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Violence and Reason on the Shoals of Vietnam

From: Postmodern Culture
Volume 9, Number 3, May 1999

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© 1999
PMC 9.3

"Tell me, pray," said I, "who is this Mr Kurtz?"

"The chief of the Inner Station," he answered in a short tone, looking away. "He is a prodigy.... He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else. We want... for the guidance of the cause entrusted us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wider sympathies, a singleness of purpose... and so he comes here, a special being..."
     --Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (55)

"Vietnam is still with us."
     --Henry Kissinger (Karnow 9)

Ironic perhaps, that we begin with the words of Henry Kissinger -- Harvard academic, international relations theorist, member of the Trilateral Commission, of the boards of American Express, R.H. Macy, CBS, Revlon, Freeport-McMoRan, and former U.S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Of course Kissinger, placed so powerfully at the locus of several influential discourses of world order in the post-war age, had his own axe to grind. He went on to say: "[Vietnam] has created doubts about American judgement, about American credibility, about American power -- not only at home, but throughout the world. It has poisoned our domestic debate. So we paid an exorbitant price for the decisions that were made in good faith and for good purpose" (Issacson 142).

The crisis to which he alludes would be viewed and characterised differently by the victims and opponents of the war on one hand, and on another, by the elites to whom "Vietnam" stands as a signifier of defeat, failure, crisis, and further paranoia. The conservative scholar Daniel Bell has written that the "American Century"--heralded by Life publisher Henry Luce in 1941--"foundered on the shoals of Vietnam" (Bell 204). What is happening here? I suspect a new story of the West, an ironic metanarrative, that seems to appear everywhere: a long journey, a great sea voyage, a shipwreck. Or as Lyotard has written: "The narrative function is losing... its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal" (The Postmodern Condition xxiv).

Perhaps these men overstate the setback which the defeat in Vietnam represented for American global interests, but their views are no less significant for that. Their words acknowledge a certain challenge to their power, and in turn the power of the institutions, structures, and systems to which they devote themselves and their thought. This challenge both arises out of the United States' (and broader western) experience in Vietnam, and coalesces around it. Other markers include the 1973 oil price shocks and other third world attempts to assert control of vital commodity markets and prices, as well as the global economic stagnation and inflationary spirals that the war helped to provoke. Further ongoing crises in the project of western economic expansion and modernisation have been provided by the economic nationalism of third world elites, and the struggles of millions for decolonisation, human and civil rights, democracy, and economic and political self-determination. In such a context, "Vietnam" then becomes both a complex and problematic historical event and a tableau, a stage upon which further related crises and problems -- mythological, epistemological, political, cultural, and economic -- are played out.

This essay thus takes as its object some of the more influential and paradigmatic historiographic texts of the war: Stanley Karnow's Vietnam, A History, a companion to the PBS television series; Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie; Robert McNamara's In Retrospect; and Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now. While there is an immediately "political" question of their power as vehicles of a certain historical "reality" of the war, there are also questions about the very fact of their appearance in our culture. In The Perfect War James William Gibson argues that during the 1970s and early 1980s the war was "abolished" in America, "progressively displaced and repressed at the same time it was written about"; yet by 1983-4, it had suddenly become "a major cultural topic... as if a legendary monster or unholy beast had finally been captured and was now on a nationwide tour" (Gibson 6).

I am motivated here by an element of this paradox. My interest in these particular texts arises because while...

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