Viet Nam Generation
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A discussion of Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, originally given as a talk to the Freshman Forum at La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA, October 15th, 1991.
If you look at the copyright page of Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, you will find the following sentence: "Special thanks to W.D. Ehrhart for helpful advice." That acknowledgment came about in the following manner:
In the winter of 1984, I got a telephone call from Mason. She explained that she had heard of me through a colleague of her husband's at Rodale Press, where I had worked the previous year. Her husband had told his colleague that she was working on a novel about the Viet Nam war, and the colleague had told him about me and suggested that she read my book, Vietnam-Perkasie. She told me she had indeed read the book, along with a great many other books about the Viet Nam war, but that she was still fearful of getting the story wrong.
She of course had not been in Viet Nam or in the military, and the war and its attendant domestic repercussions had largely passed her by. Now she was worried that she might embarrass herself, introduce military terminology or hardware that was not appropriate to Viet Nam, or create scenes or situations that were not possible in reality. The bottom line was a polite, almost timid request that I read her manuscript with an eye toward technical accuracy.
I had never heard of Bobbie Ann Mason before this phone call came out of the blue, and I was a little skeptical, in those days, of a non-Viet Nam veteran expropriating the experience of Viet Nam and making it her own. But I was flattered that she thought well enough of my own book to ask me for help, and having been the recipient over the years of a lot of help from others acting under no obligation but generosity, I told her I'd do it. And I did.
For the most part, I liked the story very much, and I was deeply impressed by the obvious fact that Mason had done her homework. I don't recall the specific errors I brought to her attention--small things like the wrong kind of rifle here, the misuse of a term there--but they were very few and very far between. I remember that Mason had been especially concerned about the veracity of white birds Emmett remembers so wistfully, but she needn't have been. She had given me, it turned out, a very easy and enjoyable task as well as a bit of an honor; I don't suppose there are all that many people who can claim to have read a bestseller before it has even been published.
Being an opinionated fellow, however, I could not resist the temptation to exceed the parameters of my charge and offer her some advice concerning the shape and substance of the story itself. Two elements of the narrative did bother me, and I told her so.
The first is the absence of any significant Viet Nam veteran who has not been, in one way or another, visible and permanently damaged by his collision with Viet Nam. Emmett Smith can't hold a job or open himself to the attractive and nurturing Anita Stevens. Tom Hudson is sexually impotent. Earl, who is not given a last name, is belligerent and confrontational. Pete Simms fires his shotgun at nothing and wallows in the delusion that some nebulous "they" wouldn't let "us" win. The one man who appears to have his life together, Jim Holly, subsequently discovers that his wife has left him.
Viet Nam veterans, as a group, have had a tough time. The statistics on suicide, incarceration, divorce, unemployment and other indicators of trouble have been widely broadcast in the years since the war ended. You can look them up easily enough. Viet Nam was a very peculiar war in many ways, and some of the burdens Viet Nam veterans have had to cope with are rare in the American experience. But the truth is that, in many significant ways, we have had it no tougher than veterans of any war, a historical fact that has been lost amid the popular mythology that has risen up since the early 1970s. Read McKinley Cantor's Glory For Me, or Paul Fussell's Wartime, if you don't believe me. War is a brutish and vile business. It does things to the lives of those who survive it, and to their souls.
It is also true, as a corollary, that most Viet Nam veterans, whatever specific baggage we may be lugging around, have come to a workable accommodation with our experience and gotten on with our lives. We may be scarred, but the overwhelming majority of us are functional and productive. I can no longer count the number of Viet Nam veterans who serve in the halls of Congress (though one might argue that such is neither functional nor productive!). Two Viet Nam veterans have already won the National Book Award--three if you count Gloria Emerson, and one ought to. A Viet Nam veteran founded Federal Express.
As for myself, not a day passes of which Viet Nam is not a part, if only in thought, yet I have been happily married for eleven years. I own my own home, I have consistently plied my trade as a writer for over two decades, my students are convinced that I give too much homework, and my daughter thinks I'm usually a pretty nice guy. Pity the poor Viet Nam veteran, a refrain much in evidence during the recent assault of the yellow ribbons occasioned by Desert Storm, is largely a misplaced sentiment.
If you read In Country carefully, you will notice that Mason tacitly acknowledges what I am saying. Along with Emmett and Tom and Pete, there is Allen Wilkins, owner of a menswear store and Little League coach, and Larry Joiner's acquaintance "who's got a good job in public relations," and Dawn Goodwin's cousin who "was in Vietnam, but you'd never know it." But Allen makes only a few cameo appearances, Larry's acquaintance is worth only a paragraph, and Dawn's cousin gets three brief sentences; we never meet these last two men, who are not even given names.
Thus I suggested to Mason that she include at least one "healthy" Viet Nam veteran among her more important characters. Mason didn't go as far as I would have liked, but in the novel you read, there is at least the suggestion that Jim and his wife might yet work things out. The manuscript version offered no such hope. Whether Mason made this change on my recommendation or not, she has never told me and I have never asked. So long as I don't know, I can always claim, in my secret heart, credit for Jim and Sue Ann's possible future happiness together.
The other element of the narrative that bothers me is the ending: the scene at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which almost immediately after its creation became known as "the Wall." And the Wall has become an awful cliche. Photographs of the Wall adorn the jackets of dozens of books about Viet Nam. Mention of that somber recitation of names, both visual and verbal, has come to substitute for substance and fact, as if the Wall says it all when in truth it tells us only what each of us chooses to hear. It precludes discussion or critique or wisdom, as though its dark polished face is all we will ever need to know, or ought to know, about the Viet Nam war.
This is very convenient for those in whose interest it is not to raise such questions as: Why did all those people die? Who offered them up for slaughter? What was accomplished for the price of so much blood? How was it permitted to go on for so long? Where are the names of the three million dead of Indochina? Be moved by the terrible beauty of your own reflection in the silent, smooth granite. Consider the wonder of so many young men, and women too, willing to give everything for their country. Notice the little offerings--the flowers, the handwritten notes, the high school yearbook photos--left in the cracks of the wall by parents and children, lovers and friends still grieving after all these years.
That the Wall has become such an intoxicating and misleading artifice is no fault of Mason's. At the time she was writing In Country, the lawn surrounding the Wall was sill mostly mud. Her use of the Wall as a literary and cultural symbol was, as far as I know, an original and even prescient choice. It is others who are the copycats.
But it was apparent to me, even then, that the Wall was going to become what it has in fact become: a moving and inarticulate substitute for accountability. And indeed, at the end of In Country, as Sam ponders the mystery of that other Sam A. Hughes chiseled onto the wall and Emmett's face "bursts into a smile like flames," we can't help feeling like everything is going to come out okay after all. We like stories that end that way. We like wars that end that way.
But real stories seldom end so neatly, and wars never do. Not even Desert Storm. Ask the Kurds. Thus, I strongly urged Mason to find another venue for her conclusion. Having read the book, you know how persuasive I was. I console myself with the knowledge that had I been playing baseball instead of offering literary criticism, I'd still be batting better than Ted Williams.
My criticism notwithstanding, however, I retain a healthy respect for In Country and teach the book regularly in courses of my own. Mason does a number of things very well, and I would like to examine some of them.
To begin with, Mason doesn't try to think like a veteran. The story is told not through Emmett's eyes, but through Sam's. This is a coming-of-age story, finally. Whatever else is going on, Sam is a child, a teenager, trying to find the right way to be a woman, an adult. She is intelligent, funny, endearing. She thinks going to the mall in Paducah is big league excitement, but in the end we know she is going to college in Lexington, and it's not hard to imagine she'll grow beyond Hopewell one day. Much of what we see in Sam is us, what we are or used to be when we were younger; awkward and antsy, confident, fiercely naive. It's fun to watch her growing up. We like Sam.
Another thing I like is the way in which Mason turns the entire narrative into one long exercise in American popular culture. She captures effectively the homogenization of America, a depressing evolution for those of us who grew up in a nation where regional and local differences still abounded, but the way things are, like it or not. While we know that Hopewell is a small town in rural Kentucky because we are told as much, there is little to set Hopewell apart from the mass culture that has absorbed it: Doritos and Pepsi and Music Television, PacMan, Home Box Office, McDonald's, Bruce Springsteen and 7-Eleven. It is culture reduced to the lowest common denominator, which is what our culture has come to. I happen not to like that fact, but it's Sam's world nevertheless, and I like the way Mason handles it. Sam could be any kid in Anytown, USA.
Into this universal story, Viet Nam is introduced as naturally as if it came with the territory, which it does. There is nothing contrived about Sam's curiosity about her father and the war that denied him to her, about her attraction to a handsome older man, or even the trip to the Wall. Since 1965, Viet Nam has become a constant companion to millions of Americans. Millions more, the young who remember nothing, wonder what strange power the words "Viet Nam" have on those who remember. And indeed, like the fictional Sam, there are real children, now adults themselves, who do not know their fathers because of the American war in Viet Nam.
Viet Nam, in fact, is the quintessential American experience of the second half of the 20th century, the stamp of a generation, equalled only by the civil rights movement. To write about the United States in the second half of the 20th century is to write about Viet Nam. It can be avoided only with effort.
But there are a lot of books about Viet Nam. David A. Willson, the librarian at Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington, and author of the wonderful Viet Nam war novel REMF Diary, has a collection of several hundred pornographic novels using Viet Nam as the backdrop. Danielle Steele has written a Viet Nam war novel. The use of the Viet Nam war in literature, as in most other facets of our culture, is frequently contrived. It's all in how one handles it.
Mason handles it very well. Emmett, for all that he is clearly a very troubled man, is also a nice guy, a caring man. He's fond of Moon Pie, he loves his niece, and he is touchingly solicitous of Mamaw Hughes. There isn't a mean bone in his body. He isn't crazy. None of Mason's vets are. They may be floundering, but they're not dead weight. Mason's portrayal of veterans is sympathetic without being lurid or romantic.
Her depictions of the war itself, and the antiwar movement it spawned, are also well-handled. Dwayne Hughes's letters to his young wife ring true, as do the vignettes and descriptions offered by the survivors. And Mason offers a gentle view of the hippies and protesters, some of them, like Emmett, former soldiers themselves. In an age in which the war has been hideously transformed into a noble cause lost, at least in part, because of an antiwar movement frequently portrayed as an irresponsible exercise in immaturity, it is worth noticing that Emmett and most of the other vets have nothing good to say about the war. Those that do, like Pete, are otherwise discredited by their own subsequent words and actions. Emmett may not have flown any Viet Cong flags from the top of the courthouse lately, but he never even hints at any remorse for having done so. And Irene still remembers her hippie boyfriend fondly. Like Sam Hughes, we see only fleeting and frustratingly incomplete glimpses of those times, but what we see is neither gloss nor fantasy.
It is Sam who has the fantasies. She thinks the Sixties were a lot of fun and going home with Tom is like walking point. Her efforts to understand what Viet Nam was really like are almost comical, and here what I said earlier about pop culture becomes especially cogent, for Sam has no point of reference to use as a touchstone except Born in the USA, Apocalypse Now and reruns of M*A*S*H. Even after she realizes, on one level at least, that "whenever she [has] tried to imagine Vietnam she [has] had her facts all wrong," she still urges Emmett, with absolute sincerity, to "do the way Hawkeye Pierce did when he told about that baby on the bus." For her, the Watergate scandal that resulted in the resignation of a sitting president for the first time in U.S. history was only "a TV series one summer," and she thinks C-47s with Gatling Guns--devastating killing machines, I can tell you from experience--are "wonderful" aircraft.
In this, Sam is much like virtually every student and young person I've spoken with in the last fifteen years. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked, "was it really like Platoon (or The Deer Hunter, or Full Metal Jacket, or whatever)?" Not long ago, a 13-year-old boy asked me, "Did you really go on patrols and do stuff like in Tour of Duty?" It was clear from his voice, his posture, his saucer eyes, that he thought it must have been wonderful. Real was what he had seen on television.
But the young cannot know unless someone teaches them, and the entertainment industry is not in the business of education. The poem I read to that boy and his junior high school classmates, Bryan Alex Floyd's unrelentingly graphic and horrifying "Sgt. Brandon Just, U.S.M.C.," got those kids thinking hard, at least for awhile.
Dwayne's diary, with its "dead gook rotting under some leaves" and Darrell's blood "shooting out of his back and mouth," gets Sam thinking hard. So does Emmett's collapse into tears, his sorrow "full-blown, as though it had grown over the years into something monstrous and fantastic." And Irene challenges Sam's romanticized notions of the Sixties: "It wasn't a happy time, Sam. Don't go making out like it was." However imperfectly, by the end of the story, Sam is beginning to replace her fantasies with something approaching understanding.
I like other things in this story, too: Mamaw Hughes, who says that her son died "fighting for a cause," though she makes no attempt to explain what that cause might have been, no doubt because she doesn't have an explanation; she has only her memories and her grief. Lonnie Malone, poor Lonnie, who "fished from a pontoon boat and roasted weenies at a campfire" while Sam's father had eaten "ham and beans from a can and slept in a hole in the ground," and who hasn't got a chance in hell of competing with Tom Hudson in Sam's imagination. Mason's relentless excoriation of the U.S. government in general, and the Veterans Administration in particular (now called the Department of Veteran Affairs), for poisoning its own soldiers with dioxin and then refusing to accept even the slightest responsibility, a fact which remains largely true to this day.
There is more I could talk about, if time permitted. But I want now to turn to a few more general thoughts. I made passing reference earlier to the fact that Viet Nam veterans are not unique in the burdens they have had to bear. Yes, we lost our war, which is a rare burden indeed in the American experience, but it is not unique: we lost the war of 1812, too, our capital taken and burned to the ground, the only battle we won taking place after the treaty to end the war had already been signed, facts that may not have been fully emphasized in your high school history classes. And of course, half the United States, more or less, lost the Civil War.
And yes, we were often treated in less than kindly fashion after we came home, though you might stop to consider the World War One veterans who came to Washington at the height of the Great Depression to demand better treatment were chased out of town with machine-guns and cavalry.
And yes, a great many people opposed the war openly and vehemently, but the Mexican War was none too popular either; Henry David Thoreau went to jail, for instance, rather than pay taxes to support that war, and his essay on civil disobedience has become a model for war resisters from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr.
So you must understand that neither the particular political or military circumstances surrounding the Viet Nam war, nor the way in which U.S. soldiers were treated when they came home, can account for the behavior of the veterans you find in In Country, a notion you might implicitly assume given the times in which you've lived. The veterans you have read about, most of them, to a greater or lesser degree, like many actual veterans of the Viet Nam war, are suffering from what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD for short.
During the recent lunacy in the Persian Gulf, we were urged over and over again to get behind the government and support the troops, not to let the Desert Storm soldiers suffer the same fate as Viet Nam veterans, as if Viet Nam veterans suffer from PTSD because we were not supported and appreciated enough. Somebody made a hell of a fortune manufacturing and selling yellow ribbons last fall and winter, but the fact is that PTSD does not result from lack of appreciation or support; it results from being subjected to the almost unbearable terrors of the modern battlefield.
PTSD comes from being 18 or 19 or 20 years old and finding yourself in an environment where every blade of grass and chirping bird is potentially deadly. It comes from living in abject fear day in and day out for months on end, never knowing if the next breath you draw may be your last, if the next step you take may dismember you. It comes from seeing the boy who was your friend a moment ago lying on the ground at your feet with half a head and no arms and his belly split open like a butchered pig. It came from inflicting that sort of punishment on other human beings.
Moreover, PTSD is not a phenomenon limited to Viet Nam veterans or to unpopular wars. In the American Civil War, the first truly modern battlefield in the military sense, where weapons of mass destruction obliterated the old virtues of skill at arms, courage and honor, bringing death down equally and at random upon the brave and the fearful, the skilled and the inept, PTSD was mistaken for cowardice or "nerves." In World War One, it was called shell shock. In World War Two and Korea, it was known as combat fatigue.
What the medical community finally began to realize in the last stages of the Viet Nam war, though they did not put it all together until nearly a decade later, and then largely due to the refusal of Viet Nam veterans to slink away in silence, is that in the face of the lethal pressures of the battlefield, apparently aberrant behavior is a perfectly normal response, even years after the fact. Not that the behavior is normal, of course, but it is predictable and to be expected under the circumstances. PTSD is how normal people react to abnormal stress.
All wars have produced men like Emmett Hughes and Tom Hudson and Pete Simms. The only way to prevent PTSD is to keep young men, and women too, away from battlefields. I am less concerned about old men. They are usually the ones who start the wars in the first place; then they send the young ones off to die. And if the soldiers who fought in the Persian Gulf this past winter don't end up with the kinds of problems Viet Nam veterans had, it will only be because, in the words of Captain LeAnn Robinson, a Persian Gulf veteran, "This sure as hell wasn't much of a war."
Another thought this book brings to mind is how Sam's yardstick for judging the past has become our yardstick for judging the present. What I mean is this: when Sam thinks of Vietnam, she does so in terms of movies, television and music. She can conjure her own history, for the most part, only through popular culture--and the results are hardly satisfactory. We can see this because we are outside the book looking in. We know that Emmett and his friends are not Eddie and the Cruisers. We know that Cawood's Pond is not Dak To. And if Sam eventually comes to know it, too, or begins to, it is because Emmett and Irene and her own dogged determination to understand force her to get beyond her illusions.
Now consider the recent Gulf war. George Bush boasted of "kicking butt" as though he were a high school coach. Others explicitly likened it to the Super Bowl. For months on end, we read in the newspapers and heard on the radio and saw on television only what the government wanted us to read and hear and see. We watched those nifty videos of Smart Bombs dropping down chimneys and tank shells obliterating enemy targets that looked like blips on an Atari screen. Many of the pilots and gunners explicitly likened what they were doing to playing video games. Meanwhile, the troops-- all but the very few who actually saw any combat--whiled away the hours playing hand-held video games. Shall I say "real" video games, as opposed to the fake video games that only killed people instead of blips on a screen? And now the Pentagon is making, for free distribution to all Desert Storm soldiers and their families, an actual video of the Persian Gulf war, complete with rock-and-roll soundtrack. Maybe we'll all get to see it on MTV.
What we didn't get to see, and most of us will never see, are the stinking, broken bodies of anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 dead human beings--no one knows for sure, or at lest no one is telling. What we didn't get to see is what happened to the Kurds and Iraqi Shiites George Bush publicly incited to rebellion, only to stand idly on the sidelines insisting it was not our responsibility while Saddam Hussein butchered them. We didn't even get to see the flag-draped coffins of our own dead soldiers, let alone their mangled, lifeless remains.
And we didn't get to see where all those Dumb Bombs landed. Oh yes, there were a slot of stupid bombs dropped on Iraq and Kuwait. Nobody told you that at the time because they didn't want you to think we might actually bomb, even by accident, civilian shelters or baby formula plants, but over 90 percent of the bombs dropped during Desert Storm were dumber than stumps, the same old iron clunkers that got dropped on Viet Nam and Korea and Germany and Japan. More than 70 percent of them missed their targets. Even the Smart ones missed, as often as not.
But we didn't get to see any of those things. And most of us never even considered what we might not be seeing or reading or hearing. It never even occurred to us to wonder. We just sat there glued to our television sets, transfixed by all those wonderful bombs miraculously dropping down those impossibly narrow chimneys and thinking, "Golly damn, that's amazing." And then we were told that we'd won, and there were a lot of parades and celebrations, and everybody got to feel good about America.
Like Watergate for Sam, the Gulf War was just a series we saw on TV. Who is outside of our book looking in? Who will be our Emmett and Irene? Who will teach us the difference between imagination and fact, illusion and reality?
There is one more thought I would like to share with you. Did it sink in just how young Dwayne and Emmett and the others were when they went to war? Mason tells us that Dwayne was 19. Emmett couldn't have been much older. The average age of American soldiers in Vietnam was 19 and-a- half, and that average includes all those generals and crusty old sergeant majors. I was 17 when I enlisted in the Marines. I went to Viet Nam when I was 18. I had three stripes, a Purple Heart, and a ticket home before I turned 19 and-a-half. Like Emmett, I didn't know beans when I went. Like Dwayne, I discovered that Viet Nam was not what I had imagined it would be. I have been paying ever since, and will continue to pay until the day I die, for having been so ignorant.
Is there anyone in this room who is not at least 17 years old? How many of you supported the U.S. war in the Persian Gulf? How many of you had ever heard of the al-Sabah family before August 1990? How many of you can write a paragraph or two describing the system of laws and institutions governing Saudi Arabia? How many of you can find Kurdistan on a map? How many of you can detail the interactions between the United States and Iraq between 1980 and 1990? Doubtless, few of the young men and women who were deployed in the Persian Gulf would fare any better than you on these questions and others like them, yet they went, most of them willingly, some of them eagerly. They didn't know beans, but they went because they love their country and they trusted those who were sending them. So did I when I went.
Most of them were lucky. If we build a Gulf War Veterans Memorial, it won't be much bigger than an expensive headstone, but will we be so lucky the next time, or the time after that? If you think the Viet Nam war was a fluke, you ought to read more history. Emmett tells Sam that the study of history teaches us only that you can't learn from history. I don't happen to believe that. I'm not convinced that Emmett does either.
The Viet Nam war didn't just happen. It didn't gather cosmic dust somewhere out in the universe until it gained enough mass to come crashing down on Planet Earth like some sort of random bad luck. United States involvement in Viet Nam, what we call the Viet Nam war, happened because distinct individuals made distinct choices over a discreet period of time, and Jane Fonda wasn't one of them. Virtually all of those decisions was wrong.
If you actually study the history of the Viet Nam war, what you will learn is a valuable lesson in the way the U.S. government and the various individuals who constitute that government at any given time actually work. You will learn that our government is capable of profound arrogance, willful self-deception, and deliberate lying. You will learn that what is done in the name of liberty, freedom and democracy is often none of those things.
The study of history, of course, can be boring as all get-out. As Sam discovers, all the names run together. Ngo Dinh Diem, Bao Dai, Dien Bien Phu. Ho Chi Minh. You get bogged down in manifestos and State Department documents. It's more fun to play hoops, or go dancing, or eat a cheese steak. It's more fun to read a book like In Country. And In Country is a wonderful story to read.
But it's not the whole story. Not by a long shot. The poet John Balaban, in his book Remembering Heaven's Face, tells of a saying he learned from Viet peasants in the Mekong Delta: "Go out one day, and come back with a basket full of wisdom." Unless you are willing to open your minds and set aside the things you believe only because you have heard them all your lives, unless you are willing to acquire knowledge, you will be forever at the mercy of those who depend upon your ignorance. You will be Emmetts and Sams and Irenes, just waiting to happen.