The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling

By Rollins, Peter C. | National Forum, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling


Rollins, Peter C., National Forum


MILTON J. BATES. The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996. 328 pages. $50 hardcover; $18.95 paperback.

We have long awaited such a detailed reading of Vietnam fiction and nonfiction by American authors and filmmakers. Milton Bates has chosen -- quite properly - to examine the conceptual frameworks of Americans reflected in the literature. In conducting his studies, he has been conscientious, honest, and - in his own way - fair. Yet this book delivers a skewed report of the Vietnam legacy.

The cover art features a painting entitled "Forms of Delirium" by John Saccaso; this grotesque image echoes the tone of the book. According to Professor Bates, the America that went to war did so with a number of cultural myths blinding it to the realities of the struggle:

Perverted in our attitudes toward the frontier by our Puritan heritage, we struck out with heartless violence at a demonized people.

As a racist society, we wrote the draft laws so that black Americans were channeled to frontline units.

As a capitalist society, we misused our working class on the battlefield with a callousness Karl Marx exposed during the early years of the industrial revolution.

As a sexist culture, we fabricated postwar movies to compensate for a masculinity lost in a failed war.

Finally, Kent State and Watergate disabused our baby boomers of their respect for the Establishment.

Professor Bates dredges these insights from the fiction of Norman Mailer, Larry Heineman, Tim O'Brien, Philip Caputo, David Rabe, Michael Herr, and Oliver Stone. Along the way, he applies an eclectic methodology drawn from scholars Richard Slotkin, Frederic Jamison, Paul Ricoeur, and - when the ideas function to critique American society Karl Marx. It is fruitless to challenge the lessons derived from this information base; the arguments involved were clearly articulated during the Vietnam war and have proved, ever since, to be the staples of discussion of its legacy in academic conferences and journals such as The Vietnam Generation.

To stress the positive, within the parameters Bates sets for his study, it is hard to fault his interpretations of the major novels and films. Indeed, the sections on Oliver Stone's Platoon and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now are sensitive readings of the visual medium -- showing attention to the scripts, the films themselves, and the varying receptions of these works by both elite and mass audiences. In addition, Bates's willingness to take issue with some of the reigning interpretations is to be applauded. Finally, he writes in a readable style -- unlike so many jargon-wielding academics who draw their methods from the works of Bakhtin, Riceour, Jamison and other post-modernists.

Milton Bates was drafted into the Army and served in an administrative capacity at Chu Lai (ninety miles south of DaNang) during 1969-70. He was part of the Americal Division one of whose officers, Lt. William Calley, entered the history books, incorrectly, as a symbol of all officers in Vietnam. (My Lai plus other incidents led to the disbanding of the unit after the war.) Such a life experience certainly did not encourage a sanguine attitude toward America's tragic Vietnam involvement. The works of fiction and film examined in this book could not provide the author with anything but confirmation of his perspective - indeed, Tim O'Brien, one of Bates' favored authors, also served in the Americal Division, albeit as a rifleman. …

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