Purple Days

Mark Ford

  • The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones
    Faber, 230 pp, £14.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 571 17134 6
  • The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, translated by Frank Palmos
    Secker, 217 pp, £8.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 436 31042 2
  • A Good Scent from Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
    Minerva, 249 pp, £5.99, November 1993, ISBN 0 7493 9767 5
  • Out of the Sixties: Storytelling and the Vietnam Generation by David Wyatt
    Cambridge, 230 pp, £35.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 521 44151 X

George Bush’s proud declaration that by bombing fleeing Iraqi soldiers America had ‘kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all’, was one of the more startling instances from recent years of the Vietnam War’s continuing hold on the American imagination. One could just about suspend disbelief when Sylvester Stallone set about rewriting history, but it was disconcerting to find the President of the United States so clearly in the grip of the same fantasy of revenge.

The internal strife bequeathed by Vietnam has proved almost as intractable as the war itself. As everyone knows, more American soldiers have killed themselves – often after killing other people first – in the years since the war than actually died in battle. In Dispatches, Michael Herr describes meeting an ocean-eyed Lurp (a former member of a Long Range Patrol) who, between tours, would stick a hunting rifle out of the window of his parents’ home and draw aim on passing cars and people: ‘It used to put my folks real uptight,’ he tells Herr. In Thom Jones’s ‘Break on Through’, the incredibly savage Baggit also has trouble hacking it ‘back in the World’: a few months after his return, laden with honours, he barricades himself in a beauty parlour with his mother for 14 hours before shooting her and then himself. When the police break in and find the bodies, a bag of heroin and a blood-stained Medal of Honor, an all too appropriate song by The Doors happens to be playing on Mrs Baggit’s radio – ‘This is the end, my only friend, the end ...’

War stories are normally told by survivors about others – friends or enemies – who didn’t make it. Often the story itself becomes part of the process of surviving. One of the purest examples of this is Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Man I Killed’, a preternaturally lucid description of a young Vietnamese soldier blown up by the narrator’s grenade. O’Brien’s precise, almost entranced detailing of the star-shaped hole where one of the man’s eyes used to be, his torn ear lobe, his scattered sandals, a butterfly alighting on his chin, are punctuated by the urgings of a fellow grunt to put it all behind him. ‘You want to trade places with him?’ Kiowa demands. ‘Turn it all upside down – you want that?’ The story brilliantly reveals how that’s exactly what he does want, for only by imagining the dead soldier’s life as fully as possible can he cope with the trauma of having ended it.

The Recon Marines who feature in the Vietnam stories in Thom Jones’s The Pugilist at Rest have no such qualms about killing. ‘There was a reservoir of malice, poison and vicious sadism in my soul, and it poured forth freely in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam,’ says the narrator of the title story: ‘I committed unspeakable crimes and got medals for it.’ Jones is not much concerned with the cultural or ideological dimensions of the war, beyond noting the bizarre moral warps which convert psychopathic killers into national heroes, and back again. In ‘Break on Through’ the compulsively violent Baggit is sentenced to hanging for the murder of a US naval officer, then ‘popped’ from death row to strut his stuff in the jungle once again. There he slices off his victims’ noses, and leaves an ace of spades in their mouths.

Jones presents combat as an ecstatic but essentially solitary trip, a quest for the hallucinatory ‘purple fields’ (the phrase is adapted from Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ of 1967) of invulnerable power: ‘If you tap into the purple field you get a sixth sense, heightened hearing, a field of vision that picks up anything that shouldn’t be there, the smell of Charles, and even on some of the blackest nights on earth, I had the ability to see Charles in fields of purple – literally sense his location, see his energy and assume control of it and be the first to kill.’ This is to be ‘High on War’, as the helmet graffito used to run, with little possibility of ever coming down. The narrator – nicknamed Hollywood – begins to wonder if he hasn’t made some sort of irrevocable deal with the devil, whom he sees one night in the jungle, dressed in a Humphrey Bogart hat, a Burberry raincoat, and trailing a tail that is ‘muscular, purple, and thick with spines’.

In these stories, Vietnam appears as a kind of playground for psychos and serial killers. Jones ostentatiously avoids the redeeming stances and gestures traditionally inspired by the horrors of war – compassion and respect for the enemy, the routines of male bonding, political outrage. His crazy gang of combat-addicts operate only in the context of their own lethal skills and fantasies, almost as indifferent to their own survival as to anyone else’s. At one point Baggit saves the narrator from certain death, but all Hollywood feels is humiliation for ‘acting like such a cherry’, and momentary regret: ‘I almost wish Baggit would have let me walk into the RPG round. I wouldn’t have felt a thing.’

The primal Baggit may know the purple fields better than anyone, but, accordingly, he is least likely of all to adjust to civilian life. His end in the beauty parlour comes as no surprise to Hollywood, who realises that for someone that mean and tough there can be no permanent cure. Since Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1975) the Vietnam vet on the rampage has cropped up so frequently in American mythology he has become an icon of the country’s self-divisions and betrayals. Jones doesn’t present Baggit sentimentally or symbolically; if his death is significant, it’s mainly because it happens to coincide with the news of Jim Morrison’s, on 9 July 1971. It is while brooding on his great idol’s having broken on through to the other side that Hollywood at last concedes, ‘you could say it was a good thing that the war was finally over.’

Drafted American soldiers in Vietnam tended to measure the war’s progress wholly in terms of their own 13-month tours. They often painted calendars on their flak jackets and crossed off the days and months as they clapsed. (Michael Herr memorably recalls seeing on a clothes dump a mangled jacket recording 12 months served in-country; the list ends one month short ‘like a clock stopped by a bullet’.) Time and commitment were personal matters – ‘Time Is on My Side’ was another popular helmet slogan – unrelated to any sense of historical purpose or meaning. Hollywood and Baggit’s psychedelic killing sprees might be seen as an extreme example of this. For the North Vietnamese, in complete contrast, the conflict was the endgame of decades of fighting. As Bao Ninh – who fought in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade of the NVA – makes devastatingly clear in his first novel, the sorrows of war were long a part of the fabric of everyday life in Vietnam. While most US troops served out their magical mystery tours and then rotated back home – or, like Hollywood, who pulls three tours, discover a taste for it and sign up for further trips to the purple fields – for the North Vietnamese the war could end only with victory or, more usually, their own deaths. Of the five hundred original members of Bao Ninh’s brigade, only ten survived. The Sorrow of War is a more complete and humanly engaging work of fiction than any written by an American about Vietnam – with the possible exception of O’Brien’s The Things They Carried – because it locates the war in such a full range of social and historical contexts. The black humour which permeates American versions of Vietnam can also function as a means of undermining the reality of the events described: the surreal looniness of it all has been rendered so often and vividly – in books such as Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, films such as Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket – that it has become harder than ever to comprehend the war as a historical fact.

The success of The Sorrow of War derives largely from its formal inventiveness. Ninh structures fragments of his experience before, during and after his career in the Army into a collage-like whole much greater than the sum of its parts. Though the war’s effects are everywhere. Ninh’s multi-faceted approach to his material is a courageous and deliberate attempt to discover ways of overcoming its power to terrify and dehumanise. The novel’s cuts and dissolves and switches between first and third person embody the habits of consciousness on which the main character’s sanity depends. The book gradually develops into an act of resistance to the war’s impact, a healing means of integrating the simplicities of combat with the complexities of other dimensions of existence – love, friendship, family, the problems and possibilities of writing.

The book’s central protagonist, Kien, serves as a scout in the army, and is the only member of his unit to survive. His narrow escapes from death are so numerous and unlikely that he is baffled and guilt-ridden by his persistent luck. Back in Hanoi after the war, sunk in depression, abandoned by his girlfriend, he suddenly realises what might release him from the hell of his past: ‘I must write! To rid myself of these devils, to put my tormented soul finally to rest instead of letting it float in a pool of shame and sorrow.’ Bao Ninh is careful not to impose any strict narrative scheme on his character’s experiences. Instead they emerge piecemeal, according to the logic of his slowly unfreezing memory; this unforced patterning allows him to describe terrible events – such as the gang-rape of a female guide by a whole patrol of American soldiers – without hysteria or evasiveness.

Despite his commitment to the Communist cause, Kien finds it almost impossible to orient himself in post-war Vietnamese society. Marooned in the ‘painful but glorious days’ of his past, he rather resembles the characters of Robert Olen Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: all of these concern South Vietnamese immigrants who have settled, for the most part happily, in Louisiana, yet who hark constantly back to their earlier lives in Saigon. Even those determined to assimilate – like the successful businessman who buys one of the shoes John Lennon was wearing the day he was murdered, and religiously slips it on every evening – are torn between Vietnamese and American customs. The stories skilfully trace the dilemmas and pains of immigrant experience, and they also constitute a wide-ranging elegy for Saigon. Butler served in Vietnam as a linguist in the early Seventies, and is particularly acute when exploring the effects of the invading forces’ absolute ignorance of Vietnamese culture. In ‘Open Arms’, for instance, a Viet Cong scout whose wife and family have been murdered by his own side defects to an Australian platoon; as part of their welcome they show him some Swedish porn films which so appal him that later that night he shoots an infantry officer and then commits suicide.

Some misunderstandings are less tragic. In ‘Fairy Tale’ a Saigon bar girl falls instantly in love with an American diplomat when he ends an official speech with a cryptic sentence in Vietnamese which she understands to mean: ‘The sunburnt duck is lying down.’ The phrase strikes her as a magical proverb prophesying regeneration (‘The duck is not burned up, destroyed. He is only sunburnt. He is just lying down and can get up when he wants to’), but in fact the diplomat was attempting to say; ‘May Vietnam live for ten thousand years.’ When she finally discovers this they are already settled together in America; she leaves him at once, yet ends the story fulfilling her fairy tale with another Vietnam vet whom she meets one night in a bar in New Orleans.

Although the war is the decisive disruptive event in all these characters’ lives, Butler’s approach to it is oblique and subtly angled. His most extended treatment of its aftermath comes in a long story that describes the bizarre interaction of two ex-soldiers, one from the South Vietnamese and one from the US Army, who happen to meet on holiday in Mexico. On a trip to the location where Burton and Taylor’s The Night of the Iguana was filmed, the two find themselves compulsively replaying their old combat manoeuvres, stalking each other up and down a scrubby hillside, attempting to kill each other with stones rather than bullets or grenades, still, like Kien and Hollywood, in thrall to their searing experiences of war.

The last decade’s deluge of Vietnam-related films, fictions, popular songs, TV dramas – there’s even a soap called Tour of Duty – can be interpreted as part of a similar attempt at exorcism. ‘This war’s gonna end some day,’ the smell-of-napalm-loving Robert Duvall character in Apocalypse Now mournfully observes; but one sometimes wonders. In Out of the Sixties David Wyatt argues that Vietnam remains ‘the defining thing, our war, our story’, and he compares it to an iceberg, ‘a mostly submerged history that cruises through our dreams’. Oddly though, he in the end makes very few connections between the work of his eclectically chosen band of artists – who range from Bruce Springsteen to Alice Walker, George Lucas to Louise Glück – and the specific linguistic, narrative, or political problems posed by Vietnam.

For such as Bruce Springsteen the most immediate issue was the draft. In the event he failed his physical on account of injuries sustained in a motorbike accident the previous year, but like everyone of his age knew ‘some guys who went and didn’t come back, and some who came back and weren’t the same’, to quote from one of the long, horribly mawkish monologues with which he prefaces his songs in concert. In his enormously popular Vietnam vet song ‘Born in the USA’, released in 1984, Springsteen astutely combined disgust at the treatment accorded returning servicemen with a chorus which, however ironically meant, always ends up arousing just the sort of patriotic fervour that makes wars possible. Despite its wholly disenchanted view of nationalism, this, paradoxically, is the anthem that sets stadiums full of Boss fans punching the air as if at a Nuremberg rally. The song – or at least its refrain – appealed particularly to Ronald Reagan, who used to quote it whenever he was on the stump in New Jersey.

The difficulties inherent in attempts to separate out pity for those drafted and sent over ‘to go and kill the yellow man’ from political endorsement of the war are perhaps best observed in Michael Herr’s Dispatches, to which Wyatt devotes one of his most incisive chapters. Herr – who ‘covered’ the war for Esquire, only to find instead that it ‘covered’ him – is clear about his own relationship with all he witnesses. ‘I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach me, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.’ Herr has no patience with journalism’s myths of objectivity: when asked on a plane back to San Francisco if he found it difficult to stay ‘detached’, he replies, ‘Impossible’. His writing owes its unique authenticity and power to just this lack of detachment, the urgent involvement of his language with the events described. Herr has been compared with Crane and Hemingway, but the war writer he seems to me most to resemble is Walt Whitman, who set a similar premium on personal engagement: ‘I am the man, I suffered, I was there.’

It is this which enables Herr to mediate the war in terms at once responsive and unflinching. Encounters with casually brutal grunts (‘We had this gook and we was gonna skin him’), kill-hungry frontiersmen, deranged spooks – one of whom reveals a scheme to win the war by dropping piranha fish into the paddies of North Vietnam – overworked doctors, exultant gunship pilots (‘We sure brang some pee down to bear on them hills’), the traumatised Marines besieged at Khe Sanh, are all presented by Herr primarily as elements of his own war experience: he can only tell their stories once they have become part of his own. The more desperate their implications, the harder they prove to assimilate – as, for instance, the enigmatic tale recounted by the third-tour Lurp mentioned earlier, which it takes Herr a year to understand: ‘Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.’

Herr is enjoined everywhere he goes, even by ‘bonedumb’ grunts, to witness and speak of their suffering. ‘You go on out of here you cocksucker,’ one urges him, ‘but I mean it, you tell it! You tell it, man. If you don’t tell it ...’ Wyatt is particularly acute on the way Dispatches balances its various structural units – sentence, story, chapter – so as to prevent each individual’s private terrors or exhilarations becoming merely illustrative of some unfelt conception of the war. The moral and psychic importance of trusting one’s own immediate responses is as central to Herr’s vision as to O’Brien’s in ‘The Man I Killed’. (Herr, too, compulsively observes dead bodies, which he compares to ‘looking at first porn, all the porn in the world’.) Both Introduction and Conclusion embody this same point: the book opens with Herr contemplating an old map left over from French colonial times, and pondering the uselessness of all abstract Chartings of the war’s terrain, and it ends by insisting on everyone’s personal participation in the conflict: ‘Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.’

The extent of the war’s impact on Wyatt’s other chosen artists, particularly Sue Miller, Ethan Mordden and Ann Beattie, is much harder to determine. Out of the Sixties suffers from the lack of any clear-cut thesis capable of binding such disparate figures together, beyond some pretty routine claims for their shared ability to ‘engage with history’. His readings of individual bodies of work are often illuminating enough, but never quite cohere into the portrait of a generation the book’s title advertises. Many of his evaluations I found provocative rather than persuasive: Gregory Orr as one of the era’s ‘strongest poets’? Is the Star Wars trilogy really so wonderful? Sam Shepard has written some tremendous plays, but is A Lie of the Mind one of them?

One wouldn’t argue, though, with Wyatt’s general assertion that Vietnam is still America’s most significant ‘wound, the looming mistake and defeat of this half-century’. And the stories the war generated, particularly when told by such as Tim O’Brien or Michael Herr or Philip Caputo or Francis Ford Coppola, still seem a more effective way of dealing with its lingering legacy than the denials of black humour, or the ferocious fireworks display of Desert Storm.