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Trailing the Beast
IN 1973 the Vietnam War moved from front-page news into a rapidly fading historical memory. U.S. troops came home, a peace treaty was signed, American POWs returned, and the war vanished. Two years later network television news showed us the fall of Saigon. Our sensibilities were stunned by incredible pictures of evacuation helicopters being pushed off aircraft carrier flight decks or ordered to crash in the South China Sea because there was no more room for them on American ships. It was as if an imaginary Western had turned into a horror show — the cavalry was shooting its horses after being chased by the Indians back to the fort. President Gerald Ford said that the "book was closed" on American involvement in Indochina.
The nightmare was officially over. But there was no springtime bliss in late April and early May of 1975, no celebration of war's end. Something felt deeply wrong. Something had changed forever.
During the mid- and late 1970s no one wanted to talk about the war. For a while it seemed that Hollywood might come to the rescue, bringing the war to the surface in a way that could conceivably help people understand what had happened. The Boys in Company C, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Go Tell the Spartans, and Who'll Stop the Rain? all appeared in 1977-1978; Apocalypse Now came the next year. After the apocalypse, the Hollywood war ended, too. Sometimes veterans made the evening news broadcasts or were characters in television dramas. Either in real life or as fictional characters, they were presented as freaked-out men who replayed Vietnam by committing violence against others or themselves. Veterans were time bombs waiting to go off, a new genre of bogeymen.
Somehow, though, even in news reports about Vietnam veterans, the war itself was never revisited. Debates around the dioxin Agent Orange and post-Vietnam stress-disorder cases made their official appearances in claims for medical benefits or for special consideration in legal contexts. The war thus disappeared as a topic for study and political consideration and instead became dispersed and institutionalized in the complex of medical, psychiatric, and legal discourses. It was as if a new series of medical and judicial problems with no traceable origin had appeared in American society. Or rather, although it was acknowledged that Vietnam was the origin, once the word "Vietnam" was mentioned, the war itself was dismissed and discussion moved on to how an institution could solve the problem.
A similar displacement occurred in the reception of books by Vietnam veterans and journalists. Literally hundreds of memoirs, commentaries, and novels were published from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, but most fell into an abyss of silence: few or no reviews, limited distribution and sales, a quick passage to the discounted "remainder" category. Only a handful of Vietnam authors achieved some fame — Gloria Emerson for Winners and Losers, Tim O'Brien for Going After Cacciato, Frances FitzGerald for Fire in the Lake, and Michael Herr for Dispatches. The New York Times review of Dispatches read in part (my emphases): "If you think you don't want to read any more about Vietnam, you are wrong. Dispatches is beyond politics, beyond rhetoric. ... It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war. Stunning."
According to the reviewer, Dispatches was a book about Vietnam that one could read without thinking about Vietnam — the book for someone who doesn't "want to read any more about Vietnam." A new Inferno? Forget that Jimi Hendrix was a Vietnam veteran of the 101st Airborne Division. Forget that the pocketful of uppers and downers (amphetamines and barbiturates) belonged to a man on long-range reconnaissance patrol duty who used them to see the jungle at night. Our "first rock-and-roll war," the reviewer said. It sounded as if he was expecting a series and Dispatches was the best way for the spectators to get ready for the show.
O'Brien's work met a similar response. A quote from a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer found its way to the back cover of the paperback version: "Every war has its chroniclers of fear and flight, its Stephen Cranes and Joseph Hellers. Tim O'Brien joins their number." Or read the New York Times Book Review: "To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby Dick a novel about whales." Take your pick; either way the reviews see the work as literature and view a work of literature as a text without reference to anything other than literature. Somehow O'Brien's story about a soldier who leaves his unit and walks from Vietnam to Paris to attend the peace negotiations does not register in the reviewer's mind as a commentary on the war.
It is not easy to displace war in films about war; it is not easy to avoid war in all news media coverage of Vietnam veterans and their problems; it is not easy for a culture to avoid a very specific war even though book after book is written about it. Nevertheless, the more that was said and written and filmed, the more distant the war itself became.
During the 1970s various liberal interpretations of what happened in Vietnam were considered definitive. Some claimed the great lesson to be learned concerned "the limits of power." The United States had expended too many men and too much money fighting in a country that wasn't so important after all. Other liberals viewed the war as a tragic drama fueled by hubris. Our political leadership, the best and brightest of the land, made a series of "small decisions," each decision being "reasonably regarded at the time as the last that would be necessary." But Fate intervened and lo and behold we found ourselves "entrapped in that nightmare of American strategists, a land war in Asia." It was a sad, sad story, says Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a "tragedy without villains."
Curiously enough, the views of the conservatives were not so different. They offered another way of "getting over Vietnam" without ever searching for the war. In November 1980, President-elect Ronald Reagan declared that Vietnam had been a "noble cause." The war had been lost only because of American "self-imposed restraints." We had not been sufficiently "tough," but no longer would we be weak or timid. Reagan promised to "rebuild" our "defense" capabilities. He announced a new plan for spending $750 billion for the military. A new Rapid Deployment Force was created for quick transport to the Third World. We were ready to go to war again. For months the news media talked and wrote about how the United States had finally gotten over the "Vietnam Syndrome." Never was the question raised about just what it was we were over. The Vietnam part of the "Vietnam Syndrome" was left blank. Perhaps 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.
In this way a strange consensus developed: it was okay to use the war as a point of departure for almost any discussion — whether on literature or Greek tragedy or foreign policy — but only as long as you didn't talk about the war itself. In this way the Vietnam War was abolished during the 1970s and early 1980s. In this way the war became progressively displaced and repressed at the same time it was written about.
Then during 1983-1984 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. The tour began in November 1982, with the dedication and opening of the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington, D.C. In February 1983 the University of Southern California sponsored "Vietnam Reconsidered: Lessons From a War," the first major academic conference on Vietnam. That fall PBS affiliates around the country showed a thirteen-episode series, Vietnam: A Television History. Chain bookstores used the series as a lead-in for thematic displays offering a new round of war novels, memoirs, and histories. The New York Times signed on with two major cover stories: the Sunday magazine featured a lengthy story on college courses about Vietnam and the Sunday book review had a long essay comparing Vietnam War novels to previous war literature. Important court trials made the news for months. Vietnam veterans filed a class-action suit against several chemical firms that manufactured the herbicide Agent Orange. General William Westmoreland sued CBS for libeling him in its 1982 documentary "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception." And finally a special service was held on Memorial Day 1984, when the "unidentified" remains of an American soldier killed in Vietnam were put into the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
All through this period, questions of responsibility for American involvement were assiduously avoided. Although the PBS series had some excellent footage, it echoed every lie told by administration officials of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford governments. The series showed Vietnam as a war of good men with honorable intentions fighting another set of good men with honorable intentions. Thirty years of warfare appeared as a mythic tragedy dictated by the gods, with the U.S. government merely a passive partner. Stanley Karnow, a senior producer of the PBS series, released a companion volume, Vietnam: A History at the same time. Although Karnow had subtitled his book "The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War," he evidently didn't think responsibility and causality were important questions: "In human terms at least, the war in Vietnam was a war nobody won — a struggle between victims. Its origins were complex, its lessons learned, its legacy to be assessed by future generations. But whether a valid venture or misguided endeavor, it was a tragedy of epic dimensions."
Myra MacPherson, author of Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, published in the spring of 1984, sought "neither to prove the rightness or wrongness of the war nor to refight old ideological battles but to illuminate the effect of the war as it was on the generation asked to fight it." How these effects were to be determined without investigating what the structure of warfare was, who was responsible for that structure, and what American political objectives were is truly mysterious.
The New York Times daily reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, chastised novels by Vietnam veterans for paying too close attention to warfare and not enough attention to the problems of literature: "A flaw shared by many Vietnam novels, in fact, is that they do not become works of the imagination; rather they retain the predictable shape and close-up, grainy texture of personal history. ... This need to testify to what one has witnessed and somehow to make sense of it through words, however, would have often been better served by a memoir." In her view, memoir is obviously suitable for personal catharsis, but not much else. In any case neither memoir nor realist fictional narrative can help us understand an event beyond rational understanding: "At the same time, the Vietnam war — which so defies reason and the rules of causality — also resists such traditional prerogatives of fiction as interpretation." If the war is beyond rational understanding, then it becomes the occasion for pure literature, texts with referents only in the literary canon, not the real world of power struggles.
Even Vietnam-related "events" have studiously avoided the war. Westmoreland dropped his libel charges against CBS before the case went to the jury. Some of his former aides and other military men had testified against him with compelling accounts of official deception. But instead of letting the jury vindicate them, CBS issued a statement testifying to Westmoreland's honor. Thus nothing was really resolved.
Similarly, lawyers for the Vietnam veterans accepted a $180 million settlement for health damages the day before the trial was to begin. This out- of-court settlement of the veterans' case against the chemical companies who made Agent Orange meant that the companies successfully avoided a lengthy public investigation of what they knew about dioxin contamination and what the government knew. Many veterans were against the settlement for that reason; they suspected the military and chemical manufacturers knew the potential dangers of exposure to dioxins.
Even the memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier backed away from the war. Read carefully the New York Times account of the ceremonies held for the entombment of the body:
The Pentagon, which waived its informal rule that 80 percent of a body must be recovered for it to be designated an Unknown, has now intentionally destroyed all identification records related to the Unknown to prevent inadvertent disclosure of information that might provide clues to the identity of the man intended to be a universal symbol of Vietnam battle dead.
In other words, the Pentagon had remains that might someday have been identifiable. The military destroyed this man's records in order to stage a symbolic patriotic ritual and thus gain support for future battles. At the same time, the Pentagon did not allow Vietnam veterans to march in the funeral procession. These men did not fit into the choreographed spectacle. They were not dressed in regulation military uniforms, but instead wore "combat fatigues and jeans," topped by the "floppy bush caps they wore in Vietnam's steamy jungles." Three hundred veterans marched anyway.
For the most part, the 1985 media retrospectives on Vietnam followed the patterns formed earlier. Newsmagazines and television vacillated between the liberal Vietnam-as-mistake position and the conservative criticism of self-imposed restraints. Hollywood in particular embraced the latter position with a series of films in which Vietnam veteran characters become warriors again and defeat demonic enemies by disregarding restraints imposed upon them by commanding officers and politicians. The resurgence of Vietnam in the news, in literature and history, and in film was a continuation of the old effort to push the real war with all its political implications farther and farther away. The power structure is obviously deeply afraid of what might happen if the war was really explored.
It was the longest war in American history. It was the longest counting from 1945, when the United States equipped a British expeditionary force to occupy Vietnam before France could send troops to secure its colony. It was the longest counting from 1950, when the United States began paying 80 percent of France's cost in its war against Vietnamese insurgents, the Vietminh. It was the longest counting from 1960, when President Kennedy began increasing U.S. military advisers from several hundred to several thousand. And it was the longest war counting from 1965, when the first American ground combat divisions together with their support units began arriving.
Talking about Vietnam as a "limited war" is misleading. At its peak in 1969, over 550,000 soldiers were stationed in Vietnam. This count excludes thousands of air force personnel in Thailand and thousands of other air force people in Manila and Guam supporting bomber missions. Indeed, the 550,000 count excludes all those people involved in logistical efforts outside Vietnam. An inclusive figure would easily add another 100,000 to 200,000 troops. Viewed as a percentage of total American combat capability, the Vietnam War at its peak involved 40 percent of all United States Army combat-ready divisions, more than half of all Marine Corps divisions, one-third of U.S. naval forces, roughly half the fighter-bombers, and between one-quarter and one-half of all B-52 bombers in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command.
In 1984 American casualty figures hovered around 58,800. (The exact number changes from year to year as some of the 800 soldiers listed as missing in action are reclassified as dead.) Over 300,000 men were wounded; of these, some 150,000 required hospitalization. How many Vietnam veterans have later died from medical conditions connected to the war is not known, but surely the number must be in the thousands.
Americans are not the only ones who died. The South Korean government lost 4,407 soldiers. Australia and New Zealand lost 469, and Thailand suffered 351 dead. Counting casualties among Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians becomes more difficult. The United States government counts South Vietnamese military casualties beginning in 1965 and ends in 1974. For this period it announces a figure of 220,357. Such a precise number seems solid, but it isn't; 1965 marks only the introduction of American combat forces in large numbers, not the beginning of the war. The United States established the Diem regime in 1954 and completely financed its civil and military activities throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Surely those who died in those years should be counted. Saigon "fell" in 1975. The casualties of that debacle should also be counted.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Perfect War"
Copyright © 1986 James William Gibson.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Introduction to the 2000 Edition,
PART I. In Search of War,
1. Trailing the Beast,
2. Legacies of Resistance: Vietnamese Nationalism against the Chinese and French,
3. The Permanent War Begins: 1940-1954,
4. America Comes to Vietnam: Installing the Mechanisms, 1954-1964,
PART II. The Green Machine,
5. Technowar at Ground Level: Search-and-Destroy as Assembly Line,
6. The Tet Offensive and the Production of a Double Reality,
7. Forced Draft: Urbanization and the Consumer Society Come to Vietnam,
8. Pacification War in the Countryside,
PART III. Death from Above,
9. Air War over North Vietnam: Bombing as Communication,
10. Structural Dynamics of Escalation in Theory and Practice, 1966-1967,
11. The Structure of Air Operations,
12. The Redistribution of Air War: Laos, 1968-1973,
13. Closing Out the War: Cambodia and North Vietnam, 1969-1973,
PART IV. The Perfect War,
14. Finding the Light at the End of the Tunnel,
15. Surveying the Wreckage: The Limits of Conventional Criticism and the Reproduction of Technowar,
APPENDIX: The Warrior's Knowledge: Social Stratification and the Book Corpus of Vietnam,