Chapter Four: Between the Lines: Reading the Vietnam War

On March 1, 1991, President George Bush stood before the American Legislative Exchange Council and announced, in the wake of Gulf War I, “And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”1 The next day he told U.S. soldiers, in a radio address to the U.S. Armed Forces stationed in the Persian Gulf region:

Americans today are confident of our country, confident of our future and most of all, confident about you. We promised you’d be given the means to fight. We promised not to look over your shoulder. We promised this would not be another Vietnam. And we kept that promise. The spectre of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.2

Two days later, Bush addressed the Veterans Service Organizations with the following remarks:

I made a comment right here at this podium the other day about shedding the divisions that incurred from the Vietnam War. And I want to repeat and say especially to the Vietnam veterans that are here—and I just had the pleasure of meeting some in the hall—it’s long overdue. It is long overdue that we kicked the Vietnam syndrome, because many veterans from that conflict came back and did not receive the proper acclaim that they deserve—that this nation was divided and we weren’t as grateful as we should be. So somehow, when these troops come home, I hope that message goes out to those that served this country in the Vietnam War that we appreciate their service as well.3

The Viet Nam war, for which the country name “Viet Nam” has come to stand as a metonym, had, since the early 1980s, been described as an “experience”—something one lived through. It was also described, in a competing metaphor, as a “syndrome”—something one was afflicted with. James William Gibson points out that it is conservatives who are most likely to employ the medicalized metaphor, focusing on the need to “get over” the Vietnam Syndrome as if “the war was just a normal part of growing up for a young nation, a childhood disease like chicken pox, which leaves behind some small scars but builds character.”4 In Bush’s construction the whole country has been struck ill with this disease, and the Gulf War is the prescribed (and successful) cure. National division causes psychic damage, and national unity heals it.

Liberals are more likely to adopt the “experience” label, which is consonant with their belief that our adventures in Viet Nam were well-intended, but mistaken. As Gibson notes, the liberal construction of the war as “mistake and misjudgment,” as proof that the U.S. was “capable of error,” has been advanced by major media sources including The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times since the mid-1970s.5 Coupled with this admission of error is, of course, a rationalization: “Vietnam” was a “quagmire,” a “swamp,” a “morass,” a “slippery slope,” a “nightmare” that “entrapped” us, rendered our good intentions and rational powers useless, “lured” us into its depths. “Tragedy,” notes Gibson, “is also a favorite, as if thirty years of American intervention in Vietnam were a Greek play in which the hero is struck down by the gods. In the face of the incomprehensible, absolution: fate decreed defeat.”6

The struggle to fix the floating signifier of “Vietnam” is necessarily a contemporary political struggle—one in which the Viet Nam war itself “became progressively displaced and repressed at the same time it was written about.”7 Both “experience” and “syndrome” metaphors are ahistorical: experiences are entirely subjective and emotional, and syndromes partake of the “objective” terminology of a “science” based in “natural law,” and thus lie outside of history. They work in opposition to the documentary drive of the survivor, who wishes to preserve the historicity and specific details of the traumatic event. As we examine the movement away from history and toward myth, we may wonder, along with African American cultural critic Lisa Kennedy, if, in fact, history has “been murdered in order to prevent us, the collective body, from resuscitating it, exhuming it, performing an autopsy, doing whatever it takes to get it to bear witness to the atrocities and triumphs to which it’s been privy.”8

The competing drives to resuscitate history and to generate myth are exemplified by the struggle over the Vietnam Memorial Wall—the result of a massive effort by veterans to memorialize themselves. Arguments between conservative and liberal Viet Nam veterans and their respective political supporters over the appropriateness of the severe black design (created by a young Chinese-American woman named Maya Line) and the placement of a representational statue (sculpted by Frederick Hart) and an American flag at the site clearly delineated the lines of national debate. The ambiguity of the Vietnam Memorial Wall upset conservatives. All those names engraved on a flat, black surface failed to evoke the patriotic and heroic images upon which our national mythology is built. As Jan Scruggs noted, “Aesthetically, the design does not need a statue, but politically it does.”9 The metaphoric competition between liberals and conservatives is neatly summed up by Hart’s and Lin’s criticisms of each other’s work:

Hart: “I don’t like blank canvases. Lin’s memorial is intentionally not meaningful. It doesn’t relate to ordinary people, and I don’t like art that is contemptuous of life.”

Lin: “Three Men standing there before the world—it’s trite. It’s a generalization. Hart gives you an image—he’s illustrating a book.”10

The Wall acted as a focal point for renewed public discussion and deliberation on the meaning of the Viet Nam war. The dedication of the memorial in 1982 brought national attention to veterans’ claims that they had been forgotten by their fellow citizens. In this period, as James William Gibson notes, “the Vietnam War became a major cultural topic. It was as if a legendary monster or unholy beast had finally been captured and was now on a nationwide tour.”11 “Welcome home” parades and the dedication of monuments honoring Viet Nam veterans became common events across the country.12 Seminars were offered at many universities. PBS affiliates released the 13-part series, Vietnam: A Television History. Two court cases—a class-action suit brought by veterans against the manufacturers of Agent Orange, and the controversial Westmoreland vs. CBS case—regularly appeared in the news.

This attention spurred an interest in the writings of veterans, and a number of publishers began to issue and reissue Viet Nam war narratives: Avon had begun reissuing Viet Nam war novels in 1978 and maintained its series through 1982; Ballantine published a new line of “Vietnam/Nonfiction”; Bantam focused on Viet Nam in its “War/Nonfiction” series; and, the Vintage Contemporaries (Random House) began reissuing Viet Nam war novels as well. The New York Times, on August 4, 1987, claimed that the Viet Nam had “catapulted to the forefront of American culture.”13 In the same article, Philip Caputo called the phenomenon “Vietnam chic.”

The first wave of popular postwar books and articles about the Viet Nam war appeared after the publications of two major works of Viet Nam war literature: Michael Herr’s New Journalism piece Dispatches (1977) and Tim O’Brien’s novel Going After Cacciato (1978). Dispatches was reviewed in such disparate fora as The New York Review of BooksThe NationCommentary, and Rolling StoneCacciato was the winner of the National Book Award and also received a great deal of attention from reviewers and critics. Between 1978 and 1982, a steady trickle of reviews and critical essays found its way onto the pages of book review sections everywhere and even occasionally into scholarly journals such as Criticism. This trickle turned into a stream after 1982.

By 1992, seven important book-length studies on the literature of the Viet Nam war had been written, all of them since 1982. Philip D. Beidler’s American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam (1982) was published the same year that James C. Wilson’s Vietnam in Prose and Film appeared. John Hellman’s study, American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam, followed Beidler and Wilson in 1986. Thomas Myers’ Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam was issued in 1988. Susan Jeffords’ landmark text, The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War, was published in 1989. Phillip Melling’s Vietnam in American Literature appeared in 1990, and Beidler’s follow-up volume, Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors In Their Generation was published in 1991. Like literary critical works on the Holocaust, these texts reflect both political and critical trends in the larger culture.

In his initial volume, Philip Beidler proposes a strong connection between classic American literature and the literature of the Viet Nam war. James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Mark Twin created heroes who “prefigured” those in Viet Nam war novels. Beidler asserts:

American writing about Vietnam, for all one’s sense of the new and even unprecedented character of the experience it describes, often turns out to be very much in context… with regard to our national traditions of literature and popular myth-making at large…. [I]t seems almost as if our classic inheritance of native expression has prophesied much of what we now know of Vietnam, made it by self-engendering symbolic fiat part of our collective mythology long before it existed in fact.14

Our classic literature embodies cultural myths, which then have an effect upon our understanding of current events, influencing the course of history.

Myth and actual events seem to be equally involved in generating “history,” which is, for Beidler, a retroactive process in which we revise our interpretations of the past as new cultural myths are generated, and thereby affect our future decisions and actions. This trend is reflected in Viet Nam war literature, he says, in the emergence of “a certain identifiable centrality of vision.” This centrality is rooted in the “understanding that just as the ‘real’ war itself so often proved a hopeless tangle of experiential fact and projected common myth, so a ‘true’ literary comprehending of it would come only as a function of experiential remembrance and imaginative invention considered in some relationship to near-absolute reflexiveness.”15 By weighing equally “real”16 experience and mythic constructions, Beidler collapses time and space, and gives Cooper’s Deerslayer the same authority as Philip Caputo, veteran and writer of Viet Nam war narratives. Beidler conflates the fictional characters of classic American writers and the memoirs of real Viet Nam veterans. Beidler’s end goal seems to be the reduction of the war to “sign”—for him, Viet Nam war literature is part of a continuing process of signification: the telling and retelling of the war inscribes it upon the nation’s consciousness until “we have learned at what cost it was waged for everyone it touched then and now and beyond.”17 When the signification is complete the war will be over: “Then we can say goodbye to it.”18 There is an urge to closure in Beidler’s analysis. When the war becomes sign (and therefore not-war) we won’t have to think about it any more. It will, in Barthés’ terms, “go without saying.”

James Wilson’s perspective on the literature is at heart political rather than literary:

One thing needs to be clear from the beginning. I am not concerned with a purely formalist analysis here; rather, I am interested in this body of literature and film for what it tells us about ourselves and our culture. For these works reflect the difficulties we have in comprehending the war; our evasions, our distortions, our denials. And yet, at the same time, they reflect our limited successes too. The best of the Vietnam books and films provide an invaluable record of the initial steps we have taken toward facing the unpleasant truth of an unpleasant war.19

Wilson thinks it unimportant to connect Viet Nam war literature to mainstream American literature, and prefers to point out its special features. “Almost all Vietnam writers and directors,” Wilson states, “share an apocalyptic vision” of the war’s end. “The world born in Vietnam becomes a monstrosity of senseless violence and random destruction…. Out of this collective vision comes a literature and a cinema laced with death…. The end, then, is physical annihilation, purely and simply.”20 And important feature of the literature is that “the Vietnam writers and directors imply the destruction of human values and human morality.”21 To Wilson, the portrayal of annihilation and the destruction of values and morality are a metaphor for current American “cultural crises,” taking “to an extreme the unreality, the discontinuity, and the loss of values that may characterize much of our experience in America today….”22 The answer to the current cultural crisis is to listen to the words of the Viet Nam veterans, rather than to the politicians. We must confront the reality of the war in Southeast Asia, and take responsibility for the crimes that our nation committed in the war, rather than succumbing to the rationalizations provided by politicians, who describe the war as a “noble cause.”

Beidler denies the existence of the “real” war, while Wilson is looking for “reality.” To Wilson, Viet Nam war literature is a useful tool, a warning for Americans: “If we try, we can save the next generation from being crucified a decade from now in distant lands whose names we barely recognize now. We can prevent another misbegotten war.”23Wilson demands political awareness from both his writers and his readers; we read Viet Nam war literature in order to learn what not to do next time.

Hellman’s study is closer in spirit to Beidler’s than Wilson’s. Hellman is also concerned with the question of the continuity of classical American cultural myths. He claims that Viet Nam war literature reflects a national disillusionment with the frontier myth upon which we based our involvement in Viet Nam, and that veterans “have presented a Southeast Asian landscape that overturns the meaning of the previously known landscapes of American myth.”24

The American mythic landscape is a place fixed between savagery and civilization, a middle landscape where the hero sheds the unnecessary refinements of the latter without entering into the darkness of the former. Ever-receding, this frontier gains its validation as a setting for the mythic hero because his killing makes way for the progress of the civilization advancing behind him. In the memoirs of the Vietnam War, however, the American heros has somehow entered a nightmarish wilderness where he is allowed no linear direction nor clear spreading of civilization where neither his inner restraints nor the external ones of his civilization are operating.25

This disruption may, Hellman suggests, enables us to stretch our cultural perceptions enough to include the “reality” of the Viet Nam “experience.”

Hellman charges artists with the mission of taking the American people “on their second journey through the Viet Nam war. In the best of their works, that meant finally moving back toward the realm of fantasy—of symbolic imagining—to discover the continuing dimensions of the war as a terrain of the American psyche. Having entered the Viet Nam war as a symbolic landscape, Americans would through highly imaginative narrative art have to find their way back out to American myth, enabling them to journey again forward into history.”26 The contradictions contained within this argument are stunning: in order to understand the “reality” of the Viet Nam war we must first properly fantasize it—reduce it to “symbolic landscape.” The function of the real event is the recreation of a symbolic event (myth) which, through some mystical turnabout, helps us to understand reality. Only then, says Hellman, will we be able “to journey again forward into history.” As an example of these new American myths, Hellman gives us Lucas’ Star Wars films. These represent “the first significant step in moving beyond the purgation of our old myths to the synthesizing of an energizing new myth of America, a dream in which Americans may secretly—even to themselves—re-experience the horror of the Vietnam self-discovery and emerge from it not only regenerated but transfigured.”27 His hope is that the assimilation of such myths into popular consciousness will make an opening for “a visionary politician or historian to restructure American history” according to the new pattern. “Then Americans will once again see themselves in a narrative that they can both believe and act upon.”28

Star Wars is, in mythical terms, a standard offering: a space opera. Evil, ugly creatures are running the Empire, and bold space rebels (of various races, creeds, sexes, and colors) seek to oust them from power. Good guys are almost always of noble blood. God (in the transparent guise of The Force) is on the rebel side. Serious questions of social, cultural, and political import are foregone, and the credo of continuous action is embraced.29 Does Hellman think that we should rewrite American history in such simplistic terms?

The answer lies in Hellman’s assertion that “No nation can survive without a myth,” and that the best myths lie somewhere between “a cynical ‘realism'” and a “self-deluding fantasy.”30 He envisions a myth for America that embraces our uniqueness, and allows us to see ourselves as more than an “ordinary country”:

The United States certainly has had reason to feel a special obligation to the rest of the world. Its geography long left it remote from entanglement with other nations. It allowed the young nation to expand to frontiers easily defended and yet opening upon trade and commerce. It allowed the modern world’s first republic to settle its major issues, develop its institutions, and form its character without interference. In the process, America became a nation identified, at its best, with possibility and freedom and progress…. We can see that the deeply flawed past, from which the nation began by declaring its independence, is truly our father. But we can also see that only a second failure, of nerve, would cause us then to draw back from the American frontier, from our own better dreams…. Perhaps from the landscape of our Vietnam failure, we can find a new determination to brave the opening expanse.31

In Hellman’s eyes, the best Viet Nam war literature, and the best new American literature, will help us to reformulate a myth with which we can live. Each element of Hellman’s myth is, of course, historically inaccurate (as all vast generalizations are historically inaccurate), but what is important in his myth-making effort is the assertion that, as a nation, we can continue on the road to progress, the journey “forward into history.” The Viet Nam war becomes a trial in a Pilgrim’s Progress approach to American history: an episode in the development of the American character. Predicated on this artificial notion of progress, the search for meaning becomes compromised: the assumption of the “fact” of progress becomes grounds for the disqualification of all Viet Nam war (and American) literatures that do not support Hellman’s thesis.

Thomas Myers borrows much from the arguments of Beidler and Hellman in his 1988 study, Walking Point. Fascinated by the interplay of history and myth in the generation of war literature, he insists that it is in this literary genre that “the leviathan of the national cultural paradigm” can “sound and surface.”32 War literature can serve as both a record of history and a cultural document “as it responds to the rending and reconstituting of national mythos.”33 The war novel illustrates three crises: historical, cultural, aesthetic. Myers believes that historical and aesthetic changes occur simultaneously, and that the response of the author to the uselessness of older American myths is to light out for new aesthetic territory and begin anew,”34 basing his new mythic structures on the ruins of earlier myths. Viet Nam veteran writers resurrect the “secret history” of the war, and serve as conduits for the experience of the soldier. The metamorphosis of the raw recruit into the hardened warrior serves as metaphor for the process that deforms and then reshapes the American self-image.

Unlike earlier critics of Viet Nam war literature, Myers also admits that he has come face to face with a phenomenon that he does not fully understand: “With all its aesthetic restructuring, behind its many necessary transformations of the conventions of a specific literary tradition, there is in even the most powerful writing something that language cannot reach or explicate, an experience that words point toward but that only the reader’s own creative energies can begin to trace.”35 But this observation is quickly abandoned and Myers takes up the task of the critic, examining a range of works, and generating prescriptions for the writing and reading of Viet Nam war literature:

The writers who have produced what are likely to be the most lasting documents of the war are those who have assessed and incorporated into their works the battle of words and images that transformed the war into something as much symbolic as real. To do battle in compensatory history with the [war] managers’ capacity for illusion and euphemism, the writer is required to first retrieve and then re-create the feelings, rhythms, and specific images that remained largely sequestered behind conveniently reconciled history and to place those components in opposition to the dominant text: in effect, both to reconstruct and to invent a historical debate. The failure of the managers to supply validation for human sacrifice is the true American defeat in Vietnam, one that placed the responsibility for the retrieval of meaning firmly on the shoulders of each soldier, citizen, journalist, and artist.36

Myers, like Wilson, has an explicit political agenda. Like Hellman, he regards the myth making process as a crucial political tool (though his political ends seem closer to Wilson’s than Hellman’s). Myers (and Beidler and Hellman) believes that the Viet Nam war was “as much symbolic as real.”37 Like Beidler, Myers asserts that the war is not over until it is properly signified. The common assumptions of these four authors guarantee that they will come to similar conclusions—ones that are seriously flawed.

Susan Jeffords approaches the study of Viet Nam war literature from a different angle. In The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War, the first major feminist treatment of Viet Nam war literature and film, Jeffords claims that gender is central to American representations of the war:

[G]ender is not simply another of the many oppositions that mark Vietnam representation. It is the difference on which these narratives and images depend because it is the single difference that is asserted as not participating in the confusion that characterizes other oppositions. While friends may be uncertain, enemies unidentifiable, and goals unclear, the line between the masculine and the feminine is presented in Vietnam representation as firm and unwavering…. [Gender] is what Vietnam narrative is “about.” Gender is the matrix through which Vietnam is read, interpreted, and reframed in dominant American culture…. The unspoken desire of Vietnam representation, and its primary cultural function, is to restage “the Nam” (read: gender) in America.38

Hers is a carefully constructed argument that clearly illuminates the hidden agenda of the four previously discussed male critics of Viet Nam war literature. The American myths and traditions that Beidler, Wilson, Hellman and Myers seek to reconstitute are specifically masculine in character. In Jeffords’ terms, Viet Nam war literature and other representations of the war are “an emblem for the presentation of dominant cultural ideology in contemporary American society,”39 and that dominant cultural ideology is patriarchal.

Jeffords explains that American myths of manhood may be reconstituted only if the war is incompletely and incorrectly remembered. Representations of the Viet Nam war must first de-historicize the war, dislocate it from the realm of “the real.” Once that reformulation is successfully accomplished, authority to interpret the war rests firmly in the (masculine) author’s hands.

The position of the reader/viewer/soldier in Vietnam narrative is constructed by the (con)fusion of the status of fact and fiction. The resulting paralysis of response can then be overlaid by the “new” “facts” of the narrative: “they” become “we,” the viewers and participants slide together. There are three stages to this process: denying previous concepts of fact, offering the narrator/author as authority/guide for the new definitions of act, and having the narrator/author predetermine and occupy the reader’s position. All work toward positioning the reader in a kind of paralysis in relation to textual interpretation.40

This power has been used, Jeffords argues, to effect a “‘remasculinization’—-a regeneration of the concepts, constructions, and definitions of masculinity in American culture and a restabilization of the gender system within and for which it is formulated.”41

Jeffords’ gender-based analysis provides an new and important critical perspective—one in which race and class issues also become visible. If, as she argues, the primary goal of Viet Nam war representation is to redefine the differences between men and women, a strategy of these representations will be to elide the differences between men. In many Viet Nam war narratives there is a strong emphasis on the idea that all men are equal under fire, that the bonds of brotherhood transcend race and class barriers. This deliberate emphasis on the brotherhood of man is also obvious in the critical literature, as Jeffords demonstrates when she takes John Hellman to task:

Hellman speaks confidently of “our” views and “our” alienation, assuming a cohesive characterization for his speaking subject. But, as he shows, that subject is always and already masculine. It may speak of class, race, and technology, but it cannot speak of gender, cannot raise the question of women. Hellman assumes and accepts this masculine voice for his narrative of social change. The self “we” are to examine is only the self that masculinity projects, the self that is constructed by gender. In such a context, to speak of “our view of ourselves” and assume that this view encompasses all Americans is decidedly deceptive.42

The only way the reviewer of war literature could know whether the author’s tale was authentic was if the reviewer had, at least vicariously, experienced war. By confirming the “truth” of the tale, the reviewer places himself in the club of men who have survived war. The women who review Viet Nam war literature find themselves in an awkward position. They can choose to work within the framework generated by writers and the male reviewing establishment; they are, however, excluded from the club. Nevertheless, they too may speak admiringly of “realistic characters,” “gruesome descriptions of combat, moving dialogue, and… effective recounting of the tension and the moral dilemmas of facing men in combat.”43

Jeffords’ gendered reading of Viet Nam war narratives enables her to challenge masculine interpretive strategies. She can clearly describe the manner in which the masculine perspective is universalized, and the way in which representations of the Viet Nam war demand the masculinization of the female viewer/reader. Furthermore, the objectification of women becomes painfully obvious, both in narratives (where female characters have no purpose except the advancement of the masculine story line), and in life (where male bonding can be effected over the body of a woman, as in gang rapes). This kind of feminist revision is extremely important, and our understanding of Viet Nam war literature is deepened and enriched by Jeffords’ work.

It is tempting to let Jeffords have the final word on the question of gender and Viet Nam war literature, since she is so clearly correct. We could simply name Viet Nam war narrative another pillar of the patriarchy and leave it at that, leaning on it now and again as a good example of the repression inherent in the system. Feminist literary critic Jacqueline Lawson’s anthology, Gender and the War: Men, Women, and Vietnam (which contains essays by scholars Lorrie Smith, Nancy Anisfield, Renny Christopher, Susan Jeffords, Jean Elshtain, and representatives of the Redstockings Women’s Liberation Archives, et al.) certainly takes that as its theme.44 Such critical studies can provide us with a great deal of insight into male attitudes toward women, and toward feminists in particular, as well as suggesting new directions for future research and action.

Yet in an important way The Remasculinization of America exposes the weakness of traditional criticism without transcending its limitations. Jeffords examined the political and cultural implications of the construction of the Viet Nam veteran as “victim.” In so doing, she made the representations of Viet Nam veterans the object of her work, transforming gender into the subject, and “disappearing” the human beings who had actually served in Viet Nam. The incapacity of traditional criticism to deal with the literature of the Viet Nam war is exemplified in its inevitable and total reduction of the war to metaphor. Jeffords, too, makes use of that reductive strategy, analyzing all Viet Nam war representation—from Viet Nam war narratives by combat veterans to popular television shows like Miami Vice—in the same terms.45 This method of analysis leads her to a strong understanding of the social and political uses of Viet Nam war texts, and to an apt criticism of the currently acceptable practice of identifying the Viet Nam veteran as victim. But it also enables her to suggest that the literature of the war is “merely” representative of the larger issue of gender relations and masculine anxieties. Though Jeffords is more careful than any other critic to make a distinction between the “real” war and the literature that has come to represent it, she has left no room for a discussion of Viet Nam war literatures, nor has she created a space in which to consider the possibility of a disparity between a writer’s intent and an audience’s interpretation.

The insights Jeffords offers are not paralleled by similar advances in Melling’s and Beidler’s later works. Melling is a British scholar who uses Puritan “spiritual autobiographies” as his model for reading Viet Nam war literature: “At its simplest the American literary response to Vietnam articulates the nature and purpose of a devout mission and the extent to which individual experience supports the philosophy of the state in making that mission.”46 Melling’s descriptions of the Puritan influence are almost religious themselves: “Puritanism is about the way selected people live in the world and the structures they create to make their world a safe and habitable place. It is about the way people see the world, their sense of Godliness, and the enemies that exist within it. Puritanism is about the way people talk about themselves in the world and convey their sense of faith to one another.”47 You could replace “Puritanism” with any “ism” and it would make exactly the same sort of sense: Judaism, Nationalism, Conservatism, even Communism if you removed the reference to Godliness. Melling is for Puritanism and against “the dead end of absurdity and the postmodern faith of a surrender to fragments.”48

Melling’s is an attractive theory, but it is based on a flawed assumption—that Puritan narratives lay the foundation for all future personal narratives by Americans. Historian Perry Miller, for whom the Puritans are a consuming interest, wrote that although students of American culture “would have to commence with Puritanism,” it is only one of many American traditions, which also include “the rational liberalism of Jeffersonian democracy, the Hamiltonian conception of conservatism and government, the Southern theory of racial aristocracy, the Transcendentalism of nineteenth-century New England, and what is generally spoken of as frontier individualism.”49 To these influences we must certainly add African American and American Indian oral traditions and Mexican American cultural influences. Melling’s construction, however, excludes the voices of nonwhites and other minorities in his acceptance of the Puritan conception of the godly man in the wilderness. This leads him to conclude that the description of the bush in Viet Nam as “Indian Country” is indicative of a benign sort of narrative continuity rather than a tradition of American racism. The sole moment when Melling confronts ethnocentrism (he doesn’t use the word ‘racism’) is in reference to Michael Herr’s Dispatches—a book that he insists, “despite the claims that have been made,” is “not the grad postmodernist text.”50 Melling criticizes Herr because “for all the narrator laments the loss of the wilderness at the outset, he shows little interest in the lives of those who must bear that loss.”51 Melling seems to prefer those who demonstrate an outright hatred and fear of the wilderness and its inhabitants.

By asserting that the Viet Nam war “provide[s] us with… an opportunity to re-examine those styles of life and art which are characteristic of Puritan New England,” Melling ignores Perry Miller’s warning that “it is dangerous to read history backwards, to interpret something that was by what it ultimately became, particularly when it became several things.”52 For example, Melling asserts

One of the ironies of Vietnam is that the Puritanism that helped define the war as both subject and structure also provided the soldier with a way of explaining it to others. Puritan instruction and exegetical address came to the Vietnam veteran’s assistance. It gave him a voice and provided him with the opportunity to testify to what he had seen and personally witnessed. The Puritanism that had contained the soldier in Vietnam—garrisoned him in with enclaves and enclosures—now provided the means by which he could realize his freedom.53

For Melling, “Puritanism” serves as an all-purpose explanation.

In his favor, Melling offers the suggestion that we examine the writings of Viet Nam veterans in a larger context, that we connect them to other kinds of personal narrative, and that we refuse to accept without question the argument that Viet Nam was “a place of exceptional strangeness.”54 Melling takes issue with James Wilson’s assertion that we can never know the truth about the Viet Nam war, and he admires Hellman because Hellman believes as much in the redemptive power of the “American tradition” as Melling does himself. He notices that Myers “defines the war in Vietnam as an exclusively American affair,”55 and he doesn’t like Myers’ postmodernist perspective because Myers, like other postmodernists, has “become fascinated with Vietnam as a place redolent with the modes of modern experience—innovation, ingenuity… at the expense of its moral or social contexts.”56 He takes issue with Beidler’s notion that Vietnam “was a place with no real points of reference, then or now,” because that allows “present-day questions like the impact of Vietnam on American foreign policy in Central America or the role of the Vietnam veteran in the ‘Olliegate’ scandal” to “be easily pushed to one side.”57

Melling’s argument with postmodernism is interesting. He dislikes it because the postmodernist critic “encourages the reader to ignore those novels that cannot be integrated into the absurdist or postmodernist canons of experience and to endorse a fictional experience that confirms the Americanness of the world in which we live.”58 Melling prefers “stories” with meaning—stories that he can relate to the confessional narratives of Puritan society. At root, it is the concept of relativism with which he is taking issue. He requires a moral center. And, like most skilled Church Fathers, he can interpret any text in the context of his beliefs. Melling longs for a simpler time, fewer gadgets, less commercialism, an appreciation of the simpler things in life: “The search for sensation not only perverts history; it fragments and rearranges the human character.”59 His incorporation of both liberal and conservative viewpoints is not contradictory, for his vision is more utopian than political. He has idealized the Puritan community and he urges us to make that ideal into a reality. Melling ends his book with a section on Robert Stone, whom he praises for his criticism of the assumption “that the country has both a divine right and a public duty to the moral leadership of the free world,” and for Stone’s willingness “to expose the commercial considerations on which American adventurism has rested.”60 Stone serves as an illustration by which Melling can criticize the flaws of Puritan culture (poor treatment of the Indian, the presence of economic self-interest, an emphasis on the accumulation of material goods) and then make the claim that both Puritans and Americans in Viet Nam war narratives “live under the threat of physical attack from without and moral collapse from within. The dinginess of My Lai… provides an indication of the moral drabness of Puritanism.”61 The book ends with Melling, literally, declaring the “victory of the Antichrist.”62

Cultures can certainly be studied from the outside as well as from the inside, but Melling seems to lack a coherent picture of American culture(s). He conflates the growth of religious fundamentalism in the Falwell tradition with Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter and comes to the following conclusion:

What happened in America after 1976 was that a mood of born-again spirituality was grafted onto a set of values that were secular and humanistic. Born-again religion and the events of Watergate, combined with mounting anti-institutional fervor, directly contributed to the legitimacy of personal narrative and literary exploration of public history. Exposing the moral hypocrisy of power allowed the Vietnam veteran to assume the role of an investigative writer and to speak with increasing conviction.63

Somehow Melling neglects to mention the fall of Saigon in 1975, the subsequent waning of the antiwar movement, and the fact that the Vietnam Veterans Against the War had been active and visible since 1971 and by 1976 was already well into its decline. If by “investigative writers” Melling means the first of the right-wing Vietnam War revisionists, then perhaps he is on to something, for certainly all of the books he mentions in this part of his study (William Mahedy’s Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Vets; John Wheeler’s Touched With Fire: The Future of the Vietnam Generation; John Steer’s Vietnam: Curse or Blessing; David Harline’s Vietnam: What a Soldier Gives) are conservative renderings of the war and stand in opposition to the testimony given by Viet Nam veterans at the Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971. Melling’s refusal to explore the implications of Winter Soldier and the first publications by Viet Nam veterans is, at best, an indication of poor research techniques, and, at worst, a deliberate cover-up, since a strong argument can be made that they match perfectly his description of personal narrative and testimony. However, had he included them, he would have undermined the progression of his own redemption narrative, as well as introduced political controversy into his determinedly “literary” and “cultural” text.

Philip Beidler’s Re-Writing America is a clear sequel to his earlier work. He still insists on reading the texts he discusses as merely one more revision of the “American” story, relating each author and text he examines to myriad others in what ultimately becomes a truly hysterical crescendo. Tim O’Brien’s personal narrative, If I Die in a Combat Zone… is described as a “masterwork of the American tradition of the contemplative, an odyssey of consciousness in the lineage of Shepard, Edwards, Woolman, Thoreau and Henry Adams…”64 O’Brien’s first novel, Northern Lights, invokes Hemingway.65 His enterprise in the award-winning Going After Cacciato is like “Melville’s own.”66Philip Caputo—that mediocre pop-trash novelist—is apparently even more connected to the American tradition, as Beidler asserts that “the chief American literary progenitor presiding over much of his writing is Ernest Hemingway…. Other major American presences include Fenimore Cooper and Stephen Crane. As might be predicted as well, his writings often owe much to related moderns such as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Joseph Conrad, and Graham Greene.”67 Caputo’s best-selling personal narrative, A Rumor of War, lies “in the distinguished modern memoir tradition of Robert Graves, Farley Mowat, and William Manchester.”68 Winston Groom’s popular novel Forrest Gump “embraces the distinctive tradition of southern literature” and reminds Beidler of Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Roy Blount, Jr., Dan Jenkins, Lewis Grizzard, Beth Henley and Barry Hannah… all in one paragraph. 69 Poet and memoirist John Balaban is influenced by Eliot, Pound, Roethke, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Kyd, and John Milton.70 Robert Stone’s A Flag For Sunrise “appropriates emphatically the whole mythic provenance of the political novel of Dostoevsky, Conrad, Green, Malraux, Mailers, as well as that of the novel of ideas from Tolstoi, Stendhal, Melville, Mann, Faulkner, Joyce; and it accommodates them both in the same moment to the sharp, familiar unfamiliarities of neorealism in the various postmodernist styles of Vonnegut, Styron, Mailer, Pynchon, Heller, Didion, Hunter S. Thompson and Michael Herr,” moving from “Dantean horror through Kafkan nightmare,” while also bearing the influence of T.S. Eliot, Malcolm Lowry, Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Francis Scott Key!71 No doubt, quite an extraordinary book.

Beidler’s project seems to be to prove that the pieces of Viet Nam war literature he chooses to examine fit into the American literary tradition, and thus to force other critics to take them seriously. He never seems to have problems reading these texts, never criticizes or questions them, never has unanswered questions. Everything he reads fits into his theoretical model: Viet Nam war novelists rewrite the Viet Nam war by using a vocabulary of myth passed down to them by their literary forbearers. This can be done in a “basically conservative and revisionary” manner (by, for example, James Webb72) or in a style of “complex experimentalism” (by, for example, Larry Heinemann73).

It is only his final chapter, “The Literature of Witness,” which appears to be more of an addendum than an integral part of the book, that Beidler attempts anything new. In this final section, he compares the work of Gloria Emerson, Frances Fitzgerald, Robert Stone, and Michael Herr, claiming that they partake in the “great literary project of the postmodern… writing itself,” and that somehow this is a project with a “new character.”74 He posits Emerson’s and Fitzgerald’s books as “exemplary feminist texts… which attempt to re-write our vision of that experience from within a specific critique of the essentially male structures of consciousness that shape it.”75 But Beidler revises the term feminist by stating that he means to use it

…in a context of general definition that goes beyond any localized politics of sexuality toward issues of language, authority and power in their largest sense: feminist, then, in that as texts by women they elect not to center themselves within various established value and meaning systems of a dominant culture.76

The appropriative ploy in which Beidler is engaged is pathetically obvious as he admits that Emerson voices “an early and quick disavowal of interest in particular concerns of the domestic women’s liberation movement,”77 and there is nothing explicitly feminist about Fitzgerald’s text at all. Neither does Beidler feel moved to refer to feminist theoretical works that might support his claims; his understanding of “feminism” is autodidactic and idiosyncratic. Since he has barely given gender a passing nod in his discussions of Viet Nam veteran authors, it is significant that he has chosen to tack it on as a coda, like late-breaking news or some sort of errata. Furthermore, Beidler declines to link either of these women’s texts to the American literary tradition he so appreciates, or to a tradition of feminist literature. Emerson and Fitzgerald are apparently not like Vonnegut, Styron, Mailer, Pynchon, Heller, Didion, or Hunter S. Thompson. Instead, Fitzgerald’s text is related to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and

the fullest achievement of her Fire in the Lake as text is its measuring of the human depths of the tragedy of Vietnam against the backdrop of one of the most utterly inhuman spectacles of language ever mounted, an orgy of American techno-macho-malewrite and malespeak sublimely unaware of its hidden dialectics of cultural arrogance and insistently fostering the hideous politics of its own cruel self-deconstruction.78

Given the body of Beidler’s work, this is a sentence anomalous enough to defy belief. It seems to have fallen from the moon. His discussions of the work of Stone and Herr, however, fall back into a more predictable pattern. Stone is “the novelistic laureate of the post-Vietnam American soul,”79 and Herr “stands in this largest double implication of ‘witness’ as participant and mythic interpreter and does so to the degree that the act of writing so defined becomes in fact as much a ‘subject’ of the text as any other it can claim.”80 Beidler’s confusion and lack of familiarity with the terminology that would be employed in a truly “postmodern” critical project is painfully apparent in this all but incoherent chapter, in which he attempts to describe a “literature of witness” distinguished by “its dominant, even obsessive… identification of the true locus of the war and its cultural legacy as at once the landscape of historical experience and of collective national imagining.”81 When we read this chapter it wholly undermines the entire course of his previous work, which aimed at proving the existence of an “American” literary tradition into which the literature of the Viet Nam war could be comfortably integrated, without the tensions (or “double implications”) of the “witness.”

All six critics discussed in this chapter come from strong literary backgrounds. Literary critics concentrate on symbol and image, on “reading” events rather than on reporting them. Literary critics, like the authors and readers of Viet Nam war literature, (con)fuse fact and fiction. They also blur the distinctions between themselves and their readers. The critic/reader relation has three stages: 1) Previous conceptions of ‘fact’ are denied (e.g., other interpretations are wrong because…); 2) the critic becomes the authority/guide for the new definition of fact; and, 3) the critic predetermines and then occupies the reader’s position, disempowering the reader by usurping her voice.

This assumed authority leads some critics to make rather remarkable claims. Wilson asserts that the war was an “illustration” of the destruction of American values.82 This is one of the mildest critical offenses against the memory of those individuals who actually suffered and died in Vietnam. More disturbing are statements such as Hellman’s “the enduring trauma of Vietnam has been the disruption of the American story;”83 Beidler’s remark that “the ‘real’ war so often proved a hopeless tangle of experiential fact and projected common myth;”84 and Myers’ incredible claim: “The most perceptive observers knew that the real battle was being waged not in the new geographical landscape of men and machines, but within the terrain of collective imagination, an area where the surface images of the war became a mere light show that dissolved in the stronger illumination of persistent cultural realities.”85

The unfortunate truth is that the Viet Nam war was the work of no one’s imagination. It was, rather, a devastating reality—a series of events taking place on a physical, rather than symbolic level. It may be true, as Richard Slotkin argues, that American symbolic perceptions of the world shaped American political and military policy during the Viet Nam war, but that policy affected, and that action place within a physical arena in which real people were killed and real property and resources were destroyed.86 Only in memory or in narrative can war be elevated to the level of symbol. Narratives are generated in order to explain, rationalize, and define events. The symbols that these narrators create are born out of the traumatic events of wartime. In order to understand the traumatic event in context, and to comprehend the existence of a literature of trauma, we must

insist upon the simultaneous separateness and inseparability of material and discursive practices, of “actions in the world” and symbolic gestures. By meticulously tracing the ways they weave in and out of one another, powerful yet mutually dependent, we can throw significant light on processes by which they construct one another, the real of the social, indeed, meaning, itself. In so doing, we will gain a far more precise understanding of the ways social and linguistic difference take shape and power is deployed.87

It is this new kind of critical practice I wish to demonstrate in the next chapter, an analysis of the work of Viet Nam veteran poet and memoirist, W.D. Ehrhart.


1. George Bush, “Remarks to the American Legislative Exchange Council,” March 1, 1991, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, 1991, Book I: January 1 to June 30, 1991 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office) 1992: 197.

2. George Bush, “Radio Address to the United States Armed Forces Stationed in the Persian Gulf Region,” March 2, 1991, Ibid.: 207.

3. George Bush, “Remarks to Veterans Service Organization,” March 4, 1991, Ibid.: 209.

4. James William Gibson, The Perfect War (New York: W.W. Norton) 1986: 5.

5. Ibid.: 433-435.

6. Ibid.: 435.

7. Ibid.: 6.

8. Lisa Kennedy, “The Body in Question,” in Gina Dentz, ed., Black Popular Culture (Seattle: Bay Press) 1992: 107.

9. Jan C. Scruggs and Joel L. Swerdlow, To Heal a Nation (New York: Harper & Row/Perennial) 1985: 101.

10. Ibid.: 129.

11. Gibson: 6.

12. See, for a list of memorials, Jerry L. Strait and Sandra S. Strait, Vietnam War Memorials: An Illustrated Reference to Veterans Tributes Throughout the United States (Jefferson, NC: McFarland) 1988.

13. “Four Writers Try to Make Sense of the Vietnam-Book Boom,” The New York Times (4 August 1987).

14. Philip D. Beidler, American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam (Athens: University of Georgia Press) 1982: 19.

15. Ibid.: 195.

16. The words ‘real’ and ‘reality’ are extremely troublesome in this context. I assume that a certain set of events actually took place, which comprised the war, and these events are the ‘real’ ones. But it seems important to point out that acknowledging the reality of the Viet Nam war is not the same thing as claiming to know what “really” happened.

17. Ibid.: 202.

18. Ibid.

19. James C. Wilson, Vietnam in Prose and Film (Jefferson, NC: McFarland) 1982: 7.

20. Ibid.: 100-101.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.: 102.

24. John Hellman, American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: Columbia University Press) 1986: 207.

25. Ibid.: 135.

26. Ibid.: 137.

27. Ibid.: 208.

28. Ibid.

29. Richard Slotkin, in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), describes Star Wars as continuing the “myth of the frontier”–“a myth of historical progress similar to that in the progressive Westerns and ’empire’ movies of the 30s and 40s. The tale of individual action (typically a captivity/rescue) is presented as the key to a world-historical (or cosmic-historical) struggle between darkness and light, with perpetual happiness and limitless power for the heroes and all humankind (or ‘sentient-kind’) as the prize of victory” (p635).

30. Ibid.: 222.

31. Ibid.: 223-224.

32. Thomas Myers, Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press) 1989: 10-11.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.: 13.

35. Ibid.: 32.

36. Ibid.: 142.

37. Ibid.

38. Susan Jeffords, The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) 1989: 53.

39. Ibid.: 5.

40. Ibid.: 30.

41. Ibid.: 51.

42. Ibid.: 77.

43. Kathleen Puhr, “Four Fictional Faces of the Vietnam War,” Modern Fiction Studies 3.1 (Spring 1984): 104.

44. Jacqueline Lawson, ed., Gender the War: Men, Women and Vietnam (Silver Spring, MD: Vietnam Generation) 1989. Published as Vietnam Generation 1.3-4 (1989).

45. This is most striking in the chapter entitled “Do We Get To Win This Time? Reviving the Masculine,” Jeffords: 116-143.

46. Philip H. Melling, Vietnam in American Literature (Boston: Twayne Publishers) 1990: xiv.

47. Ibid.: 15.

48. Ibid.: 16.

49. Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, eds., The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, Volume One, revised edition, 1938 (New York: Harper Torchbooks) 1963: 1.

50. Melling: 72.

51. Ibid.: 76.

52. Miller: 5.

53. Melling: 39.

54. Ibid.: xviii.

55. Ibid.: 94.

56. Ibid.: 199.

57. Ibid.: 112.

58. Ibid.: 121.

59. Ibid.: 133.

60. Ibid.: 171.

61. Ibid.: 194.

62. Ibid.

63. Ibid.: 53.

64. Philip D. Beidler, Re-Writing America (Athens: University of Georgia) 1991: 12.

65. Ibid.: 19.

66. Ibid.: 20.

67. Ibid.: 39.

68. Ibid.

69. Ibid.: 86.

70. Ibid.: 148.

71. Ibid.: 254-255.

72. Ibid.: 69.

73. Ibid.: 97.

74. Ibid.: 207.

75. Ibid.: 208.

76. Ibid.

77. Ibid.

78. Ibid.: 223.

79. Ibid.: 238.

80. Ibid.: 266.

81. Ibid.: 207.

82. Wilson: 101-102.

83. Hellman: 221.

84. Beidler, Re-Writing: 195.

85. Myers: 147.

86. See Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, especially Part V: “Gunfighter Nation: Myth, Ideology, and Violence on the New Frontier, 1960-1970”: 489-663.

87. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Body Politic,” in Elizabeth Weed, ed., Coming to Terms, Feminism, Theory, Politics (New York: Routledge) 1989: 101.