Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter
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The James Jones Reader, James R. Giles and J. Michael Lennon, eds.
Birch Lane Press, New York, 1991.
W.D. Ehrhart, Going Back: An Ex-Marine Returns to Vietnam
McFarland & Co., Jefferson, NC, 1987.
W.D. Ehrhart, In the Shadow of Vietnam: Essays, 1977-1991
McFarland & Co., Jefferson, NC, 1991.
Reviewed by Tony Williams, Cinema Department, University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale
Stephen Crane's war fiction and journalism inspired comment from both civilian readers and soldiers. Awaiting transfer to Guadalcanal during October 9142, James Jones wrote an extended critique of The Red Badge of Courage for his University of Hawaii English class. Three decades later Viet Nam veteran poet W.D. Ehrhart criticized Crane's Spanish-American war journalism in a scathing review of Michael Herr's Dispatches. While noting Crane's perceptive and blinkered comments in praising the common soldier and then championing United States "largesse," Ehrhart sees the same "combination of poignant sympathy and wrongheaded blindness" endemic in Herr's work ( ISV: 5-6). Reviewing The Red Badge of Courage, Jones compared Crane's experience under fire with his own during December 7, 1941, and found it wanting. From this perceptive early essay, "A Book Report of The Red Badge of Courage, Jones would further experience the hell of warfare and go on to become a great war novelist. What links both writers is an uncompromising desire to tell the truth as they see it to expose the untruthful flaws behind any literary creation of warfare, and uphold the currently unfashionable banner of that most complex of termsrealism.
Separated by different generations, literary styles, and diverse wars, Jones and Ehrhart make some parallel observations concerning the nature of warfare of crucial relevance to those exploring the concept of the Viet Nam war as 'representation.' The recent appearance of The James Jones Reader and Ehrhart's collection of essays are essential, stimulating, and serious reading. Although belonging to a different era, James Jones did travel to Viet Nam in 1973 writing a collection of essays later published under the title of Viet Journal (1974), a generous selection appearing in this recent publication. Travelling at a time when the American military was in a process of withdrawal, Jones naturally did not witness the post-Tet offensive demoralization. The soldiers he met were the military professionals he admired in his novels and real life. While knowing about My Lai, he regarded it as an aberration. He regarded US military intervention as a mistake. But at the same time, he never abstracted any situation he observed from his own personal experience into convenient categories of binary oppositions. Jones avoided certain pat generalizations that marred otherwise fine observations by contemporaries such as Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Frances Fitzgerald. Although criticized heavily at the time of publication, Viet Journal now appears surprisingly contemporary. It has not been dated. War is hell for both sides and all soldiers suffer the danger of bestial reduction. For Jones, the Viet Cong were certainly no "innocent noble savages" as combatants on both sides will readily admit. His Viet Journal is fascinating reading, a work mixing personal factual experience with fictional constructions akin to recent perceptive theoretical observations on the subjective nature of documentary film. It is a work avoiding much of the solipsistic nature of understanding Viet Nam as the "American Tragedy," as he said, it was "an appeal to Americans to stop hating ourselves so much" ( JJR: 333).
As several other Viet Nam scholars have emphasized, it is a mistake to isolate Viet Nam from other conflicts and representations. The James Jones Reader provides key selections from his war-time fiction. In addition to the famous trilogy From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle it contains extracts from his symbolic novella, The Pistol, as well as WWII, and war stories from T he Ice-Cream Headache and Other Stories, and Some Came Running. It is thus a very good introduction to Jones' work and should stimulate the reader to then begin reading his entire opus. Although the editors emphasize Jones as a war novelist, in deference to his popular image, he really transcends this label. He really wrote about the entire human condition, the illusions, evasiveness, and deceptive nature of everyday life. If the masks fell in the war situation, they returned in the homefront. Civilian life was not less dangerous and treacherous than the average battlefield. Jones' non-war fiction recognizes this. Thus, one should ideally proceed on to his other neglected work. His magnum opus and greatest achievement, Some Came Running, is decades ahead of its time. It exposes the self-deceptive nature of small town American life. Similarly, part to Go To the Widow Makers, The Merry Month of May, and A Touch of Danger (not anthologized in this collection) present civilian life as a sexual and explosive battlefield threatening the fragile facade of human personality. It is not only Whistle, with its literary representations of PTSD, that presents the concept of life as a minefield. One recalls the cameo appearance of Big Red One WWII veteran Samuel Fuller in Godard's Pierrot Le Fou (1965), who describes film as a battleground"Love, Hate, Action, Violence, Death. In one word... Emotion." Substitute "life" for film, apply it to the entire spectrum of Jones' novels (not just the war fiction) and one sees the parallel. He is not just a war novelist but a chronicler of the human condition. The war situation exacerbates the foibles and false ideological illusions contaminating human life.
The James Jones Reader contains a special bonus. Its appendix contains selections from Jones' unpublished work of the 1940s. There are three extracts from his first attempt at a novel, They Shall Inherit Laughter . Long thought destroyed, it was rediscovered by co-editor Lennon while working on a documentary in the mid-1980s and is now safely preserved in Sangamon State University Library. Although undoubtedly a first-draft, containing undigested influences of Thomas Wolfe, Steinbeck, and Dos Passos, the formal nature of the extracts strongly suggest the fragmenting influence of the then-unrecognized condition of PTSD. "Johnny's Speech to the Draftees," based on an original, undiplomatic 1944 speech Jones gave to prospective draftees in Robinson, Illinois, contains the author's undisguised frankness and destruction of war illusions. As Irwin Shaw stated in his eulogy for Jones, "From the stink of the battlefield and the barracks came a bracing, clear wind of truth. To use a military term, he walked point for his company."
Returning to Honolulu from his Viet Nam trip, Jones wrote one of his finest essays, "Hawaiian Recall." He had not been back to the location of From Here to Eternity since Pearl Harbor. Once more in Schofield Barracks, he realized the impossibility of recapturing the past. "I had come back hoping to meet a certain twenty-year old boy, walking along Kalakaua Avenue in a 'gook' shirt, perhaps, but I had not seen him." ( JJR: 364). In Going Back, W.D. Ehrhart chronicles his feelings on returning to Viet Nam some eighteen years after his original tour of duty as a Marine. Although hoping to revisit the Hue and Con Thieu regions he described in Vietnam-Perkasie, he found the territory off-limits during his 1985 visit. Realizing that "it is hard for a man of 37 to have to come to terms with his own foolish romanticism" (24), Ehrhart delivers to us a day-by-day account of his nine-day visit.
Going Back tells the writer's experiences of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Opening with the December 28, 1985 accusation of Mrs. Thi Na, " You did this to me" in reference to her five sons all killed in action during the Viet Nam War, Ehrhart then takes us back to an earlier time describing his youthful years of ideological interpellation and its disillusioning aftermath. The accusation stirs up deep emotion that runs through a seemingly straightforward narrative. Writing in a realist mode, suspicious of self-reflexive literary techniques of convenient distancing, Going Back is no mere abstract documentary rendition of just a return visit. It is a work of factual description, imagination, and even questioning, exhibiting that personal element akin to Ehrhart's own poetic writing. Beneath the 'tarnished' genre of a mode supposedly discredited in a poststructural /postmodernist era lies a depth of emotion that blurs supposedly rigid boundaries. We have the 'reality' of a visit. But it is no guided tour. Beneath the surface are questions contrasting the events seen with the 'official' explanations from both sides. Going Back is a work which deserves to be read discerningly.
Why does he want to go back? Why is his former landscape off-limits? Is the official explanation of adverse climactic conditions correct? Or is there danger to the former 'enemy' in the countryside as opposed to the safe limits of the guided tour? Read deeply, Going Back is also a work of indirect interrogation. We see through Ehrhart's eyes and sometimes doubt as he does as well as affirming the sincere warmth and generous feelings that he encounters. Why go back? "Catharsis? Curiosity? Adventure? Perhaps it is as simple as the Vietnamese proverb 'Go out one day; come back with a basket full of knowledge.'" (6) But among that knowledge will be the accusing figure of Mr.s Na whose charge brings home the cost of a war which devastated the Vietnamese people and whose implications far outweigh the romanticism of any sentimental return. The merits of Ehrhart's book are such recognitions which arise, nondidactically, out of the text.
In company with fellow veterans John Balaban and Bruce Weigl, we follow Ehrhart on his official route, listen with impatience to government discourses, but also learn parallels with the homeland's official reasonings. Comparing the ill-treatment of American prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton with the former allies' attitude towards captured North Vietnamese, Ehrhart muses, "Is the disparity between official 'fact' and unofficial reality really as different from the one we are about to be confronted with during our visit to the Hanoi Hilton?" (48)
Often a mere description of a dance performance transmits the emotional cost of warfare in terms akin to poetic feeling. Concluding one chapter with a description of a mime rendition of a dying peasant attempting to protect and comfort his child for the last time, Ehrhart achieves genuine emotional poignancy within the realm of realist narration. "The sounds of battle have passed now. The lullaby begins again. Bending his head low, the farmer kisses the child once on the forehead, then slowly sinks to the ground. Again, the child begins to cry. The spotlight narrows down to a single small circle of white light resting on the empty small basket." (72)
Old associations still remain on this return. A visit to a country rice-field brings back the return of former fears of punji-sticks, trip-wires and booby traps. "A vague discomfort: you've been here beforewatch your step. Bruce feels it, too. Adrenalin fear so deeply imbedded that even the passage of 18 years cannot quite erase it." (76)
We sometimes never learn the exact reason why certain things are happening. In Hanoi an old woman begins criticizing interpreter Loan. The embarrassed guide moves away while the woman follows. "What was that all about? But Loan will not tell us." (70) Ehrhart does not know. He will not fabricate a reason for his readers and leaves us in the dark. Although writing in a realist mode, he does not attempt what certain critics describe as a classical realist textual closure sealing off contradictions and questions. Again, when John Balaban asks about oppositional religious sect leader Doa, the authorities state that he was "a traitor and a CIA agent" (102). Neither Balaban nor Ehrhart are comfortable with the explanation. But a pertinent conclusion arises linking both cultures. "It is as if they cannot understand dissent except in terms of "'reactionaries, traitors and outside influences.' Am I really surprised by that, I wonder. No, I suppose not." (102).
In the Shadow of Vietnam is a selection of critical essays written over the last fourteen years. The most recent group stem from Ehrhart's 1990 visit to Viet Nam, when he finally returns to Hue City and finds himself as removed from once-familiar surroundings as James Jones felt on his return to Hawaii. Encountering former adversaries and experiencing the gentle hospitality of his Vietnamese hosts, he writes, "I feel like I'm in a dream, but this dream is soft and soothing and magical." (164) Drifting on a river far away from his former nightmare of war, "Now there is peace and this river is indeed a peaceful place," (165) he finally meets his fellow warrior-poets from the other sideone of whom actually went into battle with copies of Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, particularly inspired by the latter's emphasis upon endurance, struggle and survival within hostile environments.
As well as containing the personal memories of another return visit, In the Shadow of Vietnam has relevant critical essays attacking the romanticization of war in Dispatches , a former representative of "The Best and the Brightest," and Karnow's best-selling illusionary history of the conflict. In "Teaching the Vietnam War," he includes an excellent course description of his Spring 1990 William Joiner Center offering. Like one of his textsRobert Mason's Weapon: Los Norteamericanos y Centroamerica astutely reveals the relevance of Viet Nam to America's present foreign policy.
Despite their different backgrounds, James Jones and W.D. Ehrhart have several common characteristics a desire to honestly tell the truth as they experience it, and a belief in the possibility of peace no matter how impossible it may appear. As Ehrhart concludes in "A Common Language," "And if I have failed... 'to rouse the conscience of the people of the world in the cause of peace' (and it seems fairly certain that I havewell, there are worse things one might fail at. And even worse ways to succeed." ( ISV: 187).
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