I recently read a collection of essays in Brenda M. Boyle’s The Vietnam War: Topics in Contemporary North American Literature. Academics explored authors like Bao Ninh (The Sorrow of War), Michael Herr (Dispatches), Duong Thu Huong (Novel without a Name and Paradise of the Blind), Bobbie Ann Mason (In Country), Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn), le thi diem thuy (The Gangster We Are All Looking For), and Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried). Boyle argues that what most Americans know about the Vietnam War comes through “fiction”—prose and films. The various authors skillfully contribute to Boyle’s goal of encouraging readers to do “this hard work of imagination, interpretation, and remembrance.” This is necessary, especially as the U.S. government continues its official remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam (which the government claims began in 1962, which is a massive lie).
Boyle names a phenomenon I am sure many will be able to recognize, the Support the Troops Syndrome. She notes that some of these U.S. novels “pacify potential antiwar activity as they make readers feel good about sending others to war.” Boyle claims that the logic of this syndrome is that “military people only can be sanctified, not condemned, and mourned as victims of the war, not as complicit. They must not in any way be criticized. In popular discourse, their having been in the military is seen as self-sacrificing and heroic behavior, judgment ensuring young Americans will continue to volunteer for the military. … In this national environment it is deemed unpatriotic, nay, treacherous, to criticize the armed forces or the US use of military might; all military actions, conducted by noble actors, are themselves noble.”
In his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, Vietnam veteran and academic Jesse Lembcke points out how antiwar Vietnam veterans who came home and engaged in resistance to Nixon’s war-making had to be depoliticized and psychologized, that is, neutralized. Yet the legacy of the war, he contends, is one that can undercut the Support the Troops Syndrome: “Remembered as a war in which soldiers and pacifists linked hands to fight for peace, Vietnam symbolizes popular resistance to political authority and the dominant images of what it means to be a good American. By challenging myths like that of the spat-upon veteran, we reclaim our role in the writing of our own history, the construction of our own memory. and the making of our own identity.”
It would behoove readers of literature to complement their engagement with such novels explored in Boyle’s collection by taking in the heart-breaking, destabilizing, and searing testimonies of the Winter Soldiers from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.