Like the novelists I have previously discussed, the Vietnam War authors I will consider tend to see the world as deterministic, absurd, and meaningless. Furthermore, a significant number of Vietnam War novels abandon the realistic tradition that has predominated in twentieth-century war literature and embrace an experimental style, making them spiritual descendants of Catch-22. Vietnam novels tend to be more self-conscious than earlier war novels in the ways in which they use the battlefield as a metaphor for the world at large, but they are no less ambiguous. They reveal the same contradictory impulses--a yearning for absolute autonomy and nostalgia for community--found in the novels from the world wars. Moreover, we will once again encounter soldiers struggling to establish a separate peace and to revitalize their diminished selves, but the existential hero accepting the responsibility of his or her own freedom will be notably absent.
As has been often noted, the Vietnam War was, in some ways, just like any other war, but it has left a lasting impression on the American consciousness that is unique. This impression is the result of several facts that are singular in American experience: that the war was the first televised war in our history, which gave it an immediacy that previous wars lacked; that a significant portion of the population opposed the war, sometimes vehemently; that the war was lost; and that the returning soldiers were not accorded the celebratory and grateful homecoming that the soldiers who served in the two world wars had received. The war itself, figuratively speaking, sneaked up on the American people. Unlike the world wars that were in progress and that the citizenry were well aware of before America entered them, Americans only gradually became cognizant of the Vietnam War. American soldiers were dying in Vietnam(1) before most Americans even realized that a war was happening there because prior to the middle of 1963 no television networks had full-time news crews in Vietnam, and the New York Times was the only newspaper to have a full-time reporter there (Delli Carpini 44). Furthermore, while the world wars were marked by explicit declarations of war in response to specific, well-known incidents, the Vietnam War was never declared, and American involvement was well underway before any sort of triggering incident became public knowledge. Moreover, the second Gulf of Tonkin incident in the summer of 1964, which President Johnson cited as the justification for initiating an American air war against North Vietnam, quite possibly never even occurred (Maclear 113).
The Vietnam War need never have happened. Its roots were in the Cold War mentality which dominated American life after World War II. This mentality tended to dichotomize the whole world, dividing it into the good guys (capitalists) and the bad guys (communists). This outlook led to a fundamental misunderstanding of the hopes and desires of most of the Vietnamese people--both in the South and in the North. By and large, their goal was to be free of foreign domination and to establish an independent Vietnam for the Vietnamese (Tran 199). A succession of American leaders, though, from Truman through Ford, were only able to see Vietnam as the first in a series of "dominoes" that were in peril of falling into the hands of the Red Menace--a theory that in the minds of most scholars has long since been discredited (Maclear 59).(2) Consequently, due to this belief that the conflict had global significance, the United States was gradually drawn into what was essentially a civil war (Maclear 355). In fact, the United States may have actually created the war by backing the Diem regime in the South and supporting its refusal to hold the elections agreed upon in Geneva in 1954 (Baritz 88-91).
This original mistake was then compounded by an underestimation of the determination of the enemy. They could not be simply bombed into submission, and they were exceptionally skilled at fighting an unconventional, guerrilla war that the American military was unprepared to fight. The American military forces, led by General William Westmoreland, with their superior firepower, believed they could achieve victory through attrition (Maclear 150-51). This strategy (if one can call it that) was doomed to failure because it was difficult to know who among the Vietnamese was friend or foe, because the enemy were experts at literally going underground, and because the guerrillas preferred hit and run tactics to conventional set-piece battles. The fact that successive Presidents and their advisors never fully committed to any one, distinct military policy made the task even more difficult for the commanders and soldiers in the field. For example, the goal was "winning hearts and minds" at one time, "search and destroy" at another, and finally "Vietnamization" (Maclear 62, 151, 286). The foregoing history is simplistic, of course, but it does outline the futility of the whole Vietnam misadventure. Not surprisingly, this pervasive feeling of futility gravitated to the individual soldiers ordered to fight the war and to the novelists who wrote about them.
The soldiers who fought in Vietnam were the so-called "Baby-Boomers." Born after World War II, they grew up in the 1950s and '60s. These young men were raised on television, rock 'n' roll, John Wayne movies, and Civil Defense drills. Historian Loren Baritz points out that the undemocratic draft system that was in place for most of the war(3) drew its conscripts largely from the lower socio-economic strata (284-86). Baritz contends that this "kept the middle class from creating political pressure on the war administrations" (284). Furthermore, the troops in Vietnam were very young. The average age of the soldier in Vietnam was nineteen, as compared to twenty-six during the Second World War (Maclear 267). John Hellmann persuasively argues that American involvement in Vietnam was at heart an attempt to act out the American frontier myth by which the hero tames wild nature and brings progress and protection to the dark natives (35). Believing they were going to do precisely that, many of these young soldiers went to Vietnam with Hollywood-inspired visions of themselves becoming heroic figures, just like John Wayne in his cowboy and combat movies (Metress 111-13, Novelli 107-08).
The disillusionment experienced by American soldiers in Vietnam was widespread. They experienced the horrors of warfare, the death and maiming of their buddies, just like troops in any war, but they were also beset with mounting frustrations. The enemy was rarely seen, and distinguishing the innocent villager from the dangerous guerrilla was nearly impossible. Unlike previous wars, Vietnam rarely provided the soldiers any sense of accomplishment, any sense of a mission completed because land was fought for and won and then promptly abandoned. Clear front lines did not exist (Maclear 269). Compounding the soldiers' feelings of futility was the knowledge that they were only required to serve a one year tour of duty. This fact made survival a top priority, especially as each soldier drew closer and closer to his DEROS date.(4) Combatants in previous wars knew they were not going home until victory was achieved, which helped knit units together since they were all in it for the duration. The fighting man in Vietnam, on the other hand, was much more likely to look out for himself first (Maclear 265). This tendency was exacerbated when, in 1969, the government began withdrawing troops. The soldiers, quite rightly, grew reluctant to die for a cause that the politicians, it seemed, had already decided was not worth fighting for any longer (Baritz 293). Thousands of these soldiers came home suffering from severe psychological disorders, so many so that we now have a name for the malady--Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (Lomperis 28).
Considering the ambiguity of purpose of the war and the ambivalent attitudes toward it held by the American people, we should not be surprised that the novels arising out of it have presented a wide range of ideological, political, and social perspectives and that the best of these decline to draw any firm conclusions about the war. As Edward F. Palm points out, World War I "writers were trying to assimilate the 'new meaning' of industrialized mass trench warfare. Vietnam writers are faced with having to go one step further and make sense of the abstract processes of modern industrialized political warfare in which the individual seems to have no personal stake whatsoever" (120-21). How a writer portrays individuals reacting to and dealing with this state of affairs will tell us much about how that author views the modern individual living in a technological(5) society.
Hundreds of novels based on the Vietnam War have been published, beginning even while the war was in progress. Some of these are quite good and rank with the best that have come out of the world wars. It should be pointed out that many Vietnam authors had a very difficult time finding publishers for their work in the early 1970s due to the widespread desire of Americans to put the war behind them (Lomperis 44). John Newman in his exhaustive bibliography lists 666 novels about the Vietnam War. Many of these are of little worth, such as a few romance novels about nurses in love with Green Beret officers and quite a number that are simply pornography using the war as a setting. Another large batch of novels could be called pulp fiction. Many of these are serial adventure novels that use Vietnam as the setting for heroic exploits. Serial titles such as Gunships (1981), Saigon Commandos (1983), and The Black Eagles (1984) began appearing in the 1980s and are notably lacking in historical accuracy while seeming to promulgate the myth of the American soldier as the frontier hero that the real war clearly debunked. These novels are very similar to the conservative, revisionist Vietnam films, such as First Blood and Uncommon Valor, that Hollywood was producing at about the same time. Still, hundreds of serious novels about the war remain, and many of those are well worth reading.
Probably the most well-known, and certainly the best-selling, novel about Vietnam is Robin Moore's The Green Berets (1965), which is a realistic account supportive of the Kennedy-era vision of America's role in the war. Not surprisingly, John Wayne starred in the film version of the novel, which bore a striking resemblance to Wayne's many western and war movie scripts with its simplistic "heroes and villains" perspective. John Clark Pratt points out that Moore's novel and the handful of other "realistic" novels published during or shortly after the early years of American involvement--roughly 1964 to 1966--are less critical of the war effort as a whole than novels published much later, which have more historical perspective and tend to "show more antagonism." Pratt gives the example of Jonathan Rubin's "surrealistic parable" The Barking Deer (1974), which depicts the Special Forces in a similar locale and time frame as that described in Moore's book but which differs in that all of the soldiers and most of the villagers they are trying to save from Communism end up dead (132). The later novels incline toward a pessimistic view of the war and an accurate assessment of the soldiers' attitudes and actions. Increasingly, later novels turn to stylistic experiment and away from realism. The novels I will discuss are all later novels and were chosen because I feel that they most accurately reflect the real dilemmas faced by modern individuals at war and, by extension, in the world at large, which is the focus of this study.
A noteworthy later work that tells a story that is vastly different from Moore's Green Berets is Larry Heinemann's Close Quarters (1977). Heinemann writes in a realistic style that World War II novelists such as Mailer and Jones would recognize. Moore is writing about 1964, while Heinemann's novel is set in 1967. By that time, over 400,00 American soldiers were in Vietnam and "amorality," "horror," "drugs, sensation-seeking newsmen, and sex" were the soldier's experience (Pratt 139). Heinemann realistically portrays all of that, and then brings his protagonist, Philip Dosier, home to the United States and realistically and without comment shows the obsessions and trauma that are the lot of the returning soldier. The Vietnam portion of Heinemann's novel ends before the 1968 Tet offensive, the acknowledged turning point of the war. Novels written about the period after Tet tend to be much less certain about anything than those written about the early years of the war.
Many novels set in the post-Tet period are written in the realistic mode, but some, including several of the best, use a style of writing that is very experimental. One novel that seems to do both is Pratt's own Laotian Fragments (1974, 1985). The story is realistic enough but is told through a variety of documents pieced together--letters, memoranda, notebooks, official documents, diaries, and transcriptions. Prominent realistic novels are James Webb's Fields of Fire (1978) and John M. Del Vecchio's The 13th Valley (1982). Webb's novel is set in 1969, and he, like Heinemann, portrays the war and one character's return home and leaves his readers wrestling with the war's ambiguities. Like Mailer, Webb concentrates on one platoon and intersperses his account of their actions with brief biographical flashbacks, similar to Mailer's "Time Machine" portraits. He dictates no definitive answers but also does not shy away from raising questions--particularly about home front attitudes towards returning veterans, of whom Webb is clearly supportive. Webb later went on to become the minority counsel to the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Del Vecchio is writing about a later period, 1971, after troop withdrawals have begun. His combat episodes are very realistic, but he also has written extended passages in which his characters debate the state of the war and of American society, especially in regards to racism. Like Webb, Del Vecchio does not have answers; he just presents all the sides of the issues and leaves it to the readers to decide what they want to make of them.
I have chosen to discuss The 13th Valley and novels by Stephen Wright and Tim O'Brien in this chapter because they treat the battlefield experience as a microcosm of the world at large while offering an accurate portrayal of the tensions between individuals and their communities during the Vietnam era. I will examine Del Vecchio's exploration of the state of American society in 1971, the contradictions that society presents to individuals in the forms of racism and the social construction of the self, and the realistic hopes for community that the author introduces. The other two novels discussed in this chapter are quite experimental stylistically in their attempt to represent the truth of Vietnam as the individual soldier experienced it. That any such "truth" is nearly incomprehensible is reflected in the novels' multiple perspectives and open-ended conclusions. These novels are Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green (1983) and Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (1978). Wright's book is set in both 1969 Vietnam and 1976 America, alternating between the protagonist's past as a soldier and his present civilian life in urban America. In Wright's work we will find a bleak portrait of disappearing selves and futile escapism. O'Brien's novel is also an experimental narrative in which we experience his main character's past, present, and imaginings. O'Brien gives us a variation on the separate peace motif in which the individual's fulfillment of his obligation to the social contract plays a significant role. As Palm states, "great war literature never dwells on war as an institution but serves to place all of life in better perspective" (119). Accordingly, the Vietnam War novels I am about to discuss will show individuals fantasizing autonomy while in the double bind of being dependent upon and alienated from our modern technological society in ways that are somewhat different from what we have found in the works from the world wars, particularly in the absence of any existential response to their plight.
John M. Del Vecchio was drafted in 1969 after graduating from Lafayette College. He served as a Combat Correspondent with the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) in Vietnam in 1970 and '71 and earned a Bronze Star. The story of The 13th Valley is based on an actual operation in the Khe Ta Laou valley in which the 101st participated in August, 1970. The novel is unusual in that the operation it depicts is a large, battalion-sized operation that pits soldiers against soldiers with no civilians involved. Most Vietnam novels portray smaller units (generally squads or platoons) undertaking prolonged jungle patrols and interacting with Vietnamese civilians. Del Vecchio's tale focuses on Company A, 7th Battalion, 402nd Infantry--the Oh-deuce--commanded by the African-American Lieutenant Rufus Brooks, possessor of a Master's degree in philosophy. Del Vecchio intersperses his account of the operation with the philosophical musings of Brooks and his discussions with other key characters, in particular Sergeant Egan, the soldier's soldier with a degree in engineering; "Cherry" Chelini, the new guy who majored in psychology; Doc, an African-American medic from Harlem; El Paso, a Chicano with a degree in history and a year of law school; Jax, an African-American from rural Mississippi; Silvers, a Jew and aspiring writer; and Minh, the Vietnamese scout.
Walter Hölbling has deemed The 13th Valley to be an "ambitious 'naturalist epic'" that follows in the tradition of war novels by writers such as Dos Passos, Mailer, and Jones (132). Philip K. Jason concurs in that assessment and further asserts that realistic novels like Del Vecchio's cannot "create the ‘new thing'--the absurd experience--within the reader" (77). Jason makes an interesting point. Nonetheless, I believe readers will easily grasp, at least intellectually, the absurdities that the realistic author realistically depicts. An absurdity does not become less absurd by being related realistically. For example, in Del Vecchio's novel the battalion commander observes the Khe Ta Laou operation from far above in his helicopter. Oblivious to the mud, jungle, and heat prostration Alpha Company is experiencing on the ground, he keeps screaming at Brooks to "Get that raggedyass outfit movin. . . . Move. Get them little people" (286). Then, while the troops are bedding down every night among the mud, rain, and leeches, the battalion commander manages to "take twelve hot showers in the rear, eat thirty hot meals, and read twenty-seven Fantastic Four comic books" (567). Or so El Paso imagines it, but he probably is not far wrong as Del Vecchio has made clear because Brooks often has to deal with the obnoxious executive officer Major Hellman in the commander's stead during the operation. Readers, it seems to me, are bound to experience the same feelings of frustration that Brooks and his troops feel at the absurd contradiction that exists between the grunts' reality and the expectations and concerns of the commanders and, at least to that extent, experience the absurdity of the Vietnam War.
Interestingly, some other critics have likened The 13th Valley to Moby Dick. John Hellmann calls the novel a "tragic epic" in which the author follows "Melville's strategy of having the commander of the operation see a cosmic significance in the objective" (128). Thomas Myers goes farther, seeing "the same tensions of man and nature, knowledge and innocence, and history and language that Ahab's vengeful hunt entails" (57). Finally, Hölbling calls Del Vecchio's Alpha Company a "microcosm of American Society" (132). Del Vecchio states the same notion this way,
These men . . . all of them, were products of the Great American Experiment, black brown yellow white and red, children of the Melting Pot. . . . What they had in common was the denominator of American society in the '50s and '60s, a television culture, the army experience--basic, AIT, RVN training, SERTS, the Oh-deuce and now the sitting, waiting in the trench at LZ Sally, I Corps, in the Republic of Vietnam. (132)It is as a "microcosm" of America that I will examine the novel itself. Del Vecchio's depiction of the men of Company A reveals much about American racial tensions, the differences between Western and Eastern attitudes toward the individual, and the prospects for forming a genuine community in the latter part of the twentieth century.
As we saw above, Del Vecchio sees the soldiers as products of American culture. He expands upon that idea in the words of Lieutenant Brooks:
the individual is manufactured by the traditions of his culture. A man is like a rough casting entering a machine shop. He's already made but the culture he's brought up in is going to sharpen his edges. That culture is going to re-form him, cut away at his humanity, mill him down to size and get rid of what the culture doesn't think is necessary or efficient or beneficial. (136)This is a social determinism similar to what we have found in Mailer and Jones, although not quite so pessimistic a formulation of the idea as the social coercion Jones depicts. As we shall see, Del Vecchio suggests that one must exercise one's individuality within a community, recognizing that the tension between the one and the many is a reality we all must confront. He seems to find hope for the individual in the possibility that a person can rise above, break out of his or her social construction in ways that will ultimately be beneficial for both the individual and the community. For example, the medic from the ghetto, Doc, dreams of becoming a nurse or even a doctor after he gets discharged, and the reader can believe he has what it takes to accomplish his dream because he is portrayed as extremely competent and knowledgeable. Achieving his dream would allow Doc to break from the diminished expectations of the community in which he was raised. It would also be a boon to that community or to any other community to which he thereafter belonged because dedicated medical professionals are always needed. Unfortunately, Doc dies. In a deterministic universe, one's individual hopes, dreams, and desires have a way of being overridden by one's fate. This is shown most clearly in the case of the machine-gunner called Whiteboy. Whiteboy is short, and when he receives a relatively minor eye injury, he is evacuated and all assume that he is going to be a survivor and go home. As fate would have it, though, the helicopter in which he is being transported comes under some minor sniper fire, and Whiteboy is hit in the chest, a wound he dies from several days later. The vagaries of fate are natural, though, as the scout Minh explains:
man does not control nature with his scientific theory or with his engineering principles or with his history or with words of any kind. All he does is seek to explain nature. We seek to know how it works. Perhaps to be able to forecast the future from the past. We can arrange elements but we are one with nature and perhaps nature has simply had us arrange the elements for her. Things happen. People die. That is the flow of reality. (502)Still, within that limitation, Del Vecchio finds the individual to be free and responsible.
I have argued in my discussion of The Thin Red Line that James Jones finds the individual to be insignificant, of little worth to anyone but himself. Del Vecchio resists this notion, although he acknowledges that it is true to a certain extent through Brooks' memory of a conversation he once had with his father, who told him
about technology making men obsolete and interchangeable and interchangeable meant dispensible and dispensible [sic] meant cheap and a black man was the cheapest throwaway that industry had. Brooks thought about that for several moments. . . . Then he said to his father, "We're even cheaper in the infantry, Pop." (67)Expendable, the individual nonetheless is unique and has certain powers. One thing that differentiates one person from another is the way each one orders the world he or she lives in. Brooks points out that the historian, the engineer, the scientist, and even the simple person of common sense all have valid methods of ordering their worlds (87). Each individual, then, is capable of imposing some meaning upon the meaningless universe--a notion an existentialist would certainly agree with. Also, in a free society each person has a role to play. As El Paso says, "Free criticism is good. It keeps government honest and stable" (484). Therefore, it is important for individuals to consider themselves to be free individuals, each with unique value and abilities, because "every organized system of thought, religious or governmental" encourages "dependence" (511). This concerns Lieutenant Brooks because he is seeking the reasons for wars so that an end can be put to them. He posits that the answer lies in enlightened individuality. In his "thesis on conflict" he writes, "People who understand that conflict in interpersonal relations is a normal event, that it tends to come and go in cycles, that they are capable of dealing with others themselves without a rigid set of regulations directing them, these people will not wind up as victims, as automatons of the machine" (511). Not only does he want everyone to be an independent individual, he also wants everyone to recognize others as independent individuals with whom a common bond is shared. His conclusion is: "Let us each believe and teach our young--first, I am an individual human being and then I am a human being" (514). Del Vecchio appears to consider Americans lacking in this respect, though, as he respectfully introduces some ostensibly Eastern ideas about individuals and their communities into the novel to serve as counterpoint and guide.
Minh is Del Vecchio's conduit for the Eastern viewpoint, which seems to be a Westernized version (or perversion, perhaps) of Eastern thought. The infusion of Eastern ideas into American popular culture was widespread in the late 1960s and early '70s. Minh seems to believe in the value of the individual. He says, "A man should control himself. . . . It is not the rightful pursuit of any man to try to control the life of another" (504). A look at Minh's conception of how government should be structured will shed further light on his thought.
A national government had authority only down to the province, a province government only to district, district only to hamlet and hamlet only to the doors of a man's home. No one had the right to intrude upon a family and no member of a family had the right to intrude into the thoughts of an individual. That was the natural course of the universe. (139-40)Some might call this a form of libertarian individualism. The whole structure rests on the mind of the individual, which is sacrosanct. Brooks seems to recognize the importance of the individual mind when he muses on the lot of the infantry, "infantrymen while in the jungle spend most of their time alone, a man conditions his mind to be the place where most of his time is spent" (65). But Minh questions just how comfortable Westerners are in their minds. He draws a contrast between West and East, saying, "You have moral codes and religious laws and civil laws imposed on you but it is unusual to find an American with principles of living inside him. All Vietnamese know this. There is nothing in your culture to lead you to develop your inside principles. That is why you require outside laws. We are just the reverse" (503). These "principles" are what Minh calls Tao, and I believe he is correct that most Westerners do not understand the concept (if it can even be called a concept). One thing Minh does insist upon is that "Everything is unity" (512). We may feel like isolated individuals, but we are in fact interconnected with the universe. Recognition of this, Del Vecchio suggests, is the foundation for true community.
Del Vecchio seems to indicate that not realizing one's interconnectedness is insanity. He conveys this through his portrayal of the radioman Cherry Chelini. Chelini's story also could be read as an indictment of the notion of the Nietzschean superman, the exaltation of the individual. Chelini undergoes a transformation after his first kill. He begins to think, "I am a mangod. . . . Every man is part god, every man who knows his soul belongs only to himself" (428). And it is not long before we are told, "During that same pre-dawn Cherry had his last rational thoughts" (495), and "Egan nodded to the trail. Cherry looked. Something in his mind snapped" (496). Chelini firmly believes he is a mangod at this point, and at the end of the novel he believes that his deceased comrades live on in him. Rather than being a part of the universe, in his mind he is the universe, a complete perversion of Minh's idea. In other words, not recognizing our interconnectedness with independent others is insanity. Del Vecchio seems to favor a responsible individuality that considers others.
As I noted in the last chapter, at the end of Catch-22 Joseph Heller shows us the beginnings of a true community. Del Vecchio, by comparison, depicts the closest thing to a genuine community that we will see in any of the novels of this study. We have already seen that the company and in particular the core group around Lieutenant Brooks is made up of men from all segments of American society. Susan Jeffords has remarked upon the togetherness of this group. She writes, "It is a bonding that cuts across boundaries that exist in the 'World,' boundaries that separate men by color, income, accent, and education" (185). A prime example of this is the case of Jax. A native of the rural South, he joined the Army because there was no opportunity for him to be someone at home. Now he is a proud soldier and can say, "This the first time I ever been somebody" (264). Yet, his brother-in-law sends him letters urging him to revolt against the white man's army and join his black brothers in revolution. The letters resonate with Jax, but he is torn because he is truly devoted to his comrades-in-arms, of all races. His community there in Vietnam has a stronger influence on him than his community of memory back home. To understand this, we need to look at the work of sociologist Robert Bellah and his associates, particularly as presented in Habits of the Heart.
Bellah and his colleagues promote a responsible individualism that includes a commitment to community. They define community as "a group of people who are socially interdependent, who participate together in discussion and decision making, and who share certain practices . . . that both define the community and are nurtured by it." This community is sometimes, but not always or necessarily, also a "community of memory, defined in part by its past and its memory of its past" (Habits 333). By practices they mean "shared activities that are not undertaken as means to an end but are ethically good in themselves. . . . A genuine community . . . is constituted by such practices" (Habits 335). The men of Alpha Company of the Oh-deuce constitute just such a genuine community--unlike any other unit we have seen (Jones's C-for-Charlie Company comes to mind as a point of contrast). Del Vecchio accomplishes a complete reversal of what we have observed in other war novels. Those novels tend to expose the ugly face of society at large, but The 13th Valley reveals a utopian ideal instead. The closeness of this community, Alpha Company, is generated in large part by the command style of Lieutenant Brooks. That the men are interdependent goes pretty much without saying. None can survive if they do not all pull together. We have all seen this necessary interdependence portrayed often enough in popular war movies that depict military units as microcosms of the American "melting pot" while at the same time acknowledging the imperfections of American society. In The 13th Valley, specifically, the soldiers need each other to spot and remove leeches from one another's bodies, and certainly when the firing starts, they depend upon each other for mutual protection. As Jax puts it, "Every fucka here depend on me, depend on Jax keepin the gooks from comin through his side a the perimeter" (264).
That Alpha Company has shared practices can be seen in the company-wide understanding that no one brings drugs into the field. No one objects to partying when they are in the rear, but community practice is to leave that behind when they go out to fight. Another practice is the sharing of the workload and the hazardous duties. They rotate the walking of point, for example, so that no platoon or squad bears a greater share of that dangerous work. Sharing food is also a routine practice. When the opportunity presents itself, they pool their C-ration resources and concoct such culinary delights as "Vichyssoise. Beef Bearnaise. Mocha. And . . . pound cake with peaches" (199)--all in the interest of making life in the bush a little more bearable for one another. This practice also allows the men to feel that they have some control over their lives "in a life where control seemed the utmost criteria for survival," as Brooks puts it (100).
What really makes this company different, though, is the element of discussion and decision-making. Lieutenant Brooks continually holds meetings to get input from all the men which he uses to inform all of his decisions. This contrasts starkly with the situation on the home front where the Johnson and Nixon administrations tended to dismiss and even deride opposing positions as not worthy of consideration. Brooks has to have the final say, but he truly wants to hear as many opinions as he can before deciding on a course of action. This is definitely a unique way for an officer to conduct his command, and since Company A is the best company in the battalion, Del Vecchio seems to be promoting this style of leadership. At the same time, the battalion commander "strongly emphasized that each individual was part of his own leadership and he was responsible for his actions" (126). Brooks, by involving his men and building a genuine community, is furthering the responsible individuality of his men by requiring them to take some ownership of the group actions.
Del Vecchio's vision of a workable community composed of independent and responsible individuals is unique. We have seen that the novels of World Wars I and II have portrayed the individual as either overwhelmed or, rarely, capable of free and independent action. Not all of Del Vecchio's characters are exemplary, of course. Chelini goes insane and Numbnuts is a coward, for example, but the best soldiers are not overwhelmed, are free and independent within the limits of a deterministic universe, and are cognizant of their relationship to their community. Del Vecchio never makes an overt plea for Americans living in a contentious and fragmented time to adopt the versions of individuality, community, and leadership that he is presenting. Furthermore, one has to wonder if he really believes in the viability of his own vision since he undercuts it by having the acknowledged leaders of the company—Brooks, Egan, and Doc—all die in the end, and skilled leadership appears to be crucial to Del Vecchio's concept of community. Their deaths create a depressing undertone that says the best, the capable leaders, those who could come home and make a difference, are not going to survive. With this in mind, we now turn to a novel that depicts a survivor--Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green. This survivor is not as traumatized as Trumbo's Joe Bonham, but he has his own problems, and he is not the responsible individual Del Vecchio envisions.
Unlike the realistic style of The 13th Valley, Wright's novel is experimental. It alternates between the past and the present and is structured out of fragments--episodes varying from a paragraph long to several pages--divided into fifteen "chapters," each headed by a "Meditation in Green." These meditations are basically poems or lists, mainly about plant-life. Moreover, Meditations in Green is singular in that it unflinchingly portrays the hard drug use that Baritz maintains was "pandemic" among grunts in Vietnam (315).
Stephen Wright was born and raised in Ohio. In 1969 he was drafted, and he served in Vietnam throughout 1970. Meditations in Green, based on his war experiences, was published in 1983 and earned him the Maxwell Perkins Prize for best first novel. Wright explores the contradictions of the war and of modern life but without ever attempting to reconcile them, thus helping his readers experience the ambiguity first-hand. The novel's protagonist, James I. Griffin, is portrayed both in Vietnam and back home some seven years later, suffering from Delayed Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. William J. Searle feels that Wright's novel resembles Catch-22 in "its use of absurd briefings, a war zone section structured around the deaths of the protagonist's buddies, and satire of monomaniacal enlisted men, outrageously incompetent staff officers, and military corruption." It differs from Heller's work in that it includes "the stereotypes of the Vietnam War," "racism, troop insubordination," "atrocity," "drug abuse and fragging" (156). I would add that it resembles not only Catch-22 but all of the novels that I have been discussing in its use of the war as a representative depiction of the state of the world at large. As Thomas Myers puts it, Wright's novel assumes "the proposition that the war is not a bracketed aberration of American history but the new imprint of what the culture has become" (199). Wright's narrative technique is one method by which this proposition is conveyed.
We have seen that some critics of The 13th Valley and other realistic novels of Vietnam contend that realism is an inadequate form for conveying the Vietnam experience. Agreeing with this view, Nancy Anisfield maintains that "If the fragmentation of time, in-country language, and surrealistic suggestions of the effects of war on the psyche can accurately remind us of what the Vietnam experience was like, then, and only then, do we have the best possible chance, through literature, of assimilating this experience" (61). Perhaps, but I do agree that we need to assimilate the experience because, as Myers has pointed out above, it reveals what our "culture has become." Wright uses all three techniques that Anisfield mentions. The novel has a dual time structure, advancing time chronologically in both the present and the past intermittently. The effect of fragmentation is achieved by the movement from present to past and back again and by the use of montage, jumping around from one story-line or image to another. Wright also alternates between a first-person narrator and a third-person narrator, which increases the feeling of fragmentation. The language of Meditations in Green is clearly "in-country language," both in the Vietnam sections of the narrative and in the urban America sections. Owen W. Gilman, Jr. has made an interesting observation about Wright's use of language. He contends that Wright's
technique dramatically implies that, for veterans at least, all time is synchronous, all centered on the Vietnam period. Certain terms make it this way, certain dispositions toward language. If we think of life as an act of languaging, then the languaging action peculiar to the Vietnam War orders and directs the life [sic] of those who lived through it. (Nomenclature 67)The use of a Vietnam-derived vocabulary by Griffin and his pal Trips seven years after returning home would seem to verify Gilman's contention. They are still living the war, and their language reflects this. Finally, Wright's depiction of Griffin's psychic reveries and distortions is clearly surrealistic, but not unique in the novel. Wright explores the psyches of other characters as well, most notably Claypool and Kraft, and their experiences are every bit as surreal as Griffin's. Wright's depiction of individuals as fragmented, isolated, and beset by an absurd and surreal world which is increasingly meaningless is not Vietnam-specific, though. It represents the state of the individual in modern society.
Wright acknowledges that he was trying to accurately convey the Vietnam experience in his novel. He says,
It was a struggle to find a form for writing about Vietnam. . . . What I tried to do was simply put down the experience as well as I could. You couldn't take a definite moral outlook, so instead of holding up signs as to what's proper and what isn't, I tried to leave it up to the reader to decide. I tried to convey the specific feel of Vietnam with the texture of the language. There was a kind of dislocation I tried to get in there--a constant nervousness and jumpiness. (Kakutani 40)Most critics have hailed Wright's efforts as successful. Donald Ringnalda believes "that the most successful novels [of the Vietnam War] are those that are not literary agent orange. That is, the most successful novels neither defoliate the horror and absurdity of Vietnam by 'making sense' of the experience, nor nihilistically wallow in it." Ringnalda calls Meditations in Green "possibly the finest" Vietnam novel yet written (127). I must concur; Wright's novel, with all its absurdity and surrealism, is the Vietnam novel I find the most intriguing. Nonetheless, it is not entirely absurd and surreal.
Certain passages in Meditations in Green are every bit as realistic as James Jones's work. As Matthew Stewart points out, "Perhaps the unique strength of the novel's descriptive realism is its ability to portray the boredom and futility ever-present in the lives of many rear-echelon soldiers in Vietnam" (129). Stewart also finds Wright to be successful in his depiction of the war due largely to "the multiple levels of reading that the novel calls for" which enables it "to suggest truths that the run-of-the-mill Vietnam narrative cannot render with equal power and vividness" (135). The ambiguities, craziness, and contradictions of the war and of America during the war and in its aftermath are well represented by Wright's narrative. On the whole, his novel is unlike anything we have seen from Mailer, Jones, or the Great War novelists, and with good reason, as Christopher Metress explains. "Wright is remythologizing the war experience, encouraging us to alter our traditional points of reference. We are no longer in the landscape of the American Western, and the mythology and iconography of The Sands of Iwo Jima has given way to The Night of the Living Dead" (118). Why should we alter our "traditional points of reference," we might ask Wright? I will argue that Wright believes we need to alter them because late twentieth-century American society is constructed, ordered, linear, and at odds with nature, which tends to be circular, cyclic and somewhat random. Consequently, individuals are rendered incapable of self-awareness and are isolated from others because they are oblivious to their interconnectedness with nature and with one another. We need to examine, first, just how Wright depicts modern American society (which we can see as representative of all technologically-advanced societies).
Wright's dedication of his novel is a tell-tale sign of what he thinks about the state of the individual in modern America. He dedicates the work to "the graphed, the charted, the data processed and to all the uncounted." Clearly, he sees the individual as dehumanized, reduced to a cipher--if counted at all. This depiction of the condition of the individual is then reinforced by the very first of Wright's fifteen "Meditation[s] in Green." The "I" of the meditation is a flower (a poppy, as the reader will later discern). This poppy has been taken out of nature, out of its natural environment. Placed on a sill, its view is of "colorless sky, lusterless sun, sooty field of rusted television antennas, the unharvested crop of the city; and below, down a sheer wall, the persistent dead unavoidable concrete. . . . five stories vertical, a mile and a half horizontal from the nearest uncemented ground." It has been made totally dependent, subject to "enervations, apathy, loneliness" (3). Of course, the reader soon realizes that this poppy is a metaphor for a human being in modern, urban, technological societies--removed and remote from nature and isolated. The linear character of the vertical and horizontal references presage one of Wright's favorite images--geometrical form.
The first paragraph of the novel finds Griffin walking his daily route which he describes as "a stitching of right angles" (4). Not long after, we read, "Someone flipped a switch and the darkness exploded into geometry. Spheres of light overhead illuminated the angles and planes of an enormous rectangular room. Two rows of bunks faced one another in mirrored perfection and on the last bunk of the left row, a warp in the symmetry" (11). The warp, of course, is Griffin, lying on his bunk. In this passage we are introduced to the linear geometry of the army. This is reinforced by the description of the 1069th Intelligence Group's compound: "the unit's basic geometric design possessed a pleasing sense of natural logic and finality. . . . Approaching from the east you thought of the runway as a pole and the perfectly engineered rectangle of buildings to the right of its top as a flag" (41). The military's straight lines and orderly rows are typical of the technological mindset that has little patience with warps in the symmetry. What this linear, ordered view of the world means to Griffin begins to become clear when we find him years later looking out his window. He says, "I see little colored rectangles shuttling around a concrete board. Too many pieces, too many rules, not enough turns" (102). Angles and edges, rules and regulations are human constructs and humanity's nemesis; what Griffin wants is to "Get all the corners . . . rounded off" (101).
Lines and angles are not natural, Wright implies, as Griffin imagines what the unit's compound will look like after the American forces abandon it. "Plants have taken the compound. Elephant grass in the motor pool. Plantain in the mess hall. Lotus in the latrine. Shapes are losing outline, character. Wooden frames turning spongy. The attrition of squares and rectangles. The loss of geometry. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form" (146). According to Donald Ringnalda, "Wright's point is that this attrition of geometry is accompanied by, and largely causes, the attrition of Griffin's psychic geometry" (129). This is true because Griffin's psyche reflects a technological, linear world view rather than a cyclic, circular natural view of life. He finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the uncontrolled, the uncertain, and the unfamiliar that is the daily fare of life in Vietnam. The point can be further illustrated.
Americans fight nature because nature is too bothersome, too much trouble for them, Wright seems to say in Meditation Ten. Conversely, he writes, "Plastic" plants "bloom forever / a perfect green day" (205). No fuss, no muss, and easy to forget about, like the dusty plastic plants in the cafeteria Griffin and Trips frequent (114). Significantly, Griffin's first military job is to analyze aerial photographs and send bombers on missions during which "metal and machinery were busy churning plants and animals into garbage" (21), and later, his analyses are designed to aid the pilots who are dispensing the defoliant Agent Orange to the countryside. Griffin himself says, "I guess the trick must be to keep clear of moving parts" (24). Moving parts are machine parts, human constructs that dehumanize individuals and alienate them from nature. This image is reinforced by Meditation Three, which is an account of a bombing run from a tree's point of view. The natural bliss of centuries is literally uprooted in seconds, turned upside down, exposing "shocked roots" that have "already begun to blacken and curl at the touch of a light photosynthesis is hopelessly unable to transform" (36). Wright contrasts the waste of human destruction with the economy of natural processes when Griffin finds himself overwhelmed by the jungle. Griffin "realized that were he to die in here among these botanical springs and gears, a Green Machine larger and more efficient than any human bureaucracy or mechanical invention would promptly initiate the indifferent process of converting flesh and dreams into plant food" (277). In nature, of course, death breeds life. Griffin, though, has the American's linear, ordered view of life, an approach to the world that emphasizes and seeks control, breeding waste and destruction rather than life.
In response to the jungle, Griffin experiences "a vegetable overdose, a chlorophyll freakout." He thinks, "The whole stinking forest should have been sprayed long ago, hosed down, drenched in [Agent] Orange, leaves blackened, branches denuded, undergrowth dried into brittle paper. . . . Who permitted these outrages, where was the technology when you needed it?" (278). The inference that our technology is destroying us begs to be made. To destroy nature as America did in Vietnam with its defoliation program is to destroy ourselves by not recognizing our natural place in the universe. Griffin is the prime individual example of the point, desiring to destroy what he cannot understand or control. Wright's view of nature as a source of value seems opposed to an existential view that finds nature meaningless or capable only of inducing a Sartrean nausea. It is also opposed to the naturalism of Mailer and Jones, who seem to find nature's indifference inimical to man. Wright, on the other hand, while acknowledging nature's indifference and ability to overwhelm the individual, depicts it as a positive, vitalizing force if one only attunes oneself to its rhythms. Ultimately, the jungle proves too strong to disappear altogether at the behest of humans, while Griffin proves too weak to resist his own gradual diminishment, his own loss of self to the snares of drug addiction. But he is not alone in the novel, and I will begin by identifying the several examples of disappearing selves that Wright presents, which, one can surmise, may have been inspired by Catch-22, in which "they" disappear Dunbar.
Griffin's friend Simon does not totally disappear, but his letters home symbolize the tendency. His first letter begins normally enough with the salutation "Dear Mom and Dad" and is signed "Lewis" (58). Interestingly, though, the salutation and signature are diminished with each succeeding letter: "Dear Mom and Pop" and "Lew" (133); "Dear Ma and Pa" and "Lew" (176-77); "Dear M & P" and "L" (224-25); and finally, "Dear Folks" and "Me" (267). The diminution of self represented by the regress from "Lewis" to "L" is clear, and I would argue that the final "Me" represents a recognition of lost self and a desire to locate the self, the "Me" he once was. The final "Me" is also ironic because the person Simon depicts as himself in all his letters bears no resemblance to the reality, nor does his depiction of the conditions under which he is living. Because he has invented a mock-heroic persona intended to impress the folks back home, his sense of self is doubly lost. Neither he nor his family will recognize the Simon who returns home (if he does return). Similarly, years later when visiting his psychologist, who urges his clients to meditate upon flowers and who bears the apt Shakespearean appellation of Arden, Griffin has the following exchange:
Don't call me Grif.Disappearance of the self is not generally instantaneous, and Griffin, at least, holds out hope for an eventual reappearance or rebirth of the self after he sloughs off all the cultural accretions, which is why he is seeing Arden.
Oh? What do I call you?
Just the initial. I'm down to the initial. (240)
The most extreme disappearances are those of Kraft and Claypool. Kraft is the CIA man. He is an experienced operative. Devoted to duty and a believer in the American "mission," he is a lone-wolf familiar with the underbelly of the war, no stranger to political assassination, and supremely confident in his own abilities. Kraft is knowledgeable about the jungle, the "Bush," and its effect on a person. He believes that "Moving through it, conscious of it, you were conscious of yourself. Irrevocably itself, a presence distinct and unyielding, it offered opportunities for definition" (77). When the helicopter in which he is riding is shot down and the crew massacred and mutilated, Kraft is not found among the victims. Alive or dead, he has disappeared. Eventually, much later, Kraft reappears from the jungle--fatigued, filthy, and with a broken arm.
He seemed to be okay mentally, he told them his name, rank, unit, the details of how he had come to be where they found him, but what he wanted to talk about most was the jungle, its aloofness, its beauty, its breathing life, and certain nonverbal secrets it had imparted to him through the intimacy of its soft green touch. (304)Subsequently, Kraft declines orders and remains in his room, unmoving and rarely speaking, sitting on the floor with an "expression of intense bafflement as though attending to a sound or an interior process distant and subtle" (320-21). No one knows what to make of his withdrawal, and when he is asked about it,
his hands would lift in gestures of helpless amazement, and he'd look away saying softly, "The plants . . . they're so . . . the trees . . . I . . . I don't know." Finally they left him there like that because he was obviously useless and he only had forty days to go and no one cared anyway. (321)Kraft obviously has found his "opportunities for definition" in the jungle, and no definition he recognizes has been forthcoming. This dutiful minion of the American, linear, ordered point of view cannot find a way to express the natural, random reality he has encountered. Unable to articulate the experience rationally according to the mindset with which he met it, he is lost; his self has disappeared.
Something similar happens to Claypool. An interpreter assigned to the prisoner interrogation unit, he is new to Vietnam and quickly bewildered by the failure of the reality to meet his expectations. The first jolt to his grasp on reality is his initial exposure to interrogation by torture. He has heard rumors of such things but imagines them to be the aberrant behavior of an isolated few under the stress of combat. The reality that torture is a matter of course for intelligence staff "stationed in cozy rear area quarters" shocks him. "It was like learning your family dentist overcharged for extractions or drilled into healthy teeth. It meant there were cliffs where he had always assumed there were fences" (106). His faith in American order and goodwill is further shaken when he is sent on a field operation. He had believed that signing papers to extend his enlistment in exchange for a non-combat job description would protect him from being sent into the field. Not only is he sent into combat, but in short order everyone around him is horribly slaughtered. Claypool survives, but upon returning to base he rarely talks and the deterioration of his self is rapid. Finally, he disappears. No one knows where he is; even Claypool does not know. Seeing his own name on his uniform, he rejects it. "He had abandoned that name and the life clinging to it like dead meat, he had thrown it away and gone on as easily as one removes a pebble from a shoe" (234). Peering out from his hiding place, watching troops painting, he believes that "When they applied this liquid buildings would vanish. . . . soon all mistakes would be erased." And the painters, "these people would disappear too" (234-35). Watching this scene over the course of days, he is awestruck by the brightness of it and imagines: "It wouldn't be long until the screen was as clean and white as a page upon which nothing had ever been written. . . . When they came to do his wall would he disappear too? He thought so. He knew he was a mistake" (235). Eventually, he is discovered and an attempt is made to put him back to work, but he flees naked and finally winds up in a mental ward, "where, as Trips liked to joke, he could spend the remainder of the war, sitting in a closet and drooling in his shoe" (238).
Claypool's disappearance is the most extreme we see in the novel, but it is really only a matter of degree. As Griffin muses when he hears of the naked Claypool fleeing,
any day now he had been expecting one of them . . . to unwrap, to go natural; you could feel the adhesive coming loose in the humidity, the edges beginning to curl . . . running from, running toward, the exhilarating fear of how easy it would be simply to keep on, past the regs, across the laws, over the code, boundaries bursting like ribbon, on into a jungle of hair and teeth, raking the darkness with extended claws. (238)Each soldier is susceptible to the loss of the self he has brought with him to Vietnam. The contradictions and ambiguities of the war abound and overwhelm the individual and are only exacerbated by unfamiliarity with the ripeness of nature. It is to Griffin that we must now turn. As the novel's main character, he carries the burden of revealing Wright's outlook for the future of the individual.
We meet Griffin in the present and quickly learn that for him "This is not a settled life." He spends most of his time alone, and ordinary, commonplace things such as Crispy Critters cereal and Charlie perfume are nauseating reminders of the war. Even his sometimes girlfriend Huey shares "her name with a ten-thousand-pound assault helicopter" (8). The only other person he spends any time with is his wartime buddy, Trips, who is obsessed with finding their former sergeant and who says, "I can't get a job, my family doesn't speak to me, the VA wouldn't give me a Band-Aid if I slit my wrists in their lobby" (116). Much the same could apparently be said of Griffin, who appears to be living off disability benefits and who never once mentions his family in the entire novel.
Griffin seems to be a man without a past, and Wright confirms this impression later in the novel. Sitting atop a hootch, Griffin contemplates the ghostly afterimages of extinguished flares. "Except that even these ghosts possessed more form, solidity, and permanence than the rapidly vanishing real objects and beings of Griffin's prewar existence." And the more "raw" incidents of death, pain, and degradation he sees, the more insubstantial and fantastic his past becomes for him.
The war was real; he was not. It was like memory, and therefore his most profound sense of self was a tub of tepid water into which chunks of rock (the war) fell almost daily now in wide splashes, spilling his past and his life onto a cold black-and-white linoleum floor. Griffin couldn't help but wonder what the displacement would be equal to finally. (193)Wright does not say that Griffin has no past; rather, the war has displaced him from his past. It has isolated him from other human beings. As he muses on another night while sitting on the hootch-top, "It's like we're all these weird spacemen or something and everyone's got marooned on his own chunk of rock and we just whizz past each other like asteroids speeding along at different rates, burning up at different temperatures, know what I mean?" (300).
Griffin believes that "Catastrophe" lacks "coherence" and the war is the catastrophe he is encountering daily (272). Initially, marijuana serves the purpose of elevating "tolerance levels" (210), but eventually he discovers heroin and realizes that it makes the days go "Zip" (290). But that has its problems, too, as he discovers one day when he hallucinates and passes out while at his job, which deeply disturbs him because "he didn't know what had happened" (272-73). A few days later he volunteers to go on a field operation to recover the remains of the men on Kraft's downed helicopter. He realizes en route that he volunteered for two reasons:
He wanted to experience some portion of this madness as his own, not as accident or bad luck or whim of his superiors but as choice, freely made, the consequences freely accepted; he wanted a purge, a flushing out of the corners, . . . so that when he returned the office would be simply an office again, neutral objects arranged between four neutral walls. (275)No purgation occurs, though, and Griffin continues to use heroin until the base is overrun and he is wounded. Wright is somewhat ambiguous about what happens to Griffin between receiving his leg wound in Vietnam and the present, seven years later. There is a hint that he suffers withdrawal while hospitalized and that he has stayed off the heroin until Huey's brother sends him a bag of "DOUBLEUOGLOBE BRAND" dope (7). Interestingly, he does not hesitate, immediately smokes some of the gift, and heroin and/or opium is a part of his life for the rest of the novel. We now will look more closely at Griffin as a civilian in the present of the novel to discover just what Wright sees as the future of the individual in a modern technological society.
The meditations Arden prescribes for Griffin are based upon "pilferings from nineteenth-century flower chapbooks, . . . gnarled notions of Oriental religion," and "generous handfuls of native positive thinking" (87). Arden wants Griffin to find the seed of his self at his core and then to bust "through the accumulated muck of a lifetime" like a new shoot breaking soil (89-90). Arden does not see Griffin as essentially different from other Americans. They are all out of touch with their natural selves, their inner selves that are attuned to the rhythms of nature, but a problem thwarts his remedy. Arden says, "there's the awareness problem. Problem is they [Americans] don't really want it, awareness. To be aware is to, well, suffer, can't escape the masters. Instead, they want happiness, little fixes of delight" (88). Arden, although painted as a charlatan, may actually have a point. Modern culture discourages becoming aware of one's connection to the natural world. It encourages synthetics, following fashions, mass media manipulation, amusement, just about anything except discovering oneself as an individual interconnected with the universe. Griffin seems quite different from the average person. At least, his lifestyle is not typical, but he is having no success with his meditation. Arden asks him what he wants from his meditation, and Griffin replies, "Oh, I don't know, some distant kin, a second cousin or a great uncle, to authenticity, I suppose" (90). Arden scoffs at the existential term and all modern philosophical answers. Wright would seem to agree with Arden because there are no existential heroes in this novel. No one exhibits Sartrean good faith or exercises a Nietzschean will to power. All the characters seem pretty helpless, actually, batted about by forces beyond their control. Accordingly, we find Griffin identifying his socially-determined place in the universe: "He saw how the gestures of each instant since his induction and probably from further back than he wished to know had conspired to lead him gently as a domesticated animal to the violence of this moment" (336). As we have seen, the forces shaping Griffin and all individuals in our modern society are the linear, ordered logics of technology that are at odds with a random, seemingly indifferent nature. In response to the social construction that is dehumanizing him, Griffin seems to consider only two alternatives, neither of which is promising--death or escapism.
For modern Western man, meditation does not seem to be a suitable alternative to technological order, and Wright really does not appear to be promoting it since Arden comes across as a fraud. As Griffin says, "What's more American than good honest fraud? . . . Delusion is a national pastime" (143). Wright does seem to offer alternatives, though. For a while Griffin turns to contemplating stone. He discerns that the whole process of life on earth tends toward all eventually becoming rock--"the whole cycle pointed toward the perfection of stone, the bottom level" (145). He tells Huey, "A new motto: If you can't trans-cend, you might as well des-cend. I'm scoping out the bottom here. . . . Mass, Density. Permanence. Finality. Termination. Rock. Even the word conveys heft, a certain assurance. No loss of focus here" (264). This clearly is a metaphor for death--one alternative for modern man. Extinguishing the self entirely is a fatalistic vision and one that bodes ill for the individual. Griffin only toys with the idea. Instead, he decides to cultivate a green thumb. This appears more promising since getting closer to nature seems to be something Wright has painted as desirable. But Griffin's idea is to turn his apartment into an indoor opium poppy farm. He seems doomed to addiction, which can only intensify his isolation and reduce his freedom. This second alternative--addiction or escapism--is not much better than the death alternative. It is just another form of "self" destruction. Griffin hopes to erase his memories of the war and to find "that stupid sweet kid who was once me" (89), but in the process he is turning himself into a will-less dependent. There is nothing romantic or redemptive or heroic about opiate addiction.
The last "Meditation in Green" consists of instructions for extracting the opium from poppies and for preparing it for smoking (340). Then, the final pages offer the image of Griffin as a modern Johnny Appleseed, sowing poppy seeds apparently (341). Philip D. Beidler reads this conclusion as "the fruitional green of promise, the peace-green of life and new creation" (7). I fail to see anything so positive in this ending. To me it sounds like another of Griffin's opium pipe dreams--he does say that "At night I carve peace pipes" (341). Also, the final image is of scissors cutting paper into paper poppies "twisted about a metal stem for your lapel" (342). This is a reference to the paper poppies disabled veterans organizations used to sell to fund their activities during my youth. The poppy as a reminder of war and of those who fought goes back to World War I and the image of poppies in Flanders fields. The poem "In Flanders Fields" by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, on which the symbolism is based, is well known.
In Flanders fields the poppies blowThis reminder has not served to forestall any subsequent wars, and it really is ironic since poppies, the source of opium, are more associated with forgetfulness than with remembrance. The addicted Griffin and other Vietnam veterans, such as the obsessed and delusional Trips, are themselves reminders of war, which is Wright's point, I believe. Unfortunately, I see the traumatized Vietnam veterans being virtually ignored by their countrymen--more often portrayed as weak, if not wholly un-American, than as any sort of symbol of war's evils.
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We are the Dead. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. (1-3, 6, 13-15)
Griffin is another one of those individuals overwhelmed by life that we have seen so often in war novels. He is the spiritual descendant of Boyd's Hicks, Dos Passos's Fuselli and Chrisfield, or just about any character in Jones's novels. Judging from the tenor of his novel as a whole, it appears to me that Wright holds out no hope for Griffin and, by implication, for all of us who are kept lined up and boxed in by our ordered, technological society. The alternatives that Griffin explores--death and addiction--are unacceptable, and overall, the novel presents no easy or sure way to return to nature. Furthermore, because no good comes to any of the characters in the novel, Wright seems to be saying that a culture that can bring itself to destroy nature--by the use of Agent Orange, for example--will eventually destroy its people by preventing them from recognizing their interconnectedness with nature and, thus, with one another. It is hard to decide whose vision is more bleak, Wright's or James Jones's. For a slightly more optimistic view of the individual, we now turn to our final novel, Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato.
O'Brien's novel brings us full circle with its variation on the separate peace motif that we first encountered in our discussion of Great War novels. It will challenge us to consider how separable self and society really are. Tim O'Brien was drafted in 1968 upon graduation from Macalester College. After much inner debate over whether or not to desert and go to Canada, O'Brien went to Vietnam in 1969 and served a tour of duty as an infantryman. Going After Cacciato is his third published book, and it won the National Book Award in 1978. The novel is a combination of realism and fantasy--some have called it a work of magical realism (McCaffrey 130). The book consists of three distinct types of narrative: the memories of the main character, Paul Berlin; his imaginary, fantasized pursuit of the deserter Cacciato; and the present reality of the Observation Post,(6) where he is on guard duty. Of Paul Berlin, Robert M. Slabey says, "Sensitive and confused, he is not a disaffiliated youth, but he is still a postmodernist protagonist for whom the lines blur between dream and reality" (208). The story centers on the idea of desertion, the separate peace motif that we have seen so often. Mark Busby observes that "Unlike . . . Frederic Henry, Paul Berlin makes no separate peace. And unlike Yossarian in Catch-22, Paul Berlin never learns to see clearly the absurdity in which he is caught. Berlin's relationship to Cacciato parallels Yossarian's to Orr" (64). I would not go so far as to say that Berlin fails to see the absurdity of the war, but he certainly draws a different conclusion from it all than Yossarian does. Edward F. Palm seems to have a shorter memory than Busby when he writes, "O'Brien's novel represents a rejection of a literary response to war which has been dominant now for more than twenty years: the separate peace motif as refined by Heller" (121). Palm is partly correct in that Berlin rejects a separate peace, but those in the novel who choose it are not denounced. There is a sense that O'Brien defers to individual choice in the matter.
Desertion has always been an issue during wartime, and consideration of it is a natural focal point for individuals trying to take responsibility for their own lives. Not surprisingly, given the controversial nature of the Vietnam War, desertion and unauthorized absences were widespread phenomena. Historian Michael Maclear informs us that before 1968
the desertion rate in the US armed forces was below that of World War II and Korea. But between 1969 and 1971, compared with the three previous years, the number of desertions doubled, then doubled again. . . . These desertions were both in Vietnam and at US bases world-wide indicating the wider military demoralization. . . . [T]he combined desertion and AWOL numbers meant that about one in four of the US world forces had mutinied or were defying military orders. (280)Turning one's back on the war was something every thoughtful, draft-age, American male had to consider, particularly from 1968 until the war's end. Many found ways to avoid being drafted in the first place, but once one was caught up in the military's web, desertion, dishonor, or death were about the only ways out before one's term of service expired. The war was a distinct challenge to young men to define their values and principles. It is quite appropriate, then, that O'Brien uses the desertion of Cacciato to explore themes of individuality, free will, responsibility, and commitment.
Cacciato himself does not appear much in the novel. His desertion, we are told, occurs in October 1968 (25). The other soldiers consider him to be "brave" (15), but also dumb as "a month-old oyster fart" (2). His one major appearance in the novel finds him fishing in a water-filled bomb crater with string and a paperclip while Berlin tries to convince him to touch a hand grenade as symbolic assent to the fragging of Lieutenant Martin (238-41). Cacciato does not touch the grenade, though, the only soldier in the squad who declines to do so. No one ever really knows why he decides to leave the war and walk to Paris. None of the troops have any particularly strong political convictions about the war. "They fought the war, but no one took sides" (272). Cacciato appears no different from the others in this respect, so his reason for leaving is probably not political, nor is cowardice a likely motive. Perhaps it has something to do with the death of Lieutenant Martin, but O'Brien never explains Cacciato's reason. Thus, Cacciato remains an enigma, and John Hellmann identifies the quandary the reader is left to ponder.
Cacciato is on the one hand the quintessence of the desired American self-concept: a solitary, independent, innocent, optimistic, and determined character who, having set for himself a goal, exhibits on his journey west cunning self-reliance while stripping himself of the baggage of his past identity. . . . [on the other hand] he poses the problem of whether this new man is boldly showing the way to a better world or regressing into the self-indulgence of childhood. (164-65)This problem, then, expresses the dilemma of self-image that the main character, Paul Berlin, struggles with throughout the novel. As O'Brien himself tells Eric James Schroeder, the "sense of war that I'm trying to get at. . . . [is] Internal war, personal war" (Interviews 143). The question is not only whether or not he should desert, but what will be the effect of his decision on his opinion of himself, on his self-esteem? Is he going to be self-reliant or self-indulgent? Is he going to exercise free will or be coerced into conformity? Furthermore, can the modern individual's situation even be reduced to an either/or proposition? By examining Berlin's decision, we will be able to ascertain O'Brien's view of the relationship between society and the individual in late twentieth-century America.
The reader quite early in the novel discovers that Paul Berlin has a problem with fear. Berlin presumes he can conquer his fear, though. While on guard in the Observation Post, he ponders fear, "The real issue was the power of will to defeat fear. A matter of figuring a way to do it. Somehow working his way into that secret chamber of the human heart, where, in tangles, lay the circuitry for all that was possible, the full range of what a man might be" (81). He seems to believe in free will, and in this belief he is much like Lieutenant Martin. Martin maintains that for the soldier the important mission is an "inner mission, the mission of every man to learn the important things about himself" (166). The key to accomplishing this, according to Martin, is the "greatest gift of God . . . freedom of will" (168). Martin is musing in this vein while he watches and admires Berlin climbing a mountain, but ironically, he does not realize that Berlin has actually made a conscious decision to quit, to fall down and march no more. However, we read, "The decision was made, but it did not flow down to his legs, which kept climbing the red road. Powerless and powerful . . . Berlin marched toward the mountains without stop or ability to stop" (168). Where is Berlin's free will? Near the end of the novel, Berlin thinks, "The issue was courage, and courage was will power, and this was his failing" (324). It appears that free will is a nebulous quality in O'Brien's vision, and this becomes even more clear when we examine how much control Berlin has over anything.
Paul Berlin wants to use imagination and memory to shape his future and his self, to have some self-control in the chaotic world in which he is trapped--where soldiers die of fright or are gunned down by their own side. Berlin supposes that he has control, thinking, "True, the war scared him silly, but this was something he hoped to bring under control" (40). Yet, when he is imagining the squad's pursuit of Cacciato and trying to think of a solution to the problem of how to get the Lieutenant to allow the girl, Sarkin Aung Wan, to continue on the journey with them, he is unable to think of anything, "so it simply happened," an earthquake and a fall into a hole in the road (75-76). Similarly, when imagining them on board the Dehli Express, Berlin says, "it was out of control. Events taking their own track" (136), and after their miraculous imaginary escape from Iran, Berlin muses, "Out of control, and maybe it always had been. One thing leading to the next, and pretty soon there was no guiding it, and things happened out of other things" (248). Not only has he no control over his own imagination, but when thinking about the fragging death of Lieutenant Martin, he realizes that "The way events led to events, and the way they got out of human control" is an all too real phenomenon (248). Of course, being "out of control," lacking control, is the infantryman's lot and is an apt metaphor for the whole war. As the imaginary VC major Li Van Hgoc puts it, "No way out. That is the puzzle. We are prisoners, all of us POWs" (96). In this they are much like Mailer's and Jones's soldiers imprisoned on islands. This lack of individual control is further exacerbated by uncertainty.
Doc Peret likens the war's uncertainties to a vacuum. As he colorfully puts it, "Can't have order in a vacuum. For order you got to have substance, matériel. So here we are--nothing to order, no substance. Aimless, that's what it is: a bunch of kids trying to pin the tail on the Asian donkey. But no fuckin tail. No fuckin donkey" (105). O'Brien goes on to catalogue all the things they do not know: "a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice," "the feeling of taking a place and keeping it," "if it was a war of ideology or economics or hegemony or spite," "good from evil." Furthermore, they have "No front, no rear, no trenches laid out in neat parallels. . . . They did not have targets. They did not have a cause" (272-73). The uncertainties even extend to one another. For example, Oscar Johnson claims to be from "center-city Detroit," but "his mail went to Bangor, Maine" (142), and no one ever knows Doc Peret's real first name (145-46). Identity is somewhat amorphous, and "What they were called was in some ways a measure of who they were, in other ways a measure of who they preferred to be" (146). The uncertainties contribute to the attractiveness of desertion, for the soldiers are without a clear purpose in the war. The imaginary Iranian Captain, Fahyi Rhallon, believes that "Without purpose men will run" (200). This lack of purpose is something Edward F. Palm sees as pervasive at the time. Palm contends that Paul Berlin
is representative of a great many men who actually fought the war. Paul Berlin suffers from the perplexing state of anomie that was pervasive throughout the sixties. He finds the traditional values by which he has been raised challenged by a world that is changing too rapidly for comprehension. He is caught up in the confusing immediacy of events, leaving him, as O'Brien's narrator says of the platoon at large, unable to distinguish good and evil with any degree of finality. (124-25)In a world full of uncertainty and in which the individual lacks fundamental control over his life, the temptation to run away, to escape, can be very strong. Whether it be in a form similar to Cacciato's insane plan to walk to Paris or in the form of drug or alcohol abuse, such as depicted in Meditations in Green, the route of escape has been chosen by many beleaguered individuals in our technologically-oriented culture.
The crux of the novel is Paul Berlin's decision to stay in the war and not follow Cacciato's example. Like Heller's Yossarian, Berlin realizes that responsibility is involved in his decision. He says, "Responsibility. That was what was needed--somebody to take it as a solemn vow" (136). As Eric James Schroeder maintains, Paul Berlin "learns eventually that events do have meaning, but that he himself must impose it" (Dialectic 133). He imaginatively explores the possibilities of desertion and ultimately discovers that the meaning of his presence in the war is a matter of obligation; he says, "I feel obliged" (285). Sarkin Aung Wan tries to convince him that his responsibility is only to himself, to his own peace of mind (320-21). The girl is espousing the argument used by Dos Passos's John Andrews. Palm sees a more distant antecedent for Berlin's position, though, arguing that "In the final analysis, what motivates a character like Paul Berlin is precisely what motivates Crane's Henry Fleming: neither abstract ideas nor principles, but the natural pull of kinship and camaraderie and the fear of social ostracism balanced by the instinct for self preservation" (127). Berlin's reasoning is also akin to Yossarian's in that he takes into consideration the effect his actions will have on others. Yet, he and Yossarian draw opposite conclusions. Let's look at Berlin's reasoning.
In the first place, Berlin argues that obligation is built upon "many prior acts of consent," both explicit and implicit. Added to these were "tacit promises" made to family, community, and country. He feels that he gave his consent and made his promises with his eyes wide open and freely. Yet he says, "True, the moral climate was imperfect; there were pressures, constraints, but nonetheless I made binding choices." There seems to be some acknowledgment of social coercion playing a part in his "free" choices, but he declines to use that as an excuse for reneging on them. Why? He reasons that his "obligation is to people, not to principle or politics or justice" (322). He goes on to explain,
An idea, when violated, cannot make reprisals. A principle cannot refuse to shake my hand. Only people can do that. And it is this social power, the threat of social consequences, that stops me from making a full and complete break. Peace of mind is not a simple matter of pursuing one's own pleasure; rather, it is inextricably linked to the attitudes of other human beings, to what they want, to what they expect. (323)Dean McWilliams examines Berlin's reasoning and concludes that its "implications are deterministic" (253). O'Brien does seem to be acknowledging social determinism but without claiming that it is necessarily a bad thing. One at least believes that one is making free choices. The Lockean notion of a social contract wins out here over a Hobbesean every-man-for-himself attitude toward life. Busby contends that Berlin's decision "denies the possibility of individual fulfillment as presented by Hemingway and Heller" (63). I have argued that individual fulfillment can only occur within a social context, and I have previously pointed out that context, the care for others demonstrated by Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms and Yossarian in Catch-22, among others. Berlin is aware of a social context, but his emphasis is on the consequences for himself, not on care for others. Therefore, I agree with Busby because Berlin makes a choice, but it is hard to see him as accepting the responsibility of his own freedom.
Owen W. Gilman, Jr. contends that "The community of homeland America placed Paul Berlin in Vietnam. That action was a misstep, but the idea of community is still worth pursuing. . . . The first step is a vision, work of the imagination." He goes on to say that Going After Cacciato "reaffirms the spirit that vitalized" John Winthrop's vision of the ideal community in "Modell of Christian Charity" (Community 139). It seems to me that he is reading too much into the novel. Outside of his father, Berlin's connection to any community at home is little in evidence, other than showing him having a fairly typical middle-class upbringing. He may feel obligated to the larger community, but it seems more of an abstract notion than something deeply and personally felt. As for the community of his squad in Vietnam, Berlin himself says that he plans to "Stay aloof. Follow the herd but don't join it" (212). I do not get the feeling that these men are particularly close. They are thrown together and work together as a matter of survival. The genuine community we find in Del Vecchio's novel is not present in O'Brien's work.
O'Brien, like Mailer and Jones, sees a socially determined world in which individuals lack control over much of what happens to them. Yet, he does posit a certain amount of free will. Each individual is faced with choices. One can abide by the social contract and live up to perceived obligations, or one can choose to find those obligations non-binding. In Berlin's imagination, Lieutenant Corson does desert and Berlin seems to feel that that choice is one that Corson has the right to make, although he does not desert in reality. Cacciato's decision is likewise not denounced; it is merely considered dumb. The individual, though, must accept the responsibility for choices made and must realize that choices often incur further obligations. I think we can infer that O'Brien sees late twentieth-century society with all its uncertainties as bewildering to individuals, but he feels that individuals have the right and even the responsibility to choose what is best for themselves. It is a position that I believe Heller and Del Vecchio would recognize as kin to their own.
All in all, I think Palm states the case quite well when he writes,
With the literature of our most bitter and divisive war, the emphasis of modern literature ironically seems to be shifting from the existential plight of the doomed individual struggling futilely against both impersonal institutions and an indifferent universe to the compromises and accommodations the great majority of men make quite readily in order to survive and even prosper. (128)This can be seen quite clearly in O'Brien's novel in the case of Paul Berlin, and in Del Vecchio's work the soldiers are also able to make accommodations, putting aside personal desires and needs in the interest of group survival. Furthermore, both of these novels emphasize individual responsibility and a sense of community, although Del Vecchio's conception of community appears much more vibrant. I think both novels are cautiously optimistic about the future, of both the individual and of modern society, but only if the lessons of the war are learned. It was a divisive time, and many of the wounds incurred then remain unhealed today. Wright, on the other hand, does not seem to hold much hope for the future. There is no happy ending to his novel, but there is a strong message. I do not believe that Wright deems the culture as a whole to be redeemable. But individuals, if they will only reconnect themselves to nature, may have a chance at a viable, fulfilling, and peaceful life. Most people, in Wright's world, appear to be doomed to hopeless escapism, to insanity, or to lives in which they are "graphed," "charted," and "data processed." I think the jury is still out as to which, if any, of these authors' visions will ultimately prevail.
1. From January 1961 through July 1965, 561 Americans were killed in Vietnam (Maclear 142). Return to text
2. The "domino" metaphor dates from the Eisenhower administration, but the political theory it describes was articulated by the Truman administration in 1950 (Baritz 79; Donovan 146). Return to text
3. The institution of a draft lottery was announced in 1969, but it was not implemented until late in 1971 (Maclear 232). Return to text
4. DEROS is an acronym for "date eligible for return from overseas," which is the date on which a soldier was scheduled to leave Vietnam (Baritz 283). Return to text
5. During the Vietnam era, the military was at the leading edge of America's technological revolution. Whereas the world wars were often referred to as "mechanized," wars, the Vietnam war can be called the first technologized war. This included the implementation of computerized record-keeping, the use of high tech weaponry such as helicopters and the M-16 assault weapon, and sophisticated electronic gadgetry such as acoustic and seismic sensors used to detect enemy movement. These sensors were disguised to look like small plants and were dropped by aircraft to land near suspected enemy trails (Maclear 183-85). Return to text
6. Michael W. Raymond (100) and Jack Slay, Jr. argue that "the Observation Post is as unreal, is as much a work of Berlin's imagination as is the search for the runaway Cacciato" (81). They may be correct, but the distinction is irrelevant to this study. Return to text
Copyright © Patrick Paul Christle, 2001
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