Vietnam: We've all been there (1996)

Over thirty years ago in Blen Hoa the murder of two American advisors was amongst the causes that triggered a series of events that lead to a war in Vietnam that was to change the American way of life for ever. A war intended to be short and sharp became the longest and bloodiest war that American history has ever produced.

The origins and purposes of that war have never been fully understood, but the reality of the 58,000 body bags that were returned to the families in America and the 55,000 consequent suicides as a result of the conflict, sent a spirited country into confusion and despair. The terrible emotional, physical, economic and spiritual impact of the Vietnam experience has provided the world with a valuable lesson in misused governmental power. It is a war that must never be repeated.

Whilst my interest in the damage done by Vietnam is a particularly personal journey which I undertook to come to some sort of understanding of those I lived amongst and loved, it has made me realise how important a part of history the Vietnam war is and how important it is to introduce it into education, not only in America but throughout the world. While it is essential to move on from any form of devastation it is also important to reflect and to come to terms with the consequences.

There was a great deal of literature to emerge from the Vietnam War just as from previous wars, but the overwhelming need of the majority of writers to reveal the truth of that particular war resulted from the realisation that the media coverage had been manipulated by those in power, who feared the consequences of exposure of the truth to the general public. Perhaps the most successful works were those of the ‘New Journalists’ who wrote personal, dramatic narratives particularly Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches’, (1977). Gloria Emerson’s ‘Winners and Losers’ follows the effect on those who saw combat and also the effects of that war throughout America. The writings of soldier-authors such as Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann, and Stephen Wright, are important in understanding what exactly did happen in Vietnam. They are also revelations that the long term psychological effects on the American nation are only just being realised.

America emerged from World War 2 far richer and more powerful than their allies across the Atlantic, whose suffering and poverty as a result of the war, was great. The inflated ego of the American nation, who saw themselves as Europe and Britain’s saviours, resulted in a society of lost standards and beliefs accompanied by a national mood of nervousness and aggressiveness. In J.D.Salingers’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ (1951), he speaks for the young, urban, middle class American who is concerned by the lack of sincerity in adults as a result of growing up in a corrupted environment. In Paul Goodman’s ‘Growing Absurd’ (1960), Goodman argues that the spread of juvenile delinquency at that time was due to shoddy goals of American society. At that time, the emergence of the Beat phenomenon which spread from the West Coast to New York and other cities resulted in a reaction against this society and its so called ‘values’. In other words ‘The American Dream’. They drew their influences from the French Philosophers - the Existentialists and in particular the writings of Jean Paul Sartre. Beat authors were unpretentious and described the deeply restless young generation of that time who were searching for truth, love and experience. The finest work of that generation was possible Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ (1959), in which he investigates this reaction to a society that his elders had moulded for him, and he and his friends, clearly unable to accept it’s lack of values, sought an alternative way of life. Those who believed the Beat way of life generally evaded being drafted to Vietnam, whilst the majority of their fellow young Americans eagerly volunteered to ‘serve their country’.

The overwhelming influence of John F Kennedy, Hollywood, and John Wayne on these young men, along with the glamorisation of the American role in the Second World War, produced a generation that believed in abstract words such as ‘honour’, ‘duty’ and ‘patriotism’. They saw Vietnam as a romantic way of following in their fathers’ footsteps, a way to ‘serve their country.’ Michael Herr often cited the effects of growing up with John Wayne and Hollywood glamorisation of war as the most damaging on the generation that found themselves in Vietnam. His perceptiveness is seen clearly in his comment in ‘Dispatches’ - “I kept thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good” (1977:209)

In an interview with Norman Mailer by Eric J. Shroeder, a lecturer at University of California, published in ‘Vietnam, we’ve all been there’ (1992), Shroeder asked mailer about the writing of ‘Why are we in Vietnam’ (1967) and particularly about his choice of title, considering Vietnam was actually only ever mentioned once throughout the whole book. It follows a group of ‘all American men’ bear hunting in Alaska. It investigates America’s ‘go out and kill’ instincts alongside the need of those American males with fevered egos to enmesh sexual response with violent action. Mailer claims that America’s need to fight communism everywhere was “an incredible vanity”, and that the Vietnam experience “brought a profound cynicism into American life afterwards”. Mailer’s conclusion on his title and subject matter leaves us realising that given such a society Vietnam was inevitable, and even possibly necessary. The average age of nineteen brought boys from a world of straight forward facts and John Wayne myths to a jungle that was unthinkable, and a world of shattered illusions. They was a terrible feeling of isolation in that jungle and the feeling of guilt began to sweep through the troops - the guilt of a war with no purpose and certainly no glory. Whilst most served their tour of duty diligently there were inevitable atrocities just as there would be in any war.

However, the atrocities of Vietnam were used a tools to discredit America’s position there and the young soldiers became the victims - criminals of a war they didn’t belong in. Larry Heinemann constantly identifies characters unable to integrate back into society and for whom Vietnam is the only environment they find themselves able to identify with. Tim O’Brien’s tendency is to cover the romantic expectations of war that the soldiers expect and the reality and harshness of what they are faced with. A particularly interesting angle followed by O’Brien in ‘The Things they Carried’ follows the arrival of a young woman in Vietnam to visit her fiancé only to become hooked on the allure of combat : “For Mary Anne Bell, it seemed Vietnam had the effect of a powerful drug; that mix if unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure that comes as the needle slips in and you know you’re risking something.” 1990:123

The loss of youthful naiveté is a recurring theme in serious modern war literature - Ernest Hemingway in particular concentrated on this issue. Vietnam marked the period in American History where the observations of young men equipped by society with the beliefs in ‘honour’, ‘liberty’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘decency’ being sent into battlefields full of the desire to prove their courage. Returning after their tour to a hostile environment where they were outcast was a crime. It was a crime by an American society that must now take responsibility for it. Combined with this hostility at home was the confusion faced by combat soldiers due to the speed of their debriefing and integration back into a society from which they were mentally thousands of miles away. So many of these now fully mature men, for few returned with their youth in tact, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for so many years after and even to this present day. The dilemma at home was the need to receive the comfort and support to start the healing process combined with the need for understanding and the need to feel they belonged to a society that shared the horrors, guilt and disgust. Few of them received this sympathy, condemnation was the nation’s overall reaction.

In Larry Heinemann’s ‘Paco’s Story’ 1986, he describes the return to a hostile environment by a soldier faced with the barriers between those who fought and those who did not. The ignorance of those people and the lack of understanding of the following generation resulted in books such as Bobbie Ann Mason’s ‘In Country’ 1985, in which she searches for answers that could explain to her why her father was sacrificed in that terrible war, and analyses the overall effect of Vietnam on her generation. Mason conclude, as do many other writers who choose Vietnam as their subject matter, that all Americans are affected by ambiguous legacies of Vietnam. Isolation resulted in suicide; crime; sexual, drug and alcohol abuse. Indeed today the refuges, prisons and mental institutes are full of veterans unable to come to terms with their experiences. But just as abhorrent is the realisation that America is now saturated with middle aged men who have never released the pent up anger of that war. The effect on the families and particularly on the children of these men may not yet be recognised and predicting on the long term effects on future generations is almost impossible.

One thing is becoming self evident - American society and all those societies that American culture reaches are seeing a wave of violence, crime and abuse, the reasons for have yet to be fully dissected. It is important to remember that much of Vietnam literature was written in the 1970’s, when America was desperate to sweep the issue under the carpet. It was not written to satisfy public demand nor to defend America’s involvement, but more as confessionals by those coming to terms with their own guilt. For many it was several years before they were able to deal with PTSD and Vietnam stories are still hitting the bookstands over two decades after the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. In recent articles it has been suggested that Vietnam ended the American innocence about the politics of war. Possibly the Gulf War has temporarily diminished the so called ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ by helping to restore some form of self esteem to the people of America, but for President Bush to declare they had “kicked the Vietnam Syndrome” was clearly a political attempt to walk away from its consequences. This very same attitude decided America as the ‘policemen of the world’, whose intolerance towards communism took them into a land they had no place to be.

Whilst there can be little doubt that he success in the Gulf has aided the recovery process it would be naive for Americans to believe it could possibly exorcise Vietnam from the psyche of a large proportion of its people. I join Norman Mailer in the belief that history is too long and that the full affect of Vietnam has yet to be realised. Michael Herr agrees with Mailer, and in an interview with Eric Shroeder in ‘Vietnam, we’ve all been there’, he remarks that “America has never come to terms with Vietnam. Vietnam is big in the culture now. It’s right up there on the surface.” 1992:p.37. He goes on to declare that the American people are haunted by Vietnam and that they “haven’t felt the same about [themselves] since .” Understanding has become a fundamental necessity of life in the twentieth century, not only for ourselves but perhaps more importantly for those around us.

Most people have realised the importance of moving on and away from traumatic experiences whilst also recognising how imperative it is to constantly reflect on the life changing experiences. America is a proud country that lost its way, and when finally it is able to address the underlying reasons for being in Vietnam without laying the sole blame on their government, perhaps then and then only some good will come out of it all.


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