Viet Nam War Studies: A Cultural Materialist Approach, Part I
Albert Auster and Leonard Quart, How the War was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam (New York: Praeger, 1988).
John Carlos Rowe and Rick Berg, Eds. The Vietnam War and American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith, Eds. America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1990).
Philip D. Beidler, Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation (Athens, Ga: The University of Georgia Press, 1991).
Reviewed by Tony Williams, Dept. of Cinema and Photography, Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale
Over the past decade abundant historical, political, literary, and cultural approaches to the growing field of Viet Nam war studies have appeared. The rich material already available provides both a secure foundation and stimulus for future work in the nineties. Naturally alert to status quo threats within any growing movement, academia's conservative nature will examine this terrain seeking to recuperate any discourse for "balanced," a-historical self-referential purposes. Thus, while certain works (Kovic, Ehrhart, Emerson) appear too dangerously implicated in "unacceptable" areas of emotional rage, historical relevance and realist structure, others appear ideal candidates for inclusion within certain non-referential discourses associated with deconstruction and postmodernism. Recognition of these dangers should afford no excuse to entirely condemn these recent movements. In many instances they have correctly questioned premises behind ideologically induced "correct" judgments. In Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory, Peter Brunette and David Wills highlight the often-neglected, political components in later Derrida. N. Bradley Christie's 1988 doctoral dissertation, Another War and Postmodern Memory: Remembering Vietnam offers significant insights into a discourse that does not, per se, have to be a-historical or non-realistic.
However, in an era of increasing reaction, many English departments see Tim 0'Brien's Going After Cacciato as ideal material for stressing authorial self-referentiality above the historical associations resulting in its origination. Similarly, certain Film departments eagerly seize on The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now as new candidates for insertion within the romantic terrain of the now questionable "auteur theory." With a new generation of students, the products of Reaganite/Bush-Thatcherite/Major discourses, cheering each manufactured jingoism surrounding the Falklands, Grenada, and Gulf, it is essential to find critically pedagogic methods, raising consciousness towards complexities buried beneath any particular discourse.
Noting the strength of conservative discourse within their particular geographical and educational areas, both Raymond Williams and Edward Said were aware of departmental isolation. In his retirement lectures, delivered within an institution noteworthy for its low number of working class students and high number of suicides, Williams stressed the necessity of moving beyond academic boundaries, viewing a wider context, and constructing a cultural materialist project--"the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite centrally writing, within the actual means and conditions of their production" ["Crisis in English Studies," Writing in Society (London: Verso) 1984: 210]. Arguing for the necessity of any oppositional critical consciousness, Edward Said also stressed moving beyond traditional boundaries to utilize a number of disciplines when dealing with any question of representation. Since representation embodies itself within the language, culture, institutions, and politics of any representer, "then we must be prepared to accept the fact that a representation is eo ipso implicated, intertwined, embedded, interwoven with a great many other things than the "truth," which is itself a representation. What this must lead us to methodologically is to view representations (or misrepresentations--the distinction is at best a matter of degree) as inhabiting a common field of play defined for them, not by some inherent common subject matter alone, but by some common history, tradition, universe of discourse" [Orientalism (New York: Pantheon) 1978: 272-273]. Finding a place within such an area which no one scholar can create, each researcher finds a place and then makes a contribution with full knowledge of a complex area, often shifting into new configurations. Such a multidisciplinary field offers a scope far beyond the capacity of any individual discipline.
Understanding the nature of these different terrains aids us towards recognizing and combating the present malaise discerned by Rowe and Berg.
"What the cultural reception of the Vietnam War has made manifestly clear is that American ideology is itself an extraordinarily canny artist, capable of accommodating the most vigorous criticism and for that very reason powerfully resistant to social and political changes"(x).
Any isolated institutional discipline is clearly incapable of dealing with these contemporary dangers. A multidisciplinary technique and knowledge appears the most valuable tool for any oppositional criticism today.
Auster and Quart wrote the first late 80s full-length study of Hollywood representations. The work does have its uses. It has much to say within a particular representational discourse, mainly based on content analysis. But its very premises force one to interrogate the whole area far more deeply and with the aid of different methodologies. While the authors strive to make the reader aware of the changing discursive terrain, their very project appears impoverished and founders from lack of considering relevant tolls of signifying techniques, narratological structures, subject-positioning, and the whole multidisciplinary arsenal of cultural studies. In an era benefiting from the application of several critical tools necessitating precise concentration, the whole survey approach certainly appears very old-fashioned. As a first step towards leading the reader to understand such intrinsic "lack" the work is sufficient. But the book points towards the necessity of using more rigorous critical strategies in any approach concerning representations of the Viet Nam war.
Many typographical errors mar the work. From the many citable instances the following are notable: "Terry Souther" (26) for Terry Southern; "Frank Hammer" (28) for Frank Hamer in Bonnie and Clyde; and "E.M. Forester" for E.M. Forster (63). Better proof-reading is a must for any new edition. The authors misquote Kurtz's lines from Apocalypse Now (68).
Are the remaining survivors at the end of Samuel Fuller's The Steel Helmet in any condition to "go off to continue the battle" (13). They are all physically and mentally exhausted. (The authors really need to consider this film both in the context of Fuller's other work as well as relevant studies of PTSD.) Gene Evan's Sgt. Zack uncannily exhibits that "two thousand yard stare" ignored in most war representations up to Viet Nam. As an ex-combat infantryman, Fuller attempted inserting as much of his own war experiences into his films as possible unless censorship forces intervened. In 1962, his attempt to show "friendly fire" decimating American troops in Merrill's Marauders failed. However, even without these extra-textual references, the authors are clearly oblivious to what is actually happening in the film. They want it to fit neatly into their rigid thesis. By ignoring the particular nature of Fuller's work they make the climax of The Steel Helmet fit into the type of dogmatic neo-formalist conclusion David Bordwell makes of the concluding scene of Anthony Mann's Winchester 73 (1950) in "Happily Ever After, Part Two," [The Velvet Light Trap, 19 (1982): 4]. Both films end with emotionally exhausted heroes, whose performances visually contradict the usual banal discourse of Hollywood's happy ending. The authors really needed to undertake a rigorous examination recognizing the film's textual tensions, a procedure that their survey format would not allow.
The same problem affects their other interpretations. While Fuller's China Gate may appear to contain a "gross cartoonlike plot" and hover "perilously close to the sophistication of a Steve Canyon comic-strip adventure" (13) much more occurs in this film than the reductive Cold War discourse Auster and Quart believe the text contains. They do not consider the visual implications of Fuller's formal devices, both comic-strip and documentary, often disrupting the manifest premises of the Cold War plot. At least Cahiers du Cinema's Luc Moullet did in 1959. The authors totally misunderstood Fuller's complex intentions in using Nat King Cole as the mercenary Goldie. Far from being a "patronizing image... the embodiment of what a tolerant, nonracist society will produce: a sexless, smiling, black cold warrior, eternally singing and cleaning his gun," Goldie is an ideological victim, echoing Griff's paranoid racist projections displaced on to "lying commies," both victim and victimizer, foreshadowing the insane black Ku Klux Klan fanatic in Shock Corridor. While the authors recognize incongruities concerning white actors playing Eurasians, Fuller's use of Angie Dickinson and Lee Van Cleef is certainly not totally "orientalist." Resisting the easy temptation towards condescending amusement, the authors could have seen both characters as fulfilling key narrative structures. As with Run of the Arrow, the foreign landscape in China Gate represents a battleground for American tensions over national identity. These American actors echo white society's split tensions and the difficulties involving any easy resolution inherent within identification with either the West or Soviet Union. Fuller's characters are all "split subjects." More than any other contemporary director, he identified the fissures beneath a supposedly complacent decade, representing it within both visual style and characterization. His works deserve analytic examination for their deliberate techniques of political and ideological fragmentation. Unfortunately, Auster and Quart's inability to explore Fuller's deliberate use of contradictions extends to their other examinations of Viet Nam war films. As Fuller wrote to his audience at the climax of Run of the Arrow, we all have to write the real end of the story. While noting the dangers inherent in any close reading one wishes that the authors had attended more to the textual mechanism's actual complexity in style, narrative, and performance.
Is The Deer Hunter really built upon "an uncritical identification with Michael and his friends?" (63). Even without knowing the alternative readings of Robin Wood (Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan) or Susan Jeffords (The Remasculinization of America) and critical work in gender, one confronts a film demanding better critical methodologies than the authors use. Surely there are places where Cimino undercuts any attempt at the "working-class superman--capable of bringing some order to the war's madness and some form of reconciliation at home" (65) within the film?
Despite an interesting discussion of Apocalypse Now and the Reaganite revisionist MIA sub-genre, much of How The War Was Remembered is extremely unsatisfactory, begging questions needing more culturally materialist critical tools. In comparison with Steve Fore's 1986 doctoral dissertation, "The Perils of Patriotism," it leaves much to be desired.
The Vietnam War and American Culture fills much of this critical desire. Revising and extending the Spring 1986 Cultural Critique issue, it is a very important work fully aware of the essential multi-disciplinary nature surrounding any involvement in Vietnam studies. Aware of the very necessity of cultural criticism and the danger of avoiding solipsistic literary critical tendencies, the editors eloquently argue their case.
This collection is indispensable reading for anyone working within the diverse fields of Viet Nam studies today. Stimulating, imaginative, and concise, it offers valuable suggestions for new developments and critical interventions within both academic and public discourses. In a worthy introduction, the editors insist on linking the normally discrete discourses surrounding film, literature, and history in a project involving teachers interrogating their own educational practices. As they remark, "there can be no 'accurate' treatment of what Viet Nam means for American culture until these very teachers reconsider the material practices that have shaped curricula, instruction, and research projects in our universities for decades before and after the Vietnam War" (15). To take this project seriously thus involves a process of struggle no less strategic within the institution as well as outside it.
The first section--"The Vietnam War and History" - begins with Noam Chomsky's "Visions of Righteousness." Although marginalized and excluded from mainstream publications, Chomsky continues to act as an inspiration to all oppositional scholars. He continues his role as one of those rare voices of conscience within American academia. His essay contains a stimulating analysis of all those historical, geographical, and academic discourses which still attempt political misrepresentations today. It is essential reading for all engaged in historical, literary and cinematic approaches to Viet Nam. Stephen Vlastos's "Revisionist Vietnam History," is one of the new essays within this collection--a concise examination of those post-1975 discourses associated with Nixon and Lewy which gained hegemonic dominance in popular 1980s representations. Reprinted from the original Cultural Critique issue, Carol Lynn Mither's "Missing in Action: Women Warriors in Vietnam" represents one of the earlier essays focusing on the often-excluded depiction of the female presence within Viet Nam. All these essays are appropriately historically grounded and concisely written.
Part Two's section--"The Vietnam War and Mass Media"--begins with Claudia Springer's perceptive essay on "Military Propaganda: Defense Department Films from World War II and Vietnam" illustrating both continuities and differences within historically bound representational strategies. Rick Berg's "Losing Vietnam: Covering the War in An Age of Technology" usefully surveys all the different fictional and documentary strategies engaged in "speaking Vietnam." Concluding with the alternative fictional representations of Hailie Gerima's Ashes and Embers (1982) and Haskell Wexler's Latino (1985), Berg notes that "The vet is returned not merely to the history of historians but to a class of history spoken by the oppressers, a counter-memory lost to the dominant discourse" (143). These suggest techniques for any counter-representational strategies. John Carlos Rowe's "Eyewitness: Documentary Styles in the American Representations of Vietnam" is an expertly researched article, interrogating realist discourses and the textuality of history. In its area, it does everything which Auster and Quart do not. Fully aware of issues concerning formal devices, imagery, and audience recognition, he raises key questions of interpretation inextricably associated with historical and discursive issues.
The final part contains three essays examining the Vietnam War and Popular Media. In "Remembering Vietnam," Michael Clark investigates the strategic issue of popular memory beginning with Walter Benjamin's important axiom from "Theses on the Philosophy of History," particularly relevant today: "Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious."
Examining film and television images of Vietnam veterans, he notes stereotypical devices ideologically separating them from family and community discourses. "They relegate the specific, concrete contradictions involved in being a veteran at a particular moment in history to the realm of private experience and personal memory, and they divorce that realm entirely from the forms of social interactions that are represented as permanent and useful." (185) TV movies such as
Memorial Day (1984) and fictional representations by Robert Stone (A Flag for Sunrise) and Philip Caputo (Del Corso's Gallery) present historically based issues in the forms of individual moral dilemmas, seeking to disavow Viet Nam from any engagement with American society, in a simplistic form of separation between public and private realms of knowledge. These necessitate the importance of deconstructive readings as well as the relevant fragmentary textual mechanisms contained in Jayne Anne Phillip's Machine Dreams (1984). Her work "internalizes Vietnam within American society as a dislocation in the usual mechanisms of order and significance rather than as a threat from the outside, and representing those ideological mechanisms as a literary machinery of personal desire and family continuity dramatizes the constructed nature of both memory and history" (194). We certainly note a positive use of deconstruction, as opposed to its usual operations associated with the Yale school. However, whether we cawhether we can apply it to Indian Country, with its heavy indebtedness to the originally male bildungsroman discourse, is another matter.
Any cultural examination of Viet Nam remains incomplete without raising issues of gender representation. Susan Jeffordss new essay, Tattoos, Scars, Diaries, and Writing Masculinity acutely interrogates Larry Heinemanns Pacos Story. She notes that other textual techniques undermine supposedly alternative images of dislocating victimized male voices, especially the ghosts.
The self-critique placed within the novel is recuperated by the acceptance the ghosts offer Paco and those he represents. In these terms, the masculine point of view separates itself from masculinity proper, viewing its failures and shortcomings, at the same time that it maintains its own stability, anchored in a gender system. Thus the appearance of self-examination is in fact a mechanism for a more general confirmation of the structures and operations of the masculine point of view that underlies U.S. gender systems (217).
Hence, historically governed masculine perspectives concerning war experience really distract attention from Pacos Storys attempt at confronting traditional gender patterns.
David James contributes a useful essay on The Vietnam War and American Music. The collection concludes with three poems by W.D. Ehrhart, Responsibility, Parade Rest, and The Invasion of Grenada, whose imagery forms a fitting conclusion to this volume.
Better arranged than its initial Cultural Critique appearance with some new material, The Vietnam War and American Culture is a stimulating work whose implications extend to many educational approaches towards Vietnam. It is imaginative, provoking, and highly relevant as a critical and pedagogical tool.
Back to Contents page