- The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling
As soldier-film director Oliver Stone noted years ago, Vietnam—the war and its aftermath—was and continues to be a “state of mind” for [End Page 412] many Americans. One result is a flourishing cottage industry of Vietnam veterans, citizens, politicians, historians, artists, literary critics, and others seeking meanings and lessons in the war’s events, in its social-historical period, and in the artifacts the war has spawned. In his well-written, eclectic, and impressively researched book, Milton Bates, a self-described “archaeologist of culture” and English professor, proposes one more context for defining this state of mind by examining the Vietnam War and its war stories, as well as the American culture that shaped them. This context becomes a wide-ranging historical, cultural, critical version of soldier-author Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War story “The Things They Carried.” Thus, as Bates notes, he examines domestic wars and cultural conflicts that American soldiers took with them in their “rucksacks” to Vietnam and the war stories they brought back. Specifically, by using military historian John Keegan’s notion that “war is a human construction, a cultural artifact,” Bates analyzes how American cultural values and attitudes shaped the political and social actions and reactions related to this war, and how storytellers in oral histories, books, films, and television shows re-created this cultural text in their war stories.
At the core of Bates’s argument is his notion that American involvement in the Vietnam War “intensified” specific “civil wars already raging in American society” during the 1960s. Consequently, these cultural conflicts (frontier ideology, race, class, gender, and generation) infuse Vietnam storytelling with ideology (politics) and form (poetics). For example, in his chapter titled “The Class War,” Bates describes various class divisions present in America during the 1960s and analyzes “how the working class was used for other people’s purposes during the Vietnam War and how it is still being exploited in our war stories.” To illustrate this notion, he argues that politicians and the war’s “managers” sent the working class abroad to fight the war while much of the antiwar middle class, including college students, ignored kindred liberal views and antiwar sentiments among the working class at home. Storytellers, such as Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night, Larry Heinemann in Paco’s Story, and Oliver Stone in his movie Platoon, transform these class conflicts and attitudes into thematic patterns of master-servant relationships, extended metaphors comparing war to work, and varying portraits of the working class.
In examining American culture and American storytelling, Bates [End Page 413] engages in a broad survey of culture and literature with a breadth that contributes to successes and shortcomings in this book. He extends the previous research of, among others, John Hellmann (American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam), Walter H. Capps (The Unfinished War: Vietnam and the American Conscience), and cultural historian Loren Baritz (Backfire: American Culture and the Vietnam War). In the process of discussing the cultural wars, Bates maps a broad social-political landscape of America and a broad artistic and theoretical landscape filled with political/critical/social theory, philosophy, films, television shows, and literature—including important but often overlooked works. Under an overarching perspective of new historical criticism, he introduces at appropriate places cultural, gender, psychological, and formalist criticism in a manner that avoids the mind-numbing jargon and tortuous discussions that often mark such analyses. Throughout, Bates also manages to maintain a political balance—mentioning the excesses and achievements of the literary and political left and right. But he pointedly attacks “ivory tower feminists” (Susan Jeffords) and a few leftist cultural critics (Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer), all of whom appear to dismiss the viewpoints and contributions of America’s female Vietnam veterans and members of the working class involved at home and in Vietnam with the war and its aftermath. This breadth of Bates’s approach also leads to some minor problems with the book, particularly the...