We must never forget that the Vietnam War created the most powerful antiwar movement in history. Even the Modern Language Association was shaken to its roots, making it sprout such forbidden fruit as the Radical Caucus. (2) The war and the movement against it transformed American culture and consciousness so deeply that our rulers have been forced to spend decades erasing memory and refilling it with fantasies, myths, illusions, and lies. These falsifications are necessary for the sweeping militarization of American culture, essential to our current epoch of endless imperial warfare.
President George Bush the First was remarkably frank about the need to brainwash us. As he explained in his 1989 inaugural address, the problem is that we still retain our memory: "The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory." What Bush meant by "Vietnam" by then was already no longer a country or even a war. Vietnam was something that had happened to us, an event that had divided, wounded, and victimized America. As the grotesque tide of one widely-adopted history textbook puts it: Vietnam: An American Ordeal? (3)
In that 1989 inaugural speech, Bush explicitly blamed "Vietnam" for all the "divisiveness" in America and the lack of trust in our government. Just two years later, gloating over what seemed America's glorious defeat of Iraq, he jubilantly boasted to a nation festooned in jingoist yellow ribbons, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" (4)
The "Vietnam syndrome" had entered America's cultural vocabulary in a 1980 campaign speech by Ronald Reagan, the same speech in which he redefined the Vietnam War as "a noble cause." (5)
By the late 1970s, the Vietnamese were already being transformed into fiendish torturers of heroic American POWs. By the mid 1990s, they were becoming erased from the picture altogether. Want a snapshot of the cultural progression from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s? The Academy Award for Best Picture of 1978 went to The Deer Hunter, which systematically replaced crucial images from the Vietnam War with their precise opposites, meticulously reversing the roles of victims and victimizers. The Academy Award for Best Picture of 1994 went to Forrest Gump, which projects Vietnam as merely an uninhabited jungle that for inscrutable reasons shoots at nice American boys who happen to be passing through. And from then on, one loveable American icon would be Gump, someone incapable of knowing or understanding history.
With the erasure of history came the reign of fantasy: a war fought with one hand behind our back; an invasion of the democratic nation of "South Vietnam" by the communists of "North Vietnam"; betrayal by the liberal media, pinko professors, and Jane Fonda; returning veterans spat upon by hippies; hundreds of POWs forsaken after the war to be tortured for decades; and so on.
Emerging from the quarter century of post-Vietnam War American fantasy are the students sitting in our college classrooms today. That fantasy lives inside their minds, its myths and phony images filtering and obscuring their vision of history, of America's actions in today's world, and even of themselves. This should not be looked upon as merely an impediment to education, or worse still, some infection to be cured with a dose of counter-brainwashing brainwashing.
Why? Because these students are in some senses the world's greatest experts on late 20th-century and early 21st-century American culture. They bring into the classroom invaluable experience and potential expertise on the current cultural role of "Vietnam." For them, the words "Vietnam" and "the Sixties" are powerful, complex, and disquieting signifiers. Precisely because those signifiers have become so falsified, today's students are potentially capable of experiencing something close to what millions of us experienced during the war: a direct confrontation with one's own false consciousness. For many of us, this was the most literally radicalizing experience, because it made us understand the very roots of our own perception of historical and cultural reality. We realized that we had indeed been brainwashed, and we learned who did it and why. We comprehended how 1950s American culture had made the Vietnam War possible. For many of us involved in the genesis of the Radical Caucus, we even began to see how thi s culture had determined how we had been reading and teaching literature, and even which literature we had been choosing to read and teach, and so we began to change our ways.
Well, we cannot very well load our students into a time machine so they can relive our Vietnam-era experience. However, that experience still lives on in forms that dynamically interact with American culture today. In response to the Vietnam War, America produced and continues to produce two great and wonderful achievements. The first is the antiwar movement itself, which is renewing its powers at this very historical moment. The second is a tremendous body of literature flowing out of the war and the consciousness it transformed. That literature--including fiction, poetry, memoir, songs, and film--exists today, continues to develop, and can act as an astonishingly effective agent of transformation. Maybe it's the closest thing we have to a time machine that can carry knowledge backward and forward from the Vietnam War to today's forever war.
Based on my own experience teaching a course on the Vietnam War and American culture for more than twenty years, I am convinced that no other literature has anything approaching this transformative force. (6) A revealing--and encouraging--sign of our times is the fact that this course, like similar courses around the country, is always overenrolled. But teachers do not need an entire course to share the impact of this literature with students. Introduced into any course exploring contemporary literature, it contextualizes almost all the other works created from the mid 1960s to the present-because the Vietnam War forms such a crucial part of the matrix of all contemporary Literature.
Vietnam War literature profoundly affects today's students because of its confrontation with their own false consciousness, because it casts such glaring light on our current crisis, and because "Vietnam" has such lingering and puzzling meaning for them. Anyone growing up in America in the past couple of decades probably has sensed the emotional temperature rising whenever the term "Vietnam" has been used in any group of adult Americans. Many of my students have fathers, uncles, or other relatives who fought in the war. Often this makes the subject taboo in their homes, thus arousing the usual human curiosity about forbidden zones. Many students are also drawn to what is known as "the sixties," which for some evokes a strange nostalgia. As one young woman put it, "I wish that I were the same age I am now in the sixties."
Some are deeply involved in the music of the period, which includes some important antiwar literature. For example, one student, a Creedence Clearwater fanatic, had a collection that included all their concerts and releases in every form--from 45s to CDs. He adamantly refused to believe that "Fortunate Son" was an antiwar song, until he saw it confirmed directly on John Fogarty's web site. Then he wrote a wonderful essay describing how this forced him to rethink his understanding of CCR and thus his own acculturation.
Vietnam veterans have an exalted place in today's pantheon of American heroes, sanctified by that myth of the spat-upon veteran. The literature by Vietnam veterans, unprecedented in scale and depth of insight, has amazing effects on students.
One text by a Vietnam veteran affects students more profoundly than any work of any kind I have taught in over four decades in university classrooms. That is Passing Time, a memoir by W. D. Ehrhart which makes readers participate in his own transformation from a gung-ho anti-Communist who enlisted in the Marines at the age of 17 and served two tours in Vietnam into a radical visionary artist. Once, when I walked into class the day the book was due, there was an odd hubbub. One conservative young man, who had attended military school and was planning to be a career military officer--and who had been arguing vociferously with me all semester--seemed especially upset. Suddenly he blurted out: "I've never read a book like this. It's changing my whole life." The next thing I knew, he was up in front of the class saying, "We've got to have this guy come talk with us. Why don't we kick in to get whatever it takes to bring him." There was a chorus of assent. Someone called out from the back, "Let's each put in five d ollars." Someone else yelled, "Five dollars? It costs seven fifty just to see a movie." (This was in 1993.) "O.K.," said a new voice, "let's make it ten dollars." And so these students, almost all of whom work to be able to afford college, contributed ten dollars apiece to get a visit from W. D. Ehrhart.
When I assigned Passing Time in a graduate seminar, five graduate students independently decided to assign the book in their freshman composition sections. All reported that it was by far the most effective and best liked text in their course.
Ehrhart's deep probing of his own consciousness and of American history helps prepare for that great text about memory and denial, Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods. This is such a demanding book that I was quite hesitant about assigning it to my students, who have not been well prepared for sophisticated reading. But again and again, I see it work as a breakthrough text, as students become absorbed in its psychological, historical, and philosophical challenges. For many, the novel makes the My Lai massacre a crucial nexus between what O'Brien calls "story truth" and "happening truth," and a devastating revelation of the horrors America is inflicting on the world and itself. Introduced as the sole Vietnam War text into my course "Crime and Punishment in American Literature," In the Lake of the Woods brings home with full force the devastating and timely issue of crimes committed by a nation, particularly our own nation.
This year offers a special opportunity for teaching Vietnam War literature as an awakening. Almost half a century ago, Graham Greene's The Quiet American foresaw how America, convinced of its own righteousness, preaching democracy and spewing bombs, might bathe the world in blood for decades to come. Greene saw the quiet American, affable and amiable, armored with innocence and the best intentions, as the archetypal terrorist of our epoch. When the novel appeared in 1955, it was savaged by the critical establishment. In 1958 the novel was made into a movie that turned Greene's message into its exact opposite: exalting anticommunism and American political missionary zeal, the movie was dedicated explicitly to the puppet America had installed to rule Vietnam. But in 2002, The Quiet American was made into another film, one faithful to Greene's vision. After September 11, Miramax Films tried to deep six the movie, but it has risen like the phoenix, opening wide in early 2003. The film makes a perfect bridge back to the novel, allowing its message to travel forward half a century into our own era, with its terrifying enactment of Greene's prophetic vision.
Poetry by Vietnam veterans not only explodes the phony history of the war but also demystifies poetry itself.
Marilyn McMahon's devastating poem "Knowing" obliquely illuminates Washington's professed outrage about Iraq's chemical weapons by reminding us of the most intensive chemical warfare in human history, that used by the United States in Vietnam. As a combat nurse, she knew the stated purpose of "defoliation" was destroying "the hiding places of snipers/ and ambushing guerrillas," but she did not know "the price" until all the nurses with whom she served had either multiple miscarriages or children with deformities or cancer. The poem concludes:
knew what I would never know, What the poisons and my fears have removed forever from my knowing, The conceiving, the carrying of a child, the stretching of my womb, my breasts. The pain of labor. The bringing forth from my body a new life I choose not to know if my eggs are misshapen and withered as the trees along the river. If snipers are hidden in the coils of my DNA. (7) Let me conclude with a fourteen-line poem by Steve Hassett, who served as a paratrooper in the First Air Cavalry: And what would you do, ma, if eight of your sons step out of the TV and begin killing chickens and burning hooches in the living room, stepping on booby traps and dying in the kitchen, beating your husband and taking him and shooting skag and forgetting in the bathroom? would you lock up your daughter? would you stash the apple pie? would you change channels (8)
(1.) Originally presented on December 28, 2002, to the Radical Caucus at the Modern Language Association Convention, this paper will (alas) probably be relevant for quite a while to come.
(2.) For an instructive history, see the Introduction to Louis Kampf and Paul Lauter, eds., The Politics of Literature: Dissenting Essays in the Teaching of English (New York: Random House, 1972).
(3.) This 1990 text written by George Donelson Moss and published by Prentice-Hall, a subsidiary of Viacom, had gone through three editions by 1998. Among the important studies that have explored how the war has been transformed into a trauma inflicted not by America on Vietnam but by Vietnam on America, see Susan Jeffords, The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (Bloomington, 1989); Fred Turner, Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory (New York, 1996); Keith Beattie, The Scar that Binds: American Culture and the Vietnam War (New York, 1998).
(4.) "Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome,"' Washington Post, March 4, 1991.
(5.) Turner, Echoes of Combat, 63; Arnold R. Isaacs, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghost, and Its Legacy (Baltimore, 1997), 49.
(6.) My "Vietnam and America" course began in 1980, just as the war was being redefined as a "noble cause." The course is described in my "Teaching the Vietnam War in the 1980s," Chronicle of Higher Education, November 4, 1981, an article that instantly generated a firestorm of criticism but also helped initiate courses at other institutions. To provide an historical text for the courses burgeoning in the mid 1980s, Marvin Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young, and I edited Vietnam and America: A Documented History (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 1984; revised edition, 1995). In 1996, I edited The Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems, which brings together a wide range of stories and poems, many by veterans, as well as some of the most popular and influential songs about the war, from Country Joe to Bruce Springsteen.
(7.) Reprinted in The Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems, ed. H. Bruce Franklin (Boston: Bedford Books/St. Martin's, 1996), 277-279.
(8.) Reprinted in The Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems, p.2.
After serving for three years as a navigator and intelligence officer in the Strategic Air Command, H. BRUCE FRANKLIN became a prominent figure in the movement against the Vietnam War. The author or editor of eighteen books and more than two hundred articles on culture and history, he is currently the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University in Newark.…