MIA: African American Autobiography of the Vietnam War
Loeb, Jeff, African American Review
In a recent article in War, Literature, and the Arts, Perry D. Luckett took to task several critics writing for a special edition of Vietnam Generation that was dedicated to analyzing the representations of African Americans in the literature and popular culture of the war. Especially galling to Luckett was Herman Beavers's article "Contemporary Afro-American Studies and the Study of the Vietnam War," in which Beavers contends, among other things, that white-authored representations have "ideologically entrapped" the images of the war, leading to a situation in which "black and white soldiers [are] de-racialized" and we as readers are no longer "able to make distinctions between black and white" (9). Beavers further argues that, in lieu of our seeking out more accurately drawn representations by black authors, which he quite correctly notes are scarce, we instead have come to depend on white narrators, who mistakenly feel that, "against all odds, they understand the black grunt" and are thereby able to "decode the black presence in the war" (10, 12). Luckett rejoins that "these accusations of neglect and negative treatment are clearly exaggerated ... for positively depicted black soldiers are ubiquitous in Vietnam narratives" (1). Indeed, though Luckett's major criterion, "sympathetic treatment," seems finally to miss the point of Beavers's contention, his argument that white Vietnam authors have gladly granted black characters their proportionate share of the page nevertheless rings true, especially in works written in the past fifteen years (25).(1)
While this dispute suggests a recapitulation of the issues first joined in the sixties in response to William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, as well as some more recent eruptions of identity politics, the fact is that both critics seem to miss a much larger issue. The major question, it seems--the one that neither Beavers nor Luckett ultimately asks--is not how blacks have been represented by white authors but rather how they have been represented by black ones, because what is remarkable is that so few works in general, and memoirs in particular, have been written about Vietnam by African American veterans. Of the almost 600 Vietnam novels listed in Sandra Wittman's 1989 bibliography Writing about Vietnam, only 6 are black-authored: Coming Home (1971) by George Davis, De Mojo Blues (1985) by A. R. Flowers, Shaw's Nam (1986) by John Cam, Captain Blackman (1972) by John A. Williams, Runner Mack (1972) by Barry Beckham, and Fallen Angels (1988) by Walter Dean Myers--only the first three of which were written by Vietnam veterans. There are but four war-centered collections of poetry by African American survivors of Vietnam: Dien Cai Dau (1988) by Yusef Komunyakaa, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (1977) and In the Grass (1995) by Horace Coleman, and Mad Minute (1990) by Lamont B. Steptoe. In addition, there are two oral histories: Wallace Terry's Bloods (1985) and Brothers: Black Soldiers in the Nam (1985), which Clark Smith assembled from taped interviews of two black veterans, Stanley Goff and Robert Sanders.
Similarly, of the almost 400 self-generated memoirs by American Vietnam participants, only seven--less than two percent--are by African Americans. Further, not only are black-authored Vietnam autobiographies relatively few in number, but there has not been a new one published in over ten years, and only the most recent, Eddie Wright's Thoughts about the Vietnam War (1984), was composed exclusively in the post-Vietnam era. Four of the remaining memoirs were written before the war was over--David Parks's GI Diary (1968), Samuel Vance's The Courageous and the Proud (1970), Terry Whitmore's Memphis-Nam-Sweden: The Autobiography of a Black American Exile (1971), and Fenton Williams's lust Before the Dawn: A Doctor's Experiences in Vietnam (1971). The other two, A Hero's Welcome: The Conscience of Sergeant James Daly versus the United States Arm), by James Daly and Yet Another Voice by Norman A. McDaniel, both POWs, were published in 1975, within two years of the authors' release. This makes all six somewhat anomalous with the majority of white-authored narratives, which for the most part were, and are, being published several years after the writers' Vietnam experiences.
Congruent with this paucity of primary works is the lack of critical consideration. To date, only one critic, Norman Harris, has constructed anything approaching a comprehensive theory for analyzing and interpreting the African American literature of Vietnam. In his 1986 article "Blacks in Vietnam: A Holistic Perspective" (partially recapitulated in his 1988 book Connecting Times), Harris states that there is a "holistic" (which is to say identifiably representative) mode or "movement" that characterizes not only African American fiction of Vietnam but also what he calls "real world" black experiences (121). Both "fictive and real life characters" move through three stages in Harris's theory, either maturing into full "historical consciousness," if they complete the movement, or remaining trapped in "historical amnesia," if they are arrested at any point. According to Hams, the three stages include: " the desire to prove fighting skills and thereby be thought American,  the subsequent disillusionment occasioned by various forms of racism, and  the cultural historical search for clarifying precedents." Together, these provide "an interfacing of [the fictive and the real] worlds useful to determining how African Americans in the world dealt with the contradictions of the war" (125). The desired third stage, historical consciousness, is one in which the black character--or person, as the case may be--finally comes to realize his (or, conceivably, her, although he cites no examples of women veterans) place in "the historical continuity of whites' broken promises to Blacks after a war ends" (129).
An analysis of Harris's argument is instructive, although it should be noted that, however ambitious his theory, he essentially bases his contention that there is a unique and identifiable mode of black-authored representation of Vietnam on a very small universe of subjects: his reading of three novels--Captain Blackman, Tragic Magic, and Coming Home--only one by a Vietnam survivor, and no memoirs. Thus, while his identification of the three stages of the "war's meanings" to African Americans is useful in showing how the movement of fictive characters in the literature of Vietnam mirrors certain general aspects of African American culture, Hams fails to explore how black survivor-narrators have written themselves into this culture. Also, while Harris's identification of a multistage growth process by these characters is perhaps accurate, his attempt to create a relationship between them and actual people, "Afro-Americans in the world," is ultimately problematic because, in ignoring the available first-person accounts--i.e., the autobiographies, most of which do not, incidently, conform to his scheme--he is compelled to rely on highly mediated third-person accounts of the "real" subjects he considers, without ever questioning the reporters' purposes or the uses to which the pieces were put. For instance, he closely compares a New York Times story about Sgt. Dwight Johnson, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who eventually was
killed while attempting to rob a Detroit store owner, with Otis, the protagonist of Wesley Brown's novel Tragic Magic. His point is that both the actual Johnson and the fictional Otis suffer from a "lack of self-conscious historical perspective" that renders them unable "to see themselves within any kind of racial context," and this "ultimately makes their ends inevitable" (127). Such a comparison, however, ignores the fact that the story of Johnson is itself a journalistic representation, not a "real life" narrative, with a political/cultural purpose: to show Johnson as black victim of the war. The result is a once-removed psychoanalysis--done in the service of a thesis, an abstraction--of one of the war's survivors and the unconscious (though well-meant) perpetuation of the stereotype of the powerless victim of Vietnam driven berserk by the unseen phantoms of his or her trauma that continues in the imaginations of most Americans.
Mine is most decidedly not an argument for the valorization of survivor narratives over other types of accounts; such would ultimately constitute identity politics of an even more insidious sort than that represented by the Beavers-Luckett dispute. It is, however, an assertion that other modes of representation--mainly novels and journalism, including oral histories--have come, at the expense of the existing memoirs, to stand for all African American experience in Vietnam, largely because critics have chosen to ignore completely such testimonies, however few they are. I hope in this analysis of the existing African American memoirs of Vietnam to return, or to bring, some of the survivor accounts to the general attention of scholars and students of the war. In so doing, I also hope to be able both to identify the unique characteristics of this writing and to place it squarely in the canons of both African American autobiography and Vietnam literature. Without ignoring the value of either oral testimony or so-called "imaginative" writing, such as novels or poetry, by African Americans, I concentrate here exclusively on self-generated written testimony because I believe that it most accurately and tellingly reconstructs for us the total range of black experiences in Vietnam.
In general, the central fact of African American testimony on the Vietnam War is its constant awareness of racial difference--i.e, otherness. Each of the seven narratives is somehow designed to show the author's response to the realization that he is a minority subject in the larger narrative situation. Some of the memoirists accommodate themselves to this fact of racial difference, adopting strategies to show their cooperation with the white majority, while others resist being so defined, either through outright defiance or by the assertion of black racial autonomy and even superiority. Even though these black survivor narratives exhibit many of the same attributes as white-authored Vietnam memoirs, they nevertheless display an added layer of signification, marked by this purposeful foregrounding of the response to racial difference. In every case, this results in our constant awareness that what we are reading is simultaneously a Vietnam survivor narrative and the story of an African American subject. Thus, while each of the narratives has a decidedly individualized point of view of both the war and the writer's own experience, all exemplify as well a collective African American perspective lacking in the white-authored ones: what Darwin T. Turner calls racial "saturation"--i.e., a constant awareness of color--which Turner further defines as the "almost intuitive dependence upon allusions to and use of Black tradition, customs, ... and language or unique rhetorical devices" (145).
Parks's GI Diary, Wright's Thoughts about the Vietnam War, and Williams's lust Before the Dawn tend to be what Robert Stepto terms "eclectic narratives," ones not totally integrated as actual narratives. The other four fall into his category of "generic narratives," those fully self-integrated with a purpose "far more metaphorical than rhetorical"--which is to say, most linear and paradigmatic (27). Parks (the son, incidentally, of photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks) has written what his title suggests, a diary, to which he appends a number of his photographs. By virtue of its form, GI Diary bears comparison to such white-authored war journals as Oliver Wendell Holmes's Touched With Fire, but, by virtue of its mounting awareness of racial problems in Vietnam, it also displays a social and cultural component absent from that earlier work. A later (1984) reissue includes a foreword by the editor, Mel Watkins; an afterword by Parks; and several journal and newspaper reviews of the original edition. However, while the book is perhaps the most readable of the seven, because of the limitations of the diary form, it also remains in some ways the most minimal and limited in scope, despite these additions. Wright's book, on the other hand, consists basically of a series of essays and interviews with other veterans. It has value as a collection of commentaries on various black-oriented issues related to Vietnam, but at the same time its irregular form and ambiguous purpose make its inclusion in the category of narrative questionable. Williams begins with a narrative of his experience, but changes modes to an analysis of how the U.S. blundered into Vietnam, concluding with a polemic on world political conditions.
Ironically, of the seven narratives, only these three "eclectics" approach what Harris would term full "historical consciousness" of the racial situation in which they find themselves, suggesting that such a consciousness requires a sense of objectivity unattainable in the more self-conscious, "generic" memoirs. Of course, what is lost in these so-called eclectic accounts is a sense of a self seeking subjectivity through narrative, a hallmark of African American autobiography dating back to at least The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. For instance, while Williams quite clearly traces his progress from being a naive draftee, trusting of the government's sense of fair play and integrity, to his ultimate understanding of the insidious role that racism plays in determining foreign policy in places like Vietnam, he almost totally removes himself from the text as a first-person voice. Parks, having published his diary within a year of his return from Vietnam, chose nearly twenty years later merely to reissue it with additional commentary rather than writing a more integrated narrative, one that would afford him an opportunity to reflect on himself and the war. Wright, while not totally eschewing the personal, nevertheless chooses an objective form in which to pursue even the most self-reflective of observations. It is as if each of these narrators somehow felt that the appearance of objectivity, rather than subjectivity, was necessary to establish their authority.
Not so Vance and McDaniel, who construct distinct narrative identities for themselves. Both are career servicemen who attempt to show that the American military, in spite of its history of racial discrimination, is a viable place for African Americans able to measure up to a certain mark of excellence. Each in his way affirms the basic democratic system while criticizing certain of its particularities, though their particular methods for achieving this result differ markedly.
Overall, Vance's strategy is to construct an elaborate set of dialogues between himself and a variety of other "characters," black and white. He intersperses these with accounts of incidents in Vietnam, each one designed either to set up or to underscore one of the dialogues, thus exemplifying it. Throughout, he makes clear that his intent is to construct himself as the representative African American soldier--heroic (he won a Silver Star), dedicated, and able to lead--and in so doing to answer the frequent white criticism, dating back to the Revolution, that blacks are not equal to the task of war. In his alternation of (mostly) battle scenes with set pieces that reflect, in turn, on their "meaning," the book can be compared to later, more philosophical white-written memoirs such as Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War or John Ketwig's ... And a Hard Rain Fell. However, despite these structural and strategic similarities to white survivor accounts, The Courageous and the Proud is just as equally allied with the African American autobiographical tradition in a number of ways, especially in Vance's elaborate self-authentication strategies and his reveries on the elusive meaning of personal freedom.(2)
McDaniel, an ex-POW, wrote Yet Another Voice within a year of his release, at a time when POWs were being lionized as the American heroes of the Vietnam War. Unlike many white memoirs, its initial focus is not on any of the familial or cultural events that preceded the traumatic experience. There is no attempt, for instance, to construct a previous self, since McDaniel represents his writing self not only as intact and unchanged but also as actually strengthened by his trials. In this, his stance resembles that of Booker T. Washington, who admonished African Americans to regard their trials (slavery, in particular) as a cauldron where their mettle had been formed.(3) McDaniel begins with the ill-fated bombing mission that results in his capture and transportation to Hanoi by the North Vietnamese, and the bulk of the book is concerned with how he endures his captivity. Only when he is freed, after six and one-half years, does he begin to discuss his family and concerns for his future. The emphasis is thus on the trial and its aftermath rather than on any sense of loss, the most frequent subject of white narratives--although Robert C. Doyle groups Yet Another Voice with several white accounts that rely on "themes of religious resistance"(33).(4)
I have elected to analyze at some length the other two memoirs, James Daly's Hero's Welcome and Terry Whitmore's Memphis-Nam-Sweden, because in some ways they suffer the most from languishing in the unfortunate critical limbo to which all African American autobiography of the war has been relegated. Yet, their overall quality, perspective, and degree of self-reflection should have, in my opinion, long since earned them a place among the very best books about Vietnam by veterans, white or black, as well as having firmly ensconced them in the canon of contemporary African American autobiography. The sad fact is, however, that not only are these books barely mentioned in critical works but both were allowed to go out of print, though Whitmore's has recently been reissued.(5) Each narrative in its way typifies the situation in which young African American males found themselves in the sixties: Faced with the draft and near-guarantee of going to Vietnam, a limited future on the underside of white privilege often seemed slightly less palatable than the "opportunity" offered by military service, which seemed to promise a way out. Together, the books display the bipolar response to racial hatred that has defined the struggle for freedom and equality in African American history since Booker T. Washington rewrote Frederick Douglass: accommodation in the case of Daly, and resistance in that of Whitmore.
Accommodation: James Daly
Daly's A Hero's Welcome: The Conscience of Sergeant fames Daly versus the United States Army is the story of a conscientious objector who, despite his views, finds himself in the Army and Vietnam, only to be captured and compelled to spend five years as a POW. He emphasizes his African American heritage from the very first page--the title of the opening chapter, "Bedford Stuyvesant," immediately signals his race--but, perhaps because of his sensitivity to the later-revealed circumstances of his cooperation with his captors and the resultant charges brought against him by fellow prisoners, he is also anxious to present himself as a mainstream American who believes in the "system." Additionally, Daly represents himself as a person who acts within the framework of a moral code intrinsic to his self-identity, although not one so rigid that he does not subject it to intense scrutiny and not one exclusively formed by the dogmas of his church, the Jehovah's Witnesses, although their belief in nonviolence forms one of the bases for his code. Unlike his fellow captive Norman McDaniel he rarely calls on God to sustain him; faith in some sort of divine providence, while certainly integral to his maintaining morale throughout his ordeal, is clearly secondary to more human-centered ethics, such as how one treats other people. Ultimately, Daly's is a personal code, syncretic and somewhat pragmatic, but one against which he tests his every decision. It is one capable of sustaining him in the harshest of circumstances, whether the challenges to it are posed by his North Vietnamese captors or the U.S. Army (which the subtitle would suggest provided the more severe test). In fact, A Hero's Welcome is in many ways as much the story of Daly's code as that of the events of his captivity. Read this way, the book may be seen as a moral history of his life and times, as well as a Vietnam survivor narrative.
From his opening paragraph, Daly represents himself as operating within an ethical universe against outside authorities of questionable moral center. While still a senior in high school, he weighs his chances of being exempted against the rumored predilection of draft boards for regarding claims of conscientious objection as insincere. It is important to note that Daly at no point contemplates actively resisting lawfully constituted civil authority. Although he never says as much, it is nevertheless clear that such activities as draft evasion are not within the acceptable bounds of his code. Later, after he is in the Army, and those same authorities seem to have turned a deaf ear to his entreaties to allow him to leave the service because of his nonviolent beliefs, he on two occasions contemplates illegal acts, first by deserting and second by disobeying orders to report to a new duty station. However, he ultimately decides in both cases, after a great deal of self-searching, that neither action would be ethically correct and thus declines to pursue them further. Daly's moral ruminations at these points resemble those of Tim O'Brien in his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone. O'Brien also contemplates both draft evasion and desertion, but a major difference is that Daly approaches the decision from the standpoint of a religious conscientious objector, whereas O'Brien's quandary, as he readily confesses, is his natural reluctance to put himself in harm's way, coupled with peer pressure to resist the draft actively. O'Brien reports for duty, serves in Vietnam, and later recounts the trauma with a great deal of sensitivity; Daly, on the other hand, never abandons his ethical position--while in the Army, in Vietnam, or even in his captivity--and his narrative is the ongoing history of and rationale for that decision.
Daly represents himself as coming from a warm, nurturing family and community. His mother is highly supportive of his achievements in school, his religious beliefs, and his aspirations toward a career as a chef. He carefully constructs a picture of himself as an industrious, caring, and responsible individual possessed of strongly instilled values: "... I spent almost all my spare time at odd jobs ... from families in the neighborhood--cleaning houses, washing windows or cars, and even baking cakes and pies on the holidays" (13). At the same time, he also tells the story of his eventual induction. Actually raised as a Baptist, he converts to the Jehovah's Witnesses as a teenager but is unable at age eighteen to begin training as a minister, as he had planned, because this would require of him 100 hours a month in community and church service, and the demands of his helping to support the family will not permit this investment of time. So he plans to forgo the training until he can save a sufficient amount of money. To his chagrin, he discovers too late--when he receives his draft notice--that not being a minister also means that he cannot legally claim conscientious objector status. In an attempt to discover whether his draft board's decision on this subject is in fact the correct one, Daly (in an act of slightly incredible naivete) goes to ask his local Army recruiter, whom he feels will be more knowledgeable and whom he trusts because the recruiter is an African American. Naturally, he is duped. The recruiter wins his confidence, tells him with suitable empathy that the draft board is indeed correct, and then convinces him to join the service because doing so will mean that he can choose noncombat duty, thus providing him a de facto opportunity to live up to his religious beliefs. Of course, the recruiter is lying, and Daly inevitably ends up in the infantry with orders for Vietnam. The dynamic of conflict over the issue of nonviolence that motivates the entire narrative is thus set up by Daly's initial strategy of pitting himself against uncaring and unscrupulous authorities.
Daly's representations of the problems resulting from his religious beliefs are inextricably bound up with his perceptions of racial difference, and in many cases they compound each other. For instance, his mother, who naturally is extremely upset at his misguided decision to enlist, counsels him not to reveal his beliefs about nonviolence to anyone in the Army because she knows that doing so will only add to his troubles. Daly initially agrees, reflecting that "being different had always made things a lot rougher" (9). While thus revealing an early awareness of the consequences of being classified as racially different, Daly also seems to suggest, through his experience with the black recruiter, that bonds of race alone are not always sufficient for trust--that community values and ethical behavior are, in fact, the correct bases for responsible human relationships.
Once in the service, Daly is immediately made aware of the military's underlying racism through his white drill instructor: "There were only two blacks in the platoon, me and another guy. I found out fast that the sergeant already had us categorized in his mind" (11). After a series of the sort of trumped-up confrontations typical of boot camp, the sergeant makes it clear that he intends to harass him for the duration, which in fact he does. This experience, coupled with the discovery that the recruiter had lied about his being able to avoid Vietnam, serves to rekindle Daly's resolve to assert his conscientious objector status in an effort to get a discharge. At each point that he does this--three in all, each at a different temporary training station after he leaves boot camp--he is rebuffed, either by direct denial of his request or by some off-putting subterfuge designed to placate him until he is transferred. In the meantime, he is given the worst of duty--permanent KP--as a subtle punishment for his persistence. Eventually, the Army gives him orders for Vietnam with the terse message that he has been "`turned down all the way'" on his requests for CO status (35). Throughout this ordeal, Daly represents himself as patient and long-suffering, following the proper channels and never disobeying orders. Although he clearly sees the connection between his being African American and the failure of his CO requests, he never publicly asserts this linkage. Nor does he condemn in print those officers and NCOs (all white) that deceived and manipulated him, even though it is some nine years later when he writes his narrative, well after the point when any retaliation would have been possible. Daly's is thus a carefully crafted self-image, designed to show his sense of personal commitment at the time of his service, as well as his subsequent moral restraint.
The largest part of Daly's narrative concerns his time in Vietnam and his captivity. Although he continues in his attempts to achieve CO status even after arriving in Vietnam, he is totally unsuccessful. Ultimately, he is able to argue his position all the way to the office of his commanding general, only to be rejected once again and sent back to his unit marked as a coward. Finally, realizing that some action will be necessary to convince the Army of the sincerity of his assertions, he tells his company commander that he will not fire, or indeed load, his weapon, even in combat. He is subsequently threatened with both prison and personal harm, but he refuses to relent. Eventually, not knowing what else to do, his superiors accept the actualities, if not the ethics, of his objections to combat duty, although he is--astoundingly--still sent out on patrols and made to stand guard--with an unloaded weapon!
Daly is ultimately captured during a firefight, related in harrowing detail, in which he is wounded and the Americans' position overrun by the Viet Cong. Because this takes place in South Vietnam, and because his captors are not North Vietnamese Army regulars, Daly undergoes trials far different from those of the majority of POWs, who were captured in North Vietnam after parachuting out of crippled planes. He is forced to spend nearly a year being moved from one miserable location to another in order to avoid American troops and bombs, fed only as well as his captors, which is very nearly not at all, and left to doctor his own wounds. Eventually, he is transported up the Ho Chi Minh Trail and imprisoned in Hanoi with other POWs. It is only here that Daly is able to reenter a community of any sort, and this reentry and the subsequent events form the biggest and most crucial part of the narrative. He is immediately subjected, like all the other POWs, to continuous indoctrination by his NVA captors in an effort not only to break down the fledgling community of prisoners but also to gain some propaganda edge in the war of words being fought before the entire world. For instance, they attempt to force several of the Americans to sign a letter condemning the war. Although many do so, Daly initially refuses, feeling that, whatever his personal position in regard to war, his sworn allegiance to his country takes precedence, and that the ultimate consequences of signing would be worse for him because he is African American and a CO: "... in the eyes of the army I was a problem ... [and] this would mean that the military would ... single me out for discipline" (124). Because his captors rightly feel that Daly's race would prove to be an especially effective propaganda coup for them, they also put a great deal of pressure on the other cooperating prisoners in order to get them to help force him to sign. However, even segregating him with other black prisoners and then lecturing the group on the racial inequities in the U. S. does not convince him. These incidents are told in great detail, keeping the fact of Daly's constant examination of his deeply felt ethical sense in the foreground of the narrative, as well as poignantly conveying his awareness of the irony of his position:
... I considered even then how all this
was a way of thinking I'd seriously
have to question sooner or later. Here I
was, truly against the war and everything
it represented, probably with
stronger convictions than any other
POW at the camp--yet I was refusing
to sign a letter protesting it. And what
really bothered me was ... that, somewhere
along the way, I had allowed
the system to intimidate me.
Somehow, I had been made to act contrary
to what I believed in--just like
when I joined the army and came to
Vietnam in the first place. (124-25)
Eventually, after witnessing or hearing about a number of American atrocities--including the poison spraying of North Vietnamese rice paddies and Henry Kissinger's public pronouncements of sincerity and piety while Richard Nixon was secretly authorizing the bombing of civilians--as well as undergoing a great deal of self-searching, Daly would begin to reexamine his position: "My ideas about things--and my values--were much like they had been. Still, some basic feelings just weren't the same. ... Something about the war, and about the Vietnamese people, was beginning to get to me" (153). At length, his doubts extend not just to whether to sign the letter but also to his affiliation with the Jehovah's Witnesses, heretofore a sustaining element for him. Finally, he not only relents and signs but "converts," as it were, to the communist ideology. The basis for this conversion is his dawning sense that communism is an activist-based belief, grounded in a desire for human betterment, whereas the Jehovah's Witnesses counsel noninvolvement in contemplation of rewards in the hereafter. Ultimately, Daly decides that the human supersedes the divine. When he ultimately makes his decision, it is based largely on his reactions to the facts of racial and social difference in America, a point toward which the argument with himself has been building:
I could understand why [the white
POWs] were down on communism.
Everything in their backgrounds and
upbringing acted to make them resist
what Cheese and Roly-Poly [guards]
taught. And, of course, the Vietnamese
were not able to appeal to them on the
basis of [their] being both poor and
black. That was a tough combination
to beat when it came to hard times and
hard living in the United States. And
the funny part of it was, as much as
our backgrounds, as Negroes, might
have made it easier to be sympathetic
to the Vietnamese at times, I sensed, as
I often had, an understanding and
sympathy for us on their part. Maybe
that awareness helped play a role in
my going it like I did. (180-81)
This passage not only illustrates the affinity between the Vietnamese and black Americans based on their mutual perception of being classified as racially other by white Americans--an observation made, incidentally, by every single African American memoirist--but its tone, one of understanding rather than venom, exemplifies what I believe to be Daly's ultimate purpose in the narrative: a self-reconstruction as one committed to overcoming boundaries through interracial cooperation and assimilation. For instance, while Daly seems to pattern his prison conversion on that of Malcolm X, whose autobiography his captors provide him with (211), his attitude toward whites following this conversion is far different from that of Malcolm, who, of course, spends a good deal of the latter half of his book castigating them. Rather, forgiveness and forbearance are themes that Daly develops, although subtly, throughout his narrative, and they are only amplified, by weight of their repetition, after his conversion. For example, never once has he to this point spoken an ill word against the several whites who either failed to process his CO application, in effect condemning him to five years of captivity, or harassed and threatened him for not firing his weapon. Nor does he, later in the book, criticize the actions of those white ex-POWs who bring charges against him after all of them are released and returned to the U.S. in 1973. The effect of this strategy is to underscore the ethical dimension of Daly's character, thereby lending more emphasis to the sincerity of his claims that he is truly opposed to violence, the fact that produces the central conflict and raison d'Etre of the autobiography.
The consequences of his conversion are both immediate and far-reaching. He is at once given better treatment by his Vietnamese captors, and he is placed in superior living quarters, with a group of other cooperative prisoners who call themselves the Peace Committee. He is, on the other hand, ostracized by many of the other POWs, especially those more intractable ones, mainly higher ranking career military officers, who consider any form of cooperation with the enemy treason. In effect, his former enemies become his friends and his allies his enemies; a new community is thus born, the first Daly has experienced since leaving Bedford-Stuyvesant. However, as it becomes more apparent in late 1972 that the Paris Peace Accords are about to be signed, with their promise that the POWs will soon be returning to the U.S., Daly's anxieties over his situation mount. He ponders what will happen to him as a result of his cooperation and considers going to Sweden instead of returning. Ultimately, though, he rejects this plan because he is drawn to his family and American community, whatever the consequences. When, however, in early 1973 the Accords are in fact signed and the POWs indeed released, these consequences are almost immediately felt, and Daly is compelled once again, like many earlier African American narrators, to contemplate just how elusive freedom's nature is.
Confused, not just about his beliefs but also as a result of the deep trauma he has suffered, Daly nevertheless is immediately debriefed by military authorities, and he speaks freely of his experiences and the ethical quandaries they had placed him in:
I told them straight out how I'd come
to believe that communism had done a
lot of good for the Vietnamese people
in the north. But I also told them what
bothered me about it. That in turning
the people away from God, it was, as
the Jehovah's Witnesses would say,
doing the work of the devil--"making
bitter taste sweet." I suppose, right
then, all these different ideas and conflicts
I went on about w[ere] really my
way of saying how mixed up about
things I was feeling. And I just went on
talking freely, never really knowing
how much harm I could be doing
myself by saying the things I did. (246)
He is kept on a military base and accompanied everywhere by military escorts--black, incidentally, because he is black, thus re-accentuating his sense of racial difference--who are to "assist" him with his transition (240). He is puzzled that he is not even allowed to see his family. Eventually, it becomes clear to Daly that he is receiving "special" treatment as a result of what other POWs have related to the American military authorities about his activities with the Peace Committee (241). His notions of freedom undergo a painful dislocation: "That Saturday morning, I stayed in my room, sweating it out. I had three men with me all the time now--Richman, a Sergeant Bland, and a guy from the military police. It was pretty clear that what the army called my `escorts' were really my guards" (247). However, his confusion is just beginning.
While the military authorities continue to assure him that he is in no trouble, they nevertheless assign him an attorney, who advises Daly immediately to seek a discharge, as other members of the Peace Committee are doing, in order that the military will have no jurisdiction over him and consequently be unable to file charges. He refuses because he is convinced that his actions have been completely ethical, and thus completely defensible. His reliance on the absolute defense of ethical behavior is soon proved flawed as a strategy, however, as first one, then another, of the former POWs, both officers, file charges against him for treason and mutiny. While both sets of charges are eventually dismissed out of hand by a military court, Daly is now left truly confused and in an untenable position, compelled to leave the insecurity of the Army for the greater insecurity of civilian life. It is here that the narrative past converges with the writing present, and we are given Daly's ending position, one of professed optimism, tinged nevertheless with confusion over the ethics of racial difference.
Daly's closing paragraphs concern both his moral beliefs and the racial situation in the U.S., which has changed since his departure in 1967. While still professing to adhere to certain communist tenets, he observes that "more and more, I found myself looking toward religion again" (265). His dilemma, which he had first formulated in the Hanoi Hilton, remains whether to be of the world, and attempt to change it as well as to better himself, or to seek only to spread the word of personal salvation in a distant hereafter. For him, the question turns on his perceptions of racial difference, but the book ends with the conciliatory, assimilative tone integral to his purpose: "... I still had to find my way in the society I'd come back to. Somehow, to get beyond some low paying job that would force me to live in a ghetto, just getting by, just existing.... I'd have to get busy. Finding a place for myself was going to be a full-time job" (265). His final comment reflects the spirit that helped sustain him throughout his ordeal: "... Maybe in a way I was lucky I went to Vietnam. So many of those who stayed in my neighborhood had gotten caught up in crime ... or hooked on dope. It could have happened to me like that" (265).(6)
Underscoring this ending, which, like the opening, suggests that industry and the proper attitude will ultimately compensate for racial difference, is the Afterword, written by Daly's collaborator on the book, Lee Bergman. In it, Bergman "brings us up to date," to 1975, by telling us that Daly is married and, after having worked for a period for minimum wage, now has his own business (267). He "looks ahead," Bergman states, is "optimistic about his future." Daly's only regret, Bergman suggests, is that he never "received the Purple Heart he earned on the battlefields of Vietnam." The final testament to Daly's situation is provided, however, not by Bergman, nor indeed by Daly himself, but by his attorney, Elliott Vernon. Vernon concludes, quite without irony, that, contrary to the "happy" ending described by Daly, in which he is discharged and free of the military, "it would have been more beneficial to have tried the case" because he would have been "vindicated"--i.e., there would have been some sort of legal closure--whatever the consequences might have been for Daly (267). It is a conclusion reminiscent in many ways of that of Native Son, and Daly, like Bigger Thomas and, indeed, like countless other African American autobiographers dating back to the eighteenth century, has thus by the book's end been relieved of his own voice. By comparison, as I argue in the following analysis, this is an ending that Terry Whitmore, his similar narrative circumstances notwithstanding, manages to avoid.
Terry Whitmore: Resistance
Unquestionably, one of the reasons for the neglect of Whitmore's remarkable Memphis-Nam-Sweden: The Autobiography of a Black American Exile is that it is the story of a deserter, a position ideologically unacceptable since at least the early Reagan years. However, I would also submit that the unfamiliarity of its form to readers and critics of white Vietnam memoirs--in particular its affinities with a number of authorizing strategies employed by African Americans since the antebellum slave narratives--is even more responsible for its marginalization. For instance, as opposed to discussing the trauma of his ordeal in the manner of most white narrators, Whitmore instead stresses ways in which racial difference affected him throughout his entire story--from his home life to Marine Corps boot camp to his desertion to his final, uncertain situation as an exile in Sweden. The following passage phrased in the bitterly comic language that marks the entire book--in which he reflects on the news that he is being sent back to Vietnam from Japan after his rehabilitation from wounds, is indicative of the degree to