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Reviewed by:
  • The Tainted War: Culture and Identity in Vietnam War Narratives, and: American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam
  • Thomas Myers
Lloyd B. Lewis. The Tainted War: Culture and Identity in Vietnam War Narratives. Westport: Greenwood, 1985. 193 pp. $27.95.
John Hellman. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 241 pp. $24.95.

Frederic Jameson's assessment of Vietnam as our first postmodernist war—a historical event forcing the breakdown of all existing narrative paradigms but opening [End Page 293] up for the novelist and memoirist a whole new reflexivity—is also an implicit challenge to critics attempting to discover a single, stable narrative pattern within a corpus of works rife with tensions and contradictions. Such a warning, however, does not diminish the real need for placing the writing on Vietnam within larger, preexisting national narratives if acceptable cultural connection and closure are to be achieved.

Lloyd Lewis neither attempts a comprehensive, qualitative assessment of Vietnam writing nor does he offer a primer for those readers new to the corpus. His goals and methods are sociological, his tone throughout The Tainted War assertively clinical. A disciple of the phenomenological, dialectical sociology of knowledge theories of Peter L. Berger, Lewis responds to a key question: "How did Vietnam defy interpretation as meaningful combat ritual?" Examining a selection of novels, personal memoirs, and oral histories and applying an often dense clinical vocabulary—within his schema the American soldier suffers "dysfunctional socialization" in Vietnam and experiences "role dispossession and disculturation" upon his return—Lewis does make a convincing case for his controlling pattern: the breakdown of established social structure and collective belief in Vietnam; the spontaneous generation of replacement social forms and rituals (small-unit loyalty, the individual roles of "the charmed grunt," "the FNG," "the short-timer"); and subsequent disorientation when those new roles and rituals disappear upon return to "the World." Despite his insistence that "literary merit was not among the criteria used to determine inclusion in this study," Lewis occasionally refocuses his clinical eye and responds to the power of his chosen works. When he suggests finally that in Vietnam "Reality was simply no longer navigable using the old cognitive maps"—a metaphorical response that will prompt memories in the experienced reader of the opening image of Dispatches—he walks temporarily out of his dense sociological jungle of "deobjectification" and "mediating structures." When such an alteration of his stance of scientific neutrality occurs, it is welcome.

Beyond an occasional factual error—Lewis consistently refers to David Halberstam's protagonist Beaupre as "Beauchamp"—there are two serious faults in his approach. First, Lewis argues that the American soldier entered Vietnam with standards of heroism, honor, and duty derived exclusively from World War Two paradigms, a narrow assessment that overlooks the kind of cultural influence and allusion discoverable in some of the very works he cites, A Rumor of War and If I Die in a Combat Zone, for example. Lewis also pushes too hard finally for an exclusive acceptance of his pattern of acculturation, breakdown, and resocialization. As he calls into question the present condition of multiple interpretations of the war, he should reconsider perhaps the epigraph that begins his own study—"The Vietnam War was 'the big taint'—T'aint reality, and t'aint a dream"—and identify the expansive critical area between those opposed denials. Despite its rather troublesome call for a stable consensus, there are fresh perspectives here for the serious student of this war and its literature. His discussion of the problems of the returned vet in his fourth chapter, "Walking Wounded," is considerate and thought provoking. His final reminder that American culture has yet to come to grips with its own tragic authorship in Vietnam is also an observation of how much critical territory still requires a cognitive map.

John Hellman's endeavor to provide a satisfying mythic explanation of Vietnam would seem to be a model of American Studies eclecticism in which the [End Page 294] author "examines a wide assemblage of texts to reveal the key elements and patterns of a deeper story in which they converge." The two-part structure of the discussion, "Entering a Symbolic...


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