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Friday, September 18, 2015

The Eternal Vietnam War

Last week I attended a Vietnam panel hosted by Rice University's Baker Institute.  It featured the reminiscences of four acclaimed novelists and memoirists--Philip Caputo, Tim O'Brien, Larry Heinemann, and Tobias Wolf--whose war experiences kicked off their writing careers.   They read from their works and took questions from the audience.   I enjoyed the presentations.

But the question that kept eating at me is: how different would these presentations have been had we won?   Would the four have focused so much on the corruption, the lost of innocence, the brutality, and the sheer "sinfulness," as O'Brien put it, of the experience?  

Take a book like E. B. Sledge's "With the Old Breed," about his Marine experience in two island campaigns in WWII.  It is a straightforward, honest book.  Sledge looks at everything with a colder eye.  But I would say there is no cynicism or irony here--There was a job to be done, and this is the nasty things we had to go through to do it.   I think "This Kind of War" by T.R. Fehrenbach, about Korea, is the same way.  Even the books on the Iraq war seem less inward-looking and self-absorbed.

Perhaps it is a generational thing on how we look at war.  There was something touching about the way O'Brien after all these years is still obsessed with the Viet Cong fighter he killed.  But his experience was not unique to Vietnam.  Likewise Heinemann, who was a draftee and didn't want to be there.  There were lots of guys like that in World War II, but no one really cared so much about what they thought. 

Maybe if the novelists had felt the cause was better they would have written different books.

The event was moderated by an Annapolis graduate and attended by other veterans and many ROTC cadets and midshipmen.  Guys and gals, don't be warmongers; but don't be pacifists, either.
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