The Words of the Vietnam War

Two excellent new collections of writing about America’s long involvement in Vietnam drive home a simple fact: This country fought a war there, and the war was lost. Because war was never officially declared and exacted no final surrender, years would pass before that basic truth would be so plainly stated. Yet in looking back at the era’s literature–fiction and journalism alike–nothing could be clearer.

The Vietnam Reader (Anchor, $15.95), skillfully edited by the novelist Stewart O’Nan, is a sampling of works from many genres, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, popular songs, and films. There’s much here to interest those old enough to remember the war, but O’Nan’s brief commentaries are aimed more toward a younger generation for whom the war is a cultural memory, not a personal one.

Reporting Vietnam (Library of America, $35 each) is a vast two-volume anthology of Vietnam-era journalism ranging from terse wire stories to long essays and even a book-length memoir: the entire text of Michael Herr’s acclaimed Dispatches. The Library of America series is dedicated to publishing the country’s literary classics, and many pieces here live up to that billing. To read these works is to marvel at the courage and insight of those who covered the war–and to realize how far the press has now fallen in terms of mission and public esteem. Many credit the Watergate investigation for the widespread respect enjoyed by the press in the 1970s, but the unflinching, stylistically ambitious work of many correspondents in Southeast Asia may have been the deeper reason.

Both collections are arranged chronologically, and both suggest a growing awareness of the war’s hopeless and tragic dimensions. In Reporting Vietnam, a few early pieces from the late ’50s and early ’60s exude the mix of misguided idealism, naïveté, and cultural arrogance that fueled America’s 15-year lost cause. Any selection of the best pieces is also a distortion, of course, but it is striking how quickly certain journalists saw the light. Almost from the start, many seemed to realize that the war had no coherent purpose, no overarching strategy, no achievable end. And theirs was seldom protest literature: In retrospect, we see that the strongest case against the war lay in the bare facts.

The American war effort escalated through the late ’60s. The last American troops left South Vietnam in the spring of 1973, and Saigon fell two years later. More than 58,000 Americans died, and nearly 304,000 were wounded. The death toll among the Vietnamese, allies and enemies combined, is estimated at more than a million, including at least a quarter-million civilians. One disturbing effect of this collection is the realization of how limited the power of the written word is when it is pitted against war’s inexorable momentum.

In The Vietnam Reader, the emphasis is on the first-person participant, the writer-soldier dealing with the realities, and later the memories, of jungle warfare. O’Nan has done a good job of identifying what seem destined to become the era’s most enduring works, including what he labels a masterwork: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.

And yet for all the brilliant writing gathered here, readers may eventually be numbed by the repetitive tropes: the mud, the rain, the rice paddies and burning huts, the helicopter assaults, the fire fights, the war’s cruel and even darkly beautiful excesses. War is a fiercely compelling subject, but also a narrow and obsessive one, as the anthology form reveals.

What’s more, as O’Nan notes, America’s Vietnam-era literature rarely looks beyond the war’s impact on Americans. “In work after work,” he writes, “Vietnam and the Vietnamese are merely a backdrop for the drama of America confronting itself.” It’s no surprise, then, that the most fully realized character to emerge from these works is our nation: a wounded giant gazing in a mirror, drained of its innocence, much of its youth, and quite a lot of blood.

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