In 2012, the Iraq veteran and author Ben Fountain won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The novel — Mr. Fountain’s first — was also a finalist for the National Book Award, along with another debut novel, Kevin Powers’s “The Yellow Birds,” which received the 2013 PEN/Hemingway award for first fiction. Both are American novels about the Iraq war. In the half-decade since, literature about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — much, but not all, by veterans of those wars — has done much to shape the cultural commentary on America’s latest military engagements, even as thousands of American service members remain in the regions.
The swift, easy embrace of such works seems to stand in vivid contrast to the artistic reaction to America’s long and controversial sojourn in Vietnam. In 1985 Asia Society held a conference on the literature of the Vietnam War, which it said was the first gathering of major American authors who engaged with the conflict. Several of the speakers, including W. D. Ehrhart, Bruce Weigl and James Webb, testified to publishers’ long years of indifference to their Vietnam-themed poetry, fiction and memoirs. As one editor said at the conference, “For a period of time well into the 1970s, the Vietnam novel was really an obscenity.”
Indeed, scholars have argued that America recovered from its amnesia about the Vietnam War only when Ronald Reagan — who pronounced in 1980 that “it’s time that we recognized that ours was in truth a noble cause” — became president, opening the gates to a wave of American texts about the war.
And it was quite an outpouring. Today, Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” (1990) is widely taught in American high schools and universities, and it is a frequent community selection in the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program. Hollywood movies about Vietnam, like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket,” are now as canonical as “The Dirty Dozen” and “From Here to Eternity.” Bruce Springsteen’s veteran-narrator of “Born in the U.S.A.,” who “got nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go,” is a misinterpreted but beloved rock ’n’ roll protagonist. Today, we know and read and watch these and countless other narrative interpretations of Vietnam, but each of them appeared at least a decade after the American military’s withdrawal from Southeast Asia.
But in a strange twist, the historical amnesia imposed by the war also seems to have affected the history of how we remember, and reflect on, the war. Important fictional representations of the war began to appear well before Reagan’s election — books like Larry Heinemann’s “Close Quarters” (1977), Mr. O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato” (1978) and Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” (1977), and films like “The Deerhunter” (1978), “Coming Home” (1978) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979).
In fact, some journalists and combatants recognized the cultural significance of the war almost from its inception. These lonely literary investigations inveigled their way into magazines and onto publishers’ lists in the late 1960s, while the war was still ramping up and before the widely acknowledged Tet offensive-induced watershed of early 1968.
These works outlined the more granular themes that would recur in the major texts of the late 1970s and beyond: the ubiquitous heat and inscrutable jungle terrain; the ineptitude of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, our South Vietnamese allies; the craven cluelessness of officers and rear-guard “pogues”; the profane black humor of grunts’ language. But it is their embrace of the broader themes of guilt and American exceptionalism and the overweening ambiguity of the purposes and conduct of the Vietnam conflict, and their increasingly postmodernist narrative technique, that make the first Vietnam War texts notably prescient.
In his 1967 novel “Why Are We in Vietnam?” Norman Mailer (not quite 20 years after his iconic World War II combat novel, “The Naked and the Dead)” tells the violent, obscene, technically experimental story of an Alaskan hunting trip: a father-son coming-of-age story of macho conservatism that answers the title’s question with the suggestion that American arrogance and violence led us to our misadventure in Vietnam. It is a theme echoed by William Eastlake in his novel “The Bamboo Bed” (1969) and by James Crumley, who notes in his novel “One to Count Cadence” (1969) that Americans are “the best and the last of the barbarians, the conquerors, the long knives, the jolly green giants of history who move at first across the land with fire and sword, then with transistor radios and toothpaste, seeking not even greener grass, nor even movement itself, but merely senseless turds in the large bowel of history.”
Interestingly, it was journalists who first noted the ambiguities and complexities — what would soon be acknowledged as the ineffable uniqueness — of the Vietnam conflict and made the case for why it was art, more than journalism, that would best capture them. In a 1989 preface to the reissue of “The Bamboo Bed,” Mr. Eastlake — a World War II veteran and Vietnam correspondent for The Nation — maintained that “a novel of the happenings of war is an attempt to organize the unorganized, to give form and meaning to chaos.” He added, “An objective account of a happening is meaningless without the third eye, without the fiction of art.” The Newsweek reporter-turned-novelist Ward Just prefaced “To What End,” his 1968 personal account of a war that was “slipping beyond irony to tragedy,” with an epigraph by Harold Pinter about the malleability of the real and the unreal: “The more the acute the experience the less articulate the expression.”
In the 1967 novel “One Very Hot Day,” by the New York Times reporter David Halberstam, his protagonist, Captain Beaupre, longs for the simplicity of World War II, because in Vietnam “you walk in a goddamn circle, and then you go home and then you go out the next day and wade through a circle, and then you go home and the next day you go out and you reverse the circle you did the day before, erasing it.” In France, he says, “you always knew where you were.”
It is a straight line from Beaupre’s frustration with America’s ambiguous agenda in Vietnam in 1962 to Mr. O’Brien’s 1990 “The Things They Carried” — “the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost” — and from Mr. Just’s citation of Pinter to Mr. O’Brien’s suggestion that in war “the old truths” are no longer true and “the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.”
The hallmark of the literary responses to the “overwhelming ambiguity” of the Vietnam War is an avant-garde, postmodernist technique that echoes the characteristics of much late 20th-century American literature: an ironic, even absurdist sensibility; a fragmented, discontinuous story line; a fundamental distrust of definable meaning.
Surely there are traditional, realistic narratives among the notable novels about the war: Mr. Halberstam’s “One Very Hot Day” spawned James Webb’s “Fields of Fire” (1978), John Del Vecchio’s “The 13th Valley” (1982) and 2009’s “Matterhorn,” by Karl Marlantes — sprawling, so-called melting-pot-platoon combat novels in the tradition of James Jones’s World War II epics.
But most of the noteworthy narratives of the Vietnam War are the children of Mr. Crumley and Mr. Eastlake and Mr. Mailer. Another journalist, Mr. Herr, spun Mr. Just’s account of the Five O’Clock Follies and the misprisions of the South Vietnamese government into the vertiginous, audacious, now-classic “Dispatches,” a personal account of the war whose structure and language embody the absurd chaos of life in-country. Mr. O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato” is an irrational picaresque, with an AWOL protagonist walking from Vietnam to Paris. The ghosts of the dead soldiers of Alpha Company narrate Mr. Heinemann’s brutal “Paco’s Story” (1987).
Most of the earliest narrative chronicles of the Vietnam War have been forgotten. Mr. Crumley and Mr. Eastlake are footnotes in the literary scholarship on the war, and Mr. Halberstam and Mr. Just are much better known for later work than for “One Very Hot Day” and “To What End.” But the flowering of Vietnam literature, film and songwriting of the late 1970s and ’80s did not spring out of nowhere. These harbingers announced the rich, challenging stories to come.
Maureen Ryan, a professor of English and the dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Southern Mississippi, is the author of The Other Side of Grief: The Home Front and the Aftermath in American Narratives of the Vietnam War.