For more than three decades, the makers of American opinion have evaded the full significance of the Vietnam War – the mendacity, the brutality, the futility. The collective amnesia has been exacerbated by a counter-offensive from the right. Like German nationalists after World War One, American revanchists tell a story of a stab in the back: they insist that the American counter-insurgency was on the brink of victory when it was done in by a coalition of liberal journalists and cowardly college students, who undermined the nation’s will to fight. As a veteran of both the US navy and the peace movement during that time, I remember a different story, one that includes the impossibility of the military mission, the ubiquity of dissent among enlisted men and junior officers, and the sympathy of anti-war activists for young men caught up in the war machine. The notion that opponents of the war were hostile to ordinary soldiers is simply false. Yet the stab-in-the-back narrative persists.
This emerging conventional wisdom equates criticism of imperial misadventure with a failure to ‘support our troops’. The emphasis on lost opportunity has also helped to justify the revival of Vietnam-style counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, with ‘clear and hold’ operations aimed at ‘winning hearts and minds’ – as if these phrases were not shrouded in self-parody, as if the strategy they describe had not ended in catastrophe. Public memory is short.
Outside policy circles, one might hope to find a richer repository of inconvenient truths. Yet here too the results are disappointing. A few novelists have made something lasting of their war experience. But even the most penetrating accounts, as Christian Appy observed in Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003), have remained narrowly focused, with the war ‘reduced to stories about small units of American infantrymen fighting a silent, nearly invisible enemy at a single moment in time. Not only are the Vietnamese routinely left out, but most of the Americans who made the war the contentious experience it was are also missing’ – notably the anti-war protesters, whose seriousness and diversity are ignored in favour of caricature. The popular memory of the war betrays a national narcissism. ‘Even when we believe we have confronted the war’s most horrible features,’ Appy concluded, ‘we often have been doing little more than licking our own wounds.’
Licking one’s wounds can be a necessary ritual. No one can deny the damage done by that vile war, not only to the Vietnamese people and the US soldiers, but also to war resisters and even deserters – many of whom sacrificed career and community out of loyalty to principles that outweighed mere obedience to military authority. The problem arises when it is assumed that the US combat veteran’s perspective provides the only true account of the war’s significance. The grunt’s-eye view has been progressively sanctified since the ending of conscription in 1973; as military experience has become ever more remote from most Americans’ lives, the tendency to exalt armed service has intensified. Since 9/11, a cult of the warrior has settled over America like morning fog over the Mekong Delta.
This resurgent popular militarism may help to explain the extravagant American praise for Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn. Reviewers and publicists have missed no opportunity to point out that Marlantes is not only a Rhodes scholar from Yale but also a ‘highly decorated Vietnam vet’. His author’s note lists all 16 of his medals – ‘the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for Valour, two Purple Hearts and ten Air Medals’ – and his publisher’s press kit includes a copy of the government document that awarded him the Navy Cross, citing ‘his courage, aggressive fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger’. There is something disturbing about this effort to turn military medals into book sales – and to pre-empt criticism by brandishing the author’s heroism. But the publisher’s strategy has succeeded. American reviewers have greeted the book as if it were the second coming of All Quiet on the Western Front. In the New York Times Book Review, Sebastian Junger described Matterhorn as ‘one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam – or any war’; it ‘may well serve’, he said, ‘as a final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American history’.
It is necessary to separate Matterhorn from the inflated publicity surrounding it. Considered as a novelist (rather than an exorcist), Marlantes does many things well. He captures the camaraderie and fear and occasional exaltation felt by men at war. He creates several convincing characters, and makes the reader care what happens to them. Despite his weakness for wooden phrases and his tendency to labour the obvious, he tells a gripping story. And by demonstrating the futility of American strategy, he debunks the right-wing narrative of lost opportunity – no small achievement in these amnesiac times. It is when he strains for profundity that the trouble starts.
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