- Speaking of Vietnam: A Taxonomy of Voices and Themes about the American War
In The Other Side of Grief: The Home Front and the Aftermath in American Narratives of the Vietnam War, Maureen Ryan challenges the received notion that men, especially men who were engaged in its combat, understand the Vietnam War most fully and essentially. This privileging is evident in the mantra that “you had to be there” to understand, and the consequent belief that those who hadn’t been in Vietnam have no authority to criticize any facet of the war, including its literary representation. The primacy of combat has meant that the majority of cultural narratives representing the war have been produced by men, particularly veterans. Ryan argues that such privileging is inaccurate, as the Vietnam War was experienced not only through combat. Nor, she contends, has our cultural fascination with the war waned in the thirty-five years since its conclusion. In fact, Americans have been unable to agree on how the Vietnam era signifies: “the ambiguity and complexity of the war’s legacy both result from and contribute to the expansiveness of today’s varied claims on its cultural memory” (4).
Some of the most varied of these claims are Ryan’s subject—those unconventionally noncombat narratives about the war that have been largely “underestimated” by critics and scholars (10). The book does not explain, analyze, or theorize this underestimation, [End Page 640] nor is it a critical study of these narratives. Instead, in referring to and summarizing an impressive number and array of texts, mostly fiction, Ryan simultaneously illustrates her case for the authenticity of unconventional Vietnam War stories and categorizes the various noncombat accounts of the war and the themes their authors elucidate. In six chapters, Ryan explores six categories: narratives of the war’s “aftermath”; narratives by women writers; narratives by and about prisoners of war; narratives about counterculturists and antiwarriors; antiwarrior autobiography and memoir; and Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans in American fiction. What is most valuable about Ryan’s book, then, is that taxonomically it shows some of the many unconventional perspectives on the war.
Chapter 1, “MIA in America: Vietnam Aftermath Narratives,” treads familiar ground as it discusses narratives about veterans of the war, usually military. Most of the texts mentioned are canonical and include fiction, film, and nonfiction narratives: Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977), Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story (1986), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), James Webb’s Fields of Fire (1978), and memoirs by John McCain (Faith of My Fathers ) and Lewis B. Puller (Fortunate Son ). Ryan finds it remarkable that no matter how distant in time the war becomes, the cultural representation of veterans’ aftermath experiences has not varied. One dominant story—that the country betrayed its soldiers—has remained constant from the earliest to the latest publications. These texts depict male veterans who are bitterly silent about their war experiences and the regret of men who did not participate in the war. While for many of the veterans the war facilitated special, often emotional bonds with fellow soldiers, it also enacted severe psychological trauma and survivor’s guilt. Atrocity, not uncommon in combat narratives, is seen by these veterans as a forgivable consequence of wartime craziness, though the “berserk” behavior evident in the United States is not (29). Stereotypes of women prevail in these aftermath texts, with women depicted as cheaters, teasers, or long-sufferers. No concern is shown for the changes war makes to noncombatant women’s lives. Finally, though most of these narratives depict [End Page 641] veterans who are obsessed with fathers and father figures, none of them indict the patriarchy or its institutions.
Chapter 2, “The Other Side of Grief: American Women Writers and the Vietnam War,” rebuts the representations of women in the aftermath narratives, though what distinguishes the texts discussed in this chapter is that they are authored by women. While a few of the...