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The Forever War Over War Literature

A post-9/11 veteran novelist explores a post-Vietnam literary soiree gone bad, and finds timeless lessons about a contentious and still-evolving genre.

Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs Jim Webb might have seemed like a weird candidate to give the keynote speech to a roomful of antiwar activists, journalists, creative writers, and academics in New York City. Remembered today as a rigid one-term Democratic Virginia senator who rode an anti-Bush wave to Capitol Hill during the worst years of the Iraq War, Webb had taken a wall of shrapnel in Vietnam, shielding his Marine Corps platoon mates from a fragmentation grenade. But by the opening of the Asia Society’s May 1985 conference on literature of the Vietnam War, he’d also become well known for the bombs he lobbed.

In 1979, Webb had penned a 7,000-word essay in The Washingtonian titled “Why Women Can’t Fight,” which got him briefly shadow-banned from the Naval Academy, his beloved alma mater. The year before that, when a California radio interviewer had joshingly asked Webb if he’d be catching a local appearance by antiwar actress Jane Fonda that weekend, Webb turned silent for a long time. “Jane Fonda can kiss my ass,” he replied, eventually. “I wouldn’t go across the street to watch her slit her own wrist.” (Among those listening were future Reagan White House personnel chief John Herrington, who would later enthusiastically recruit Webb into the administration.)

Webb was also a triple novelist, best known for the visceral 1978 Fields of Fire, the saga of a motley Marine platoon in Vietnam that he’d penned in law school, after being angered by his classmates’ reflexive antiwar politics. Now, a decade after the war had ended, Webb had been gifted an opportunity to blast the other war novelists, poets, memoirists, and critics—many of them veterans of the conflict, like him—that he thought had glutted the national conversation with anti-government narratives and leftist navel-gazing. “American society is too often narcissistic and riddled with vicious domestic debate,” he argued. “At the same time, during the war it was romantic about the Vietnamese Communists and completely ignorant, for the most part, about the implications of a North Vietnamese victory.”

He continued, decrying what he called the “Academic-Intellectual Complex.” Literary and journalistic awards, he insisted, “are lavished on those who discover new ways to question or attack government policy, to tell us where our government is failing us,” but “sometimes it takes more courage to confront the hostility of one’s peers than it does to attack that amorphous dragon called government policy.”

The gauntlet had been thrown down. Webb’s speech hit the conference like a “lightning bolt,” one attendee wrote. John Del Vecchio—a self-described “token conservative” on war literature panels, whose debut Vietnam novel, The 13th Valley, had been nominated for a National Book Award two years before—got stuck in Manhattan traffic on his way to the conference and showed up late. He walked in and “found the room already divided … leftist writers bunched over there, conservative writers bunched over here. It was quite a scene.”

The Asia Society conference came at a crossroads for the country’s memory of the war, for Vietnam War literature as a whole, and for a number of the attendees still figuring out their writing careers. It might have proven just another gathering, a curious historical artifact that brought together scribes to dispute and drink, if much of the prominent literature formed in its aftermath didn’t carry scars in its pages from arguments lobbed at the conference.

The conference opened just three days after the public unveiling of Vietnam Veterans Plaza in lower Manhattan. Fury still lingered from the partisan battles over Maya Lin’s war memorial in D.C., built earlier in the decade—a long wall of black granite listing the names of the dead, “a black gash of shame” to embittered traditionalists who had wanted a sculpture there that represented martial values like glory and duty. (These included Webb, who’d called Lin’s design “a nihilistic slab of stone.”)

Perhaps broader America was ready to move on from the war, but many of its participants and chroniclers were not. “All wars are fought twice,” Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen would write decades later. “The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

This was a battle for memory. It would prove a defining one, worth revisiting today, as my generation of forever-war literati fights similar battles and, in many ways, stakes out similar paths.

“Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there,” Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches, the foundational nonfiction-ish account of the war. Perhaps true for an American society cleaved down the middle by the war—though in 1985, it was still an open question whether that society intended to read and learn about the war or forget it entirely. The initial wave of Vietnam memoirs, journalism, and autofiction had come and gone, with some publishing successes and many more flops.

This was evident at the Asia Society conference. Military-intelligence veteran Robert Olen Butler attended, a couple novels in but still years away from his Pulitzer-winning A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. So did the editor of Newsweek, William Broyles, who’d go on to write the screenplays for Apollo 13 and Cast Away. Journalist Wallace Terry came as well, fresh from the publication of Bloods, his breakthrough oral history about African American experiences in Vietnam. And so did the war’s foremost storyteller, Tim O’Brien, already a National Book Award winner but still developing The Things They Carried, the collection that would ultimately distinguish both his work and the Vietnam canon. Ron Kovic, the Long Island–born paraplegic vet whose memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, would be made into an Oscar-winning 1989 film by Oliver Stone, attended as well.

There were tense divides between authors at the conference that weren’t confined to partisan politics or combat bona fides. Literature produced by former officers tended to differ in scope and tone from that of their enlisted brethren. The work of veterans and journalists who’d been to the war before the 1968 Tet Offensive contrasted starkly to that produced post-Tet. Broader cultural trends had influenced the trajectory and reception of Vietnam War literature, to the fortune of some and the dark grumbling of others. Apocalypse Now, for example, broke through in cinema and returned the war to public consciousness in 1979, and it cast an immense shadow over later art seeking to reckon with the war or its legacy.

But the political gulf dominated much of the three-day event. Immediately after Webb’s jeremiad, audience members pushed back on his politics, his insinuations about their literary output, and his suggestion that novels and stories deemed insufficiently antiwar had a hard time finding publication. (His own work was a conspicuous exception.) “Current American literature regarding the Vietnam era is too self-absorbed,” Webb had said; journalist and future Primary Colors author Joe Klein rose to respond that the “ultimate in narcissism” was “to, 10 years later, try to justify a policy that was essentially misguided.” 

The tension and disputes at the conference caused some attendees to question why they’d come in the first place. “I was busy at the time with the US-USSR Bridges for Peace campaign, working to prevent nuclear war with the Soviet Union,” Jan Barry, a poet and co-founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, wrote me in an email. “It seemed bizarre to me to rehash the Vietnam War while the Reagan administration was blithely preparing for world war with the ‘evil empire.’”

“I didn’t enjoy the conference much, from what I recall,” O’Brien said in a recent phone interview. “The main lesson I took from it all was how radically different our values and sense of pride were.” Sometimes, he added, “it felt in that room like we’d been in different wars.”

The conference panelists skewed heavily male, though there were some notable exceptions. Washington Post journalist Myra MacPherson spoke on a home-front panel about the research that went into her book Long Time Passing, which examined the effects on veterans and their families of post-traumatic stress—a new term in 1985. Anthropologist and oral historian Lydia Fish attended, too. And Lady Borton, an author and pacifist who had worked in Vietnam with the humanitarian American Friends Service Committee, made her presence known by cutting through some of the macho, intellectual blustering.

“I am so struck by the absence of the word ‘feelings’ in this conference,” Borton said. “I just want to encourage us as we look at this experience to go down to the feeling level of it and allow ourselves to weep for individual Vietnamese people.”

As contentious as Webb’s talking points were—his conference speech also inveighed against Soviet access to Vietnamese ports in the Pacific—the literary broadside had conveyed one hard truth. His call that Vietnam literature written by Americans should be less “narcissistic,” that it should consider the peoples, histories, and cultures impacted by foreign soldiering and not just dwell on the myopic American experience, resonated like mortar fire through the remainder of the conference.

The year before, prominent book critic Michiko Kakutani had surveyed the Vietnam literature to that point in a New York Times essay, zeroing in on the “typical Bildungsroman” quality of many of the works. “They related the story of a young man, usually identifiable with the author, whose progress from idealism to disillusionment echoes the changes that America itself underwent in the ’60s,” she wrote. In contrast to these plentiful narratives, “A large novel that embraces the entire scene, that deals with the military and political complexities of the war, its consequences in public and private lives, as well as its reverberations at home—that novel has yet to be written.”

The novel The Sorrow of War by North Vietnamese veteran Bào Ninh wouldn’t be translated into English for five more years. A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan’s expansive nonfiction account of the disastrous Indochinese war for “hearts and minds,” wouldn’t be published until 1988. O’Brien had only returned to short stories the year prior to the conference, and figures now he was “about two in” to what would become The Things They Carried. The late Larry Heinemann was still stitching together Paco’s Story, the novel that would upset Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the 1987 National Book Award. And macro novels with geopolitical context, like Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, were still decades away. Political scientist Timothy Lomperis wrote in Reading the Wind, his account of the Asia Society conference, that its proceedings forced attendees to come to terms with their “cultural narcissism” and to deliberate over how, or even if, it could be overcome.

War literature tends to grow and evolve in this manner. First, war writers—like young writers of any subject—need time to mature their thoughts and art. (Slaughterhouse-Five took Kurt Vonnegut over 20 years to write, and rewrite, after surviving the firebombing of Dresden; Karl Marlantes took 30 years after he returned home from Vietnam to complete Matterhorn.) Similarly, the macro stories that Kakutani called for require distance to play out. Their chroniclers need clarity to wrest narrative from ruin. (Psychological trauma may have been considered a fringe idea during World War I, but it’s the bedrock of Regeneration, Pat Barker’s Booker Prize–nominated 1991 historical novel of the Great War. Likewise, Corporal James Jones may have only had a small, frontline window into the Pacific theater in 1944, but after years of methodical research, he was able to blend his own experience and his broader understanding into The Thin Red Line.)

A little healthy competition between authors in any genre can catalyze their work, too; this turned out to be particularly true in a writerly community dominated by prideful, male combat veterans and war journalists. “Some of that competitive spirit was there, absolutely,” Del Vecchio said in a recent phone interview. “There was this underlying hot blood going on, with a layer of historical and intellectual discussion covering it.”

Kovic emerged as a source of that “hot blood” during the conference, delivering multiple extemporaneous speeches on the intersection of politics and literature. These issues weren’t academic for him: Kovic had been paralyzed by a North Vietnamese bullet on his second tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968, almost left for dead, when a fellow Marine carried him to safety. He then became a prominent antiwar activist. He was a strong writer, too, but one for whom writing was a means to the political end, not an end in itself. Webb’s and others’ elevated ruminations must’ve seemed like verbal soup to a man who’d devoted his postwar life to the mantra “never again.”

Kovic wasn’t alone in putting praxis over literary theory. “I find it extremely difficult to sit here and talk about the Vietnam War as art,” announced W.D. Ehrhart, a Marine and Swarthmore graduate who has been called “the dean of Vietnam War poetry.” “I don’t give a goddamn about art.… [I]f I cannot affect the course of my country as a result of my experiences, then whatever I do as a writer is an utter failure.”

Ehrhart proved especially piercing during a discussion about the role of direct combat experience vis à vis writing good, meaningful war literature. This is a debate that has engulfed my generation of war writers, too—it is our own form of cultural narcissism. (This, despite the fact that the American godfather of “realist” war literature, Stephen Crane, wrote The Red Badge of Courage with no war experience.) Regardless of his own decorated combat record, Ehrhart had no time for veteran writers who considered their experience ineffable or irreducible in prose: “If it cannot be explained to people who weren’t there, who are you writing for, and why do you do it?”

For O’Brien, the strained relationship between politics and art fed his argument that war literature needed more imagination, not less—a proto-thesis for the hyperreality that would mark The Things They Carried. “I think that 200 years, 700 years, 1,000 years from now, when Vietnam is filled with condominiums and we’re all going there to vacation on the beautiful beaches, the experience of Vietnam—all the facts—will be gone,” he said at the conclusion of a conference panel. “The facts will disappear—bit by bit by bit—and all that we’ll be left with are stories. To me, it doesn’t really matter if they’re true stories.”

Few others in the 1985 consortium were willing to relax their devotion to verisimilitude. “I wish I’d been more of a hardass back then and pushed back more against the way some writers presented their fiction as ‘more real than reality,’” Del Vecchio told me. “It’s gotten offensive the older I’ve gotten. The truth can hurt. Doesn’t mean it’s not vital.” That’s the thing with truth and memory, of course. What’s considered vital only belongs to the teller until it’s told.

A decade after the Asia Society conference, one could’ve been forgiven for believing America had finally slipped from the shadow of its Vietnam War. Reagan’s revisionist account of the war as a “noble crusade” heralded popular art that dealt with the conflict romantically or triumphantly, from the Broadway hit Miss Saigon to increasingly insane Rambo film sequels. Then came the U.S. military’s spectacular sweep through Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm and, on its heels, the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War. American culture again fell in love with the Greatest Generation and the righteous deployment of combined arms in mass. Or, as President George H.W. Bush put it in 1991: “The ghosts of Vietnam have been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert.”

Then came 9/11, and the war in Afghanistan, then another war in Iraq, a war of choice that earned comparisons to Vietnam even before the “Thunder Run” to Baghdad began.

“Are we going to learn, are we going to grow, are we going to repeat it again?” Ron Kovic had asked his fellow veterans and artists at the 1985 Vietnam conference. “What kind of country is this, if we would ever let it happen again?” Alas, in 2020, we have disheartening answers to those questions. The fierce resolve of “never again” turned to ash in a post-9/11 swirl of reckoning, vengeance, and yellow-ribbon patriotism. The battle for the memory of these brushfire wars has already been raging. American Sniper: for or against? In war, the only thing worse than picking a side is evading the choice.

My generation of post-9/11 war authors has mapped a somewhat similar progression to those who attended the Asia Society conference on Vietnam 35 years ago. The initial wave of memoirs, journalism, and autofiction has come and gone, with some publishing successes (Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, Phil Klay’s Redeployment) and many more almosts and not-quites. This literary corpus has largely maintained the Odyssean over-there sensibility that marks most American war writing since the Civil War. War is something Americans go to and perhaps come back from; we don’t generally see ourselves as living in it. And more than ever, our little corner of the literary universe seems primed for “a large novel that embraces the entire scene.”

But there are some differences, too. Most obviously: Our “long war” is not over. It just continues to morph into some other phase, on new fronts. Modern war writing is also shaped by the fact that our wars are now being waged by an all-volunteer force instead of draftees. If there’s one unifying principle to the work generated today, it’s a scream, a desperate howl, to pay attention to the foreign wars, to remind readers that they matter and belong to us all, even as our society gets better and better at shutting them out of our daily lives. Accordingly, the publishing world tends to treat war lit as a necessary curiosity, no matter how good or artful. (“Modern war writing is a strange thing to praise,” Sam Sacks wrote in a representative 2015 Harper’s essay, “because such praise ennobles the account while deploring the event.”) The acrimonious debates over ideology in 1985 now simply yield separate literary realities, like cable news channels: There’s war literature for liberals (moody meditations on combat like Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds) and war literature for conservatives (action-packed thrillers like those written by Brad Thor). It’s a rare work indeed that offers crossover appeal.

Meanwhile, the battle for the American memory of Vietnam has mostly settled—a 10-part, 18-hour Ken Burns documentary can have that effect. Several writers I interviewed about the Asia Society conference expressed regret that things grew so belligerent. “We were younger men then, with a lot of opinions,” O’Brien said. “I wouldn’t mind seeing most of those guys again.” With victory comes grace, perhaps. Even in the after-war.