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What Americans refer to as the Vietnam War embraces much more than the conflict with North Vietnam. Milton J. Bates considers the other conflicts that Americans brought to that war: the divisions stemming from differences in race, class, sex, generation, and frontier ideology.
In exploring the rich vein of writing and film that emerged from the Vietnam War era, he strikingly illuminates how these stories reflect American social crises of the period.
Some material examined here is familiar, including the work of Michael Herr, Tim O'Brien, Philip Caputo, Susan Sontag, Francis Ford Coppola, and Oliver Stone. Other material is less well known—Neverlight by Donald Pfarrer and De Mojo Blues by A. R. Flowers, for example. Bates also draws upon an impressive range of secondary readings, from Freud and Marx to Geertz and Jameson.
As the products of a culture in conflict, Vietnam memoirs, novels, films, plays, and poems embody a range of political perspectives, not only in their content but also in their structure and rhetoric.
In his final chapter Bates outlines a "politico-poetics" of the war story as a genre. Here he gives special attention to our motives—from the deeply personal to the broadly cultural—for telling war stories.
And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
In the gospel verses that serve as my epigraph, Jesus specifies the signs by which the faithful will recognize the next-to-last chapter of human history, the one immediately preceding "the end." His words anticipate what I have to say about the function of endings and "the end" in war stories. Here I simply want to draw attention to the inclusion of war — not to mention rumors or stories of war — in a catalog of natural disasters. Except for the earthquakes, the list is highly formulaic. War in its metonymic form, "the sword," is repeatedly linked with famine and pestilence in the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Inasmuch as all of these phenomena are supposedly authorized by God and cause large scale human suffering, there is a grim logic in their association. What Jesus' words obscure, however, is a fundamental difference betweenwar and the other catastrophes. As the military historian John Keegan has observed, war is a human construction, a cultural artifact.1 It does not merely happen to us. We make war in much the same way that we make policy, make cities, make works of art, make love, and make believe.
As a product of human culture, war varies markedly from nation to nation and era to era. Its cultural specificity is most obvious, perhaps, in the rituals and clothing by which we set warriors apart from society and the weapons we place in their hands. But cultural values also inform the less palpable aspects of making war: why we go to war and
against whom, those we choose to do the fighting, what kinds of battlefield behavior we reward, how we determine whether we have won or lost. Such values even affect what we might take to be the irreducible essence of war, people killing people. The Plains Indian demonstrated his courage by touching the enemy with his coup stick without injuring him, whereas today's bomber pilot may kill hundreds of people without ever seeing them. History affords countless examples of military forces that were more intent on following traditional tactics than on engaging the enemy effectively. What James William Gibson has said of the Vietnam War, that the United States fought a "perfect" war on its own terms but took insufficient account of its opponent's strategy, is true to some extent of the combatants in every war.2
If war is a culturally specific invention, then the rumor of war, as a narrative reconstruction of constructed events, is doubly imbued with the assumptions, values, and purposes of human culture. In some cases the war story endorses the values of the dominant ideology; in other cases it calls them into question. Thus the war story, like war itself, is politics by other means. As Keegan has shown, Clausewitz's famous definition of war is itself culturally determined.3 In one of its variations it nevertheless provides a good working definition of the war story. If the art of war can be called "a policy which fights battles instead of writing [diplomatic] notes," then the war story might be characterized, in its literary form, as a policy that writes notes instead of fighting battles.4
Yet there is one major difference between the war waged in diplomatic notes and the war waged in war stories. Notes are exchanged between parties officially at war with one another — between, let us say, the French and the Prussians in Clausewitz's day. In contrast, war stories are usually exchanged among people who belong, officially at least, to the same party. Long after the battlefield hostilities have concluded in an armistice or a surrender, storytellers revisit the scene of conflict to establish what happened, speculate what might have happened if things had gone differently, and assess the consequences and lessons of the war for themselves, the social groups with which they identify, and perhaps humankind in general. Some of these stories carry a staggering freight of historical documentation, footnotes, maps, and statistical tables. Others are told casually by one veteran to another over a beer at the American Legion post. Whatever the form of the war story or its narrative content it is politics — often domestic or intracultural politics — by other means.
This insight informs much of the criticism of Vietnam War literature and film. Two studies published in 1982 seem, in retrospect, to have set the critical agenda for the books and articles published since. Philip D. Beidler's American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam argues that the war literature is very much in the American grain, even when — in fact, especially when — it seems most experimental. According to Beidler, "it seems almost as if our classic inheritance of native expression has prophesied much of what we now know of Vietnam."5 Walter H. Capps's The Unfinished War: Vietnam and the American Conscience, though it glances only briefly at the war literature, is equally concerned to locate Vietnam in the context of American mythology. Whereas Beidler represents our war stories as shaped by the prewar tradition, Capps represents the war experience chiefly as an active shaper of postwar politics. "Virtually everything that has happened in the United States since the end of the Vietnam War," Capps maintains, "can be seen as both reaction and response to the war."6 He gives particular attention to the rise of the religious right and the Moral Majority in the 1970s and the Reagan administration's search for a "good Vietnam" throughout the 1980s, in places like El Salvador, Grenada, and Nicaragua.
The criticism published since 1982 has tended to follow either Beidler's lead or Capps's — or to steer a course between the two. Tobey C. Herzog's Vietnam War Stories: Innocence Lost (1992), for example, resembles American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam in its approach but adds to the American tradition several classic works from other traditions, such as Wilfred Owen's poems and Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front . Capps's approach has proven more attractive, to judge by the sheer number of books on the "unfinished war." Thomas Myers's Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam (1988) and Philip H. Melling's Vietnam in American Literature (1990) embellish Capps's narrative of conservative revisionism, and Andrew Martin's Receptions of War: Vietnam in American Culture (1993) updates it through the Persian Gulf War. Their studies show how popular culture, particularly film, endorsed President Reagan's attempt to make Vietnam a "noble cause" while the more thoughtful responses to the war — literary works, as a rule — resisted the conservative drift of popular myth.
Though the second group of critics is more overtly political than Beidler and Herzog, they generally subscribe to the Platonic-Aristotelian notion of politics as the science of government. So understood,
politics is the province of those individuals, groups, and institutions that make or try to shape public policy — namely, the president, Congress, political parties, lobbyists, political action committees, big business, and the religious right. What we call American culture is presumed to reflect the attitudes and opinions of these groups, so that any product of American culture can be assigned a place on the axis of right- and left-wing politics. Paradoxically, those who look at the war literature and film in this way, constantly discriminating between hawks and doves, differ little in their mode of thought from the Cold Warriors whom they hold responsible for the Vietnam War.
One of the simplest and most effective critiques of Cold War thinking comes from Le Ly Hayslip, whose memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989) was among the first books written in English to represent the war from the Vietnamese point of view. Addressing American readers in the prologue, she writes,
Most of you did not know, or fully understand, the different wars my people were fighting when you got here. For you, it was a simple thing: democracy against communism. For us, that was not our fight at all. How could it be? We knew little of democracy and even less about communism. For most of us it was a fight for independence — like the American Revolution. Many of us also fought for religious ideals, the way the Buddhists fought the Catholics. Behind the religious war came the battle between city people and country people — the rich against the poor — a war fought by those who wanted to change Vietnam and those who wanted to leave it as it had been for a thousand years. Beneath all that, too, we had vendettas: between native Vietnamese and immigrants (mostly Chinese and Khmer) who had fought for centuries over the land. Many of these wars go on today. How could you hope to end them by fighting a battle so different from our own?7
Hayslip reminds us that what we called the Vietnam War was, from her compatriots' point of view, a collection of domestic wars that divided people according to ethnic group, class, religion, and sense of national destiny. America failed to identify and therefore to engage the enemy because it viewed Vietnam in politically simplistic terms, as merely another theater in the global war between democracy and communism.
Today's historians and cultural critics repeat this mistake when they attempt what Michel Foucault calls "total history." Total history reduces the phenomena of an era to a "system of homogeneous relations" organized around a single cause or principles.8 So conceived, history is a single plane in which modes of knowing relate laterally to a presumed
center. As an alternative to this model, Foucault recommends that we think of history (and therefore of culture) as stratified planes in which the layers — science, literature, politics, and so forth — overlap and irrupt into one another but remain autonomous. Foucault's new or "general" history is thus a kind of "archaeology" that studies the vertical relations among discontinuous and decentered forms of knowledge. In the passage just quoted, Hayslip in effect calls for a general history, a history with vertical as well as horizontal axes, to do justice to the array of conflicts that divided her people.
In the scheme of general history, politics must be construed more broadly to include not just government and public policy but what happens whenever someone becomes conscious of another person and understands how that person's needs and desires may shape or be shaped by one's own. As the president of a Washington, D.C., school board wittily put it, politics begins "when you have two people in a room . . . or when you have one person looking in a mirror."9 Political relationships are influenced by the same factors that color all social interaction: physical and mental endowments, age, sex, kinship, race, ethnicity, religion, and social class. When a conflict of needs or desires escalates into a war between countries, that war is politics by other means. But a nation's politics, too, is politics by other means — the politics of "two people in a room" regularized in documents and procedures.
What Hayslip says about her Vietnam War also applies to ours. It was not one war but many, and some of these were remarkably familiar despite the exotic backdrop against which they were fought. "A nation's domestic problems," one veteran remarked, "travel overseas in its soldiers' rucksacks."10 In this study I sort through the jumbled contents of those rucksacks. I attempt a general history of five of the wars we took to Vietnam and a general criticism of the stories we brought back. In order of treatment, these cultural conflicts include the war between those who subscribed to different visions of American territorial expansion, the war between black and white Americans, the war between the lower classes and the upper, the war between men and women, and the war between the younger generation and the older.
Some of these conflicts have come under sustained scrutiny elsewhere, though not in combination. John Hellmann's American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam (1986) is an exemplary study of what I call in chapter one the frontier war. Readers familiar with Hellmann's work will recognize my indebtedness even as I try to break new ground. Christian G. Appy's Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers
and Vietnam (1993) is a historical rather than a critical study, but it draws on some of the same sources that I use in chapter three to illuminate the class war. Though I take issue with Susan Jeffords's Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (1989) in chapter four, her book is an important contribution to our understanding of the sex war and therefore to the archaeology of our knowledge.
My understanding of the politics of war stories informs my treatment of their poetics, that is, their formal arrangements and rhetorical strategies. Since mine is a "general" rather than a "total" criticism, I do not impose a single critical method on all cases. Depending on how a given book or film is constructed and addressed to an audience, I use insights drawn from disciplines such as anthropology, philosophy, psychology, and sociology as well as literary criticism. Since my borrowing is usually limited to a single insight, I make no attempt to rehearse the complete theory to which it belongs. Wherever possible, I translate the technical vocabulary into familiar language. I hope that in the process I have neither misrepresented the theories nor oversimplified them beyond the requirements of my argument.
My approach in each of the first five chapters is much the same. I begin by identifying the conflict to be addressed, then draw on history and the social sciences to describe it more or less empirically. Next I turn to war stories in which the conflict figures prominently in order to find out what kinds of meaning the storytellers ascribe to the conflict— to discover, in short, how they transform fact into something they regard as truth. What the stories mean cannot be separated from how they mean, so I consider their poetics along with their politics. I reserve a more systematic discussion of the war story as a genre for the final chapter, which addresses the issues of authority, mimetic form, rhetorical context, and — above all — purpose. This is by no means a comprehensive treatment of the war story, which would entail a survey of the genre in many languages and historical periods. But chapter six suggests how formal and ideological criticism, so often at odds with one another, can work effectively in tandem.
In choosing to focus on the wars we took to Vietnam, I realize that I have omitted not only the Vietnamese experience of the war but also most American attempts to reconstruct the Vietnamese experience. Thus I risk reinforcing the cultural narcissism that many critics have deplored in American representations of the war, a failure regretted by some of the storytellers themselves.11 If, as Gibson has argued, we Americans lost the war because we failed to recognize and adapt to the
otherness of the enemy, then we are in danger of losing it a second time by losing its lessons, unless we try to see the war as others — particularly the people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia — saw it.
Though fully in sympathy with this criticism, I must respect my own limits as an archaeologist of culture. Others are better equipped to excavate the Vietnamese wars in Southeast Asia. The books and films coming out of Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora seem, as I read or view them, to echo Hayslip's gentle reproach: "Most of you did not know, or fully understand, the different wars my people were fighting when you got here." I did not know then, nor do I fully understand now. Yet the wars mentioned by Hayslip have obvious parallels in America's cultural conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps as we come to understand our own Vietnam wars better, we will also begin to understand the "different wars" fought by the people of Vietnam.
Excerpted from The Wars We Took to Vietnam by Milton J. Bates Copyright © 1996 by Milton J. Bates. Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction: Wars and Rumors of Wars||1|
|1||The Frontier War||9|
|2||The Race War||48|
|3||The Class War||86|
|4||The Sex War||132|
|5||The Generation War||174|
|6||Toward a Politico-Poetics of the War Story||214|