn't know it then. We used to talk about how when we got back in the world we were going to do this and we were going to do that. Back in the world we were going to have it made. But ever since...

(The entire section is 730 words.)

James Hannah (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Hannah, James. “Part 1. The Short Fiction: ‘Soldier's Joy.’” In Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 66-71. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hannah discusses Tobias Wolff's representation of a veteran's reintegration into American society in “Soldier's Joy.”]

“Soldier's Joy” is Tobias Wolff's fourth treatment of soldiers and his second short story about the reintroduction of the Vietnam War veteran into American society. It also provides the title of the collection in the phrase “back in the world,” the soldier's shorthand for civilian life. The phrase resides at the core of this story. Hooper, a veteran...

(The entire section is 2430 words.)

Criticism: Other Authors And Works

Dình-Hoà Nguyên (review date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Nguyên, Dình-Hoà. Review of The Lonesome Moon, by Hoàng Thi Dáo-Tiêp. World Literature Today 68, no. 1 (winter 1994): 223-24.

[In the following review, Nguyên offers a favorable assessment of Hoàng Thi Dáo-Tiêp's The Lonesome Moon.]

The Lonesome Moon is a collection of short stories by the refugee writer Hoàng Thi Dáo-Tiêp, whose first novel, Dăm khuya (On the Road Late at Night; see WLT [World Literature Today] 67:1, p. 241), has been widely acclaimed by readers all over the world. The fourteen stories depict the lives of Vietnamese refugees from all walks of life, now busy making a living and trying hard...

(The entire section is 906 words.)

Gordon Weaver (essay date fall 1999)

SOURCE: Weaver, Gordon. “Allen Learst's Stories.” Literary Review 43, no. 1 (fall 1999): 77-9.

[In the following essay, Weaver praises the lack of sensationalism and melodrama in Allen Learst's “A Sheet, a Clothesline, a Bed” and “Shadowboxing.”]

Vietnam and its aftermath for those who experienced it has produced what can almost be called a fictional sub-genre, most of which is pedestrian, if not forgettable. One temptation for the writer embracing that topic is to wallow in the gore a sophisticated reader is already too familiar with from more popular entertainments. This can lead to sheer melodrama, wherein the author overcharges the language used to...

(The entire section is 906 words.)

Judie Newman (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Newman, Judie. “Napalm and After: The Politics of Grace Paley's Short Fiction.” Yearbook of English Studies 31, no. 1 (winter 2001): 2-9.

[In the following essay, Newman elucidates Grace Paley's anti-Vietnam politics and discusses the impact of her political views on her short fiction.]

I object not to facts but to people sitting in trees talking senselessly, voices from who knows where.

(‘A Conversation with my Father’)1

Grace Paley's commitment to political radicalism has never been in much doubt. Comparatively few contemporary writers have accompanied American POWs home...

(The entire section is 4145 words.)

Further Reading


Abbott, Lee K., and Jonathan Leizman. “Conversations with Lee K. Abbott.” Studies of Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 141-48.

Abbott discusses his role as storyteller, autobiographical aspects of his work, and his use of the short story form.

Bell, Madison Smartt. “At a Cultural Crossroads.” Chicago Tribune (23 February 1992): 3-4.

Maintains that Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain “offers a rare and privileged glimpse of what the Vietnamese in the United States think of each other and also what they think of the rest of us.”


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