Vietnam War literature is a prolific canon of literature that consists primarily of works by American authors, but it is global in scope in its inclusion of texts from writers of other nationalities like Australia, France, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The war’s literature first emerged in the 1950s during the Cold War when Americans were serving as advisors to the French and the Vietnamese in literary works such as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a British novel, and William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American, an American novel, and gradually evolved as American involvement in the war escalated. In the mid-1960s, Bernard B. Fall, who grew up in France and later moved to the United States, offered well-known nonfiction accounts like Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina and Hell in a Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, and numerous other writers, mostly Americans, began to contribute their individual accounts of the war. Thousands of literary works touch on the Vietnam conflict in some way, whether in the form of combat novels, personal narratives and eyewitness accounts, plays, poems, and letters, and by both male and female writers and authors of different ethnicities. These numerous literary works reflect the traits unique to this war as well as conditions endemic to all wars. Many Vietnam War texts share the cultural necessity to bear witness and to tell their writers’ diverse war stories, including accounts from those who served in combat to those who served in the rear to those who served in other roles such as the medical profession, clerical work, and the entertainment industry. Important, too, are the stories of those who were affected by the war on the home front and those of the Vietnamese people, many of whom were forced to leave their homeland and resettle elsewhere after the war during the Vietnamese diaspora. While combat novels are still being written about the Vietnam War decades later, notably Denis Johnson’s award-winning Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, bicultural studies that reflect work by North Vietnamese writers and the Viet Kieu are especially pertinent because Vietnam War literature is a continuing influence on the literature emerging from the 21st-century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jayson Gonzales Sae-Saue
Daniel Cano is a Mexican American author of three novels, Pepe Rios (1991), Shifting Loyalties (1995), and Death and the American Dream (2009). Among literary critics, Cano is recognized mainly for his second novel. This work loosely reproduces his experiences as a Mexican American who comes from a proud military family, becomes a soldier who comes of political age while fighting in the Vietnam War and must deal with the trauma of his combat experiences afterward. Thematically and politically aligned with other Chicana/o narratives about the conflict, Shifting Loyalties articulates a staunch anti-war political ethos. It does so, in part, by assessing historical and social grievances of minorities in the United States and then linking those complaints to the historical condition of the Vietnamese against whom they must fight. It further articulates its political protests by narrating the protracted trauma of the war for ethnic Americans and working-class soldiers and their families, including the ordeals these communities faced in fighting for democratic rights abroad while lacking full rights at home. In this way, Shifting Loyalties imagines political protests according to the cross-racial contradictions of class difference across the nation and across the Pacific. Cano’s first novel, Pepe Rios, similarly engages the author’s personal history. It draws largely from his uncles’ oral stories about his grandfather Maximiano Cano’s life in Mexico during the national revolution (1910–1920) and his subsequent migration to the United States. As such, Pepe Rios narrates the experiences of the Cano patriarch, refigured in the image of the novel’s eponymous hero, during his search for justice when the Mexican nation became a battlefield of conflicted and corrupted national ideologies. Yet his figurative identity as a soldier-turned-immigrant also narrates a potential shared point of origin for much of the Los Angeles community. Indeed, the novel locates in the violent and complex politics of the Mexican Revolution a starting point for conceptualizing and imaging modern Mexican American life, including the transnational and politically messy genealogies that generated a large-scale exodus of Mexican immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century. The sequel to Pepe Rios, Death and the American Dream, follows its protagonist’s integration into lower-middle-class life in the United States after his escape from Mexico, including his involvement in early labor movements in California. The narrative begins with Pepe’s arrival in Los Angeles and his investigative work regarding exploitation of Mexican and Mexican American labor in the region. In the course of this narrative action, the novel articulates corporate, state, and union fraud and misconduct on an international scale in the 1920s. Collectively, this criminality and corruption ensured a steady flow of cheap workers from the south to satiate starving US labor markets in the north. As such, the novel provides a rare historical account of the West Side of Los Angeles in relation to labor history in the hemisphere. The novel relates how this area in particular experienced a construction boom in the 1920s, during an era of immigration restrictions for Asian workers, and how the history of Mexican labor immigration and Mexican American labor exploitation made this economic explosion possible.
Belinda Linn Rincón
Despite receiving little to no attention in mainstream academic scholarship about US antiwar movements, Latina/o communities have a long history of protesting wars and military interventions throughout the second half of the 20th century. The wide-scale mobilization of Latina/o protestors against the US war in Vietnam marks an important development in Latina/o social movement history. Another important moment of Latina/o mobilization came in the 1980s and 1990s in response to the mass influx of refugees fleeing war in Central America that resulted in large part from US interventions in Central American civil wars. The historical context, political struggles, and modes of activism of the Central American solidarity movement distinguish it from the Vietnam antiwar movements. Yet, like earlier Chicana/o and Puerto Rican antiwar movements, there remained a concerted focus on transnational solidarity. Notably, each movement accompanied a literary and cultural renaissance in which authors and activists—and, in many cases, author-activists—joined forces to protest the political, economic, and social consequences of warfare. Some even joined revolutionary movements as internationalist volunteers. Latina/o activists and authors have drawn on rich oral, musical, and folkloric traditions and tropes to create new modes of expression and political speech. To fully account for the multiple forms of Latina/o antiwar expression, it is necessary to look beyond traditional literary genres and include protest speeches, agit-prop theater, movement manifestos and newspapers, conference resolutions, handbills, political pamphlets, corridos (ballads), oral histories, induction refusals, and testimonios, among other documents. Through alternative print cultures, Latina/o antiwar activists and authors created a space to summon and address a Latina/o readership whose concerns over war were largely ignored in mainstream publics. Latina/o authors also insisted on creative autonomy and aesthetic sophistication while remaining resolutely committed to producing socially relevant literature whose resonance extended far beyond the page. Such characteristics define a diverse body of Latina/o writing that helped galvanize Latina/o antiwar movements.
Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are the diverse expressions of how hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants experienced the Vietnam War and its aftermath. They are shaped on the one hand by a history of war in, and forced migration from, Vietnam and on the other by resettlement in multicultural Canada. Significantly, Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are produced within a distinct context of Canadian “forgetting of complicity” in the Vietnam War. A major shaping force of this aesthetics is the idea that Canada was an innocent bystander or facilitator of peace during the war years, instead of a complicit participant providing arms and supporting a Western bloc victory. This allows, then, for a discourse of Canadian humanitarianism to emerge as Canada resettled refugees in the war’s wake. Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are produced and received in relation to the enduring narrative of Canadian benevolence. In this way, they celebrate the nation-state and its peoples through gratitude for the gift of refuge. More importantly, however, they illuminate life during and in the wake of war; the personal, political, and historical reasons for migration; the struggles and triumphs of resettlement; and the complexities of diasporic existence. Refugee aesthetics are driven by memory and the desire to commemorate, communicate, and make sense of difficult pasts and the embodied present. They often take the form of literary works such as memoirs, novels, and poetry, but they are also found in community politics and activism, such as commemoration events and protests, and other popular media like public service videos. Produced by refugees as well as the state, these aesthetic “texts” index themes and problematics such as the formation of voice; the interplay between memory, history, and identity; the role of autobiography; and the modes of representing war, violence, and refuge-seeking.
Sylvia Shin Huey Chong
As a war that was not supposed to be a war—the United States never formally declared it as such—and yet was already the second in a series of wars—the first being the anticolonial war against the French that won Vietnam its independence—the Vietnam War is just as hard to pin down cinematically as it is historically. Although it is now recognized as a major film genre in US cinema, the category of the Vietnam War film can also include representations of Southeast Asia during French colonialism, the brief decades of independence before the entrance of US troops, and the long legacy of the war in terms of refugee crisis, political unrest, genocide, PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), and protest. Not only Vietnamese but all of the peoples formerly grouped under the banner of French Indochina—including Cambodians and Laotians—were dragged into the war as willing or unwitting participants, and their experiences of combat and its aftermath are as integral to the Vietnam War film as those of the American soldiers that typically dominate the genre. The region of Southeast Asia beyond French Indochina—Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong—is also significant, both to the history of the war (as political allies, or hosts of military bases or refugee camps) and to the history of the film genre (as locations for filming, or sources for extras or actors or technical support). Outside of Southeast Asia, other nations such as the former USSR, Canada, Australia, France, and South Korea also played a part in the war, sending soldiers to the war or taking in Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Laotian refugees after the war, and these links also yielded further contributions to the Vietnam War film genre from these national cinema industries. The Vietnam War fueled many protest movements and forms of activism, becoming part of a larger, global post-1968 debate about imperialism, racism, capitalism, and militarism in many countries, and so the vigorous protests against the war also became a visible part of the film genre, especially in documentary filmmaking. As the direct survivors of the Vietnam War era begin to be supplanted by a second and even third generation for whom the war is a historical footnote, the legacy of the Vietnam War genre becomes dispersed into the larger genealogies of national cinemas and cultural memory industries, as the children of war veterans and refugees and protestors return to Southeast Asia armed with cameras and capital. Their attention is directed not only backward in time—excavating family or national histories—but also forward, forging new Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, French, Australian, and American cinemas that are indelibly marked by the Vietnam War but no longer obsessed with representing it as such.
While the Vietnam War looms large in American national culture of the 20th century, Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese American experiences have been little attended to. Vietnamese American literature engages this erasure both in writing about Vietnamese perspectives on that war and by expanding the signification of “Vietnam” beyond being a synonym for a war. Beginning in the 1960s, Vietnamese American literature in English was dominated for the next few decades by memoirs, largely designed to educate American readers about Vietnamese politics and history. Rather than continuing to offer Vietnam as it appears in much other American literature, as a surreal backdrop to a US psychic wound, these writers narrate Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese Americans with autonomous geographical, philosophical, emotional, and intellectual presence and perspective, and often provide direct analysis and critique of both the South Vietnamese regime and its American ally. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, Vietnamese American literature has diversified in both form and content, expanding the field beyond direct engagement with the Vietnam War and the refugee experience, in work that rewrites canonical Western characters and genres, that challenges normative literary forms as well as social identities, and that explores US racialization, consumerism, and popular culture. In addition to writing Vietnam and Vietnamese American experiences into the national American imaginary landscape, this literature reconfigures the demonized and threatening tropes of the threatening, untrustworthy “gook,” and the passive, dependent “victim” figure, into the socially necessary and beneficial “critical refugee.” Through the experiences of marginalization, trauma, and survival, the critical refugee possesses insights and knowledge necessary for a 21st century of increasing displaced populations, whether from war, famine, or natural disaster. This critical perspective is also more transnational than nationalistic or exilic, exploring both physical and imaginary transnational connections.
A major American writer, John Irving has published many novels, several of which have been adapted for film. His most popular novel is The World According to Garp, which has become both a popular and a cult classic. He is often compared to Charles Dickens, an author he admires. His novels are often political and take liberal views, confronting issues such as abortion rights, LGBT rights, and antiwar sentiments. His characters are not shy about sex and often begin sexual encounters at a young age. Major themes and subjects in his novels include the search for the father, the search for identity, looking back at one’s life, searching for one’s personal history, the difference between memory and truth, and unconventional lifestyles. The settings of his novels vary, and sometimes his characters travel both nationally and internationally. Many of his novels have been adapted for film, and he wrote screenplays for some of them. Irving became a household name in 1978, with the publication of The World According to Garp. Irving is well known for his dark sense of humor and sometimes absurd situations in which he places his characters. Many of his protagonists are older men who look back on their childhoods or adolescents who develop into men over the course of the novel. The relationship between memory and fact is often blurred as one’s memory of events trumps the actual events. Most of Irving’s protagonists are males who do not come from traditional families.
Josephine Nock-Hee Park
The first wave of the now-canonical literature of the Vietnam War featured the GI grunt, the wary officer, and the rock-and-roll journalist—all embattled and disillusioned white men. These fictions, memoirs, and reportage came to define the expressive labor shaped by the ethical morass of the war, and these differing genres melded in the cinematic renaissance occasioned by the Vietnam War, which installed a generation of American auteurs. Asian American writers contended with this potent cultural formation, not only to critique the popular imagination of white innocence lost, but to claim the force and even intoxication of this cultural juggernaut. Asian American literary texts from the 1970s onward were shaped by the war and its aftermath—notably including the resistance movements it sparked—and the 21st-century rise of Vietnamese American reckonings with the war’s legacy has instigated significant reappraisals of the aims and effects of the war. The foundational Asian American literary writings of Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin weighed the service of the Asian American soldier in Vietnam in the context of the Third World movements that drove the formation of Asian American studies. A decade later, the publication of bestselling memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, popularly heralded as the emergence of a Vietnamese American voice, marked the origins of a burgeoning field of writing, wide-ranging in form and genre but arrayed alongside and against the mainstream imagination of Vietnam. The major fiction of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015) has come to stand as a culminating literary riposte to the canonized first wave of Vietnam War literature: Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel exposes long-standing fictions of U.S. conduct and foregrounds a complex Asian American and refugee perspective. Asian American literature of the Vietnam War expresses a dynamic range of felt responses to the cultural history of the war to produce imaginative work that interrogates the war’s iconic images and reveals its unseen subjects.