“Why do you read those war books?” is a question I hear fairly often. At home, on airplanes, at bookstore check-out counters, posed by friends and relatives and strangers, the question is usually accompanied by a slight gloss of recoil or some subtle suspicion in the eyes of the questioner.
“These aren’t war books,” is my usual reply, “they’re peace books.”
I try to explain that all of the great literature about war is basically anti-war in outlook. Written in horror, in ghastly remembrance, in angst, in screaming protest, in a cry of belligerence and rebellion and revolt against the forces that perpetrate the killing, the best war literature makes the most compelling case imaginable for peace. In fact, the final and most important duty of artists who deal with the subject of war is to show it whole in all its terror and madness; to expose its futility and pain; to shine light into the dark animal places in men’s souls; to demystify and de-glorify and de-idolize; and, ultimately, to tell the truth.
THE SILENT DECADE
But it takes a decade or so, many observers have noted, for a nation’s most recent war to begin evidencing itself in art. Literature, painting, cinema, music — all are usually quiet for the first ten years of peace. Much of the great anti-war poetry and prose of World War I appeared during the 1920s. The recognized landmark works of fiction that dealt with World War II — books like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead — were published in the mid-1950s. now, a decade after America’s longest and most demoralizing war, library and bookstore shelves are filling up with books about Vietnam.
Why the long silence? Several reasons have been suggested, but one is particularly persuasive. The silence of art, it suggests, is the outward reflection of an inner quietude, a deep human wish on the part of both artist and the audience to forget. Like our individual psyches, which have a kind tendency to slowly suppress and put away pain and suffering, the collective psyche of society may have a similar bent. When the boys come marching home, we want to welcome them, but we don’t want to hear their horror stories. The veterans, of course, quickly learn not to talk to unreceptive audiences. Madness and terror give way to a terrific urge for normalcy. So there is silence. A decade of return to the peaceful status quo ensues, and society tacitly agrees to deny, to pretend, to say as little as possible.
But war and truth will out. The veterans who see it firsthand and the artists who experience it from afar can’t hold back the tide forever. War experiences, with all their intensity and death, are simply too undeniable to be locked away and forgotten. So the art now being produced about Vietnam — the plays, the films, the poetry, novels, short stories, paintings, sculpture, and on and on — is part of an exponential growth in awareness, in public interest, and in the outpouring of artists who sometimes have an enormous amount to say about the nature of war and its effect on our souls.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
In 1975, fewer than a dozen novels with Vietnam as their central theme were published. In 1985, more than 200 were released. Despite this tremendous outpouring, and despite the fact that good literature about war is wonderful to read, the truly excellent novel on Vietnam is a rare commodity. There are three distinct categories of novels about the war experience: real literature, failed attempts at literature, and the potboiler (the good, the bad, and the ugly, if you will).
The potboiler is fairly simple to recognize and thereby avoid. Full of turgid, breathless writing, it is the macho equivalent of the Gothic bodice-ripper or romance novel — simplistic, arch, shallow, insipid, designed to appeal directly to the lower passions, as the Victorians would have said. The potboiler’s innate ugliness manifests itself in several ways — lurid covers and/or titles, the words “men’s action-adventure” prominently displayed, any indication that the book in question is part of a continuing saga, and the themes of valorous slaughter or of heroic, gory victory. Truckloads of these travesties have been printed in the past few years, the lives of countless innocent trees sacrificed for their blood-soaked pages (which gives rise to fundamental questions about America’s forestry management policies, but that’s another essay). Some of these ugly books have ever been made into blockbuster box-office movies complete with muscle-bound stars killing everyone in sight, in what we’ll call the “Vietnam revisionist” mode: that is, we really won; or at least we would have won if (a) the crooked, cowardly politicians, (b) the wimpy peace queers, or (c) the commie-sympathizing liberals hadn’t messed it up.
This development is worth mentioning only because there is such a gigantic, believing audience for its message: war is glorious, but only when the good guys (us white Americans) beat the bad guys (them gooks, slopes, huns, ay-rabs, etc.). War is not glorious when the good guys lose, says the corollary. America lost in Vietnam. Consequently, in these silly and inane entertainments, the Vietnam veteran is redeemed by fictional victory. Books of this ilk, needless to say, are best shunned like a bad smell.
Unfortunately, it is the sheer volume of such work that gives the serious war novel a bad name. When people think “war book,” it is these garish, strutting trash novels that come to mind. Luckily, there is more. Probably fifty or a hundred truly fine attempts at the great Vietnam novel have been published, some to wide acclaim and readership. Most have not received their due, though, either critically or in terms of audience size. And that’s a pity, because any writer who makes the brave attempt to confront the central event of America’s recent history in a single novel deserves praise. Still, many of these more serious attempts fail outright, and some get only part of the way there.
A FEW OF THE BAD
The critic Michiko Kakutani, writing recently in The New York Times Book Review, suggested in his brilliant essay on Vietnam war fiction that many of the novels can be summarized with a simple plot formula:
“The naive or gung-ho hero’s initiation into military life at boot camp; his arrival in Southeast Asia; his encounters with suffering, pain and death; his attempts to escape the realities of war by drinking, whoring, and fantasizing; and his return to an indifferent America.”
This device, which we’ll call the “American-innocent-gets-his-eyes-opened theme,” is the basis for much Vietnam literature, including some finely written but flawed books. James Webb’s Fields of Fire,
Frederick Downs’ The Killing Zone,
Winston Groom’s Better Times Than These,
Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters,
and Tom Suddick’s A Few Good Men
all rely on this formulaic approach. There is some good writing in each of these books, so it is cruel and unwarranted to label them “bad,” but they have such naive, uninformed premises that they will probably never qualify as truly great. Some are even compelling, informative, sometimes powerful books, but it is doubtful that anyone will read them into the next century. One should read them and similar books only for their factual side and their portrayal of the horrors of war.
Anger is, understandably, a common thread here. There is anger at the government, at the officers, at other soldiers, at the hawks or the doves, but especially at the duped self. This is what we called the walking wounded syndrome in Vietnam, that psychological conviction that you’ve been screwed. It can, at times, masquerade as the real moral agony a human being must undergo when he or she decides, no matter how consciously, to take life. Robert A, Anderson’s Cooks and Bakers, Donald McQuinn’s Targets, and William Turner Huggett’s Body Count all fit into this category. These are not just angry young men or furious writers, these are writers whose vitriol spills wholesale into their characters and comes spilling out over everything. These books are at least more satisfying to read than the rest of their class, having the virtue of being cathartic and sometimes moving, filled with feeling and raw emotion.
John Del Vecchio’s big novel The 13th Valley deserves special mention in this category, because it is a perfect example of the American-innocent genre, and it is so horrifically bad. A serious enterprise that went terribly wrong — like the war itself, some would say — Del Vecchio’s muddled book is based on the 101st Airborne Division’s official history of a particular campaign fought near the DMZ. The book does have some well-executed writing in places, but is full of endless pontificating on the morals of war between its soldiers/characters. This is tiresome and unrealistic, but even worse is the central idea of basing the narrative and plot structure of any novel about Vietnam on an official Army history. The most apt analogy for such a technique might be attempting to write the definitive account of the Bay of Pigs by relying solely on CIA documents.
NOW FOR THE GOOD STUFF
The best novels written about Vietnam are incredible journeys into the human mind and spirit. They expose the rawest and most base of mankind’s emotions and instincts, and they illuminate the highest and most spiritual aspects of human existence. They deserve, without any reservation, shelf space in the pantheon of great books.
Interestingly, many of these books are set in the United States, not in Vietnam, and others take a skewed, somewhat tangential view of the war, as if the only way to experience it fully in fiction were fantasy or some sense of remove from the proceedings.
Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato is the prime example of a creative, enormously innovative approach to war and peace in a work of fiction. Cacciato, the somewhat mysterious protagonist, decides that the war isn’t for him, so he leaves — on foot — in a fanciful journey across Asia towards Europe. His platoon pursues. Their mythical chase from eastern to western culture, from Saigon to Paris, is a wild, funny, profound, surreal careening of characters across the bomb-cratered landscape of contemporary life and its relationship to war.
Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers is even better — a crazed, lunatic vision of America poisoned by Vietnam and by the drugs that emanated from the underbelly of the war. Stone’s fine book bears reading and re-reading for its careful, psychotic dissection of all that is wrong with the American character. Dog Soldiers, more than any other Vietnam novel, bases the causes of the war and its consequences on those who were affected by it. This is a nightmare book, in which betrayal and triple-dealing and the scam are morally acceptable, and the vision of death and putrefaction underlies all. When people ask about the best Vietnam novel, Dog Soldiers usually gets my nod — but don’t read it if you are prone to bad dreams.
In another way, Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers takes on Vietnam as a horrible psychedelic sleep disturbance, replete with some of the most driven and hard-hitting language in any book about the war. This book is incredible, if you can stand it. Its nonfiction counterpart — Michael Herr’s Dispatches — is just as fine, but nowhere near as scary, terrible, gaunt, haunting. Hasford treats the war in a kind of verbal shorthand that is difficult at first, but soon becomes some of the most brutal writing about the war, period. This is not a book for the faint or the squeamish, but it is one for any adult who wants to truly understand what war can do to those who fight it. Sadly, it’s hard to find, but perhaps the movie now in the works will remedy that problem by generating a re-release.
The Last Best Hope is completely different from the others just mentioned, because it focuses on the political side of the war with its chief setting in the U.S. anti-war movement. It is by far the finest novel of polemics to come out of the war era, with some expert characterizations, a subplot based on Einsteinian versus Newtonian physics, a passionate love story, and a tragic outlook on the future. This is near-great work — a novel of grace, power, and stamina; it is wonderful to read and a singular joy to give to others. It also, unfortunately, is hard to find. The author, Peter Tauber, hasn’t written anything in book form since, to everyone’s loss.
Two recent books by women authors who never served in Vietnam also belong on this list — Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips and Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country. Both novels have as their central characters women too young to have experienced the war directly, but who were deeply and direly affected by its outcome. The women, along with the countries they inhabit, bring a new perspective to the war that combatant/participant characters can’t — a raw yet once-removed participation that reminds us of what war does to everyone who lives during its horrendous course. Machine Dreams especially is to be commended for its superb writing, which is seamless, tough, and without sentiment in a sentimental setting.
James Crumley’s One to Count Cadence is another Vietnam masterpiece. First published in the initial blush of tentative war novels in 1973, Crumley’s accomplishment is to describe the healing and the pain of a wounded veteran better than anyone has, complete with rage, sadness, relief, and guilt worthy of the lasting characters of literature.
These are just a sampling of the twenty-five or thirty great books about Vietnam. Jerome Charyn’s War Cries Over Avenue C, Nicholas Profitt’s Gardens of Stone, Kenn Miller’s Tiger the Lurp Dog, John Sack’s Mr, and Robert Roth’s Sand in the Wind are easy additions to this outstanding body of work, and there are others as well, yet to be published. All of them offer that amazing, flash-experience kind of insight that only simply great writing can give, the direct connection to the brain and the heart and the soul that changes permanently the way we see the world. Pick one up and read it — the intensity and the purity of the experience of any of these books can’t be done justice in such a short forum, but can only be discovered in time alone with the writers and the great costs their incredible books must have exacted.
Robert A. Anderson. Cooks and Bakers. Avon, 1982.
Jerome Charyn. War Cries Over Avenue C. Donald I. Fine, 1985.
James Crumley. One to Count Cadence. Random House, 1973.
John Del Vecchio. The 13th Valley. Bantam, 1982.
Frederick Downs. The Killing Zone. Norton, 1978.
Winston Groom. Better Times Than These. Summit, 1978.
Gustav Hasford. The Short-Timers. Harper & Row, 1979.
Larry Heinemann. Close Quarters, Popular Library, 1974.
William Turner Huggett. Body Count. Dell, 1973.
Bobbie Ann Mason. In Country. Harper & Row, 1985.
Donald McQuinn. Targets. Tor, 1980.
Tim O’Brien. Going After Cacciato. Delacore, 1975.
Jayne Anne Phillips. Machine Dreams. Dutton, 1984.
Nicholas Profitt. Gardens of Stone. Bantam, 1985.
Robert Roth. Sand in the Wind. Little, Brown, 1973.
John Sack. Mr. New American Library, 1966.
Robert Stone. Dog Soldiers. Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
Tom Suddick. A Few Good Men. Avon, 1978.
Peter Tauber. The Last Best Hope. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977.
James Webb. Fields of Fire. Prentice-Hall, 1978.
David Langness is a writer, peace activist, and highly decorated Vietnam veteran. Serving as a conscientious objector combat medic near the Demilitarized Zone in 1970 and 1971, he witnessed several of the war’s worst battles firsthand. His novel about the Vietnam war, BRUTAL CUSTOMS, is slated for publication in 1987.