Dues: A Novel of War and After.
It is often said, and justifiably so, that the premier war novel of the twentieth century is All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque's searing and compassionate account of life and death in the German trenches of the First World War. It is a standard-along with less frequently read works by Remarque's fellow combatants Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, Frederic Manning and a few others--against which subsequent novels, memoirs and poetry of war are measured.
It may still be too soon for final judgment, but most of the writing about the Vietnam War by its veterans seems to fall short of what Remarque and his contemporaries achieved as they plotted, with a rare objectivity, both the scope of their mad war and the profound transformations affecting those who fought it. Having read the war stories of many Vietnam vets, I am still waiting for Remarque.
Broadly speaking, from the American side there are two categories of Vietnam War literature written by its veterans. First, the popular branch of the genre, which fails so miserably to embrace the experience that it functions, de facto, as postwar apologia, an extension of hostilities by other means. Typically, such works crown their protagonists with exaggerated honors as "warrior kings" and "rogue warriors," or they are blatantly revisionist, like the so-called "oral histories" regularly churned out by Al Santoli. By implication, if not intent, the vets who author these works seek to dull the national memory of our military defeat by glorifying the role of the individual American soldier, marking survivors simultaneously as valiant heroes of an unpopular foreign war and victims of political betrayal at home.
Perhaps it is only slightly grandiose to suggest that another social consequence of such high-test pulp is to abet the recruitment of adventure-prone elements among minority and working-class youths, who are most apt to face the nation's combat chores in the endless chain of mini-invasions our government now finds so appealing.
A second, smaller category of Vietnam veteran war literature contains those memoirs and works of fiction for which someone in the world of high culture claims literary merit. My own short list of works that "get the war right" would certainly include Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July and Ronald J. Glasser's 365 Days, plus a sampling of the poetry, some of it quite exceptional. I consider it a possibility that even into the next millennium, Born on the Fourth of July will be read generally by those who wish to understand some essential truths about the Vietnam War, especially its psychic impact on the American fighting man. With his memoir, Kovic stands virtually alone in dredging up from the inside out the universal affliction of the Vietnam veteran, that residue of volatile savagery that remains the demon of his inner drama.
One shortcoming common to many of the "literary" works on Vietnam is that while infinitely better written and more honest than the macho agit-trash, they are only relatively more successful in exploring the contexts of class and convention that led their authors to the circumstances whereby the Vietnam War became their subject in the first place.
For example, the theme of a guilt-ridden conscience at having gone to war against his better inclinations pulsates like a nervous tic throughout the work of Tim O'Brien, whose elegant confessions are often mistaken for deep excavations into the dark side of the veteran's postwar psyche. This fixation with self prevents O'Brien--the writer--from contemplating his call to war on a higher collective and historical plane where the apparent issues of choice confronting those who entered military service were frequently limited by forces beyond their individual will or control.
This is not the particular flaw of Michael H. Cooper's Dues: A Novel of War and After, a highly readable, even compelling first novel, where the social reality confronting a typical blue-collar draftee is deftly portrayed, and the post-traumatic readjustment of the veteran on return from combat, while made extreme, is nonetheless credible; it is Cooper's rendering of the war itself--despite his earnest attempts at realism--that is hopelessly misrepresented.
Dues follows its principal character, David Thorne, through three phases of the wartime experience. Despite some annoying anachronisms (the word "geek" had no currency circa 1968, while the redundancy of "marijuana joint" is indeed geeky), Cooper's best writing occurs in the first third of the book, where life on the American industrial fringe is laid out without sentiment in all its demoralizing starkness. A college dropout, Thorne blows a first shot at upward mobility that his hard-working parents (Ozzie and Harriet clones reminiscent of the mom and dad in David Rabe's play Sticks and Bones) have mapped out for him with their hopes and sacrifices.
Thorne returns briefly to the nest but finds no balm there for his weary sense of aimlessness. The sympathy he feels for his parents' resilience in times perpetually hard is overwhelmed by the stasis of their home life, depicted powerfully but with a minimum of flair. As draft-bait, Thorne awaits the fateful "greeting" from his local board by doing grunt work--prefiguring his role in Vietnam--in a factory, a dead-end job, the mindlessness of which he further anesthetizes after-hours with endless rounds of beer and reefer. Thorne's dreary prewar existence is transcended and humanized by the friendship he develops with a black co-worker, another preview of what will be a dominant theme of Dues. Throughout the novel, Thorne, who is white, will find all his close companions among the "brothers." What saves this atypical arrangement from becoming a deus ex machina of politically correct race relations imposed on the past from the nineties is the utter lack of self-consciousness Cooper builds into these alliances. There is no guilt-fueled liberal agenda here, no intellectualized color-blindness. Thorne's brand of alienation--never overtly political--simply happens to be of the same substance as that of his black comrades; he, too, is seen--and sees himself--as the "other."
Thorne, in his own eyes, is a loser, but in Vietnam he discovers something he is really good at--killing. The trouble is, he's a bit too good at it. Over the course of a hundred pages, the central core of Dues covering his actual time at war, Thorne plants gooks faster than the marksmen of another Cooper (Fenimore) dispatch their slant-eyed nemeses, the redskins, in those tales of the American colonial frontier so wittily savaged by Mark Twain in How to Tell a Story and Other Essays. Michael Cooper (in fact, the author's pseudonym) has his faceless and endlessly expendable natives pop up like ducks in a shooting gallery, where Thorne greases the lot like so many extras who take their falls on cue in a B movie commemorating the white man's burden.
At one point, Cooper constructs litany of the slaughter:
On Wednesday he shot a man running
to escape on his small boat. . . . On
Friday he shot a man standing atop a
bank near the river. They fired simultaneously,
but the man was the one
who was hit. . . . The following Tuesday
he shot two men on the river in a
small boat. They shouldn't have fired
at him. . . . On Thursday two more.
He was starting to wonder if it would
be three someday. Then four. . . On
the following Monday he finally broke
the three mark.
And so it goes. But this portrayal simply runs contrary to the grain of history. While Cooper gets much of the atmosphere right in his sketch of daily life at an Army forward base camp, he has conjured up a soldier whose charmed invulnerability has more in common with Simplicissimus, Grimmelshausen's fabulous marauder of the Thirty Years' War, than with some grunt who did his time in Vietnam fighting in the Delta or anywhere else. The only way Thorne could have wiped out as many V.C. as he is credited with, in a war where the enemy never paraded in the open as habitually as Cooper has imagined, is if he had been a bombardier on a B-52.
While Dues is indeed a work of fiction, the tradition of Great War Novel, in my view, sets critical limits to how far an author can deviate from the realm of verisimilitude where descriptions of combat are concerned. It's not that Remarque and Sassoon didn't weave myths of their own from their ordeals in the trenches; they selected, rearranged, compressed, omitted from their many experiences as they worked them into readable tales. But they did not alter the observable facts of combat. Since they believed that no one on the home front could possibly imagine the horrors of the unprecedented mass slaughter they had witnessed, and which they desperately wished to communicate, they struggled all the more to evoke faithfully the details and images of the battlefield.
With Dues, Michael Cooper seems to be suggesting, along with others who have preceded him "O'Brien, Going After Cacciato; Coppola, Apocalypse Now), that only with a flight from reality--"the horror, the horror"--can the weirdness of the Vietnam War be adequately comprehended within a fictional frame. Such mental acrobatics unwittingly distract our attention from the root causes of the war, whose aura, then, hovers in the ether world of allegory as some bizarre, inexplicable exception to our good intentions gone astray.
When Cooper (himself a Vietnam veteran) returns his man stateside, Thorne is once again on firmer ground, albeit trapped among that tragic vet minority for whom re-entry into civil life has become impossible. Joined by his combat buddy Stanley, Thorne adapts all too quickly to a life on the street. And when Stanley dies of an overdose, despite an ambiguous ending in which a wine-soaked Thorne vows to reform, we suspect that he too is doomed. For, indeed, these characters are both retrotypes in fiction, memorializing G.I.s "killed" in Vietnam who didn't actually die until coming home. But the fact is, it wasn't necessary to invent a cartoon version of combat to justify Thorne's postwar fall from grace. Vietnam made a lot of American vets, even those only modestly traumatized by combat, much less adaptable to the world they had known before going off to war.
If the literary prose of the Vietnam War has so often fallen short of the mark, the poetry has been more successful, perhaps because the power and popularity of rock lyrics provided models that G.I.s found accessible in mapping the true-felt moments of this peculiar war.
As with Sassoon, Owen and Rupert Brooke in their war, much of the best poetry by Vietnam veterans was written if not in the actual heat of battle then at least chronologically close to it. The extraordinary voices of Herbert Krohn, Michael Casey, Larry Rottmann and many others were emerging by the early 1970s, and retain the eerie power to free the emotions of those distant war scenes from their crypts and speed them into a timeless present.
On coming home from Vietnam, Larry Rottmann, always a poet of few words, dug in like a middleweight to pound us in the solar plexus with one short verse after another. No amount of irony--all of it intended--can hide the bitter truths behind a poem like his "S.O.P.":
To build a "gook stretcher," all you
Two long, strong ropes,
And one elastic gook.
But that was then. A quarter-century has passed, and a contemporary collection of Vietnam-inspired poems, like Kevin Bowen's Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong (Curbstone Press's other artfully produced volume of Vietnam War-related literature), really belongs more to the present than to those gut-charged moments of a long-ago war. Wisely, Bowen has avoided the pitfall--not uncommon in the ongoing work of many Vietnam veteran poets--of composing as if the war took place yesterday.
The measure of this wisdom is that, by the 1990s, Rottmann's "gook"--that inscrutable little creature whom the American soldier viewed, at best, as an unwelcome nuisance in his own homeland--has become Bowen's (and the latter-day Rottmann's) Vietnamese, a person with a culture, a language and a human face. Many veterans have struggled, largely through a process of wrenching self-re-education, toward reconciliation with the former adversary, rejecting the one-sidedness of the national melodrama where, for too long, the tormented G.I. has occupied center stage alone.
In a scene from this collection's' title poem, Bowen not only creates a rich, rhythmic word sketch of an unusual postwar encounter with a Vietnamese veteran but wryly notes how improbable such an encounter would have appeared to him as a soldier in 1968.
You never thought then
that this grey-haired man in sandals
smoking Gauloises on your back
drinking your beer, his rough cough
punctuating tales of how he fooled
the French in '54,
would arrive at your back door
to call you out to shoot some baskets,
If Bowen's poetry reveals his now-deep empathy for the Vietnamese, not to mention a considerable erudition concerning their culture, it is not at the expense of erasing the equally deep chasm separating his experience as a G.I. from that of the people who were our former victims. Bowen may have widened his field of vision, but the war understandably remains as an orienting motif. One memory takes him back to the "Temple at Quan Loi, 1969," where an old woman, dressed in mourning, emerges from a temple, staring from the corner of her eye at a group of American soldiers, Bowen observing that
She must wish our deaths.
Beneath the white silk band
breasts ache for a husband.
She pass s in mourning,
counting each step.
Her prayers rain down like rockets.
Even from the vantage point of middle age, as "In the Village of Yen So," the vet can never be indifferent to recording and reckoning the depredations of the past. Like many veterans, Bowen has returned to Vietnam several times in recent years. In what is now a familiar scene (at least to other visitors like me), an American couple is briefed, over tea, by a village official:
Numbers tumble in our heads:
how many commune members
comprise how many families as
In silence we scribble facts
into notebooks yet one senses that the mind of the hostess is "fixed on other numbers," a Christmas day long ago, and the
Two hundred fifty-eight killed that
Five hundred who went south to war.
Two hundred and sixteen who didn't
The literary and pedagogic merit of Kevin Bowen's poetry cannot be separated. His work reminds us that our relations with Vietnam in the present cannot be divorced from our experience with Vietnam in the past. If, however, our understanding of that past continues to be wrapped in distortions or mired in self-absorption--as in so much of the literature by American veterans--then even the optimism of so many over a postwar thaw won't disguise the fact that all's not quiet on our Southeast Asian front.
Michael Uhl served with the Army in Vietnam. He returned there last summer to do research for a book.