The Collective Memory of the Vietnam War
John A. Wood
Ohio University Press 200pp £21.99
The Vietnam War has long been represented through the ‘authenticity’ of the GI experience. Those who ‘were there’ and related their experiences of a chaotic, brutally violent war have served as a cultural conduit for the conflict in ways which have shaped our collective memory of it. The GI, as a victim of a ruthless enemy and a wrong-headed American military machine, has come to stand as the injured party in America’s fateful excursion in South-East Asia. John A. Wood’s study of veteran memoirs is a serious and largely successful exercise in unpacking the myth that GI memoirs offer us untroubling access to the reality of the war.
This book is meticulous in its methodological approach to 58 memoirs and oral testimonies published between 1967 and 2005. Wood insists that the canon of Vietnam memoirs gives us limited understanding of GI experience and even less of the war in its totality. The memoirs are written mostly by educated middle-class officers with an average age of 27, while the average age of the overwhelmingly working-class infantry soldier, the ‘draft bait’, was 19. Wood also engages with race, on two levels: the vitriolic racism against the Vietnamese people, which structures most of the memoirs, and the racism within the US army. African-American and other minorities were disproportionately represented among the US infantry in Vietnam. The war-time experiences of non-white veterans have been marginalised to the point of exclusion in the American story of Vietnam and Wood’s engagement with this body of ‘countermemories’ of the war is especially welcome. He argues that readers of white memoirs come away with the ‘false notion that race played almost no role in the history of the war at all’. Latinos and Asian Americans were regularly viewed as the enemy by other GIs and the anti-Vietnamese racism so prevalent among white veterans is less common among non-white soldiers. Wood places non-white narratives in relation to the white canon of veteran memoirs and the race politics of the Black Power era, enabling a complex, nuanced look at the racialised structures of US society.
To counter the overwhelmingly gendered field of Vietnam memoirs, Wood includes narratives by American and Vietnamese women. In traditional memoirs, the latter are objectified as unnamed racialised and sexualised others, while American women are represented through a less complicated, if similarly totalising, male gaze. The inclusion of women’s voices here is an attempt to examine the toxic forms of masculinity which structure the GI war story and again underlines the problem with treating memoirs as providing ‘authentic’ access to the war.
One reason that the Vietnam veteran has become the moral vector of the war is the perception that they were often ignored, abused, hated and marginalised by the US establishment and anti-war activists. Wood places this within a longer narrative of US homecomings and, while recognising the damaging legacies of the war, questions the apparent uniqueness of the difficulties that Vietnam veterans faced returning to civilian life. In the latter chapters of the book Vietnam is placed in the context of the wars that have come before and after and the impact of cinema on the shape of war memoirs. A strange cultural circuit emerges in which fictional representations take their authority from recollections that are themselves informed by cinematic culture. This important study is not a disinterested reflection on how the most prominent memoirs are expressions of raced, classed and gendered subjects rather than ‘the truth’ of Vietnam. Wood does not suggest that these narratives have nothing to tell us about war. That story is darker than the most bleak memoirs.
Cathy Bergin is Literary and Cultural Historian at the University of Brighton and author of Key Texts in Anti-Colonial Thought: African American Anti-Colonial Texts 1917-1937 (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).