Americans at war in Vietnam were affected by ‘wars’ at home–between races, classes, sexes and generations.
By Lt. Col. John Clark Pratt, U.S. Air Force (ret.)
The title of Milton J. Bates’ book The Wars We Took to Vietnam (University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif., 1996, $18.95) might have gone on to read “and the Wars We Brought Back,” because the work is an examination not only of the attitudes Americans took to Vietnam but also of much of the vast Vietnam War literature and films that reflect these attitudes. The 328-page book is a major accomplishment and a fascinating read, even if one does not already know most of the works to which the author refers.
Bates, who served with the Americal Division in Vietnam during 1968 and 1969, has selected five subjects to consider: the frontier, race, class, gender and generations. For each of these topics he provides an incisive historical analysis, then discusses some of the major works about the war.
In the “Frontier” section, for instance, Bates traces American attitudes about the frontier from Puritan New England through Vietnam, noting the influence of the Western myth on the naming of in-country operations such as “Cochise,” “Daniel Boone” and “Crazy Horse.” He mentions the “Kit Carson scouts,” former North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong members who scouted for the Americans in “Indian Country” (very hostile enemy territory in Vietnam, also called “Bad Country”). Then he examines the movies Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, along with Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam and William Eastlake’s novel The Bamboo Bed, among others. Despite the overwhelming use of frontier allusion in fiction and nonfiction works, Bates concludes that “we have yet to settle on a definitive version of our frontier myth.”
Bates examines historical features of African-American culture in his “Race” section in an attempt to “make sense of black people’s responses to the Vietnam War.” He aptly summarizes racial attitudes from early slavery to the Vietnam War, which he calls “America’s first integrated war since the Revolution.” Examining Wallace Terry’s Bloods, John Williams’ Captain Blackman and A.R. Flowers’ De Mojo Blues, Bates concludes that black writers and veterans experienced the war differently and came away from it with different memories than whites, because for most of the black soldiers the war seemed to be “merely one battle in a larger–indeed a global and millennial–war.”
The “Working Class” section begins with a brief history of the labor movement and workers’ attitudes toward the Vietnam War. Bates cites Department of Defense statistics about the education levels of enlisted men and draws from Studs Terkel’s influential book Working. He also shows how the movie Platoon and Larry Heinemann’s novel Paco’s Story indicate that working-class people were the most affected and traumatized by the war.
The section titled “Sex” traces two movements of the late 1960s and ’70s: the embracing of sexual freedom and the attempt to redefine masculine and feminine identity. Using Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics as benchmarks, Bates then traces male-female attitudes in Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone and a host of other books and films, including Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country, Phil Caputo’s Indian Country, and Coming Home, plus numerous narratives written by female veterans. He sees the ongoing gender war as a metaphor that differs from actual combat in a startling way: In the war between the sexes, if one side loses, nobody wins.
Bates notes in his final main section, the “Generation War,” that the ’60s generation gap pitted the traditional “Ozzie and Harriet” view of a safe and comfortable world against the reality of Kent State. In his discussion of David Rabe’s play Sticks and Bones, the Zumwalts’ My Father, My Son, Lewis Puller’s Fortunate Son and Tobias Wolfe’s In Pharaoh’s Army, he concludes that this generational war is more conciliatory than the race, class or sex “wars” because each new generation “eventually becomes the older generation.”
In his concluding chapter, Bates presents a good overview of the literature of the Vietnam War. He examines the reasons why people write and tell war stories, and he also comments on their authenticity, language, techniques, plots, ironies, myths, message and methods of storytelling (this last subject focuses on author Tim O’Brien). Noting how many novels, memoirs, films and television shows try to satisfy the typically American search for lessons, Bates argues against such reductiveness, seeing instead the need for “a tolerance for doubt, ambiguity, and inconclusiveness.”
The Wars We Took to Vietnam is a wonderful book that can be appreciated and enjoyed by vets or non-vets, literary buffs or not. It is about all Americans who have been affected by the Vietnam War.