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Vietnam: a watershed in war writing

by Richard Hills

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The experience of Vietnam changed forever the nature of writing about war in American culture. Literature on the two World Wars tapped into a sense of cultural identity, masculinity and individual heroism to describe the American response as heroic and victorious and promote an idea of a ‘good war’ in which national interests are ultimately restored. By contrast, the Vietnam War was fought against a background of a culturally fragmented society. By examining the work of writers such as Norman Mailer, Tim O’Brien and Michael Herr, and the photographs of Tim Page, it explores the way in which war was portrayed in a far more realistic, if often ugly light. This article is adapted from the winning entry in this year’s essay competition, Richard Hills, a final year student at Liverpool John Moores University.

Posted 13 February 2003

 

The Historical versus the personal in war writing
The Naked and the Dead
The Things They Carried
Dispatches
The war photography of Tim Page
Honesty in writing
Bibliography
Related articles

The Historical versus the personal in war writing

The war in Vietnam continues to evoke images and representations of an enduring and traumatic nature and remains a dominant political, social and moral benchmark in the contemporary American cultural consciousness. The textual diversity in literature, art, journalism and music of Vietnam is extensive, and chronicles the histories and legacies of the struggle to reflect a range of social and cultural anxieties that were borne out of the experience. Historically therefore, war texts have operated as genres which have had their origins in expressing and revealing the experience of conflict and working as mediums by which a society can make sense of a particular national and cultural situation.

Contemporary preconceptions of Vietnam are perhaps due largely to the imagery prevalent in this multiplicity of textual information. The diverse accounts of the histories and experiences of the conflict in literature can be seen as fairly interdisciplinary in their approaches, since the styles and aims of war reporting are both quite broad and ultimately similar in their aims. The variety in terms of methodology is also widespread, ranging from the fictional novels of DelVecchio for example, to personal memoirs in a first person narrative, oral histories and also factual journalistic reportage.

Due to the contrasting styles and graphic content of war writing, the literature of Vietnam can perhaps be seen as displaying ideologies of combat much more prominently than any other type of genre – both in terms of form and also in outlook. Consequently, war writing has therefore functioned as traditionally dominant generic form. As a result, there is a sense in which a linguistic authority has developed in these texts in order to reflect war as action, war as institution, war as nation, and war as an individual autobiographical experience. It is clear therefore that war writing is rich in form and aims to highlight a collection of contrasting perspectives and ideologies in order to externalise the various emotional experiences of war.

As a result, it can be interpreted that a primary narrative intention is concerned not only with an attempt to categorise experience of battle in historical and personal terms, but also an attempt to embody the tension between the historical and the personal in the text. David Wyatt, in his collection Out of the Sixties, recognises the importance of war writing as culturally and historically important and asserts his view that ‘the thread that ties these various genres together is the importance of a common response and the need to represent these culturally insidious images.’

This essay will consider a variety of cultural responses to the war in Vietnam and will firstly examine the writing of Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien in order to address the distinctive styles and objectives of war literature. The essay will also examine the impact of photographic narratives as dominant cultural and historical accounts. Through an analysis of these texts in terms of their style and form, the essay will then ask what these narratives are ultimately trying to achieve in their portrayals and representations and will consider whether they work in establishing a sense of the futility and horror of Vietnam.

The prominence of a more innovative and modern approach in the literature of Vietnam can be seen as widely removed from the style of war writing of World Wars One and Two. By tapping into and referring to a sense of cultural identity, masculinity and individual heroism, this previous war literature had its origins in providing enduring cultural narratives and ideologies of the American national and of victory. Consequently, it had been difficult to produce an anti-war novel due to the ways in which such texts functioned as dossiers indicative of conservative American ideals and which were complimentary to a patriotic consciousness. By suggesting and describing the American response as heroic and victorious, there is a sense in which these texts promote an idea of a ‘good war’ in which national interests are ultimately restored and delivered in ways an American public would appreciate. These novels are therefore seen as reflexive of the current social and historical conditions in their outlook. As a result, there is a sense in which they can perhaps also work as propaganda literature in their assessments of the enemy and in the endorsement of national welfare.

In contrast, Norman Mailer was aware of the social and cultural implications during which the earlier war genre was produced and attempted to construct reactionary images in his literature so as to counteract the political implications this writing brought about. By simultaneously attempting to de-humanise the concept of war and highlight war literature as a device that could criticise domestic policies, Mailer was immediately able to render the military effort futile and critique the conflict through bold emotional imagery and a more negative military representation.

 

The Naked and the Dead

In his novel The Naked and the Dead, Mailer is somewhat radical in his appraisals of the war effort and attempts to reflect the more unsavoury nature of combat in a couple of ways. Firstly, by discarding the accepted American idea of a ‘good war’ and secondly by replacing the traditional stereotyped representation of the heroic and crusading American soldier with a less dramatic portrayal. Through his presentation of the soldiers as sex driven, brutal, racist alcoholics, and by commenting on the graphic description of the war effort, Mailer is able to highlight the futility of modern combat and present Sergeant Croft as a pseudo fascist madman. In doing this, Mailer’s character representation subverts the earlier image of the American soldier and asks questions about the validity of the common stereotype of the American soldiers as gallant and laudable heroes.

Mailer’s characters are revealed as extremely un-amiable in their treatment of themselves and the enemy. In Nicolas Tomalin’s extract from The New Journalism entitled The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong, the American soldiers indicate their reluctance to recognise the Vietcong as human in a refusal of individuality.

“ ‘There’s no better way to fight than goin out to shoot VCs. An’ there’s nothing I love better than killin’ ‘Cong. No sir.’ “

In contrast, Mailers characters acknowledge the enemy as human whilst remaining committed to the massacre of the enemy to provide a comment on the futility of the conflict. The fact that Sergeant Croft’s more liberal superior ultimately dies, suggests a metaphor to American society and offers a social critique on how war represents a nightmare scenario and will ultimately condemn and divide a functional society – as if a comment on the disruptive, conservative and bureaucratic nature of war.

Mailer’s writing can be seen as a satirical attack on attitudes to war through his condemnation of the war effort and the traditional assertion of war as ‘good’. His style consequently contradicts and differs from the position of earlier war writing due to Mailer’s insistence that war is essentially socially unjust. In this sense, The Naked and the Dead can be seen as a re-negotiation of generic values to ultimately express a nihilistic vision of the effects of war on the individual and society. Mailer successfully brings to light the disparity between certain representations of war as ‘good’ and what is seen as a more accurate reality of unprecedented horror and moral betrayal.

 

The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien explores similar themes in his account of Vietnam in The Things They Carried. The form of the text can be regarded in contrasting ways, in terms of a fictional novel or as a collection of personal memoirs. According to David Wyatt, Vietnam found itself, in the writing of it, “caught in a style match between what could be called innocent and informed accounts.” In thinking of the book as an informed account of Vietnam and therefore as chronicled non-fictional accounts, The Things They Carried can be seen as typical of returning to the old tradition of war writing. This is recognisable in terms of the narrative emphasis O’Brien places on group camaraderie, individual heroism, and the way in which he and the other soldiers refer to the Vietcong as ‘Charlie’, - to reflect the ideology of American patriotism and the idea of the noble soldier fighting for justice.

However, it is much clearer that the majority of the narrative is concerned with emotional turmoil and the distressing burden of the war effort, in this sense revealing the trauma and threat and working as an innocent narrative despite O’Brien’s own Vietnam memories. In the chapter The Man I Killed O’Brien’s language encapsulates his horror, guilt and fear after having killed a young Vietcong soldier;

“His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star shaped hole, his eyebrows were thin and shaped like a woman’s, his nose was undamaged, ... his clean black hair was swept upward into a cowlick at the rear of his skull, … there was a butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood there was thick and shiny and it was this wound that had killed him.”

The way in which O’Brien describes the dead man provides an indication of the brutality and terror of war and is in keeping with Mailer’s adoption of the innocent war writing technique in The Naked and the Dead. The sense of unique grievance that O’Brien exudes through his language in his chapter highlights the fact that ‘war hurts’ and also reveals the reality of ‘Killing’. It is interesting that O’Brien makes use of a somewhat poetic style of language to describe a dead body in what might appear to be an attempt to disguise the horrific injuries and the suffering of war. More realistically however, is the idea that this descriptive style is intended to provide a more informed vision of the conflict and in doing so, makes the reader aware of the extent of the suffering. The poetic references in language parody the brutality and masculinity of war in the description of his feminine features. The ‘star shaped hole’ is perhaps symbolic of the American flag and a reminder of the expectations of a nation for its soldiers to kill and destroy. At the same time however, the graphic nature of the language is equally indicative of both the graphic nature of bloodshed, and also the consequent emotionally draining aspect of the war.

“We had ways of making the dead seem not so dead…. By slighting death … we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was.”

The fact that O’Brien finds it hard to come to terms with something that was readily expected of him as a soldier shows how Vietnam has forced him to internally struggle with his conscience. Furthermore, he is as a result unable to adhere to the stereotype of being the ‘killer’ society expects of him. This highlights O’Brien’s sentiments of vulnerability and insecurity in elation to the enemy.

O’Brien’s character seems to embrace wholeheartedly the role of storyteller and social critic in the text. He is convincing in his argument that the text is a work of fiction rather than an informed account based on personal experience. He discards the relevance of any informed authority in his accounts of war when he states:

“Can the foot soldier teach anything important about the war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.”

In the quantity and quality of his work, O’Brien argues for well-told stories, as the least the war deserves. This is inherent in his assertion that if war fiction were produced exclusively by accurate accounts of events in Vietnam, then the destructive nature of combat would be more difficult to achieve in writing. This is due to the fact that the soldiers failed to recognise and appreciate the occurrence of singular events in relation to a sense of an ultimate developing drama. O’Brien admits that in war stories, “absolute occurrence is irrelevant”. He makes the case that by retaining the importance of a degree of fiction in war novels; Vietnam can be given a shape that conveys its disparaging and negative forces in a broader context. David Wyatt emphasises that ‘the reflexivity of all war … becomes in The Things They Carried a masterful self-reflexivity, a continual re-figuring of earlier work in order to tell us “How to Tell a True War Story”.’ Ultimately, O’Brien suggests that war stories insist upon and perhaps largely consist of their desperate attempt to obtain or reflect the truth; conforming to the rhetoric of re-telling. This use of repetition functions as a way of making sense of the war’s impact of devastation in both physical and personal terms.

 

Dispatches

Michael Herr’s landmark invention of a new journalistic voice in Dispatches is similar to The Things They Carried in terms of it also attempting to represent the confused reality of Vietnam. The narrative is distinctive in terms of being a collection of factual journalism and reportage, and delivers innovative methods of relaying events through impressionistic and image-laden accounts of the struggle. In this sense, the text offers fresh and exciting ways of codifying the Vietnam experience. In contrast to the standard conventions and established language of orthodox war reporting, Herr’s journal is a composite of reports and articles to extend beyond an autobiographical account and ultimately offer a wider historical and cultural awareness of the conflict of Vietnam.

Although Dispatches is generically different in the way is it not presented as a work of fiction, it is comparable with Tim O’Brien in the sense of being a text primarily concerned with providing stories about the American experience in Vietnam. His achievements in the text arise from the implementation of a disjointed narrative that immediately reflects the popular consumer culture amongst the American soldiers to ultimately portray a fragmented imagery of the conflict. Consequently, Herr’s narrative comprises of a multiplicity of language; he creatively fuses the vocabulary of American youth and drug cultures by utilising hippie vernacular, pop lyrics, military jargon, black slang and technical press terms in what can be interpreted as a very post-modern appraisal of the Vietnam struggle

“He had the name Marlene tattooed on his upper arm, … On the back of his flak jacket he had once written, “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of Death I shall fear no evil, because I’m the meanest Muthafucker in the Valley,” but he had tried later, without much success, to scrub it off because, he explained, every damned dude in the DMZ had that written on their flak jackets. And he’d smile.”

Herr’s accounts of the war are presented in a language that buys into the consciousness of the generation and which therefore inherently condemns the Vietnam conflict. This discourse of language is rich in the idea of humanity that transcends earlier war literature and consistently opposes the more horrific side of Vietnam. Dispatches makes much of the comradeship of the soldiers and emphasises the role of charity in the face of adversity. This alternative narrative in terms of style and language embodies Herr’s reportage as a critique of conventional war journalism. His narrative and use of techniques such as montage are in contrast to the approach of standard media correspondents, and reveal the difficulties involved in writing traditional ‘stories’ about Vietnam.

The often-fragmented nature of Herr’s narrative helps the reader to obtain a position in which to fully appreciate the experience of Vietnam, rather than relying upon a traditional linear discourse of narration. However, the subject matter of the text is perhaps less reliant on highlighting the actual experience of Vietnam, and would prefer to discuss a fuller exploration of that experience. Rather than attempt to recreate the war in a literary documentation, Herr’s objectives can be interpreted as wanting to examine and investigate his memories of Vietnam. His approach is based on the assumption that in order to obtain a more meaningful insight into the struggle; it is necessary to leave behind the actual events of the war and attempt to locate the experience of it in a much broader context. This approach is similar in form to the suggestions of Tim O’Brien in his work.

Herr’s experience in Vietnam highlighted a problem in terms of condemning the popular representation of war in popular imagination and attempting to replace these images with what was considered to be a truthful reflection of American experience in Vietnam. Herr maintains that the flexible nature of war literature in promoting the idea of a ‘good war’ and the image of the heroic soldier hindered the reader from arriving at a truer and more meaningful understanding of the hostility of war. Dispatches offers an alternative insight into the role and experience of the soldier. Due to his fragmented narrative and plethora of linguistic jargon, Herr seems to suggest that Vietnam was futile from the point of view of all those who experienced it and stresses the impossibility of arriving at fixed meanings and rational thinking. Herr’s text is therefore symptomatic of a text rich in the discourse of truth and brutal reality. Rather than trying to explain or rationalise the war in any length, the stories of Herr and other correspondents such as Tim Page, were primarily concerned with attempting to capture the horror and beauty of the place – and thereby offer a more realistic and representative account of life in Vietnam.

It is therefore clear that the work of writers such as Mailer, O’Brien and Herr have had their origins in an attempt to re-emphasise the narcissistic nature of combat, whilst managing to retain and highlight the importance and beauty of life in an appraisal of humanity. These texts both discard the notions of war as something symbolically rewarding, as was the case in previous war writing, and replace these sentiments with ideas about reality and civilisation. By highlighting the devastation of the war effort through both brutal and compassionate language and imagery, the reader is in a position to attain a more realistic account of the nihilistic characteristics of a war, and the effects this has in relation to individual experience.

 

The war photography of Tim Page

With the publication of Dispatches in 1977 came to prominence the work of Vietnam War photographer Tim Page. Page’s photographic evidence of Vietnam is complimentary to Herr’s written accounts in the sense that they both share a common quest to highlight the war’s experience both in terms of grief and suffering, but also in terms of recording the drug and rock aspects of GI culture. Herr quotes Page’s reaction to a request from a British publisher for a book which would “finally take the glamour out of the war.”

“Take the glamour out of the war?! I mean, how the bloody hell can you do that? Go and take the glamour out of a Huey, go take the glamour out of a Sheridan … Can you take the glamour out of a Cobra or getting stoned on China Beach? … Oh war is good for you, you can’t take the glamour out of that. It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of The Rolling Stones … I mean, you know that, it just can’t be done.”

Dispatches led to a revival of interest in Page’s work. In an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1980, Page made an issue of the ‘glamour’ of Vietnam and recalled how ‘groovy’ it had been playing with helicopters, tanks and piloting Skyraiders. The point Page was trying to make through his photography was that war always was, and always will be, heavily invested in glamour, with glory and in machoism such is the representation of conflict in popular imagination. The popular fascination with the glamour of war was therefore perhaps a result of the ways in which war had been previously reported, with much emphasis having been placed on the heroic and gallant actions of ‘good’ soldiers. However, Page delivers an alternative view on the glamour of war. Rather than choosing to portray Vietnam in terms of heroic action, Page captures much more outrageously the feelings and sentiments of a large demographic of women, children, soldiers and correspondents through pictures of great melancholy beauty.

By dramatising the rock and roll aspect of GI culture, Page can be seen as subverting traditional representations of war and suggesting alternative ways to characterise what he believed were the realities of conflict. Consequently, perhaps Page’s most striking pictures are those in which he records the sixties-psychedelic side of the GI culture, and documents the terrorised black and white American soldiers in “the inanity of their predicament and the refuge they took in dope and rock.” This particular quality of the war was perhaps unique to Vietnam and is what Page refers to when he discusses the ‘glamour’ of war. This is not to say however that Page fails to recognise the more mundane aspects common to all wars such as the destruction of society and the indignity of suffering. It is simply that Page attempted to capture the enduring sense of reality in all areas to highlight a sense of perceived glamour in terms of suffering. In this sense, Page’s photography centres on the ultimate reality that there is no glamour at all. Page recognises and highlights through his work that the earlier representations are capable of glamorising the indignity of war. Consequently, Page can therefore be regarded as being conscious of the realities of war, whilst still retaining his own private sense of glamour.

Tim Page is typical of a collection of Vietnam artists who realised that their texts needed renegotiations of what had gone before them in terms of form and style, and in doing so, offer new interpretations and conclusions in their work. Such was the supremacy and dominance of the war image in popular culture that the reality and lived experiences were sometimes only partially discovered. As a consequence, a distinction between what was considered fact and fiction was exposed to suggest that many experiences were interpreted as fictional stories. The actual events of combat had given way to images of how the war was fought and what it was fought for, thanks to various military and political discourses. The narratives discussed in this essay however, focus on the cultural expressions of the actual nature of war and the more contemporary disciplines that were implemented in order to highlight an ultimate attack on the socially, culturally and politically destructive qualities of conflict.

 

Honesty in writing

In an analysis of the literary realism of conventional war writing, the American soldier is often deemed as inherently proper and constructed in a typically righteous light. It can be argued that this discourse is limited in vision due to the way in which these novels tend to evade the more difficult and unwelcome issues of war, preferring to ‘make sense’ of the experience. As a consequence, these narratives could realistically apply to any example of conflict such are the conventional methods in terms of style and form, and the way in which they fail to capture the ambiguous realities of war. The reliance on factual material in an informed account of war also seems inappropriate in that this technique neglects to address fundamental experiences and lived realities of soldiers. The work of Herr, O’Brien and Page in particular, evoke much more vividly the exhilarating honesty of the Vietnam experience in terms of externalising the rock and roll aspect of Vietnam and highlighting diverse elements of hope, power and loss. At the same time, the texts attempt to highlight in powerful terms the development and demise of the individual through the experience of combat, and refuse to lose sight of the very real suffering the conflict caused on a wider level. Even though Herr and O’Brien realise and admit that sometimes the distinction between fact and fiction is occasionally blurred, their success in capturing the contemporary emotion of Vietnam transcends the idea that informed realism in war writing matters. Ultimately therefore, the writing succeeds as documents which re-evaluate popular ideas by commenting on the more futile and ineffectual nature of battle and the broad consequences of it.

 

Bibliography

The New Journalism, with an anthology edited by Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson. Harper & Row Publishers, New York 1973.

The Things They Carried
, Tim O’Brien. Flamingo Press 1990.

Tim Page’s Nam
, Introduction by William Shawcross. Thames and Hudson 1983.

American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam
, Jeffrey Walsh. Macmillan Press 1982.

Vietnam Images, War and Representation
, Edited by Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich. Macmillan Press 1989.

Out of the Sixties; Storytelling and the Vietnam Generation, Edited by David Wyatt. Cambridge University Press 1993.

Celluloid Wars, A Guide to Film and the American Experience of War
, Frank J. Wetta and Stephen J. Curley. Greenwood Press 1992.

American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, Philip D. Beidler. The University of Georgia Press 1982

Vietnam in American Literature
, Philip H. Melling. Twayne Publishers Boston 1990.

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There are two other articles on a similar theme in ASToday Online which you might also be interested in

This War is Not Our War! An Analysis and Critique of Forms of Resistance amongst the American GIs during the Vietnam War By Andy Walpole - Liverpool John Moores University (82K) The Vietnam War was a watershed in American history, exposing and increasing cracks in the social structure. The draft discriminated against the poor, the less educated and ethnic minorities. In this article, Andy Walpole demonstrates and how resistance to the war took a variety of forms, from drug abuse to fragging (the assassination of unpopular officers), as well as to more organised and politicised anti-war activity. He also shows how serving in the war helped to increase the political awareness of African-American GI's and helped to inform the Civil Rights movement.

How did Participation in America's Wars affect Black Americans? The treatment of Black soldiers in the American forces reflected the discrimination they suffered at home, but their experience led to increased political awareness and helped the development of the Civil Rights movement. This theme is explored by this year’s essay competition winner, Jill Woodland, a final year student at Liverpool John Moores University.

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