The Vietnam War in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Vietnam War, the longest war in American history, left a permanent scar on the American psyche. American advisors, following the general United States foreign policy after World War II of the containment of communism, began in 1950 to aid French forces seeking to maintain their colonial presence in Vietnam. Vietnamese Communists sought to oust the French. In 1954, the French lost on the battlefield. Negotiations in Paris resulted in the South’s being ceded to colonial forces and the North’s being ceded to the Vietminh. Where the French no longer wished to tread, the Americans stepped in, supporting the government of the South as the French left in 1954. American military and civilian advisors came to Vietnam in increasing numbers. In 1965, after years of mounting conflict, regular United States Army forces began an open, direct, and undeclared war against Communist North Vietnamese forces. United States participation in the controversial war continued until 1973, when a peace treaty was signed in Paris. Without U.S. military support, the government of the South did not last long. The North gained victory over the South in April, 1975, resulting in massive, panic-stricken evacuations of remaining U.S. personnel and of Vietnamese members and supporters of the Southern government. In the eyes of many, the United States lost a war for the first time in Vietnam.

Effects of the War

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The literature of the Vietnam War reflects trauma. The war disturbed and divided Americans. They began to recognize negative aspects of an American identity that many once thought could never exist in this country or in themselves. Many Americans thought that American involvement in the war was foolish, immoral, and unjust. On the other side, there were those who believed it was an American duty to fight for democracy in Southeast Asia.

The literature of Vietnam War may be thought of as writing that explores a national identity crisis. Literature about the Vietnam War may also seen as an attempt to come to terms with what may be called a collective nightmare. The Vietnam War was experienced by many Americans as a problem that shook the foundations of the American character, and the literature of the war often seeks ways of redefining that identity. Some of the literature written in response to the war explores new ways of expressing complex—and often conflicting—feelings and perceptions associated with this national identity crisis. William Eastlake’s The Bamboo Bed (1969) and Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) are two examples of experimentation with various types of literary innovation. The literature of the Vietnam War experience is diverse in terms of genre, style, technique, and focus, but the writings all tend toward one question: What happened to us?

Personal Narrative

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Coming to terms with American culture is a central concern of individual accounts written about Vietnam. Michael Herr, a combat correspondent, conveys in Dispatches (1977) the complexities of his experience. The war he went to observe and write about in (one may assume) a detached, journalistic manner in the end profoundly changes him on a personal level. His book explores the paradoxical nature of the experience, which appears to be a mix of sorrow and enjoyment, of horror and tenderness.

Another personal Vietnam narrative is Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (1977). In the book, Caputo, an infantry officer in Vietnam, endeavors to capture the contradictory realities of the experience. Tim O’Brien, a major novelist whose themes are often rooted in the Vietnam War experience, wrote a personal memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me up and Ship Me Home (1973, 1989). One reviewer said that in this work O’Brien is neither “hawk” nor “dove” but a man “in between,” illustrating how a nation’s struggle with conflicting values can be mirrored on an individual level. Born on the Fourth of July (1976), by Ron Kovic, is a narrative of the author’s struggle to deal with the injuries—physical and emotional—sustained in combat. Kovic also tries to clarify his own relationship to American ideals.

There are also various collective accounts of men and women who struggle with their experience of and response to the war. These Americans were far away in an alien country and often felt forgotten by the nation that had sent them there. Even after the war, it lingers on in people’s memory, as seen in a collection of letters left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and published as Shrapnel in the Heart: Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1987). As has novelist Tim O’Brien, poets W. D. Ehrhart and Jon Balaban have written personal accounts of the war. Ehrhart wrote an autobiographical book, retitled in 1989 as Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War. Coming to terms with memories of Vietnam can be see in Balaban’s Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam (1991). Wallace Terry collected the stories of black veterans in Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1982).


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Vietnam War in fiction often involves themes of futility, confusion, war mythology versus war reality, brutality, courage, and fear. Most important, the struggle to clarify the relationship that human beings have with themselves, their community, and their country is explored. For example, Tim O’Brien’s novel Going After Cacciato (1978), which won the 1979 National Book Award, uses understatement that seems to highlight the physical, emotional, and spiritual identity crisis caused by the Vietnam War. At one point in the book, the narrator says simply that he knows the war lacks a common objective. O’Brien’s other works include Northern Lights (1975), The Nuclear Age (1976), and The Things They Carried Home (1990). A character in Close Quarters (1977), by Larry Heinemann, seems to speak for many Americans when he wonders for what reasons he finds himself in Vietnam. The answer to that question—on both an individual and national level—seems to be best articulated in another Heinemann novel, Paco’s Story (1986). When the main character is emphatically asked questions about who he is and what was happened to him, he cannot answer. All he can do is cry.

One may argue that the theme of most novels about the Vietnam War is the struggle to or the inability to understand the Vietnam War experience. The question of what happened is central. O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, Josiah Bunting’s The Lionheads (1972), Charles Durden’s No Bugles, No Drums (1976), James Webb’s Fields of Fire (1978), David Winn’s Gangland: A Novel (1982), and Steven Wright’s Meditations in Green (1983) are all examples of works that treat this theme. Other prominent prose writers on the Vietnam War include John Del Vecchio (The Thirteenth Valley, 1982), Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers, 1974), Winston Groom (Better Times than These, 1978), and Bobbie Ann Mason (In Country: A Novel, 1985).


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Vietnam War in poetry also raises questions regarding American identity. W. D. Ehrhart struggles with some of those questions in his To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired: New and Selected Poems (1984). Ehrhart, a former marine sergeant and former activist in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War movement, has written several collections of poems, including The Distance We Travel (1993), The Outer Banks and Other Poems (1984), The Samisdat Poems of W. D. Ehrhart (1980) and A Generation of Peace (1975). Many of his poems grapple with despair and anger connected with the Vietnam experience. Ehrhart also contributed poems to the anthology Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans (1972). Moreover, Ehrhart and Jan Barry edited Demilitarized Zones (1976), another notable poetry anthology. Ehrhart also edited and contributed poems to Carrying the Darkness: American Indochina—The Poetry of the Vietnam War (1985) and Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier Poets of the Vietnam War (1989).

Jon Balaban, winner of the Lamont poetry prize, also tries to make sense out of his Vietnam experience in After Our War (1974). Other important poetry collections include Michael Casey’s Obscenities (1972), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets award; Bruce Weigl’s The Monkey Wars (1985) and Song of Napalm (1988); Walter McDonald’s Caliban in Blue and Other Poems (1972); Burning the Fence (1981); and D. C. Berry’s Saigon Cemetery (1972).


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971), Sticks and Bones (1972), and Streamers (1976), often referred to as David Rabe’s trilogy, are plays that focus on the struggle to understand America’s involvement in Vietnam. In an author’s note to The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, which received four major theater awards in New York, Rabe describes the character of Pavlo Hummel as a person who is, among other things, bewildered, perplexed, and disoriented. Additionally, Hummel has no idea that he is any of those things. The ideal family as symbol, perhaps for American society, is portrayed in Rabe’s Sticks and Bones. The play, which won a Tony award for best play, incorporates the characters of Ozzie, Harriet, Ricky, and David. The characters take on a larger significance since they are also the names of characters from a popular 1950’s television show that for many symbolized the perfect American family. In the play David, a Vietnam veteran, has been forever changed by his Vietnam experience and his family cannot understand what has happened to him. David’s sense of himself—his identity—has been altered but his family refuses to see this. David’s experience with his family mirrors that of many actual Vietnam veterans, who on returning to their families and to American society generally experienced a lack of understanding. Streamers (1976), cited as the best American play of 1976 by the New York Drama Critics Circle, is set in barracks in Vietnam. Streamers also deals with the lost sense of self, suggesting individual conflict placed within the larger framework of the Vietnam War. Other notable plays include Barbara Garson’s MacBird (1966), Emily Mann’s Still Life: A Documentary (1979), and Amlin Gray’s How I Got That Story: A Play in Two Acts (1981).


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Beidler, Philip D. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1982. Beidler suggests that Vietnam War literature creates a new mythic consciousness.

Jason, Philip K., ed. Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. A collection of essays exploring various genres, such as the novel, poetry, drama, and criticism about the ways in which Vietnam War literature challenges the ideas connected with American character, indestructibly, and morality.

Jason, Philip K., ed. The Vietnam War in Literature: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1992. A valuable research tool.

Kroll, Barry M. Teaching Hearts and Minds: College Students Reflect on the Vietnam War in Literature. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. Explores how various college students personally responded to the Vietnam War, its issues, and its literature.

Lomperis, Timothy J. “Reading the Wind”: The Literature of the Vietnam War. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1987. Contains an interpretative critique by Lomperis and bibliographic commentary by John Clark Pratt.

Mersmann, James F. Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry Against the War. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1974. Mersmann raises the question as to whether the Vietnam experience changed the convictions and practices of several significant American poets.

Nelson, Cary. Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1981. Chapter 1 discusses poetry about the Vietnam War.