The Vietnam War in Literature Overview - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3890 words.)