Vietnam: 50 years later, the potency of the literature and film endure

I wouldn’t begin a post like this any other way than by honoring my father, Bill Roback, for his service to our country in the Vietnam war as a sergeant in the Army combat engineers. He courageously served in the war, earning the Bronze Star, and was honorably discharged following his two years of service. Dad, there are many stories I could share on your behalf, but I’ll just say this: Thank you for all you have done.

I also recognize my father-in-law, Dan Ortegon, for his service as a sergeant in the Army in Vietnam. Thank you.

This year’s Veteran’s day marks the official beginning of our country’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam war. The best way that I feel I can commemorate the occasion is by discussing the potent art and literature produced both during the time, and by veterans recounting their experiences. I am by no means an expert, but I have read my fair share (especially under the teaching of James Fairhall, a veteran, scholar, and tenured professor of literature at DePaul Univeristy, Chicago).

So here is a course in Vietnam War literature if you are interested in learning more about the bravery, sacrifices, and also the failings of our country, both in terms of foreign policy, and failing to honor our veterans with the respect they deserve upon their return.

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History
Even if you know something going into the reading, Karnow’s text is the definitive history of the geopolitical strife and international politics surrounding the war. It is a classic example of “great man” history in that it mostly ignores the “boots on the ground” perspective, but it is a primer that allows you to approach the real accounts with some semblance of overview. The war is an intensely personal experience for those who lived and wrote about it, and this text will help you to navigate that experience as well as understand the context of their writings. At over 700 pages, it is a tome to be reckoned with, but I recommend it to anyone before and/or after diving into the personal narratives.

Oliver Stone (dir.), Born on the Fourth of July, the first 90 minutes
Stone’s biography of Ron Kovic, who fights and is paralyzed in the Vietnam war, delivers a powerful message about the patriotism of post-World War II and how the spirit of that era carried over to our involvement in the Vietnam war through a parable (or perhaps truthful biography) of Kovic’s life. The film dramatically captures the transition from post-war enthusiasm to the traumatic cultural amnesia of the post-Vietnam era (the scene with Kovic [Tom Cruise] and his mother highlights the extent to which people were willing to go to forcibly forget the costs of the war). After that scene, the film becomes pointless and self-indulgent, but the first 90 minutes are a primer on the change in cultural values in America from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American
Both a poignant anti-war novel and a critique of (imperial newcomer) American involvement in Vietnam, the novel begins the tradition of painting the Vietnam war as a conflict without winners. The protagonist of Greene’s semi-autobiographical novel both revels in colonial excess while simultaneously being aware of (and full of self-loathing regarding) Europe’s transgressions, all the while angrily opposing America’s proxy (a thinly veiled CIA operative) as an unwarranted intrusion into the affairs of the region. It’s a masterful depiction of a man/nation/continent who have all done wrong (admitting it to themselves), while angrily establishing their own territorial domain over doing wrong in the region. Much like the denizen of the downtrodden city, the unwanted tourist is still the real enemy.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
O’Brien’s fictional memoir belongs here as a reminder that truth is subjective. There is no reason to believe anyone when they claim to represent the “truth” of the Vietnam War. As O’Brien reminds us, the truth of a shitty situation is often buried in the “shit” where it belongs. What we get are the memories of men and women, filtered through how they remember events, for better or worse. While this collection of stories is not the definitive Vietnam War novel, it is critical to read in order to orient one’s self to the mutable nature of war narrative. Detractors will say the book is self-annihilating and ultimately meaningless, but there is a salvation in the pages that allows us to recognize the fallacy of the “glorious war narrative” and still retain the redemptive nature of service, sacrifice, devotion, and, finally, human emotion and memory.

Oliver Stone, Platoon
Stone’s better, first film about the Vietnam War depicts much more of his own personal, lived experience than his later film. Here we see that no battle is glorious, and that the heroes of this war are the persons who (tried to) keep their decency and humanity among carnage and brutality. No one is without the scar of immorality in this film, but there is a powerful catharsis if you can stick it out and empathize with the imperfect protagonist.

Ray Kellogg and John Wayne (dirs.), The Green Berets
In an effort to turn Vietnam into a replica of World War II’s clear cut morals, John Wayne himself steps in as the unquestionable moral authority and leads a team of crack commandos in a clear cut, conventional fight against an easily recognizable enemy. Universally lambasted by critics as a totally unrealistic portrayal of the experience of soldiers in the Vietnam War, the film was purposely designed to give the public back home a positive image of the war and drum up support. It is a good contrast to the brutal reality of Stone’s Platoon and O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, demonstrating that Hollywood in the late 60s was just as aware of image enhancement as they are today.

Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places
It seems reductionist to say “read one memoir by a Vietnamese refugee so you get a balanced perspective” but I have not had exposure to many books like this. I will say you must read this book to understand some of what it must have felt like for Vietnamese persons during the war, but this can obviously not give you every perspective. Oliver Stone made a poorly received film for the above reasons in 1993 that I have not seen.

Bernard Edelman (ed.), Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam
For your final three books, begin with this compilation of letters home from GIs. You’ll find in them the despair, triumph, vulgarity, hatred, fear, and transcendence in war expressed by the men and women who fought and risked their lives. I typically associate the American Civil War with eloquence of the daring and dangers of war, but this collection demonstrates that the horrific insight of the battle wary (and weary) belongs to all generations.

Tim O’Brien, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home
O’Brien’s autobiography not only documents his time in basic training, his brush with conscientious objector status, and his reluctant but valiant service in the military, but also questions the nature of courage and how one comports oneself in battle with how we view courage as a society. While his fictional memoir, The Things They Carried tries to make you feel his lived experience, this text is a critical examination of the concepts of courage, battle, and what it means to be a man. His profiles of fellow soldiers and accounts of lived experiences pair nicely with his fictional memoir, and they should not be read separately in my opinion.

W.D. Ehrhart (ed.), Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War
The War in the words of the warriors who fought it. What else can you say.

Post Script: Bobbie Ann Mason, In Country
A post-war pilgrimage by a daughter to commemorate her father’s sacrifice at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., this novel often times comes off too sappy and too obvious, but resonates with the children of a Vietnam vet both in the pop culture references and the multiple surrogates for variously adjusted vets in the town, who meet and poignantly discuss the war. W.D. Erhart provided the technical descriptions of war for the book, but there are critics who complain of the lack of physical injuries (e.g. Ron Kovic’s injuries) in the veterans in the book.


I hope these texts are a good introduction to this subject for you and honor the memory of the sacrifice that our fathers and mothers made in their youth to protect our freedom while also allowing us to reflect on our civic responsibility to hold our government responsible to the will of the American people.

Happy Veteran’s day to all of those who served in the armed services for our country. Thank you for your service.