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The Margins of the Viet Nam War
Frédéric Pallez, Department of French, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
When the war is defined its limits are set. This process involves the closure of a space which has the disadvantage of all such limitations and the tendency to approach that which is extremely regimented in temporal space. I am describing the historical method which is given that name because of the chronological certitude that defines it. But the frame of this panel, the title "Public Culture" which unites all the texts presented at this conference, distances itself from this historical topology I have described in order to avoid the excess of interpretation that such a classification implies.
However, definitions are often necessary, especially those involved in the teaching process. For as one wants to present a picture of the war to a class, s/he must decide how to reconcile and order the different representations of the conflict. This attempt at a pedagogical presentation is not only a recapitulation of the important facts of a chosen period which follows a well-developed thesis (this is the impression I have of a historical study), it is also a juxtaposition of the various images of a conflict, whether they are literary, cinematographic, or otherwise. For if the war is often seen from a purely historical point of view, such as Viet Nam, which has been given a set beginning and end, a conflict can also be seen according to other criteria of representation. One of these alternate methods might be a reading of the Viet Nam war in terms of the social and cultural impact of that war on the collective memory. This would be a different approach, one which would involve the means of perception of the conflict which are not directly inspired by the events themselves. This distanciation from historical facts which creates a different type of representation, is the major idea behind the research presented in the critical genre of "Public Culture."
My project on the Vietnam war is double and ambivalent; it implies limits, and thus it is related to the historical research; but it is also absorbed by the image of the Vietnam war outside of the direct perception of the history of the conflict. A good example of this type of indirect representation is the interpretation of Alasdair Spark of two films in the Alien series, entitled "Science Fiction: This Time It's War."1
In this article he transposes, through the use of science fiction, the principal motifs of the representation of combat in the jungles of Viet Nam. Spark compares the invisible enemy in the jungle to the extra-terrestrial beings in the suffocating atmosphere of the space-ship (one is reminded of the virgin forest).
In order to reconcile these extra methods of studying the war and to show the possibility of an inter-relation of these different texts, I would like to compare them to what I will call the margins of the Viet Nam war. In other words, I am defining a margin as a limit and also that which is exterior to the object in question. I am interested in what happened before and after the war in terms of both the chronological and thematic history; by this I mean what was exterior to the historical system, and at the same time intrinsically attached to that system. The ambivalence of this marginal situation is due to the game of attraction and aversion that exists with regard to all that is "outside" of the center of representation (I am referring to Michel Foucault's idea on the archaeology of extremes, which he develops in his studies of the history of madness and sexuality, respectively). Foucault's method is important to this study because he is interested in the eccentric. In terms of the war, that would be what is considered marginal. It is through this vision that the center--that is to say the origin of the creation of the image--consisting of the extremes and the margin--that the mechanism of representation is most easily criticized. In this marginal context, the errors and the stance of the representation seem to become more easily revealed.
The scheme of perception of the war that I am proposing here takes the form of an opposition: on one side the historical vision with its strict limits without margins, and on the other side the possibility of an enlargement of the space of the war: all that is eccentric with regard to the history of the conflict, whether it is part of the imaginary or strictly chronological. The term "imaginary" in this historical context has the same implications as the collective imaginary; by this I mean a type of social unconscious which is transposed from the historic register to an metaphorical register.
This imaginary perceived as a space of time would include the periods before and after the war which are often historically considered to be exterior to the war, although they are important for its interpretation. With regard to the Viet Nam war these margins are the preparation for the war, the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. This period is also the end of another war, the French Indochina war. But this marginal period is also after the war, the continuation of Viet Nam which involves the transfer of the actual combat into U.S. society and culture.
By defining the Viet Nam war using these two limits, I am leaving an important margin open, i.e., the period of more than ten years before the war (from 1954, the date of the withdrawal of French troops from Indochina to 1965, the date of the massive American intervention); and almost twenty years between the end of the Viet Nam war and the beginning of the conflict in the Gulf. the absence of military events during this period is replaced by the fabrication of the war image. It is this moment of reflection and transition from one war to another that I am interested in; a no man's land that encircles the war but that exists only in representation.
In the interest of teaching the war, and presenting to the reader the limits of the conflict other than the dates of the beginning and end of the hostility, I would like to propose another definition: a definition whose limits are those of two famous quotes that announce the beginning and the end of the war. The first is that of General Westmoreland, one of the Commanders-in-Chief of the U.S. troops in Viet Nam, who said that the siege of Khe Sanh would not be another Dien Bien Phu. The General is referring to the end of the Indochina War which caused the French withdrawal from Indochina and forced the American intervention in Southeast Asia. The other famous quote is that of George Bush, who, during the first hours of Operation Desert Storm, assured the television viewers that this war would not be another Viet Nam.
Both quotes indicate the political need for a distancing from the preceding events which were both considered as failures. This affirmation of a distance with regard to the past is also the source of the construction of a new political movement: General Westmoreland revives the public's memory of Viet Nam with regard to the Indochina war, and President Bush has visions, even as early as the beginnings of the Gulf War, of a new world order. General Westmoreland, then President Bush use these indirect allusions to past wars to announce the reality of the existence of a conflict; these two sentences replace a declaration of war. The illusion of change could not have been achieved in these two cases if the cut had not been made with the past, especially since the military past symbolized the failure.
These two rhetorical limits are interesting because they do not respect history, by this I mean that they contradict the historical limits of the Viet Nam war. They underestimate the war as a reality in order to overestimate the war as imaginary. This definition recognizes what I have specified as the margins of the Viet Nam war: the period of latency before the quote by General Westmoreland when the war had not yet started; and the period between the withdrawal of the troops in 1972-1973 and the beginning of the Gulf War which was signaled by the quote of President Bush.
Because the official discourse of the war ignores the chronological dates of the beginning and end of the war and utilizes the margins of the war as I have explained, these margins have an important status in the representation. Paradoxically, it is the undecidability of the margins of the war that affect the center and its ideology. Since these margins are undecidable, the politicians are able to choose their own vision of the conflict. The official rhetoric defines the war in terms of style:
Metaphorical thought, in itself, is neither good nor bad: it is simply commonplace and inescapable. Abstractions and enormously complex situations are routinely understood via metaphor.2
This quote is from an article by George Lakoff, entitled "Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf." Lakoff shows that the political discourse on war functions as follows: the collective imaginary permits the analogy between myth and politics because of their common interest in all that is erratic, and thus undecidable. The metaphor allows the real war to be transformed into an imaginary one--what Lakoff calls a "metaphorical definition"--in other words, the transposition of the conflict onto the ontological register. A concrete example of this metaphor is the "State-as-person-system" which gives politics a human face: the political discourse is a metaphor for the body, the economy represents health, and the loss of a territory is akin to the loss of a limb.
This metaphorization, which involves the trans-position of a political problem onto a human one may be seen as a means of understanding the war itself. With regard to the Viet Nam war, the imaginary may be described as follows: it focuses on man rather than on the machines of war or the narrative. Furthermore, it shows the importance of human activity other than the activities of war: survival and perception, whether it be that of the soldier or the journalist who views the event.
The representation of the Viet Nam war gives the impression of a subjective point of view presented by a witness who was present during the action. This subjectivity is perpetuated through the figure of the warrior and the journalist in Dispatches, by Michael Herr.3
Even though the narrative is incomprehensible, we can begin to understand the story through the discourses of these characters. In this story these witnesses of the war are necessary so that the reader may accept the truth of the narrative: "Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened."4
Michael Herr insists that he did not understand the story until the end of his stay in Viet Nam; this end signifies the end of the story for the reader, which implies that the story cannot be understood until the reader has understood the other witnesses of the war and their personal stories (these stories comprise Michael Herr's book).
The conflict in the Gulf is marked entirely by experiences of past wars, in this way the imaginary of the Viet Nam war is closed. The imaginary of the Gulf (which can be best portrayed by the techniques of media representation and communication) takes its form from the idea of repetition and simulation. A good example of the form it takes is the direct image which is televised even though the viewer does not know the origin and often the context of such images. The subjectification has disappeared from the representation of the Gulf war.
The reports on the Gulf conflict move without transition from the direct image to the simulation of the event; the viewer often cannot distinguish between the reality of the war and the reconstitution. The images taken from the combat planes are good examples of the ambiguity of representation; these "real" images filmed before and during the action have, paradoxically, the characteristics of video game images because of their unreal and prefabricated construction. Artifice has become the key to understanding the images of the Gulf war. This artificiality has replaced the subjective narrative. The non-subjective war shows how military perception and mediatic perception merge together; the lens of the camera and the view-finder of the weapon become one. This technique of perception negates the human aspect because the weaponry is automatic; by this I mean that the soldier has no other function than to control the initial mechanism after which s/he is reduced to the status of a spectator. Once the bomb is dropped, since the image is direct, it cannot be stopped.
Because of the spectacular representation of the Gulf war with its direct images, the Viet Nam war is over. The technique used in the Gulf war replaced that of the Viet Nam war. The force of the direct image used in the Gulf war replaced the narrative which symbolized the Viet Nam war. This change in the perception of war was the catalyst which signaled the passage from one war to another.
Following these same lines of focalization from the history of the war to its representation, it is possible to define the end of the French Indochina war as being the moment of the beginning of the U.S. war in Viet Nam. The novelty of the representation of the American war with its intensification of actual images replaced the old-fashioned images of the Indochina war, which did not have the intimacy of the Viet Nam war images, nor their immediacy.
The passage from the Indochina war to the Viet Nam war with regard to the representation of the imaginary occurred in France through the vision of those who had experienced the two conflicts. One of the authors who observed these conflicts was Jean Lartéguy, who wrote Yellow Fever,5
in which he described the wars in Southeast Asia. The comparison between these two wars revealed important differences, especially in terms of the equipment of the armies. Most importantly, it revealed that the Indochina war, which had been vivid in the collective memory, was being assimilated into the Viet Nam war. Pierre Schoendoerffer shows this effect in the parallel between the novel La 317ème section6
and the documentary The Anderson Platoon, which he filmed later with the U.S. Army during the Viet Nam war. Schoendoerffer makes indirect references to his preceding works, in which he shows parallels with the Indochina war by exploring the fate of a combat section in the Viet Nam war. The comparison forgets the divergences and permits the passage from one war to another.
Between these wars is a period of latency which starts in 1954 and finishes at the moment of the massive American intervention in the middle of the sixties. This period is crucial for the image of the French Indochina war (the moment of its construction) as well as for the American war in Viet Nam. The American version of this period between the two wars is simplified by the representative suggested by Graham Greene in The Quiet American,7 in which spy stories comprise the principle action. By reducing this period to a spy story he has denied the war completely.
The Viet Nam war, born of this ambiance of the Cold War, a situation which had become non-existent if not impossible, had reason to become prominent with regard to the apparent lack of action before the war. The comparison of the margins of the war of 1954-1965, both French and U.S., present a contradiction. This funda-mental opposition between a definition of this period as either warlike or pacifist, or rather to consider one as the continuation of the other or vice-versa, is important to the understanding of the war itself.
In order to return to and finish with the problematic of the teaching of the war, this example of the interpretation of the Viet Nam war which follows many perspectives, such as that of the French war and the U.S. war, and also the Gulf conflict, shows the possibility of presenting the war in terms of different forms of representation rather than a strict chronological treatment of the event. Teaching the war does not mean merely teaching the history of the events, even though there should be some respect for the chronology. In order to understand the war, one must understand what I have called the imaginary of the war. The study of margins is one of the ways to mitigate the ambivalence in the interpretation of the conflicts because of the relationship the margins have with both the chronology and the imaginary of these conflicts.
1 Alasdair Spark, "Science Fiction: This Time It's War," Vietnam Generation (Nov 1991): 29-30.
2 George Lakoff, "Metaphor and War," Vietnam Generation (Nov 1991): 32-39.
3 Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Avalon) 1978.
4 Ibid.: 4-5.
5 Jean Lartéguy, Yellow Fever, translated from the French by Xan Fielding (New York: Dutton) 1965.
6 Pierre Schoendoerffer, La 317ème section (Paris: la Table ronde) 1962.
7 Graham, Greene, The Quiet American (New York: Viking Press) 1955.