The editors of this deeply felt and intellectually rigorous volume argue in their lucid introduction that Vietnam demands a rethinking of America. The assembled essays thus focus upon an analysis not simply of the war or of its many texts, but of the relation of both to fundamental myths and institutions of American life.
With this perception, John Carlos Rowe and Rick Berg organize the volume into three parts. The first, "The Vietnam War and History," deals with both the venerable American myths shaping American involvement in Vietnam and retrospective attempts to interpret the Vietnam defeat without questioning that "history." Noam Chomsky begins by surveying the many "Vietnams" preceding Vietnam in American history, from the Indian wars to the Philippines, patterning a history marked by a "combination of hideous atrocities and protestations of awesome innocence." Stephen Vlastos analyzes the narrow examination of strategic "mistakes" in the revisionist military history of Guenter Lewy and Harry Summers, and Carol Lynn Mithers argues the value of listening to the voices of women veterans to examine the implications of war as rite of manhood.
The second section turns to "The Vietnam War and Mass Media," examining how ideology, exposed by the editors as a "canny artist," has worked at transforming "Vietnam" into a site for a reaffirmation of American myths. Claudia Springer first reports on the hopeless contradictions of Defense Department training films that sought to explain the war to American Gls, while Berg provides an acidic examination of the attempts in subsequent literature and feature films to win the war through representation. In his [End Page 159] study of television documentaries, Rowe incisively reveals how self-limiting American assumptions about the efficacy of "direct experience" and "realism" (tenets of the original American "expertise" in Vietnam) are substituted for a true interrogation of this American debacle.
Part Three, "The Vietnam War and Popular Media," moves toward a more hopeful but deeply ambivalent consideration of the work of serious artists. Michael Clark isolates the dream of restoring community found across memorials, films, and novels. Susan Jeffords, while somewhat obscuring her argument with excessive jargon, disconcertingly explores the legacy of the war for sexual transactions as imaged in Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story. David James explores the various manipulations that have complicated the efforts of rock musicians to address the war.
By exploring the relation of the loss we call "Vietnam" to the old myths and their institutions, The Vietnam War and American Culture importantly contributes to what one hopes is a process by which Vietnam is remaking American history and myth.