When the Vietnamese narrator in Robert Olen Butler’s short story "Salem" speaks of his “manhood,” he is employing a time-worn tradition among males of equating moral courage with the possession of testicles. A common euphemism for masculinity, “manhood” is a double entendre used in casual conversation, as in, “he lacked the cojones to do the job,” or “he was deprived of his manhood by the domineering nature of his wife.” The male reproductive organ is synonymous with courage. That’s the lingo. Butler’s narrator, a Viet Cong guerrilla fighting the South Vietnamese and their American allies, is the universal soldier. He is skilled in the art of war, and possessed of the courage needed to kill the enemy under dangerous conditions. He is not, however, a robot or cyborg. He possesses human emotions including fear and it is this capacity to be afraid that is the point of this particular story. Early in "Salem," the narrator discusses the intense fear he feels when the enormous destructive power of American strategic bombers fly overhead dropping their huge payload while killing himself in the service of a regime prone to its own extremes of ruthlessness: “. . .letting my manhood go as we all did sooner or later beneath the bellow of fire from the B-52s. I said yes to my leaders and went into the jungle and gave them even my manhood . . .”
Similarly, this guerrilla describes his cold-blooded capacity for killing while observing the fear in his enemy, as when he relates the story of when he killed a lost and very nervous-looking American soldier. Describing the details by which he has fashioned a crude grenade from a discarded Coke can and successfully killed this American interloper, he notes his hardness to the sight of mutilated bodies while referencing once more the fear he experiences when he’s on the receiving end of an American aerial bombardment: “I’d seen many wounds by then and though I thought often of the betrayal of my manhood beneath the bombs of the B-52s, I could still be in the midst of blood and broken bodies and not lose my nerve.”
Butler’s collection of short stories is intended to portray the war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese perspective. What “they” refer to as “the American War” was a highly destructive conflict costly in lives and in the devastation wrought upon the country’s natural beauty. More importantly, Butler has sought to humanize the Vietnamese enemy rather than perpetuate images of a savage inhumane beast lurking in the jungle ready to slit American throats. By focusing on his protagonist’s concerns about his “manhood,” Butler has humanized this Viet Cong guerrilla merely by attributing to him characteristics common to all mankind.