The Vietnam war is quite a story. And it’s a story rich with irony: the dramatic irony of unintended consequences and flawed heroes. That makes it hard, perhaps impossible, for modern artists to say much new about conflict, and explains why that war continues to resonate a half century after the US intervened there in numbers.
I take up the story in my new book, where I argue that stories of war continue to resonate, even though in the modern, liberal world almost all of us are spared the violence. Why? And why this war in particular?
We love stories, because we are conscious and unconscious seekers of meaning. Abraham Maslow put the attainment of meaning at the top of his hierarchy of human needs, and Victor Frankl built a psychological theory of meaning based on his time in Auschwitz – those who survived, he argued, had found meaning in their lives, even amidst the horror of a concentration camp.
This search for meaning is an inescapable part of human cognition. We are essentially pattern recognisers and categorisers par excellence. At a neuronal level, that’s all there is – cognitive networks forming and connections strengthening on the basis of pattern recognition. If this, then that: the simplest of stories. At the conscious level, we build stories about the world and our place within it; to help us understand social networks and relationships. When we don’t understand our feelings, we sometimes use talking therapies to construct a meaningful narrative – it doesn’t matter if the narrative is true, just that it’s satisfying.
Many of the stories we tell are about status and esteem – our own, and that of our referent groups. We are acutely concerned with status, for sound evolutionary reasons. What others think of us is perhaps the most vital of human questions, on which rests our very survival. Hence the ‘gossip’ theory of language – most of the information we exchange is socially important, and concerns status.
And hence too Terror Management Theory – which holds that our group identity becomes more prominent when death becomes salient. After all, the theory says, what’s the point of this absurd life if there’s not a larger meaning to be found in the onward march of our group, our culture, even after we ourselves are gone? And experimentally, it works: if I make your death loom large in your imagination, I can detect shifts in your attitude: more tolerant of in-group members, more biased against outsiders.
War, of course, makes death loom large. And war stories are a staple of recorded history, providing a clear sense of identity, of us versus them, and of culture as a repository of shared meaning – something worth fighting, and dying for. The central actor is the hero warrior, for whom war is an existential experience, providing meaning and identity above and beyond the group on whose behalf he fights. Hence Yeats’ Irish airman who declares ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love’.
For me, the Vietnam war marked a turning point – at which these timeless war stories and their heroes became self-aware and ironic. A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo’s memoir of his time as a Marine Corps officer, ranks amongst the finest works from that conflict. That’s in part because of his knowingness about war as a story infused with irony. Caputo writes of the ‘battle singer’ of old, who ‘sang verses around the warriors’ guttering fires to wring order and meaning out of the chaotic clash of arms, [and] to keep the tribe human by providing it with models of virtuous behavior’. But for Caputo, there was a problem with the Vietnam war:
The battle singer’s task was the same. The nature of war made it exceptionally difficult: how to find meaning in such a meaningless conflict? How to make sense out of a succession of random firefights that achieved nothing? How to explain our failings? And what heroes could be found in a war so murky and savage?
In fact, Caputo found some heroes, including a comrade who sacrificed his life for his soldiers. But the larger problem remained: a doomed cause, in which virtuous intentions ran awry amidst a sordid, corrupting violence. Caputo himself is implicated for a time, facing criminal charges for failing to check a murderous rampage by his men through a Vietnamese village.
Vietnam gives us two of the great anti-heroes of modern art: Conrad’s Kurtz, reimagined as a sinister and corrupted colonel operating alone upriver in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Greene’s earnest naïf Alden Pyle, whose desire to transform Vietnam contrasts with the mature, cynical knowingness of his English friend. The novels and many lesser works like them are steeped in knowingness about the limits of action and intention, and the tragedy of actors undone by their own flaws.
The war is impossible to escape for modern artists, sometimes explicitly so. Anthony Swofford opens Jarhead, his memoir of the first Gulf War, with his unit of Marines killing time in Kuwait ahead of the action:
we get off on the various visions of carnage and violence and deceit, the raping and killing and pillaging. We concentrate on the Vietnam films because it’s the most recent war, and the successes and failures of that war helped write our training manuals. […] We watch again the ragged, burnt out fighters walking through the villes and the pretty native women smiling because if they don’t smile, the fighters might kill their pigs or burn their cache of rice.
There’s more irony here, as the jaded knowingness of Coppola’s masterpiece is totally ignored by a new generation of eager young marines. . ‘I bet more Marines have joined the Corps because of Full Metal Jacket than any fucking recruiting commercial’, one Iraq war veteran tells another in Redeployment, Phil Klay’s brilliant collection of short stories about the recent Iraq war. ‘And that’s an anti-war film,’ the other replies. ‘Nothing’s an anti-war film’.
Evan Wright’s Generation Kill typifies the issue. For all its merit and undoubted authenticity, it doesn’t say much new about either heroism or the irony of war. Except perhaps in being knowing about its very knowingness. As a Huey passes overhead, one of the Marines near Wright ‘starts singing Credence Clearwater Revival song. A Vietnam anthem. And then he stops abruptly. “This war will need its own theme music”’.
The only way ahead has been to return to the smallest level possible – the hero within the small group of comrades, apolitical and divorced altogether from the wider meaning of the conflict. Thus we have in The Hurt Locker and Kajaki two of the great modern war films – thrilling, yet also deeply conservative and traditional in their narrow view of the brave warrior sacrificing for comrades and finding meaning in the small group, not the wider societal struggle. These are war stories of a more straightforward, old fashioned kind – unbearably tense, certainly, but somehow less troubling.
Image: Vietnam US Troops, Dong Xoai 1965, courtesy of flickr.