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  • The Vietnam War, Reascendant Conservatism, White Victims
  • Terry Collins
Rowe, John Carlos, and Rick Berg, eds. The Vietnam War and American Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.
Jason, Philip K., ed. Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature. Iowa City: Iowa UP, 1991.

The Bloom-D’Souza-NEA-NEH silencing of feminist and multiculturalist positions, trivialized in the popular press as tritely inflated rhetorical agonics over who gets control of the English Department budget and reading list, masks the larger struggle for control of ideology in America, for the terms of our history and future. The contested discourse of intellectual authority and privilege extends directly from reinscription of the Vietnam War, and both are central to the conservative reascendance of the Reagan-Bush period.

The willful national amnesia about the U.S. war in/on Vietnam is, in fact, prerequisite to the current domestic war against the intellectual left. Revisionist history of the Vietnam war is transubstantiative to the conservative reascendance from war criminal status to uncontested author of a “New World Order.” The right has asserted and then reaped the fruit of the myth of rectitude planted and nurtured by Reagan’s reinvention of the Vietnam War as a “noble cause.” This re-creation of the war has gone virtually unchallenged. Norman Podhoretz was able to write, in Why We Were in Vietnam (Simon and Schuster, 1982), that the war was an act of “imprudent idealism whose moral soundness has been overwhelmingly vindicated”— with barely a stir of outrage in the popular press voicing opposition to this macabre rewriting. Equally little notice was taken when, phoenix- like, Richard Nixon issued No More Vietnams (Arbor House, 1985), his self-serving apology for genocide. Celebrating the exorcism of the “ghost of Vietnam” under Reagan, Nixon gloats that “Since President Reagan took office in 1981, America’s first international losing streak has been halted.” He writes (and gets away with it), “Of all the myths about the Vietnam War, the most vicious one is the idea that the United States was morally responsible for the atrocities committed after the fall (sic) of Cambodia in 1975,” dismissing the laws of cause and effect as neatly as he does the idea of truth.

The reclamation of the hearts and minds of the American suburban diaspora, relieving the national consciousness of the burden of the “Vietnam syndrome” (a cynical rearticulation of what might have passed, in a reasonable moral climate, for something like depression growing out of deserved collective guilt), was a prerequisite for the conservative reascendance that so enervates the intellectual discourse of our era. Once vindicated and remythologized, the right launched its Education/NEA/NEH-mediated search- and-destroy mission at home, Bloom, Bennett, Hirsch and D’Souza walking point, on radio to Helms and the Onanites, tipping Coors at recon.

It is logical to look to oppositional discourses in the fiction and film of the Vietnam War for relief. But, in fact, the relative absence of a collective public rejection of and response to the revisionist readings of our war in/on Vietnam is problematized by the personal, fictive, and cinematic narratives of grunt-vets, journalist-vets, and medical-vets who write, from oppositional postures, their experiences in the war. Michael Herr, Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann, William Eastlake, Oliver Stone, and the other writers featured in the criticism collected in the books reviewed here have (no doubt authentically, no doubt painfully) written large the psychic and ethical dislocation of young men inserted into the survivalist landscape of the free-fire zone. The problem is this: the prose and cinematic fictions fragment and monadize the war, make it a matter of individual(ist) survival—ethically, bodily. It is easy to imagine the origins of such texts. The stunningly horrid collective lies, pandered by government agents in the pressrooms of Vietnam, had to be countered, producing Dispatches. The clean, faceless, stinkless body counts had to be countered by Paco’s Story.

But Hemingway’s dictum—that fiction tells truer truths about war than history—distorts. The memoirs, fictions, and films which recreate the Vietnam War as primarily a matter of the individual ethical and bodily survival of articulate white men, rather than...

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