The Vietnam War in Literature

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 3890 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 Cadence that the maimed Vietcong "flipped out of the tree like a Hollywood stunt man" all remind us of the different planes of perception, intersecting and overlaying, through which the truths of the war are offered us. Indeed, some of the most significant literary art is reportage (Jonathan Schell's The Real War and Gloria Emerson's Winners and Losers come immediately to mind), and some of that is fundamentally concerned with the act of reporting, of representing, the war to the public. Thus, works like Michael Herr's Dispatches are, at one level, about the limits of perception and representation.

The works that will last, one must suppose, will be those that transcend the representation of a particular arena of military engagement. The more provocative stories that unfold in the literature of the Vietnam War are not simply or finally stories of armed conflict in a distant land. They are stories about American society as it evolved through the sixties and seventies. They are understandings, and sometimes underminings, of American myths. Many of the critical responses … are alert to the ways in which the literature confronts the myths of American innocence, American invulnerability, and American righteousness. In particular, Maria S. Bonn's "A Different World: The Vietnam Veteran Novel Comes Home" [in Fourteen Landing Zones, 1991] addresses the lost myth of an American homeland that could be depended on to nurture its returning soldiers.

Writing about the early collection of Vietnam War fiction, Free Fire Zone (1973) [in "Truth Is the First Casualty," The Nation (November 19, 1973)], Jerry Griswold observed, "These writers have ceased to believe in the myth of an imperfectible America, and their stories are meant to make uncomfortable the complacent who do believe in it." He went on to note that these writers "can't be comfortable in their disbelief either." The myth of a fair-minded, egalitarian America is threatened by literary reflections of an American society that tolerated and even fostered racism and sexism. Jacqueline E. Lawson's "'She's a Pretty Woman … for a Gook': The Misogyny of the Vietnam War" uncovers the tragedy of a sexist America in the memoirs of Vietnam War veterans. Though Lawson does not here treat the imaginative literature of the war, her approach is one that can be applied to a significant portion of the poetry, drama, and fiction. Katherine Kinney's "'Humping the Boonies': Sex, Combat, and the Female in Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country" provides a specific application of feminist reading that complements Lawson's overview. These essays [collected in Fourteen Landing Zones] are evidence of how much the feminist consciousness has to tell us about who we are.

The dominant literature of the war—whether autobiography or fiction, whether by veteran or not—is cast in the dominant genre of prose narrative. Lorrie Smith and Don Ringnalda question the effectiveness of narrative to contain or release the Vietnam experience. Smith's "Resistance and Revision in Poetry by Vietnam War Veterans" argues that lyric utterance best serves the social and personal purposes of the veteran writer. Ringnalda, in "Doing It Wrong Is Getting It Right: America's Vietnam War Drama," looks closely at the limits of the master narrative and maintains that the oblique approaches of the dramatists have been more significantly expressive of this war's central traits. Both essays [which also appear in Fourteen Landing Zones] survey the vision and technical invention of major voices in the maverick genres.

Does war narrative have its own traditions that are passed on from one generation of writers to the next? John Clark Pratt makes one set of connections in "Yossarian's Legacy: Catch-22 and the Vietnam War," along the way defining a significant subgenre. Pratt's own novel, with its peculiar mixture of private, generic, and more broadly literary allusions, is the subject of James R. Aubrey's "Conradian Darkness in John Clark Pratt's The Laotian Fragments." Owen W. Gilman, Jr., in "Vietnam and John Winthrop's Vision of Community," asks which species of narrative is likely to have the most profound impact. He makes a case for the "typological" narrative, finding in the Puritan vision of Winthrop an unexpected but instructive model.

The Vietnam conflict happened over there, but it happened here as well. Many fought against the war, and many who fought in it also fought with themselves. These are the concerns of Jacqueline R. Smetak's "The (Hidden) Antiwar Activist in Vietnam War Fiction." Many veterans carried the war home, and all citizens lived in the shadows of its stateside reverberations. Matthew C. Stewart underscores the former situation in "Realism, Verisimilitude, and the Depiction of Vietnam Veterans in In Country." Stuart Ching, in "'A Hard Story to Tell': The Vietnam War in Joan Didion's Democracy," examines one literary work that illustrates the latter perspective. While this war was an American moment in Asia, it was first of all an Asian ordeal. In his "Darkness in the East: The Vietnam Novels of Takeshi Kaiko," an analysis of works by an important Japanese writer, Mark A. Heberle drives this realization home.

The human capacity for violence is nothing new, though the actors and victims change. What seems different in the literature of the Vietnam War is how directly and minutely atrocities are described and how conscious the writer (witness or perpetrator) is of the horror and of the moral implications of the event and of its record in language. In his "Line of Departure: The Atrocity in Vietnam War Literature," Cornelius A. Cronin demonstrates this awareness by contrasting Vietnam War narratives with a representative narrative of World War II. Kali Tal, on the other hand, doubts that traditional literary criticism can meaningfully explore what our traumatized participant-writers have created. In "Speaking the Language of Pain: Vietnam War Literature in the Context of a Literature of Trauma," Tal argues the limits of critical approaches that tend to the unraveling of metaphor. Insisting that the writings of veterans and those of nonveterans comprise radically separate categories, she begins the task of finding a new approach by linking the literature of Vietnam veterans to that of other survivor literatures, particularly the literature of the Holocaust and the literature of sexual abuse.

Along with the representative works treated in these essays are scores of others deserving of attention. The list, which I won't attempt to give, contains enormous variety. It includes David A. Willson's REMF Diary, a comic portrait of rear echelon service; Wayne Karlin's Lost Armies, a haunting psychological thriller of the war's long aftermath of suffering; and the lyrical sequence Fatal Light by Richard Currey (all 1988).

Though battlefield stories still dominate the body of Vietnam War literature and thus the attention of critics, it is clear that the focus of Vietnam War criticism is shifting as that of the literature itself has shifted. The shift, among writers who were veterans of the war, follows their own experience from the war they fought to the war they took home. Among both veteran and nonveteran writers, one movement is to a vision of larger perspective: works that integrate the Vietnam War into a reading of the larger American story. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's novel, Buffalo Afternoon (1989), is one such effort. Walter MacDonald's collection of poems, After the Fall of Saigon (1988), is another.

The history of criticism on Vietnam War literature is, of course, not a very long one. The key titles are James C. Wilson's Vietnam in Prose and Film (1982), Philip Beidler's American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam (1982), John Newman's annotated bibliography of Vietnam War Literature (1982; 2d ed. 1988), John Hellmann's American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam (1986), Timothy J. Lomperis's "Reading the Wind": The Literature of the Vietnam War (1987), Thomas Myers's Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam (1988), Susan Jeffords's The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (1989), and Sandra M. Wittman's Writing about Vietnam: A Bibliography of the Literature of the Vietnam Conflict (1989). These titles, referred to by many of the essayists in [Fourteen Landing Zones], are only the beginning of what promises to be a provocative engagement with the literature, with history itself, and with methodological problems. Collections of critical essays edited by William J. Searle (Search and Clear, 1988), Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich (Vietnam Images: War and Representation, 1989), Stephen H. Knox (Vietnam Studies, 1990), and Owen W. Gilman, Jr., and Lorrie Smith (America Rediscovered, 1990) preceded [Fourteen Landing Zones].

This scholarship is serving the great interest in Vietnam studies of all kinds that are proliferating at American colleges and universities. That interest comes, in part, from the curiosity of those born about 1970 who are now in college, which is to say old enough to be fighting in a war. The eighteen-year-olds who lived through the Tet Offensive are now entering middle age. The cadre of young officers (some of whom became authors) was four or five years older. They, and the larger group who came to majority during the 1965 to 1975 period, are the Vietnam Generation. Vietnam Generation, a quarterly journal, has become the major clearinghouse for interdisciplinary studies on the war's centrality to contemporary American culture. The first general anthology for classroom use, Nancy Anisfield's Vietnam Anthology: American War Literature, appeared in 1987. Robert M. Slabey's America in Vietnam/Vietnam in America: Reading and Teaching the Vietnam War was planned for release in 1990.

The academics' debate over how the war should be taught, which works should be canonical in Vietnam studies, and which works will find a place in the canon of American literature is obviously connected to the struggle for the national memory. While the discussion is often heated, few new fields of study have engaged so many scholars in cooperative endeavors. Unfortunately, there has been little encouragement from the most powerful professional organizations; scholars proposing panels for Modern Language Association meetings have experienced only limited success. The annual combined meeting of the American Culture Association and Popular Culture Association has become the major forum for scholarly discussion in this area, and many of the articles in [Fourteen Landing Zones] (as in those mentioned above) originated as papers delivered at ACA/PCA meetings.

For all of the activity in Vietnam War studies, more work needs to be done to discover and assess literature that provides both perspectives on the Vietnamese and Vietnamese perspectives. Literary representations of the Vietnamese range from racist slurs to outright admiration of these people as a skilled and valiant enemy to total disrespect for a seemingly inept ally. These valuations tend to be collective: generic. Few Vietnamese are seen up close. Typical figures are Kit Carson scouts (Vietcong turncoats working with American military units) and prostitutes. Among the few works that provide rich treatments of Vietnamese characters is David Halberstam's One Very Hot Day (1968). And, of course, we have yet to pay much attention to Vietnamese accounts of the war.

In the September/October 1989 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Wendy Larsen, coauthor of Shallow Graves: Two Women and Vietnam (1986), took out an ad in which she announced that the title was out of print. She offered signed hardcover copies for ten dollars. A critical success (and even issued in paperback), this book told Americans more than we wanted to know about noncombatant life and about Vietnamese culture. It revealed, beyond Larsen's own experience in Vietnam, the outlook and life story of a Vietnamese woman, Tran Thi Nga, whom Larsen employed and then befriended. While critics rightly complain that the Vietnamese are largely missing from this body of literature, not many readers are prepared to accept their most significant appearances.

As a field of special study, the appraisal of war literature has had sporadic growth. Indeed, fields of literary study centered on the subject matter of the literature tend to be considered as marginal, transient, suspect endeavors. While literary criticism becomes more and more concerned with theory and methodology, the questions about what literary works express receive less and less attention and little respect. Scholars who are concerned with myth, paradigm, and genre are making valuable contributions to our understanding of Vietnam War literature. Indeed, the essays [in Fourteen Landing Zones] make that apparent. Yet often these and other approaches seem designed to dignify a pursuit by mainstreaming it into an appropriately rarified critical channel. Some critics seem a bit nervous about the "humanities" approach to literature, which asks us to find in our study of artworks keys to understanding the human condition. Certainly it is what the literature of war tells us (shows us) that claims our attention and concern. Each of the essays in [Fourteen Landing Zones] shares that assumption.

Douglas Wapniak, the overeducated sergeant in Susan Fromberg Schaffer's Buffalo Afternoon, is constantly asking questions, theorizing, and jotting things down in his notebook. An oddball to those around him, Wapniak has a sense of history. To all the other men, their LT is just "Lieutenant," but Wapniak wants to know his full name. When asked why, Wapniak replies:

"Some day this war's going to be important. People are going to study this war. Right now there might be complaints about it, but people are looking at it. This war won't go away. When people come back to look at it, when they see how important it was, what significance it had, they're going to want to know names. They're going to want to know who made it possible, because, believe me, Lieutenant, there's meaning in this war. Mankind's never going to be the same after this war. I don't know what it means yet. Nobody does, but it means something. We ought to sit down and talk about this. I've given it a lot of thought."

With hindsight, Schaeffer has made her character prophetic. She has also anticipated the argument against her ambition. A man like Douglas Wapniak is prepared to test the authenticity of Vietnam War narratives. Is a nonparticipant and nonobserver, like Schaeffer, prepared to write one? Of what value, and to whom, is the test of authenticity? Is Lt. Howard Hollingshead's name the issue, or is it the "something" that the war means? If the latter, then we have to look for this meaning together in the recollections of the grunt and in the visions and insights of all those writers and thinkers who have dedicated their talents to the search.

During the Vietnam War, an LZ or landing zone was an area designated for helicopter set-downs to insert troops near suspected enemy forces. Often a small clearing in the jungle, the LZ—meant to be secure enough for the immediate purpose—was often vulnerable as the noise of the propellers signaled arrival. From the LZ, squads would fan out to accomplish their mission of interdiction or intelligence gathering. Each zone marked a stage of approach toward a defined objective. From these clearings, trails were discovered—or created—and followed cautiously to uncertain destinations.


Representative Works Discussed Below