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Warring Fictions: American Literary Culture and the

Vietnam War Narrative by Jim Neilson. Jackson: UP of

Mississippi, 1998.

Manufacturing Canons

This book examines the critical reception of Vietnam War novels and
autobiographies; it does not offer new interpretations, nor does it make a
case for the importance of these texts. By looking at critical reception I
hope to reveal not merely the vicissitudes of literary taste but the ideology
of literary culture. In recent years, particularly in debates about canon
development, critics have begun to recognize the ideological work
involved in literary reception, but very little has been written on the
ideology of contemporary literary culture. My focus on the critical
reception of Vietnam War novels and autobiographies, therefore, is
intended to explain something of the process by which contemporary
literary texts achieve precanonical status and to examine how this process
has cohered with larger cultural forces to further a conservative rewriting
of the Vietnam War. In tracing the development of a canon of Vietnam War
prose narratives, I examine the sometimes antagonistic, often sympathetic
relationship between commercial and academic literary cultures, and I
outline how academic literary culture has been transformed in recent
years, identifying the important and often overlooked ideological
continuity between traditional and revisionist literary studies.

I focus on Vietnam War literature for several reasons. First, a personal one:
as a teenager I lived in Bangkok, where I witnessed the damage caused by
U.S. use of Thailand as a military staging area and site for its troops' "rest
and recreation." Second, since the writing and reception of Vietnam War
literature took place during the advent of theory and the revising of
literary studies, its reception may reveal whether this transformation in

critical practice has meant a comparable transformation in the ideology of

literary culture. Third, as part of a struggle over the representation of the
Vietnam War, a struggle over what the war meant, over how and why it
was fought, this literature has both reflected and contributed to the
construction of recent historical memory. My concentration on the
reception of Vietnam War novels and memoirs rather than on the texts
themselves is an attempt to examine the contours and processes of
ideological hegemony within literary Culture.

Since helicopters lifted off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon
more than twenty years ago, a generation has come of age without
contemporaneous knowledge of the war. To this generation, the war is
understood through documentary footage, popular films and television,
novels, songs, memoirs, and historical texts (as well as through school
instruction, personal reminiscences, and family lore). Despite such varied
cultural representations, the war has for many been reduced to a simple
lesson: it was a noble struggle fought by heroic young men who were
betrayed by cowardly politicians and a treasonous media. A more critical
yet, I believe, equally inaccurate interpretation is often asserted by the
liberal establishment and mass media: America's involvement, though
well-intentioned, was tragically flawed due to a national character whose
naiveté exceeded its ambition, what New York Times correspondent
Homer Bigart defined as "less a moral crime than the thunderously stupid
military blunder of throwing half a million troops into an unwinnable war"
(quoted in Herman and Chomsky, 238).

As a result of this misinterpretation and reinvention of the war, less than a

decade after its conclusion pundits and politicians advocated and pursued
a militarist policy in Central America with little fear of mass protest and
with no substantial public repudiation. (The extent to which this policy had
to be conducted clandestinely and by proxy via Oliver North and the
Contras, however, suggests that something of the social activism of the
1960s persisted into the 1980s. The reconstruction of the Vietnam War
has been aimed at overturning just this legacy.) By the 1990s, this

reconstruction was so successful that during the Persian Gulf War a

majority of Americans, including a sizable number of those opposed to
sending troops to Kuwait, praised America's Gulf warriors and overlooked
atrocities like the bombing of fleeing troops and civilians on the Basra
road, the use of fuel-air explosives and other weapons of mass
destruction, and the postwar devastation inflicted upon the population of
Iraq. The bombing of miles of stalled traffic on the Basra road by
helicopters, missile launchers, fighter-bombers, and B-52s, according to
Steve Niva, included feverish carrier air assaults with whatever bombs
were at hand, inspired glee among many U.S. commanders and soldiers,
and resulted in tens of thousands of Iraqi casualties ( 69 - 70 ). Fuel-air
explosives, which had originally been used in Vietnam, were designed, in
Robert McNamara's words, to "do with conventional weapons what
previously had required nuclear munitions" (quoted in Noble, 32). The
postwar devastation of Iraq resulting from the allies' destruction of
electrical generating plants created a typhoid epidemic that a Harvard
University medical team estimated would, within one year, cause the
deaths of 170,000 children ( Tyler). As Jack Geiger of Physicians for Human
Rights put it, the situation of the Iraqi people had become "a slow-motion
catastrophe" (quoted in Cainkar, 346).

How did a nation that had once had a mass antiwar movement and had
once responded with outrage to U.S. atrocities become oblivious to such
horrors? How was it that the most popular and most thoroughly
documented war in U.S. history was transformed into a lesson in
patriotism and national character? In examining the construction of the
Vietnam War canon, I offer a partial explanation and sketch out the
background assumptions, ideological necessities, and configurations of
power that have allowed this transformation to flourish.

To those in power, opposition to the Vietnam War raised unsettling

questions about the wisdom, and consequently the authority, of America's
governing class. The mass political and social liberation movements that
accompanied the antiwar movement-- with their demands for meaningful

political representation, economic equality, and social justice-posed a

threat to the established socioeconomic order, as did the development of
the environmental and consumer rights movements and the increase in
labor strife that occurred during the late 1960s, which Barbara Ehrenreich
describes as "the most severe strike wave since shortly after World War II"
( 121 ). It was, as Harvard University professor and Foreign Policy editor
Samuel Huntington declared in a 1975 report for the Trilateral
Commission, a crisis of democracy. ( Harvey Kaye identifies several similar
phrases used by Western intellectuals to describe the sense of crisis they
perceived in the late 1970s: "governmental overload," "ungovernability,"
the "cultural contradictions of capital," the "economic contradictions of
democracy," the "twilight of authority," the "twilight of capitalism" [ 58 ].)
To William Simon, writing in 1978, the legacy of the progressive
movements of the 1960s was a nation "careening with frightening speed
toward collectivism ... a statist-dictatorial system" ( 222 ). Similarly, three
quarters of Harvard Business Review readers who responded to a 1975
survey feared the American commitment to private property and limited
government would not last another decade ( Vogel, 145). For a business
class that had largely had its own way (and had allowed minor concessions
to labor during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s), the 1970s-- with
its environmental regulations, consumer protections, social activism,
economic stagnation, and energy crises-- was a fearful time redolent of
creeping socialism. American business, therefore, undertook a concerted
effort to organize and propagandize against the activist legacy of the
1960s. Confronting this crisis, Huntington reasoned that "democracy is
only one way of constituting Authority.... During the 1960s ... the
democratic principle was extended to many institutions where it can, in
the long run, only frustrate the purposes of those institutions.... the
effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some
measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals
and groups" ( Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki, 113-14). To reinforce
this public noninvolvement in politics American business greatly increased
its own involvement through a strategy that included, according to Kaye,

"variably successful attempts at coalition-building among the different

sectors of capital; grassroots organizing through employees and
shareholders; the establishment of PACs ... to coordinate financial
contributions to candidates sympathetic to their interests; and 'advocacy
advertising' campaigns marketing not products, not commodities, but the
views of corporate America" ( 77 ).

The achievements of the mass social movements of the 1960s had to be

not merely thwarted but discredited, if not erased from public memory.
The view that opposition to the war (and to the elites who planned,
promoted, and profited by it) was morally correct and politically effective,
that American military policy was criminally brutal, and that the war was a
logical extension of American economic and geopolitical aims had to be
obscured. The rewriting of the Vietnam War should be viewed not merely
as an attack on the supposed excesses of the 1960s but as part of a
continuing business-led assault on social market capitalism and the legacy
of the New Deal. Michael Lind notes that "Social market capitalism in the
industrial democracies was adopted in the middle of the twentieth
century, not out of altruism on the part of the political and business
classes, but as an expedient in order to secure social peace" ( 197 ). The
New Deal and Great Society programs, whatever their limitations, both
resulted from mass struggle and social crisis. Both were opposed by
powerful individual and corporate interests. Huntington, Simon, and others
were voicing the familiar concerns of many in the business and governing
classes, concerns that seemed to reach a peak during the global recession
of the 1970s. One way to end this stagnation in the industrial West and
Japan was to overturn the excesses of democracy. And rewriting the
Vietnam War was a useful part of this strategy.

But the question remains: how, against the best efforts of so many, did a
war once perceived as a nearly genocidal slaughter to perpetuate
American neocolonialism come to be viewed as an American tragedy? And
to what extent have cultural and in particular literary representations of
the war helped in this transformation? It could be argued that Vietnam

War novels and memoirs have contributed significantly to this process,

since they reach an important readership-- the editors, publishers, writers,
pundits, and professors who make up America's intellectual class. By
promoting a literature that favors individual lives over social relations,
universal truths over historical contingency, and textual sophistication
over social analysis, this class has helped reproduce, not merely in the
small audience of serious fiction writers but in the general public as well, a
simple and ideologically unthreatening view of the war. The conventional
narrative of the war in film and TV-- with its grunt's-eye view (and
exclusion of senior officers, commanders, and policy makers), the
alienness of the Vietnamese landscape and culture, the near invisibility of
the Vietnamese, the focus on isolated atrocities (and the lack of focus on
the destruction caused by U.S. aerial bombardments)-- derives from
novels and autobiographies written by American veterans, published in the
1970s and 1980s, and championed by American literary culture.

On the other hand, belief in a causal connection between cultural products

and the dominant ideology, between Vietnam War narratives and a
conservative rewriting of the war, inevitably oversimplifies the hegemonic
process. If the base/superstructure model of classical Marxism
overemphasizes the determining role of productive forces, this causal view
alleges too great a determining role for cultural products. It also serves as
self-justification, a means of giving the marginal work of literary/cultural
academics a veneer of politcal urgency. While I have no desire to
overestimate the role of literary texts in reshaping recent history, the
mere fact of my having written this book should suggest that I believe
these texts have had some impact on the reconstruction of the war.

Critics of Vietnam War literature have almost uniformly seen these texts
as offering a radical alternative to the popular rewriting of the war.
Whereas in the broader culture perceptions of the war have been revised
to perpetuate a belief in American militarism and to repudiate the mass
social movements of the 1960s, this literature, it is alleged, offers a
steadfastly opposing-- indeed, a counter-hegemonic-- view. Thomas Myers

argues that Vietnam War literature has an "unwavering commitment to

resurrect and to speak to ... the war's secret history, to be accessible
conduits for a radically new American sensibility" ( 30 ). Philip Beidler
suggests that this literature bespeaks "a major fulfillment of the true
'alternative' spirit of the youth culture of the era, the belief in acts of
imagination ... that could do nothing less than change the world" ( Re-
writing, 2).

In contrast, I argue that the most consistently praised narrative prose of

the Vietnam War, though critical of U.S. policy and graphic in its depiction
of American atrocities, makes only a modest critique that fits well within
an elite-sanctioned doctrinal framework and coheres with what Kaye
describes as the political project "of creating new, post-socialdemocratic
and post-liberal, conservative consensuses and governing narratives" ( 66
). Despite the generally more progressive views of writers, editors,
publishers, and literary scholars, the depictions of the war appearing
within critically sanctioned literature woefully misrepresent the heroism
and the vast suffering of the Vietnamese and consistently view the war
through the narrow prism of American history and culture. While
contemporary literary scholars-- particularly under the sway of
postcolonialism-- have begun to examine representations of Vietnamese in
these texts, they have done so within the framework of an identity politics
that diminishes understanding of America's geopolitical aims, which were
to thwart anticapitalist revolutionary movements and to maintain as large
a sphere of economic dependence as possible.

Literary culture has consistently ignored materialist critique, which Teresa

Ebert defines as the "uncover[ing of] the concealed operations of power
and the socio-economic relations connecting the myriad details and
representations of our lives. It shows that apparently disconnected zones
of culture are in fact materially linked through the highly differentiated,
mediated, and dispersed operation of a systematic logic of exploitation" (
7 ). The manufacture of a Vietnam War literary canon is useful, then, for
examining the process by which contemporary literature becomes cultural

capital, a body of knowledge that functions as a marker of class and whose

possession, in John Guillory's words, "can be displayed upon request and
which thereby entitles its possessor to the cultural and material rewards of
the well-educated person" ( ix ). By examining the ways in which these
novels and memoirs have been championed, I hope to discern the
institutional pressures, group beliefs, and cultural conventions that shape
literary reception, as well as the ideological function of literary culture

While it may be misleading to speak of the entirety of the publishing and

reception of literature as a single "culture," since there are considerable
differences among the commercial and academic sites of this culture, in
the case of Vietnam War literature the texts most praised by commercial
reviewers have also been the most written about by academic critics.
Likewise, both reviewers and critics have emphasized textual strategies
over historical and ideological content and have understood this literature
almost exclusively through a liberal ideology that has found in American
military policy in Vietnam error rather than intent, tragedy rather than

That academic literary culture, especially within elite universities, should

repeat this view of the war is somewhat surprising, given, first, the
humanities' reputation as a hotbed of radicalism and, second, the
university's relative freedom from the kinds of institutional requirements
and ideological limits that govern the mass media. (The radical nature of
the professoriat has been grossly exaggerated. A 1984 Carnegie
Foundation survey asking professors to identify their political orientation
yielded predictably centrist results: 5.8 percent declared themselves left,
33.8 percent liberal, 26.6 percent middle-of-the-road, 29.6 percent
moderately conservative, 4.2 percent strongly conservative [cited in Balch
and London, 43]). A good deal of this book, therefore, is devoted to
demonstrating the shared ideology of commercial and academic literary
cultures-- liberal pluralism. My intent is to show that through its traditional
focus on aesthetics and vaguely humanist concerns literary culture has

furthered a moderate critique of the war, and to suggest that the

production and championing of such a circumscribed view is the
predictable result of a publishing industry and literary culture dependent
upon existing social structures and relations of power. That within the
framework of liberal pluralism literary culture helped revise the war to
accord with the needs of capital is, I suspect, counter to received ideas
about literature, the academy, and the autonomy of culture, and may elicit
several objections that demand response.

The first such objection is that the war was revised for the sake of
historical accuracy, not ideological necessity. Few would dispute the
notion that public perceptions of the Vietnam War are considerably
different now than during the war. Whereas the late 1960s and early
1970s saw large antiwar demonstrations, occasional news accounts of U.S.
atrocities, and even (infrequently) public discussion of U.S. imperialism,
the 1990s sees the war as a tragic error, a noble but misguided struggle
against global communism that led to the unfortunate sacrifice and
mistreatment of brave Americans. The Gulf War revealed the predominant
lesson of Vietnam to be the need to use massive firepower, to censor the
mass media, and to promote jingoistic sentiment. In this view, the
rewriting of the Vietnam War was due not to ideological necessity but to a
more accurate understanding of recent history, including recognition of
the evils of communism, the heroic (and unappreciated) actions of the
American military, and the misguided behavior of the mass media, the
antiwar movement, and much of the liberal establishment. Such views,
however, overlook the considerable effort that has gone into rewriting the
war and creating a pro-military, pro-business, anti-social welfare
consensus. A main goal of this book is to demonstrate the complicity of
literary culture in this revision. As evidence of the shift in the intellectual
climate one need only look at the career of Noam Chomsky. Whereas
during the war Chomsky At War with Asia was published by Random House
and his "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" (and many other essays) were
published in the New York Review of Books, today his books are published
by tiny presses like Common Courage and South End, while his essays

appear in obscure periodicals like Z Magazine. Chomsky's books are rarely

reviewed in the mainstream media. According to David Edwards, "
Chomsky's work on international affairs has never been reviewed by any
major professional journal in the United States"; the book editor of the
liberal Boston Globe has declared she will review no books by South End
Press so long as they publish Chomsky; New Republic editor Martin Peretz
has declared Chomsky"beyond the pale of intellectual responsibility";
Chomsky has never been invited to write for the New York Times' editorial
page or Book Review, for Harper's, the Atlantic, or the Village Voice ( 42 );
and since 1986 (while publishing more than twenty books) he has had not
a single title reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. The exclusion
of Chomsky from the mainstream media is but one instance of the
institutional marginalization of the Left that has occurred since the mid-
1970s, and it suggests that radical views of the war have been excised
from the mass media not for the sake of historical accuracy but to accord
with the country's move to the right.

Others might object that a liberal media would not further a conservative
agenda. I concede that the mass media is largely liberal in orientation.
What this orientation amounts to as a practical matter, however, is not
sympathy for the Left but its virtual exclusion and a welcoming embrace of
conservatives. Indeed, this liberal-conservative axis represents the poles
of ideological belief, rendering alternative positions invisible and
constraining political choice. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky note,
"Insofar as there is debate among dominant elites, it will be reflected
within the mass media' which in this narrow sense may adopt an
'adversarial stance' with regard to those holding office, reflecting elite
dissatisfaction with current policy" ( 177 ). Arguments that fall outside this
framework are defined as extreme and are ignored. From a Marxist
perspective, the marginalization of alternative views and the
reinforcement of implicit consensus (in the guise of elite disagreement) is
understandable, even predictable, since institutions like the media
function to reproduce the structural domination of capital over labor. In
the context of the Vietnam War, this elite disagreement has meant for

conservatives that the war was lost by indecisive politicians, seditious

students (and compliant educators), and an irresponsible press, and for
liberals that the war was lost through a mixture of military and political
blundering, a blinkered anticommunism, and an excessive idealism.
Neither liberals nor conservatives acknowledge that U.S. actions were
criminal and included a war of attrition, deforestation, enforced
homelessness, torture, assassination, the use of chemical agents and
weapons of mass destruction, and the knowing slaughter of countless
civilians, and that similar actions (on a smaller scale) have been a regular
part of American foreign policy throughout the twentieth century.
"Common sense" has it that the United States has been a reluctant player
in international affairs, staunchly upholding democracy against the
communist onslaught and intervening only to oppose egregious acts of
terror. Yet history shows that early in this century the United States fought
in the Philippines, and invaded the Soviet Union, Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba,
Mexico, Honduras, and Panama. Since World War II, the United States has
supported military dictatorships in Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, Honduras,
Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, and the Philippines;
has helped overthrow democratically elected governments in Guatemala,
Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Greece,
Argentina, and Haiti; has taken part in covert actions and proxy wars
against Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Portugal, Nicaragua,
Cambodia, East Timor, Egypt, Lebanon, Peru, India, and Zaire; and has
waged war against Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, North Korea, Laos,
Cambodia, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Libya, Iraq, and Somalia ( Parenti,
Against Empire, 38-39).

Liberals and conservatives have also attempted to discredit the activist

politics that seeks to explicate the above history, that helped end the
Vietnam War, and that continues to agitate for social justice. And they
implicitly endorse a version of American exceptionalism, with liberals more
willing to acknowledge that the United States has not always lived up to its
democratic promise. The choice, therefore, is not between Right and Left
but between dogmatists and apologists. Consequently, the notion that a

liberal media would not facilitate a conservative rewriting of the war

ignores the common ground these groups share and accepts the
perception of liberals and conservatives as warring factions rather than
two sides of a narrow, elite dispute.

A third objection to my line of argument might be that academic literary

culture is too diverse to have a dominant ideology. With its many critical
approaches-- versions of feminist, ethnic, and gender; poststructural,
postcolonial, postmodern, deconstructionist, and new historical; Lacanian,
Freudian, Foucauldian, Bakhtinian, de Manian, and Marxian criticism--
academic literary culture may appear too fractured to have an overriding
ideology. But the fact that academics may choose from among a menu of
approaches to analyze literature and culture is not so much evidence of
ideological diversity as a listing of the choices available within the
relatively narrow institutional parameters that define contemporary
scholarship. In truth, the notion that a multitude of individual interests
precludes an overarching ideology is itself a defining feature of liberal

We must also remember that this array of critical approaches exists within
a specific historical context and political economy. A good deal of the
radicalizing of the profession in recent years stems from the impact the
post-Fordist economy has had upon the academy. Facing an increase in
temporary and part-time teaching jobs, a work speed-up, and a surplus of
job applicants, graduate students and junior faculty have understandably
been attracted to a version of historical and quasi-Marxist analysis. The
same pressures that encourage this politicization, though, encourage
department and university administrators and senior faculty, wary of
dwindling funds and bad publicity, to be circumspect about hiring and
promoting those who may be perceived as challenging dominant beliefs
and agitating for serious reform. A radical scholar or two may be brought
into a department to provide academic coverage, but it is unlikely that a
department will have more than this number, let alone be dominated by
Marxists. Non-elite schools and community colleges are unlikely even to

hire token Marxists, unless their politics are muted. Thus, although its
practice has been significantly altered since the heyday of New Criticism,
academic literary culture continues to endorse a liberal-pluralist ideology.

It might also be argued that the radical politics of contemporary academic

literary culture repudiates liberalism. Many literary academics have
dismissed liberalism as a vestige of a discredited enlightenment/humanist
tradition. Liberal pluralism has also been criticized for its tendency to
homogenize difference, thereby reinforcing an unequal access to power
and with it a white, male, heterosexual Western hegemony. It is here that
commercial and academic literary cultures have parted ways somewhat,
as evidenced by the persistent criticism of "political correctness" and
multiculturalism within the popular press.

In light of the ongoing conflict between liberal pluralism and

multiculturalism, formalism and poststructuralism, humanism and
postmodernism, there would seem to be little ideological common ground
between commercial and academic literary cultures. It is my contention,
however, that these differences are minor and that much of what passes
for radical literary scholarship is in effect a more complex, slightly more
progressive version of traditional, humanist aestheticizing. If literary
studies appears radical, it is because the general culture has become
more conservative. In a culture where genuinely radical voices have been
virtually eliminated from public discourse and centrist-liberals define the
Left, left-liberals like Cornel West or Michael Bérubé seem by comparison
fire-breathing Marxists. The belief that literary studies is radical is due as
well to the media's having been influenced by right-wing attacks. This
foundation-funded and pundit-promoted perception of universities as mini-
terror states where radicals, feminists, and minorities enforce a politically
correct conformism continues to color the mass media's view of the
academy. Any argument made by a leftish academic is filtered through
this perception, which increases the likelihood that it will be derided and
dismissed. This view of literary studies and the academy has been further
promoted by the belief that multicultural identity politics is inherently

radical. Within contemporary America, with its backlash against feminism,

its assault on affirmative action, its reassertion of biological determinism
(notably via Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve), its
scapegoating of immigrants, and its persistent homophobia,
multiculturalism may indeed seem radical. However, this academic
interest in previously marginalized groups rarely encompasses a critique
of capitalism; at most it promotes a more inclusive pluralism within the
framework of capital. Hence some in the academy may assail liberalism,
but these are minority voices. And many who denounce liberalism practice
a politics and a scholarship that is, in essence, liberalism by another name.

A further objection to my argument is that the reception of Vietnam War

novels and memoirs is not representative of academic literary culture.
Contained within a field (American literature) and a subfield
(contemporary literature), Vietnam War narratives do not occupy a central
place within literary studies. Although a sizable number of books, articles,
and dissertations have been written on Vietnam War literature, it remains
a sub-subfield of study. Whereas many, if not most universities now offer
courses in feminist, postcolonial, queer, and a variety of ethnic
literatures-- not to mention the usual author, genre, and period courses--
Vietnam War literature is at best an irregular feature of college curricula, a
subset in a menu of choices. Likewise, the Modern Language Association
has deemed Vietnam War literature unworthy of a regular session at its
annual convention.

Rather than reading this neglect as evidence of the idiosyncratic nature of

Vietnam War literature, though, I argue that this neglect itself
demonstrates the liberal ideology prevailing within literary studies. After
all, what ought we to infer about academic literary culture if the
literary/cultural reconstruction of arguably the most important event in
postWorld War IIU.S. history, an event that continues to reverberate within
American culture, is deemed barely worth scholarly attention? In this
neglect and in the ongoing preoccupation with constructions of race,
gender, and sexual identity can be found a continuation of American

literary culture's traditional concern for self-affirmation and democratic

pluralism and its refusal to accede to radical critique in any but a token

Let me anticipate one more critique of my argument: "those who claim

literary culture is dominated by a single ideology must be conspiracy
theorists." A common response to ideological critique, to the perception
that institutions like the mass media and the academy reinforce a
dominant ideology, is that this can be accomplished only through a vast
and impossible conspiracy. Large institutions such as these are too
disparate and contentious, too filled with strong-willed individuals, and too
lacking in control mechanisms to do anything so narrow and consensual as
reproducing a single ideology. In suggesting that public discourse is
constrained in such a way that it reaffirms prevailing social relations, I am
not arguing for the existence of a conspiracy. Ideology is powerful because
it is flexible, rather than monolithic. Because of institutional necessities,
economic pressures, political requirements, and class interests, the
individuals who make up commercial and academic literary cultures share
a rough ideological consensus that conforms to the general framework of
liberal pluralism. Likewise, those novels and autobiographies that
negotiate the process of cultural production and reception to achieve
precanonical status and become cultural capital will almost inevitably
embody and promote this dominant ideology.

Vietnam War narratives have held the possibility of reminding an older

generation and of teaching a younger generation about recent history,
politics, and the worship of the American empire. For whose interests was
the war fought? Who in the United States was most likely to fight and die?
How does this war cohere with previous and subsequent U.S. foreign
policy? What brutalities did the United States engage in and what were the
ultimate consequences of these brutalities for the Vietnamese? What goals
did the United States hope to achieve through this war and to what extent
were these goals achieved? How has the war and its legacy affected
contemporary political, social, and economic life in the United States,

Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the rest of southeast Asia? These questions
are answered obliquely if at all in critically sanctioned Vietnam War
literature and are consistently overlooked by commercial reviewers and
academic critics for the sake of more traditional literary aesthetic
concerns. The goal of this book, therefore, is twofold: to explain how
critically acclaimed Vietnam War narratives have at times addressed these
important questions, and to show how, by ignoring such questions,
American literary culture has been complicit in a reactionary rewriting of
the war.

The underlying assumption of this book is that literary texts, as

representations of the real world, construct imaginary social orders and
character systems and political economies. These texts are richly
implicated in and are responses to an ongoing ideological struggle. To
read these texts is to delve into a war over historical meaning and, in turn,
over what we believe and how we live. Literary culture, though, has largely
overlooked such readings for the sake of an amorphous humanism-what
Stephen Brint labels "literary liberalism." To Brint, this liberalism

is a way of seeing and evaluating character, society, and human life

through the aesthetic and moral lenses of literature. It is based on the
ability to understand and hold in balance many perspectives, identification
with the predicament of many types of human beings, a sense of the
existential issues bearing on men and women, an appreciation of the
importance and fatefulness of judgment, insights into the dark recesses
and unexpected generosities of human hearts, and a willingness to consult
conscience as a guide. ( 211 )

Literary liberalism has helped make the "timeless" concerns of reviewers

and critics seem profound, while making the timely issues addressed by
radical critics seem trivial. This movement away from historical
considerations has significant ideological consequences, particularly when
dealing with an issue as charged as the Vietnam War. Because literary
culture as an institution is bound up in and dependent upon capitalist

social relations, it has tended to aestheticize rather than elaborate the

historical, social, and political dynamics of literary texts and has failed to
consider that such readings may promote a much needed political


Published only three years after The Laotian Fragments, Michael Herr
Dispatches was received by a literary culture far more sympathetic to
literary representations of the war. Dispatches was reviewed widely and
favorably-- and remains central to most discussions of Vietnam War
literature. One could argue, however, that Dispatches lacks the scope of
The Laotian Fragments; the verisimilitude of Philip Caputo A Rumor of War,
Larry Heinemann Close Quarters, and John Del Vecchio The 13th Valley;
the imagination of Tim O'Brien Going After Cacciato and The Things They
Carried; the conviction of Ron Kovic Born on the Fourth of July. Why, then,
has Dispatches been read as the most successful of Vietnam War
narratives? Because it was thought to have successfully matched form and
content. Eschewing many of the conventions of traditional narrative, Herr
was believed to have constructed a book whose nonlinear structure and
kinetic prose in some vital way seemed to mirror the war itself.

Dispatches is a compilation of pieces that Herr first wrote on assignment

for Esquire in 1967- 1968 and which, during the next decade, he rewrote
and reworked into a more or less cohesive whole. It is a twenty seven-
year-old writer's account of his travels through war-torn Vietnam, an
account of the grim humor of nearly traumatized GIs and the absurd
optimism of American commanders stitched into a broad, almost
impressionistic picture of the war. The book is broken into six sections:
"Breathing In" and "Breathing Out," which serve as introductory and
concluding chapters; "Hell Sucks," an account of the battle for Hue during
the Tet offensive; "Khe Sanh," which details life in the besieged Marine
outpost; "Illumination Rounds," a collection of vignettes demonstrating the
absurdity of the war; and "Colleagues," a series of anecdotes about Herr's
journalistic colleagues, as well as a critique of conventional journalistic
practice in Vietnam. Episodes within each of these sections are frequently
organized around broad themes-- the committing of atrocities, the racism
of American troops, the voyeuristic attraction of war, and so forth. With

little sense of narrative progression or coherence, Dispatches ultimately

comes across as a voyeuristic, drug-addled remembrance of war, the
random associations, feverish speculations, and lingering guilt of a long,
strange, sometimes nightmarish trip in Vietnam.

From its initial reception, critics noted that with this book the Vietnam War
at last had its own literature. For C.D.B. Bryan, in a front-page review in
the New York Times Book Review, "Dispatches is the best book to have
been written about the Vietnam War. . . . nothing else so far has even
come close to conveying how different this war was from any we fought-or
how utterly different were the methods and men who fought for us."
Similarly, Jo Ann Learman in the Progressive claims, "No other writer has
been able to capture so intimately what it must have been like to fight in
Vietnam" (54), while Elizabeth Pochoda in the Nation declares Dispatches
"the first book to convincingly address itself to that place" (345).

Exactly how Dispatches succeeds in capturing the essence of the Vietnam

War is less clear since reviewers frequently cited long passages with little
or no discussion, as if the connection between Herr's prose and the war
were self-evident. Bryan gives a brief explanation: "Vietnam required . . .
new technologies in writing . . . an entirely new language, imagery and
style were needed so that we could understand and feel. Until Michael
Herr, no reporter or writer seemed to capture it. The previous books seem
to have been trapped in styles left over from previous wars" ( 1 , 54). In
part, it is Herr's prose that makes Dispatches the first real Vietnam book.
Herr's style, Bryan explains, "derives from the era of acid rock, the
Beatles' films, or that druggy, Hunter Thompson onceremoved-from-reality
appreciation of the Great Cosmic Joke" (54). Likewise, Pochoda praises
Herr's "salad of jargon and slang" (346), and Paul Gray in Time his "taut,
high strung prose" ( 119 ). Placing Herr's prose in the tradition of "the
souped-up, seemingly offhand, freaked-out writing [of] Tom Wolfe,"
Raymond Sokolov in Newsweek explains that Herr "took the sensibility of
the New Journalism (and of his generation) to Saigon and the Viet boonies"

( 102 ) and thus succeeded in writing "in the style of the place and the
time" ( 104 ).

Not only its prose but the form of Dispatches was identified as true to
Vietnam. To Bryan, "Herr's dispatches are as formless as the war they
covered" ( 54 ). And to Pochoda, it "was a war with no center, no decisive
battles; it was all circumference and it is therefore difficult to filter the
thing through unified plot and point of view." Herr was able to avoid the
pitfalls of conventional narrative by finding, in Pochoda's words, "a method
that is both personal and public enough to convey his war's odd
combination of familiarity and weirdness." Specifically, Herr built the book
" around the wearisome convention of the acid trip " yet managed to avoid
the solipsism of one individual, suggesting instead "that individual's
tapping into a general psychosis" ( Pochoda, 345). Or as Gray explains,
Vietnam was an "irrational place," and the war was "beyond the grasp of
logic" ( 120 ).

However, any assertion that there is a natural and direct connection

between Herr's aesthetic and the war, that there exists a correspondence
between narrative strategy and historical period is itself shaped by
historical and cultural imperatives. Critics' assessments of Dispatches
raise the question of how one literary aesthetic rather than another is
found to capture more precisely the nature of a historical moment. The
answers to this question are many. Perhaps artists have a preternatural
sensitivity to the tenor of their times and thus accurately mirror their era
through aesthetic form while, amid disagreements and revisions, critics
ultimately recognize and champion these forms. Perhaps, too, there is a
semi-logic built into artistic paradigms, a cycle of growth and exhaustion
that almost inevitably leads to a newer, more historically fitting aesthetic.
On a Bloomian view, artistic movements change in reaction to the
influence of the previous paradigm, with artists desperately seeking to
establish their own cultural identity through new forms and aesthetics.
Artists and critics may also consciously promote their particular aesthetics
through a variety of formal and informal means. In order to gain such

influence, writers, reviewers, and critics must have access to the means of
cultural distribution, which in the current setting means the mass media
and the academy. Thus institutional pressures and biases are likely to
influence the shaping of an era's dominant aesthetic-- in this case,
postmodernism. To evaluate Dispatches in, say, the New York Times Book
Review, one must not stray too far from the dominant ideology of the
Times (and the times). Writing in the New Republic, Zalin Grant explains
how the Vietnam War narrative changed to reflect dominant belief,
beginning with books that saw the war as "an agonizing moral dilemma" (
22 ) and turning "conclusively antiwar in 1968" after the Tet offensive--
what he labels "the 'bad American-good Vietnamese' interpretation of the
war." The literary community in particular, according to Grant, "was often
exposed to an extreme version, largely as the result of the ascendance in
the late 1960s of the New York Review of Books and its chief polemicist,
Noam Chomsky." Reaching "its most influential point in 1971, when Neil
Sheehan wrote a lead article for the NY Times Book Review, entitled
'Should We Have War Crime Trials?' " ( Grant, 23), this Chomskian
interpretation "prevailed, in one form or other, until the . . . publication of
Dispatches" ( 22 ). Ultimately, Chomsky's view, according to Grant, "was
unsatisfactory-- too filled with self-righteousness and finger-pointing, [and]
inappropriate now that the war was over" ( 23 ).

By 1977 the prevailing interpretation was that Vietnam was "simply a time
of temporary national madness" ( Grant, 21). Herr's spin on the war (and
Hollywood's as well), asserts Grant, "contained elements that the whole
country had already begun to agree upon: the concept of the veteran as a
victim of the war's madness. If we could not give them our admiration as
in past wars, we could at least treat them solicitously like outpatients of an
insane asylum" ( 24 ). For Grant, the dismissal of Chomskian analysis was
necessary since such self-righteous moralizing was crudely polemical. In
dismissing the moralistic denunciation of U.S. militarism in Indochina,
however, Grant fails to consider the ideological usefulness of this
dismissal. (He also fails to mention Chomsky's being shut out of the pages
of the New York Review of Books.) Grant does not recognize that the

dismissal of Chomskian analysis fits well with the desire of elites to

reestablish social control, to thwart the perceived "crisis of democracy" of
the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Newspapers and magazines at the time were filled with worries about
excessive social justice. The New York Times addressed this issue when it
pointed to the Carter administration's struggle to "rebuild . . . business
confidence and still . . . renewed anxieties over inflation" without causing
"yet another devastating mass explosion of black rage in the urban ghetto
of the type that swept the nation a little over a decade ago" ( Raskin, 4). In
a cover story entitled "Is America Turning Right?" Newsweek spoke of "the
view that the government has given too much y welfare to the minority
poor" ( Gelman et al., 35). Newsweek attributed this view not to the
wealthy or to corporations but to the economically squeezed middle class,
while at the same time acknowledging that "the majority of Americans
favor more public spending on the environment, schooling, medical care,
the elderly, and the unemployed" ( Gelman et al., 34). The sympathetic
manner in which it reported the notion that too much was being spent on
welfare suggests that, although attributing these to the middle class,
Newsweek was enunciating its own beliefs. Likewise, Newsweek was
sympathetic to what it labeled the neoconservative interpretation of the
1960s, the belief that "On the campuses, legitimate dissent boiled over
into movements that disrupted and undermined academic life. In the
ghettos, grievances exploded into brutal riots. On the left, reformists
turned into revolutionaries who attacked middle-class values. To many
blue-collar workers and academics alike, the breakdown of order was the
end result of excessive moral permissiveness and lax law enforcement--
liberalism gone berserk" ( Gelman et al., 36). This reactionary narrative
was to Newsweek hardly even ideological because "Today's new
conservatives lie very much within [ America's] pragmatic tradition."
Rather than attempting to reassert elite authority, neoconservatives,
according to Newsweek, were merely "drawing attention to solutions that
often do not work" ( 44 ). Although labeled pragmatic (read:
nonideological), the neoconservative attack on the 1960s was specifically

ideological and nothing like the pragmatic populism depicted by


Newsweek's rendering of 1960s activism as "liberalism gone berserk" and

1970s neoconservatism as mere pragmatism coheres with the concerted
efforts of corporate and policy elites throughout the 1970s to rewrite
recent history and to disable most forms of progressive politics and social
activism. Chomsky explains the logic behind this strategy:

The popular movement of opposition to the war was doubly threatening to

U.S. elites. In the first place, the movement developed out of the control of
its "natural leaders," thus posing a grave threat to order and stability.
What is more, the general passivity and obedience on the part of the
population that is a basic requirement in a state committed to
counterrevolutionary intervention was overcome in significant measure,
and dangerous feelings of sympathy developed towards movements of
national liberation in the Third World. It is an important task for the
intelligentsia in the postwar period to reconstruct the ideological system
and to reinstate the patterns of conformism that were shattered by the
opposition and resistance to the U.S. war in Indochina. ( After the
Cataclysm, 17)

This reconstruction of the ideological system was aided by an extensive

corporate propaganda campaign. Between 1971 and 1977, spending on
"advocacy advertising" ("designed," in Michael Parenti's words, "to sell the
entire capitalist system rather than just one of its products") more than
doubled; by 1986 one-third of all corporate advertising was spent on
nonproduct-related advertising ( Inventing Reality, 67). In addition,
according to John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, nearly 40 percent of
news comes "virtually unedited from . . . public relations offices" ( 2 ). The
incessant trumpeting of capitalism's virtues within contemporary culture, a
culture in which nothing is allowed even a temporary reprieve from the
"logic" of the market, is not a natural phenomenon but is the result of
along, expensive, and ongoing propaganda campaign fought out in a

media system increasingly unable and unwilling to distinguish between

corporate public relations and news.

The attempt to reinstate conformity to the ideological system is readily

apparent in newspapers and magazines from the 1970s. For instance, an
ad for First National State Bank that appeared in the New York Times
during the same month it reviewed Dispatches declared that "the
evolution of capitalism has left us with a system that would set Adam
Smith's quill to shaking. . . . an unceasing flow of new laws and regulations
floods the desks of financial managers." Another ad, for Sentry Insurance,
sought to rewrite the consumer movement, explaining that the biggest
worry of consumers was not environmental destruction, health and safety
violations by businesses, or excessive corporate profit, but "high prices."
Sentry worriedly asked, "What industries are the next targets for the
consumerists?" (note the similarity between "consumerist" and
"communist"). Sentry concedes that the consumer movement "has
become an integral part of our free enterprise system" but explains with
some relief that at least it was "no longer the cause of a handful of
activists." At about the same time the Wall Street Journal spoke out
against legislative attempts to restrict "the public's right to hear and
consider the view of corporations" on electoral matters. "We don't want
any body of men," the Journal announced, "be it a legislature, board of
censors, revolutionary command council, supreme Soviet, committee on
public safety or what-have-you, empowered to restrict the promotion of
those views" ( Ulman). Just as consumerists are linked to communists, so a
committee on public safety is linked to the supreme soviet (much as
conservatives would later link politically correct academics to Red Guards
and Stalinists).

From the early 1970s onward, there developed an array of business

coalitions, foundations, and conservative think tanks intent on reducing
the welfare state, lowering tax and regulatory burdens, weakening labor,
and promoting a massive military buildup and an imperial foreign policy.
Faced with what Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers describe as "the

longest and deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression" ( 78

), U.S. business leaders, writes Sarah Diamond, "were eager to take
preemptive action, both economically, by seeking to squeeze labor with
wage cuts, and ideologically, by funding a slew of 'free market' policy think
tanks" ( 132 ). This elaborate and well-funded system of private
institutions developed a counter-intellingentsia that conducted and
disseminated research studies, wrote editorials and policy papers,
published books and journals, served as policy advisers and became
"experts." It is against this background, in the midst of an aggressive
campaign to rewrite the 1960s, that reviewers in mainstream periodicals
evaluated Michael Herr Dispatches. Within this milieu, and under
significant institutional pressure to conform (but without consciously doing
so), many reviewers praised Dispatches for its view of the war as
unknowable madness and its sympathy for the plight of individual soldiers,
views that fit well with a nonthreatening version of the war.

The perception of the war as an individual and a collective national

breakdown-- " a tapping into a general psychosis" ( Pochoda, 345), a
"concentrated madness" ( Sales, 35), "an irrational place" that is "beyond
the grasp of logic" ( Gray, 120)-- does not fully cohere with this revisionist
view. Thus Grant objects to Herr's (and Hollywood's) failure to consider the
"good, decent Americans . . . who served in Vietnam [and who] deserved
much better" ( 24 ). In this context, Herr's depiction of the war as violent
psychosis may, if elaborated through a materialist critique, offer insight
into the running of and reporting on the war. (It is no surprise that in
National Review Joseph Rehyansky describes Dispatches as "left-wing agit-
prop" [356].) But the notion that the war was part of a general psychosis,
without further historical or ideological questioning, makes it seem an
aberration rather than an extension of cold war militarism, irrationality
rather than a coldly calculated policy of aggression. Just as critics saw
violent racism as a product of the West's diseased psyche, so reviewers
found Dispatches an accurate representation of the madness that was
Vietnam. In addition, this emphasis on American veterans ' (and Herr's
own) psychosis shifted concern away from the Vietnamese and

constructed the war (as Hollywood would profitably exploit) as a

quintessentially American rock-and-roll adventure.

At the time of the publication of Dispatches, Vietnam was trying

desperately to recover from the war. To the World Health Organization in
1976, South Vietnam was "a land of widespread malaria, bubonic plague,
leprosy, tuberculosis, venereal disease and 300,000 prostitutes . . . one of
the few places where leprosy was spreading and bubonic plauge was still
taking lives" (quoted in Chomsky, After the Cataclysm, 83), conditions that
in significant ways were repeated in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War. In
1978 John Pilger, writing in the New Statesman, described "much of North
Vietnam [as] a moonscape from which visible signs of life-houses,
factories, schools, hospitals, pagodas, churches-- have been obliterated. In
some forests there are no longer birds and animals; and there are lorry
drivers who will not respond to the hooting of a horn because of the
incessant sound of bombs" (quoted in Chomsky, After the Cataclysm, 15).
In their appreciation of Dispatches, however, critics ignore Herr's almost
complete erasure of Vietnam. And they seem completely unaware of the
mystification involved in identifying Vietnam as an irrational place beyond
the grasp of logic. Herr's account seems almost to take place within a
psychic rather than a real landscape. In Dispatches the Vietnamese are
mere shadows in Herr's psychic drama, hobgoblins in America's bad trip.

When reviewers mentioned the Vietnamese it was usually to inflate the

suffering of Americans. For instance, to Gray the war was bookmarked by
two "memorable images": "self-immolating monks and returning American
POWs." Besides the obvious discrepancy (Buddhist monks were pacifists
protesting violence; American POWs were mostly downed pilots and
crewmen), there is an implied historical trajectory here-- the war began
with the suffering of innocent Vietnamese and ended with the suffering of
innocent Americans. Between these memorable images, according to
Gray, "there stretched a decade of contradictory violence and rhetoric that
splintered the country" ( 119 ). Vietnam might have been where the war
took place, but the country that is splintered, on Gray's account, is the

United States. This staggering revision is asserted casually and

unselfconsciously-- and is entirely in keeping with Herr's depiction of the
war as U.S. psychodrama.

Grant, too, mentions American POWs, declaring their captivity narratives

"the most notable works of the post-ceasefire period" and suggesting that
"Their reports of torture in Hanoi did much to suggest that the Vietnamese
were not necessarily possessed of the full thousand virtues" ( 23 ). That a
country at war, especially a country mercilessly assaulted by the world's
strongest military power, tortured captured enemy soldiers-- or as
Chomsky explains, "that the North Vietnamese jailers were capable of
considerable brutality towards men who came to destroy their homes and
murder their families" ( Towards a New Cold War, 125)-should be no
surprise. That this mistreatment of prisoners and consequent
deromanticizing of the North Vietnamese should be read as demonstrating
the moral equivalence between opposing forces is an instance of historical
revisionism that has been spurred on by intensive efforts to reconstruct
the ideological system.

Actually, the view that there was a moral equivalence between North
Vietnamese and the Americans has been the left-most position within the
mass media. For many commentators, the North Vietnamese
demonstrated far greater cruelty than did the Americans. To the New York
Times, this mistreatment of prisoners was a "damning indictment of the
Vietnamese Communists, one that cannot be erased by the pious denials
of the North Vietnamese or their apologists in this country. A compelling
case can and should be made against the North Vietnamese for their clear
violations of the Geneva Convention. . . . Unfortunately, the record is not
unflawed. South Vietnam's 'tiger cages' for political prisoners at Con Son,
the Mylai massacre and similar, if lesser, incidents involving American
troops, the bombing and shelling of civilian areas, torture of prisoners in
the field and the use of chemical weapons are all violations of the spirit if
not the letter of international law, for which the highest United States
authorities cannot escape responsibility, even if the violations were not

expressions of official policy" (quoted in Chomsky, Towards a New Cold

War, 127-128, emphasis added). The Times's account provides a
noteworthy example of the manner by which U.S. guilt can be
simultaneously acknowledged and elided. First, the Times refers to the
"record," rather than to an elite class of U.S. policy makers. And this
record, rather than horrific or inhumane, is described as "not unflawed."
For the Times-- and for the American establishment-- this colossal
understatement, this acknowledgment that American policy is not always
exceptional, is a significant concession. The most perverse aspect of this
concession is its comparison of U.S. and North Vietnamese actions.
Whereas the torture of American prisoners by the North Vietnamese,
according to the Times, is a damning indictment, the bombing of civilians
and the use of chemical weapons are mere flaws. A military strategy that
involved saturation bombing, free-fire zones, the Phoenix assassination
program, the large-scale destruction of rural life and creation of hundreds
of thousands of refugees, and the dumping of tons of Agent Orange is
alleged to violate merely the spirit of international law. North Vietnam's
much less serious offenses, on the other hand, are clear violations of the
Geneva Convention.

This U.S./Vietnamese "equivalence" (an equivalence in which U.S. actions

are depicted as more legal and more humane) was apparent in President
Carter's assertion (in March 1977) that the United States had no reason "to
apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability"
since in Vietnam "the destruction was mutual" (quoted in Chomsky, After
the Cataclysm, 320 n. 22). Even on the level of treatment of prisoners,
however, there was no equivalence between the behavior of the North
Vietnamese and that of the United States and its allies. Including MIAs,
there were never more than 1,500 American POWs held in North Vietnam (
Franklin, 70), while between 1968 and 1971 the CIAled Phoenix program
(designed to target and eliminate "the Viet Cong infrastructure")
assassinated 20,000 Vietnamese ( Young, 213)-- 100,000 by Vietnamese
count ( Chomsky, After the Cataclysm, 71). This systematic assassination
of Vietnamese prisoners remains unknown to most Americans, but the

torture and fictional continued imprisonment of Americans has become

nearly totemic as a result of a propaganda campaign begun in 1969. H.
Bruce Franklin explains:

Throughout President Nixon's first term, the issue of POWs and MIAs would
serve mainly as an indispensable device for continuing the war,
functioning on the domestic front as a potent counterforce to the anti-war
movement while providing an ingenious tool for building insurmountable
roadblocks within the peace talks. And then the issue would be
transmuted into a major obstacle to normalized relations for more than
eighteen years after the 1973 accords. . . . The campaign was promoted
by a medley of astute publicity schemes staged by the Nixon White House,
POW family organizations, Congress, and Texas multimillionaire H. Ross
Perot. . . . America's vision of the war was being transformed. The actual
photographs and TV footage of massacred villagers, napalmed children,
Vietnamese prisoners being tortured and murdered, wounded GIs
screaming in agony, and body bags being loaded by the dozen for
shipment back home were being replaced by simulated images of
American POWs in the savage hands of Asian Communists. ( 48 - 54 )

The ideological usefulness of the POW issue is apparent in Gray's and

Grant's reviews, both of which cohere with a rendering of the war as
American tragedy. Although Dispatches is far removed from the fantasy of
the POW/MIA myth, reviewers' sympathetic readings of Herr's often
solipsistic and ethnocentric detailing of the war are in keeping with the
general perception behind this myth-- that U.S. and Vietnamese suffering
were equivalent.

Also, the idea that the war was a form of mental illness makes it more
difficult to see U.S. militarism in Indochina as a logical extension of U.S.
policy. If the war is by definition irrational, how can it be understood-other
than through Herr's vague, impressionistic retelling? In sympathizing with
Herr's account, reviewers often dismissed previous attempts to make
sense of the war. Pochoda, for instance, discounts "memoirs like Philip

Caputo A Rumor of War" because such texts are too "eager to overexplain
and digest the experience for their readers" (345). Compared to
Dispatches, Gloria Emerson Winners and Losers seems flawed, according
to Learman, because "she tends to moralize . . . [thus] the only readers
who finish her book are those who began with the same point of view" ( 54
). "Alongside Dispatches," writes Roger Sales, Frances Fitzgerald Fire in
the Lake, "with its clarity, its balanced views, its intelligent laying out of
the evidence . . . seem[s], in its neat detachment, obscene" (35). In
praising Dispatches, critics were almost literally rewriting the war,
supplanting more conventionally rendered histories with Herr's
fragmented account. Unfortunately, what these critics identified as the
drawbacks of Caputo's, Emerson's, and Fitzgerald's approaches--
explanation, moralizing, clarity-- are precisely what has been missing from
all too many cultural interpretations of the war, allowing the war to be

Although reviewers' evaluations of Dispatches (and Dispatches itself) were

shaped by and contributed to a rewriting of the war-- were, in other words,
inescapably ideological-- these evaluations nonetheless frequently praised
Herr for avoiding ideology. According to Gray, Herr "preaches no sermons,
draws no morals, enters no ideological disputes" ( 119 ); to Sales, "Herr at
his best hurls one into his experience, insists an uninitiated reader be
comforted with no politics, no certain morality, no clear outline of history"
( 35 ); to Sokolov, Herr is "no ideologue" ( 102 ); to Pochoda, Herr
"cover[s] the war and leave[s] the significance up for grabs" (345). Such
comments reveal the nonideological ideology (a concern for the
transcendent human condition and a focus on textual complexities and
sophistication) that has long defined literary culture. This retreat from
ideology reveals as well literary culture's complicity in rewriting the war.
For to champion Herr's nonideology at a time when the Right is insistently
attacking the 1960s and the legacy of Vietnam is to cede ideological
ground. The reception of Vietnam War literature provides space, however
limited and marginalized, for an examination of the war itself. Within the
liberal culture of book reviewing, though, such important work was ignored

in favor of wispy appreciations of literary merit. In the struggle over

historical memory commercial literary culture's sympathy for complexity,
indirection, and fragmentation has offered little opposition to the jingoistic
rewriting of the war.

The impact a book's initial reception may have upon its subsequent
scholarly reception can be seen by comparing Dispatches and The Laotian
Fragments. Pratt's book has much in common with Herr's, particularly its
fragmented structure and sense of war-induced psychological
disintegration. But even if one were to grant that Dispatches is a better
book, it would be difficult to argue that the disparity in the academic
reputations of these books reflects their relative merits. The Laotian
Fragments was almost completely ignored by commercial literary culture
and has been discussed in only two scholarly articles, whereas Dispatches
received widespread praise and has become the central text in discussions
of Vietnam War literature.

More evidence of the impact of commercial literary culture on academics

is seen in their frequent citing of the opinions of reviewers. To justify
writing about Dispatches, academic critics repeatedly note its positive
reception within commercial literary culture. Maria Bonn tells us that
Dispatches was nominated for the National Book Award, that it earned
national recognition and "has come to enjoy a privileged place in the
Vietnam War canon" ( 29 ). Matthew Stewart explains that it "was quickly
recognized by several reviewers as one of the finest works about the
Vietnam War" ( Style in Dispatches,189). John Hellmann quotes from
William Plummer and Peter Prescott's reviews and declares that "the
critical reception seemed to extend almost beyond acclaim to gratitude" (
126 ). And Dale Jones mentions that "More than one reviewer has cited
Dispatches as being the best book on Vietnam" (320, n. 1). Since the
importance of a contemporary literary work is always uncertain and since
critics must justify their examinations of these works, it is understandable
that they lean on the opinions of reviewers. But more than merely
influencing whether or not a book will achieve scholarly attention,

reviewers can affect the content of scholarship. Notwithstanding the

difference between commercial and academic literary cultures, reviews of
contemporary novels and memoirs often prefigure, albeit in more
abbreviated and less theoretical fashion, the interpretations of academics.
Virtually all of the academic readings of Herr's book build upon what was
written initially by commercial reviewers, in particular the notion that in its
style and form Dispatches presents a more accurate rendering of the
Vietnam War than conventional narratives.

Echoing reviewers' praise for Herr's "druggy, Hunter Thompson

onceremoved-from-reality" style, his "souped-up, seemingly offhand,
freakedout writing" ... la Tom Wolfe, Matthew Stewart contrasts Herr's new
journalism with conventional, objective reporting. This new journalism is
seen as stretching discursive boundaries, allowing for a more subjective
hence truer depiction of the war. According to Stewart, a "monolithic
system set up to 'handle' the media" and "a framework of
consciousness . . . shaped by long-term and repeated exposure to media
versions of reality" trap those who hope to depict Vietnam "within pre-
packaged images and programmed responses which nullify or detract from
their ability to engage their experiences as unmediated, authentic
versions of reality" ( "Style in Dispatches,"190-191). In other words,
traditional journalistic practice and mass media representations of
previous wars are significant obstacles to honest reporting. As Herr
explains, "because they worked in the news media, for organizations that
were ultimately reverential toward the institutions involved: the Office of
the President, the Military, America at war and, most of all, the empty
technology that characterized Vietnam" ( 228 ), even the best of
conventional journalists were frustrated in their attempts to report
honestly on the war. Herr is able to overcome the mystifications of
journalism and popular culture through his "stylistic ground breaking and
his departures from the journalistic norm" ( Style in Dispatches,191). In
particular, it is Herr's "adoption of his generation's language," his focus on
the " 'grunt's eye' view of Vietnam" ( Style in Dispatches,192), that
overcomes media-generated structures of meaning and allows the war to

be truthfully recorded. Stewart suggests as well that a work like

Dispatches, through its ground-breaking style and new journalism, has
ideological import: it can begin to reorganize the very structures of
consciousness that make the war unknowable.

In a similar vein, John Hellmann argues that Herr's "combination of a first-

person journalistic contract and innovative fictional techniques" lets him
"develop a form that would present the actual experience of the Vietnam
conflict" ( Fables of Fact, 127, emphasis added). Just as Stewart sees the
"pre-packaged images and programmed responses" of popular culture as
an impediment to the presentation of actual experience, so Hellmann
notes that Herr"had to strip his consciousness of prepackaged images and
ideas assimilated from 'Television City' before he could understand the
actual experience, see it and not a media-supplied fiction of his culture" (
Fables of Fact, 133). For Hellmann as for Stewart, Herr escapes these
strictures through language, through words "chosen in an arduous attempt
to capture the quality of actual experience, without recourse to the stock
language provided by a culture that is ever ready to tame experience by
transmitting it in familiar formulas" ( Fables of Fact, 130).

However, whereas Stewart reads the prose in Dispatches as "consistent

with Bakhtin's conception of jostling languages" ( Style in Dispatches,
192), of heteroglossia and multivocality, Hellmann reads it as "closely
related to, and perhaps influenced by, the fabulist experiments of such
writers as Kosinski and Barthelme" ( Fables of Fact, 128). Another
difference is that for Stewart Herr's style is "replete with both the
historically charged slang of the late sixties and the special lingo of the
men in the field" ( Style in Dispatches,192) and therefore "undercut[s]
authoritarian discourse and reveal[s] the callous and cynical falsities such
discourse contained during the Vietnam era" ( Style in Dispatches,199).
Hellmann, on the other hand, focuses on Herr apos;s self-reflexivity, on the
importance of reliving "experience through memory and art, shaping the
facts into a personally constructed form that will embody a meaning not

available in the fictive forms already imposed upon the experiencing mind
by one's culture" ( 132 ).

Recognizing that Herr's self-reflection and self-conscious style tend toward

solipsism, Hellmann suggests that this self-reflection looks outward: it is
emblematic of a national "journey toward self-discovery." To Hellmann,
this national self-discovery consists of learning not to "overlay . . . the
senseless death of war with [the] melodramatic ritual . . . [of] video
fantasies. . . . [and] the stock wisdom of past wars with Indians or Nazis" (
Fables of Fact, 136). According to Hellmann, Herr teaches us to avoid
popular melodrama and nationalist myth when attempting to understand
what happened in Vietnam. Both Stewart and Hellmann find in Dispatches
a means by which readers can come to grips with the Vietnam War.
Stewart finds in Herr's use of 1960s slang and grunt lingo a means of
subverting authoritarian discourse; Hellmann reads Herr's self reflexivity
as analogous to America's postwar self-investigation. Both Stewart's and
Hellmann's analyses are typical of academic literary culture's
considerations of Dispatches and reveal something of the ideology of
contemporary literary scholarship.

This belief that a slang-filled, self-reflexive style in and of itself can begin
to reorganize a popular consensus that has been shaped by the mass
media seems more wish-fulfillment than an actual consideration of the
power and reach of media institutions and other ideological state
apparatuses. Richard Slotkin explains the perception missing from
analyses like Stewart's or Hellmann's:

we should see [popular culture] . . . the myth medium of the victorious

party in an extended historical struggle. It has come to represent the
mythology and ideology of those groups or classes whose political and
economic concerns and cultural predilections have by and large
dominated and directed the course of American social, economic, and
political development-- entrepeneurs and corporate directors, salesmen

and promoters, entertainers and purveyors of grand ideas. ( Fatal

Environment, 30)

Neither Hellmann, nor Stewart, nor Herr discusses the forces behind the
construction and perpetuation of these myths. Although Hellmann argues
that "even the most terrible facts will not provide sufficient information for
one to grasp truth, unless the structures of consciousness organizing those
facts are changed" ( Fables of Fact, 137), he does not refer to the political
and economic interests that promote these structures of consciousness.
Nor does he consider that a book like Dispatches, which was published by
the Hearst Corporation, and an author like Herr, who helped write the
screenplays of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, face institutional
pressures to reinforce prevailing "structures of consciousness." But the
main problem with Hellmann's argument is his notion that these structures
of consciousness can be changed through fabulist experimentation.

The false structures of consciousness Hellmann alludes to, I believe, can

best be changed through political education. In the case of the Vietnam
War this means learning, among other things, that the United States
thwarted democratic elections in Vietnam, refused to work seriously
toward a negotiated settlement, followed a strategy of attrition that meant
the killing of countless civilians and the destruction of rural Vietnam, and
implemented a military draft that fatally exploited the working class. To
Hellmann, on the other hand, it is Herr's "keeping his mind open to the
experiences he was actually having, and developing a literary form that
would communicate them" that "has contributed to our comprehension of
the Vietnam war as, in part, a product of the American consciousness" (
Fables of Fact, 138). Note that the war is not attributed to the economic
and political needs of capital, nor even to the policies of Lyndon Johnson
and Robert McNamara, but to a vague "American consciousness." How,
with the war severed from history and with materialist critique disabled, is
this consciousness to be changed? Predictably, Hellmann offers a vague
aesthetic solution to this question of literature's ability to raise
consciousness and affect change: the answer lies in "the act of shaping

memory and art," in affirming "the power of a new journalism that is a

genre of the new fiction" ( Fables of Fact, 132, 138).

Calculating its relative merit and its position within the developing
Vietnam War canon, several critics compared Dispatches to other Vietnam
War books. To Gordon Taylor, all "American books fan out radially in
search of new forms of literary leverage on resistant material, from a
center [ Graham ] Greene seems at once still to occupy and no longer
usefully to provide" (296). Dispatches, he argues, "calls The Quiet
American most clearly into question as the literary base line from which
American writers might triangulate the subject of the war" (298). Noting
Herr's speculation that "Maybe it was already over for us in Indochina
when Alden Pyle's body washed up under the bridge at Dakao" ( 51 ),
Taylor sees The Quiet American "as an active element [within
Dispatches ], not a passively acknowledged influence" (299). Like many
others, Taylor concentrates on Herr's attempts to find "forms
commensurate with the extremity of the experience, yet capable of
transcribing its atonalities" (301), declaring finally that Dispatches is
profoundly different than The Quiet American. Whereas "Greene's Vietnam
is recognizably in the actual world" (301), Herr's Vietnam is "a place
[where] the historical and topographical reality . . . has become
hallucinatory" (302). Taylor finds that Herr's "words come from the other
side of a line, or from deep within a warp, which Greene's characters never
really cross or enter" (307). For all of the focus on the truthfulness of
Herr's aesthetic (even to the point, as here, of dismissing The Quiet
American), critics flatten historical and cultural particularity. Vietnam, in
Taylor's view, seems to exist in another dimension beyond our
comprehension. Although Taylor alleges that "American writers . . . [are]
now beg[ining] to make of the war what they must, in order to tell us what
Graham Greene could not" (308), he, like most critics, is vague about what
must be told, other than that it should convey the atonal hallucinatory
reality found on the other side of a line and deep within a warp.

This repeated critical fascination with Herr's verbal pyrotechnics, this

notion that his aesthetic is a nearly perfect match of form and content-his
fragmented, hallucinatory, rock-and-roll prose fitting the war almost
exactly-- is made most famously by Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or
the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (It is a telling indictment of academic
literary culture that Jameson is the only major figure in contemporary
theory to have written on Vietnam War literature, and he does so only
briefly.) Because of his prominent place within this culture, Jameson's
pronouncements have given special weight to the notion that there is a
connection between the war and postmodernity and that Vietnam War
narratives should demonstrate and even embody this connection.

Jameson speaks of Herr's "extraordinary linguistic innovations," his fusion

of "a whole range of contemporary idiolects" ( 43 ). To Jameson this fusion
is dictated by the problems of content: "This first terrible postmodernist
war cannot be told in any of the traditional paradigms of the war novel or
movie-- indeed, that breakdown of all previous narrative paradigms is,
along with the breakdown of any shared language through which a
veteran might convey such experience, among the principle [ sic ] subjects
of the book and may be said to open up the place of a whole new
reflexivity" ( 44 - 45 ). This sense that there was something new about the
war that required a new way of telling is the dominant critical attitude
toward imaginative prose about the Vietnam War. For Jameson and many
others, this novelty was not an exclusive property of the war; rather, the
war heralded a new consciousness, "a new systematic cultural norm"
( Jameson, 6)-- what has come to be known as postmodernism.
"Postmodern culture," according to Jameson, "is the internal and
superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and
economic domination throughout the world" (5). Although Jameson sees
postmodernism as the cultural manifestation of contemporary capitalism
and U.S. hegemony, many critics focus on the aesthetics of
postmodernism rather than the political economy behind it. They examine
the superstructural expression rather than the military and economic

domination underlying its expression-- what Jameson calls "the underside

of culture . . . blood, torture, death, and terror" ( 5 ).

For Jean Baudrillard, the underside of culture barely exists in a world that
has been overwhelmed by simulation. To explain this erasure of the real,
Baudrillard cites an allegory of Borges in which "the cartographers of the
Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the
territory (but where, with the decline of the Empire this map becomes
frayed and finally ruined, a few shreds still discernible in the deserts-- the
metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction) . . . ends up being
confused with the real thing . . . and now has nothing but the discrete
charm of second-order simulacra" ( 166 ). In the contemporary world,
Baudrillard argues, all that remains is simulation, representation, the
hyperreal. Any attempt to trace the real is but "the cartographer's mad
project of an ideal coextensivity between the map and the territory" ( 167
). 1

Suggesting the impossibility of faithfully depicting the reality of Vietnam,

Herr opens Dispatches in a similar manner, referring to an old map of
Vietnam on the wall of his Saigon apartment: "That map was a marvel,
especially now that it wasn't real anymore. For one thing, it was very old.
It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a
Frenchman. . . . . The paper had buckled in its frame after years in the wet
Saigon heat, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicted. Vietnam
was divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China,
and to the west past Laos and Cambodge sat Siam, a kingdom. That's old,
I'd tell visitors, that's a really old map" ( 1 ). Herr soon thereafter describes
an encounter, at the end of his first week in Vietnam, with a U.S.
information officer "who showed me on his map and then from his chopper
what they'd done to the Ho Bo Woods, the vanished Ho Bo Woods, taken
off by giant Rome plows and chemicals and long, slow fire, wasting
hundreds of acres of cultivated plantation and wild forest alike, 'denying
the enemy valuable resources and cover.' ""If in the months following that
operation," Herr writes, "incidences of enemy activity in the larger area of

War Zone C had increased 'significantly,' and American losses had doubled
and then doubled again, none of it was happening in any damn Ho Bo
Woods" ( 2 ). The madness of U.S. policy is seen as stemming from just
this futile attempt to control and understand the chaos of Vietnam, to
pursue "the cartographer's mad project." The implication of this opening,
with two maps that do not correspond to the territory they supposedly
chart, is that Vietnam is unknowable and unrepresentable. Conventional
methods of ordering and understanding do not apply. Hellmann links this
notion to the indeterminacy of language, seeing the relationship of a map
to a territory "as a common semantic analogy for that of language to
reality" and finding Herr's use of the map suggestive of "not only the
literal alteration of the landscape by American technology but also the
self-deceiving alteration of that destructive reality by a deceptive
language" ( 129 ). In the same way, Maria Bonn sees Herr "embark[ing]
upon the project of creating a new kind of language, a new map, a project
which he is fully aware is perilous from the start, because he is in a
country where all borders, all definitions refuse to stay put" ( "Lust of the

Because of this focus on epistemological and linguistic indeterminacy,

critics have neglected much of the history Herr documents in Dispatches;
they have written endlessly on the alteration of reality by a deceptive
language while ignoring the alteration of the landscape by American
technology. It is easy enough to use Herr's mention of the destruction of
the Ho Bo Woods not as evidence of the discrepancy between language
and fact (where, as Bonn writes, " Vietnam itself becomes a sign without
referent" [ 32 ]), but as evidence of the ruin brought about through the
American strategy of "Pacification," the goal of which was to destroy the
social and natural fabric of rural Vietnam in an attempt to destroy the rural
support of the NLF. In a 1968 article in Foreign Affairs political scientist
Samuel Huntington identified the goal of pacification as the "produc[tion
of] a massive migration from countryside to city" by the "direct application
of mechanical and conventional power" (quoted in Chomsky, Towards a
New Cold War, 216)-- or as Chomsky restates it, the "mass murder and

physical destruction of a defenseless rural society" ( Towards a New Cold

War, 216). The result was, according to Tom Buckley in the New York
Times, "bomb craters beyond counting, the dead gray and black fields,
forests that have been defoliated and scorched by napalm, land that has
been plowed flat to destroy Vietcong hiding places. And everywhere can
be seen the piles of ashes forming the outlines of huts and houses, to
show where hamlets once stood" (quoted in Chomsky , At War with Asia,

Like Bonn and Hellmann, Thomas Myers in Walking Point: American

Narratives of Vietnam ignores this background, arguing instead that Herr
provides "a new map of the cultural enterprise in Vietnam" and that he
"discovers through the power of memory and imagination the emotional
and spiritual terrain of the war" ( 147 , emphasis added). Severing
Dispatches from its historical referent, Myers sees Herr mapping not the
war itself but the literary representation of the war. The landscape of the
Ho Bo Woods is replaced by Herr's emotional and spiritual terrain. Myers
praises Herr for "attempt[ing] to discover within the materials of individual
consciousness a historical lexicon and syntax with enough originality and
power to do battle with those of the master narrative." For Myers, the war
cannot be "understood with classical categories of objectivity" (148); it is a
"historical configuration . . . of broken puzzle pieces" ( 150 ),
"concentrated mythic space" ( 162 ), "a shifting play of light and shadow" (
154 ), a "fearsome, uncontrolled acid dream" ( 152 ), a "national neurosis"
transformed "into the most debilitating form of compulsive historical
behavior" ( 153 ). The Vietnam War, in Myers's view, has no connection to
lived history; it is nothing but simulacra. "As historian," Myers "Herr
confronts the unimaginable." What about the war was unimaginable? It is
not the uprooting of the Vietnamese peasantry, the bombing of civilians,
or the torture and murder of prisoners. To Myers, Vietnam is unimaginable
because it is "a war of almost pure style" ( 155 ). Consequently, there is
little need to explain the history upon which Dispatches or any other
Vietnam War narrative is based. Since the message of Vietnam "resides
largely in its form," critical attention should be given to Herr's rendering of

"a textual analogue of its deepest rhythms and structures" ( 148 ). To

speak of the war as having deep rhythms and structures is to understand
it as text, as fundementally a linguistic construct. Terry Eagleton identifies
the mistake that underwrites such an analysis:

The category of discourse is inflated to the point where it imperializes the

whole world, eliding the distinctions between thought and material reality.
The effect of this is to undercut the critique of ideology-- for if ideas and
material reality are given indissolubly together, there can be no question
of asking where social ideas actually hail from. The new "transcendental"
hero is discourse itself, which is apparently prior to everything else. It is
surely a little immodest of academics, professionally concerned with
discourse as they are, to project their own preoccupations onto the whole
world, in that ideology known as (post-) structuralism. ( Ideology: An
Introduction, 219)

In analyzing Dispatches critics have read Herr's skepticism toward official

pronouncements as analogous to skepticism about the connection
between sign and referent. Herr writes of how "The jargon of Progress got
blown into your head like bullets, and by the time you waded through all
the Washington stories and all the Saigon stories, all the Other War stories
and the corruption stories and the stories about brisk new gains in ARVN
effectiveness, the suffering was somehow unimpressive" ( 229 ). And he
describes the daily war briefing as "an Orwellian grope through the day's
events as seen by the Mission" ( 105 ). Herr is right to criticize the
military's distortions and journalists' reliance upon conventional
narratives. But the fact that military officials disguised their actions
through lies and euphemisms and that many journalists parroted this
official line is not a confirmation of epistemological indeterminacy, is not
evidence that an accurate accounting of the war is impossible. It was the
military's self-interest-- and not the nature of language-- that caused the
truth about the war to be hidden. Likewise, the problem with conventional
journalism was not, as literary critics suggest, its empiricism, its excessive
reliance upon coherence, evidence, and objectivity. Journalists

misreported the war not because of their naïve faith in the ability of
language to convey truth but because of their reliance on and their
credence in the pronouncements of military and government officials. This
sympathy was the result of the institutional biases and interests of the
mass media. Critics' insistence upon reading the discrepancy between the
war itself and official accounts of the war as evidence of the
epistemological rupture central to much postmodern/poststructural theory
(rather than as evidence of institutional sympathy and ideological
complicity) suggests literary culture's unfamiliarity with (or reluctance to
apply) institutional critique. Since literary culture is itself a bourgeois
institution (and its members are part of the professional-managerial class),
this absence of institutional analysis is no surprise. Why, after all, should
members of a somewhat privileged class be expected to interrogate the
very institutions that help maintain this privilege?

A striking example of the ahistoricism and political neutrality that can

result from postmodern/poststructural skepticism is found in Thomas
Carmichael's "Postmodernism and American Cultural Difference:
Dispatches, Mystery Train, and The Art of Japanese Management."
Carmichael's aim is to consider the "possibility of representing the other
and the form that this impossible/possibility takes in the representation
and appropriation of Asian difference in postmodern America" ( 222 ).
Carmichael argues, in other words, that not just Vietnam, but all Asian
difference-- and all forms of cultural difference-- are impossible to
represent. He sees the film Mystery Train as "repeatedly suggest [ing] that
one's own dream is always either someone else's or a signifying field to
which one's responses are already appropriated and encoded" ( 227 ). The
business text The Art of Japanese Management proves this point in its
insistence "that the other, and specifically the Japanese other, is a figure
who ultimately must be denied in order to be retrieved to a specifically
American context" ( 229 ). To Carmichael, Herr is well aware of this
inability to represent the Other. Citing Herr's explanation that "even the
most detailed maps didn't reveal much anymore; reading them was like
trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read

the wind" ( 1 ), Carmichael argues that Dispatches "attempts to represent

the presence of the other as an image of the collapse of metanarratives in
postmodern history" (231).

Like those critics who viewed the setting of The Quiet American as
Vietnam but its intellectual milieu as French, Carmichael reads Herr's
representations of Vietnamese as emblems of postmodern epistemology.
In so doing, he completely overlooks the racism implicit in Herr's notion
that Vietnamese faces are unreadable, a point strikingly reminiscent of the
stereotypical inscrutability of Asians. Actually, there is little discussion of
the Vietnamese in Dispatches. But for Carmichael this is a necessary
omission which shows "that the Vietnamese other is always only
understood as he or she can be subsumed under the familiar encodings of
American popular culture" ( 231 ). According to Carmichael, Herr"wants us
to see his experience of the war in the field of the other as a revelation of
the refusal to acknowledge difference" ( 232 ). Rather than an
ethnocentrism that has been useful in rewriting the war from an American
perspective, Herr's refusal to consider the Vietnamese is seen by
Carmichael as speaking to the impossibility of representing the Asian
other. Similarly, Carmichael does not object to the lack of historical
background in Dispatches but instead praises Herr for "refus[ing] to
construct a master narrative of his own experiences of the war." Herr's
provisional, subjective narrative is commendable "in the face of a history
whose motivations can only be traced in America through an endless and
ultimately empty chain of signification" (231). Carmichael's postmodern
sensibility leads him to deny the possibility of ideological critique, of
historical explanation, of cultural specificity, since all such attempts must
founder upon the meaninglessness of language. By Carmichael's logic, any
attempt to explain why the United States fought a decade-long war in
Indochina will fail because it requires the imposition of a metanarrative
onto the chaos of history. Discussion of U.S. imperialism is also
inappropriate because "Herr's postmodern narrative consistently
demonstrates that postmodern America is finally to be understood" not as
a commercial and military empire but "as that paradoxical construction,

the true empire of signs" ( 232 ). In readings like Carmichael's, modern

America is removed from materiality and replaced with a landscape of
signs without referents, a land of pure simulacra replete with "anxious
displacements and deferrals" of the Asian other. If America is to be read as
an empire of empty signifiers, its actions in Vietnam cannot be understood
as stemming from imperial ambition and capitalist expansion. Thus
Carmichael praises Dispatches because Herr shows that the Vietnam War
must be read "in the face of a history whose motivations can only be
traced in America through an endless and ultimately empty chain of
signification" ( 231 ).

Academic critics did find fault with some aspects of Dispatches. Dale
Jones, for instance, compares Dispatches to Tim O'Brien Going After
Cacciato and argues that O'Brien's magical realism affords him "greater
imaginative lattitude in which to explore the issues and questions raised
by his own Vietnam experience," helping him to "transcend . . . the
confusion and bloodshed of the conflict while Herr seems mired in the
war's violence and insanity" (310). Jones objects to Herr's depiction of the
war as a crazy and unknowable chaos. He argues that Herr's combination
of fictional styles and factual material "makes it difficult for the reader . . .
to discriminate between objectivity and subjectivity, reality and surreality,
facts and fictions" (314). Jones's argument is unusual within criticism of
Vietnam War literature, since to most critics this collapsing of borders is a
vital part of any aesthetic that seeks to convey the otherwise
unrepresentable nature of the war. Jones considers Dispatches "weakened
by Herr's emphasis on American insanity" (315). Like Zalin Grant's
objection to the depiction of veterans as "outpatients of an insane
asylum," Jones criticizes "the media myth of the violent vet, [in which
Vietnam is] present[ed] as a 'loony bin' with American soldiers as its
inmates" (319).

For Jones, Going After Cacciato is a better book because it offers a much
more profound moral probing of "why one served in Vietnam and of the
issues of courage and responsibility" (318). What Jones sees as O'Brien's

moral profundity, though, is not grounded in history or ideology but is a

liberal humanist understanding of the complexity of individual actions.
This moral profundity is exemplified by the narrator of Going After
Cacciato, Paul Berlin, who, Jones explains,

did not know who was right, or what arguments were valid. Yet he went to
war because he believed in his country, believed in law and democracy,
and he feared that not going would be to risk censure and bring
embarrassment on his father and his community. . . . . As Tim O'Brien
himself had done, Paul Berlin goes to war less influenced by reason than
by gravity, by the magnetic pull of his town, teachers and family. But he
comes to justify his participation in the war by elevating his sense of duty
and responsibility to his family and friends over his desire for individual
freedom. (319)

O'Brien's explanation as to why Berlin goes to war was true for many
American soldiers. A young man's internalization of nationalist ideology
and his inability to see the connection between military service and class
exploitation would likely be perceived as the magnetic pull of town,
teachers, and family. The problem here is that Jones views Berlin's
confusion, his assertion that he went to war "not because of strong
convictions, but partly out of ignorance and partly for 'reasons that went
beyond knowledge' " ( Jones, 318), as profound explanation rather than as
mystification. In other words, Jones sees the confusion, ambivalence, and
fears of young men considering whether to serve their country militarily as
a complex matrix of motivations. This complexity, to Jones, is profound,
whereas an ideological reading that views such complexity as
mystification is shallow and simplistic. As is common in literary
scholarship-- and in liberal culture generally-- ideological commitment is
crude, ideological incoherence profound.

For Jones, Dispatches is flawed because it "leaves little room for genuine
courage and responsibility" and because it characterizes the war as "a
world devoid of decency, sanity and heroism" (319). Given the nearly

genocidal nature of U.S. policy, it seems peculiar to criticize Herr for

overlooking the war's decency. And given the way the war has been
rewritten to emphasize American soldiers' courage, responsibility,
decency, and heroism, Jones's criticism of Herr for overlooking these
seems almost reactionary. Going After Cacciato is a better and more
profound book, according to Jones, not because it depicts the war more
accurately but because it "reaffirms the best of the human spirit" (320).
Ultimately, Jones praises O'Brien's novel precisely for its ability to mystify
the war, to "transcend . . . the confusion and bloodshed of the conflict."
Such transcendence is entirely in keeping with the effort to put Vietnam
behind us-- what George Bush after the Persian Gulf War spoke of as
"finally kick [ing] the Vietnam syndrome" (quoted in Wiegman, 174).

Herr's aesthetic strategy is also faulted by Maria Bonn. She too recognizes
that "by reordering syntax and punctuation and using a language which
draws upon popular culture and contemporary discourses, Herr works
towards constructing a language appropriate for representing his view of
the war" ( 30 ). And she repeats familiar arguments about Herr's showing
that popular culture colors soldiers' experiences in Vietnam. She even
repeats the idea "that it is through heteroglossia that we must hear the
Vietnam War" ( 34 ). She sees Herr ironically appropriating an "American
hypermasculinity," adopting the grunts' use of "a language in which the
sexual and military share terms" ( 36 ). Unfortunately, according to Bonn,
"those terms come to take over his analysis, and his irony falls away into
actuality" ( 37 ). She contrasts Herr's endorsement of something very like
traditional notions of heroism and glory with (in Winners and Losers) Gloria
Emerson's "inconsolable . . . rage and grief" over U.S. militarism in
Indochina ( 46 ). And she reads Herr as much more congenial to Reagan-
era revisionism, the redesign of Vietnam "so that it will fit into the national
mythic structure" (47), than Emerson, who "wants us to see Vietnam as
unredeemable, a cultural crisis from which the U.S. is still suffering" ( 47 ).

Bonn's argument seems to have been influenced by Susan Jeffords's in

The Remasculinization of America. To Jeffords, perhaps the most

significant way to think of the Vietnam War "is as a construction of

gendered interests." Jeffords sees cultural representations of the war as
part of the backlash against feminism, what she labels "the
remasculinization of American culture, the large-scale renegotiation and
regeneration of the interests, values, and projects of patriarchy now taking
place in U.S. social relations" (xi). She views Dispatches as complicit in this

Herr's passage from uninitiated naïf to experienced and confident war

correspondent is, Jeffords explains, "negotiated by gender" (42). Whereas
early in Dispatches the naïve Herr is described by a grunt as "Tits on a
bull" ( Herr, 4), late in the novel a soldier concedes, "I got to give it to you,
you guys got balls" ( Herr, 221). Jeffords sees this passage "From 'tits' to
'balls,' from feminine to masculine" as evidence that "Herr's narrative is
demarcated by . . . signs of sexual identification." "The plot of his
narration," she writes, "is thus the story of how to enter the masculine" (
42 ). One consequence of the remasculinization of America, asserts
Jeffords, is the perception of veterans as "a group of men who were
themselves victims, on a par with women, blacks, and other
disenfranchised groups. Consequently, it could then be argued that (white)
men were not oppressors but instead, along with women and men of color,
were themselves victims of a third oppressor, in this case the government"

The construction of white males as victims has indeed been useful in

thwarting social justice and obscuring exploitative practices. However, the
fact that white male victimization has been used to this end does not
mean white males have not been victims. The working class soldiers who
were drafted or were unable to get college deferments and volunteered or
whose false consciousness made them volunteer out of patriotic duty were
victims. Yet Jeffords's conceit that the war resulted in a remasculinization,
a reassertion of patriarchal values, causes her to discount, out of hand,
male victims and to depict women as the central victims of the war. Since
this remasculinization is a specifically American phenomenon (she says

little about the experiences of Vietnamese women), Jeffords ends up

arguing that the main victims of the war have been American women. She
ignores the many male veterans who continue to suffer from wartime
injuries, from exposure to Agent Orange, from posttraumatic stress
syndrome, and from haunting memories of inhuman violence. And she
overlooks the more terrible suffering of the Vietnamese. In so doing, she
shifts the focus away from an understanding of how class, race, and
gender intersect within the political economy of war. It is this absence of
class analysis that causes Jeffords to foreground the suffering of women
and see concerns for the suffering of veterans as part of a hegemonic,
reactionary patriarchy. In diminishing the suffering of white male veterans,
Jeffords fails to perceive that a main goal of this remasculinization is the
continued exploitation of the working class-males and females, whites and
blacks-- through the further disintegration of class solidarity. Working-class
males' adoption of masculinist values and anger at women and racial
minorities will not, after all, lessen their exploitation. But it will direct their
anger away from the real cause of their suffering, fragmenting potential
coalitions into anatagonistic hierarchies of oppression. Rather than
forming alliances to assault a cruel economic system and an unequal
access to power, these potential allies have frequently directed their anger
and frustrations at one another.

Jeffords's critique arises from her belief that gender is the defining
category by which the history of the war and the emancipatory politics of
the 1960s have been rewritten; she sees patriarchy as the driving force
behind this revision. Jeffords seems to believe that the U.S. invasion of
Vietnam, too, was the result of patriarchy, declaring that "there can finally
be no adequate understanding of that war and its place in American
culture without an understanding of its gendered relations" ( 182 ) and
arguing that "wars are the most historically visible specifications of
patriarchal power relations" ( 181 ).

Jeffords's argument that the war has been revised in the form of
remasculinization is to some degree true. As she argues, this revision has

included not only a reassertion of masculinity but a denunciation of what is

perceived as feminine, in particular liberal policies to help the weak and
the poor. That militarism, nationalism, and "free market" capitalism are
coded male, and that peace, internationalism, and social welfare are
coded female does not mean, however, that the impetus behind the
rewriting of the 1960s has been patriarchy. It merely means that gender
has been a useful way to reconstruct the ideological system and to
reproduce-materially and ideologically-- the savage inequalities of capital.
Perhaps the limitations of Jeffords's conception of patriarchy are best
explained by Theresa Ebert when she writes that "Patriarchy is a
historically shifting material practice through which men control women's
sexuality and fertility and also ... their labor, not because of some
transhistorical attribute of men but because this control is necessary for
maintaining an acceptable rate of profit. Men do this, not as free agents,
but as [in Marx's words] 'personifications of economic categories, the
bearers ... of particular class-relations and interests' " ( 93 ). If the war has
been used to remasculinize American culture, it is because such
remasculinization has been useful in reinforcing class privilege and
reasserting elite authority.

Among the academic responses to Dispatches there is one essay that

makes a significant, materialist critique of Herr's depiction of the war--
David James "Rock and Roll Representations of the Invasion ofVietnam
Vietnam." This essay, with its focus on the uses of rock and roll in
Dispatches and in Vietnam War movies, may at first glance seem trivial.
Like other critics, James notes that "The possibility of mass-market literary
and filmic treatments of the invasion depended primarily on the innovation
of formal vocabularies" (79). To James, however, these innovations were
made not to reflect "the historical realities of the invasion and its failure,"
as other critics insist, but to allow "interpretations that would [fit] ... in the
interlocking myths and apparatuses of the mass media" ( 79 - 80 ). In
Dispatches and in Vietnam War movies, James notes, "sixties rock and roll
has been essential to formal strategies that, since the late seventies, have
made representations of the invasion pleasurable and hence financially

feasible" ( 81 ). Herr's adoption of a rock and roll aesthetic is not

liberatory, as others suggest, but is, James argues, a means of fitting the
war into a comfortable and nostalgic past. Sixties rock and roll has become
a corporate soundtrack, a way to evoke easy emotions from baby boomers
(as its ubiquitous use in TV commercials demonstrates) and to erase the
hard edges of that decade's political struggles.

James agrees with Herr that popular culture, particularly war movies,
hinders understanding of the war. Just as critics have found in Herr's style
a means to overcome the obstacles of popular culture and the war's
unrepresentability, so James points to Herr's use of rock and roll to "solve
the awkwardness of Vietnam" ( 83 ). This incorporation of rock lyrics, rock
slang, and a rock-and-roll sensibility into Dispatches is in keeping with
Herr's wish to be true to the language and experiences of grunts-- as
opposed to the deadening and mystifying Jargon of the military command
and official journalism. If this war is so different from other wars, its
literary representation must use an entirely new vocabulary. And rock and
roll serves just this function. ( James connects this perception to "the
various ideologies of postmodernism, most immediately with Jean-François
Lyotard's rejection of the possibility of totalizing languages and his
demand for a recognition simultaneously of the unrepresentable" [ 85 ].)

But in Herr's use of rock and roll James finds historical erasure and
ethnocentrism. He notes that after the mention of the old French map,

contains no account of the place of the invasion in the history of

colonialism-let alone as an event in Vietnamese history-- it contains no
narrative at all. Despite gestures toward geographic and chronological
specificity ... the invasion is everywhere and always the same. It exists
only in the GI's experience of it, and the GIs exist only in the perpetual
present of combat or keyed expectation of it that cannot be represented
but can only be figured as rock and roll.... Herr's use of rock and roll to
figure the unrepresentability of combat is the keystone in an arch of

repressions that allowed the invasion to become part of industrial culture.

Reducing the invasion to the experience of the American GI-- the same
strategy used by the Right to justify it-- it conceals the historical events by
which soldiers came to be in Vietnam. ( 86 )

This kind of politically sophisticated critique is an exception among

analyses of Vietnam War literature-- and is far from predominant in
academic literary culture. For in their examinations of Dispatches,
academic critics have routinely focused on discourse rather than ideology,
seeing Vietnam as "a sign without a referent" and America as "the true
empire of signs." They have turned their attention toward Herr's style and
formal structure and away from the war itself. Even when viewing
Dispatches as complicit in the rewriting of recent history, critics have
failed to flesh out this history-- in its horrible particularities and as an
instance of U.S. imperialism. Published and received during a time when
the war was being revised to promote a new cold war and to discredit Left
activism, Dispatches renders the war as the essentially unknowable
experience of individual grunts. Rather than challenging this perception,
academic literary critics have praised Herr's depiction of the war since it
coheres so well with postmodern and post structural conceits. Far from
radical, though, this view of the war as unknowable reinforces an
ideologically useful historical ignorance and confusion. As James Wilson

After so many years of official propaganda, the war understandably

seemed incomprehensible to many people. Rational analysis collided with
the government's massive public relations campaign to sell the war, a
campaign built on exaggerated statistics and falsified progress reports.
When American officials could no longer conceal the truth about Vietnam,
and when official fiction finally collapsed, the political realities of the war
had become so muddled that very few people were able to put the pieces
back together in a coherent whole. For one thing, few people possessed
the historical knowledge needed to make sense of a war as steeped in
historical connection as Vietnam... The United States government made

the war unintelligible, but for politically intelligible reasons-- that is, to sell
a war that needed selling. ( 44 )

In their readings of Dispatches literary critics, rather than recognizing the

U.S. government's efforts to make the Vietnam war unintelligible, have
seen it as by definition unintelligible and have thus linked the war to
postmodern/post structural epistemological skepticism. This first terrible
postmodernist war, like any experience dependent upon language, can
never be understood. The politically intelligible reasons that the United
States sought to make the war seem incoherent are overlooked by critics
enraptured with notions of linguistic indeterminacy. For literary culture,
the idea of piecing the war back together in a coherent whole is, in
Baudrillard's words, the mad project of an ideal coextensivity.