The Vietnam War in Literature Critical Essays

Introduction

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The United States's involvement in the Vietnam War, which ended in April, 1975 when the last American soldiers were withdrawn, has been the subject of an extensive and diverse body of creative works in a variety of genres, including drama, fiction, film, and poetry.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."