A Rumor of War: The Classic Vietnam Memoir (40th Anniversary Edition)

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The Uncomfortable Whiteness of Contemporary War Literature

When, in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s, book critic Sam Sacks critiqued the state of contemporary war fiction in a review called “First Person Shooters,” the subtitle made his position clear: “What’s missing in contemporary war fiction.” Pay attention to that last bit. Sacks wasn’t asking a question, he was writing a prescription: Escape the “cul-de-sac of personal experience” or risk “settling into the patterns of complacency that smoothed the path to the Terror Wars in the first place.”  However, if he had punctuated with a question mark, the answer would have been less hyperbolic, and a bit obvious: diversity.

This problem is not fresh to contemporary war literature. In the Spring 1997 issue of African American Review, Jeff Loeb cited alarming statistics from Sandra Wittman’s 1989 bibliography Writing About Vietnam: African-Americans accounted for just six of nearly 600 novels, four poetry collections, and four of almost 400 memoirs written about the Vietnam War. To sum up, African-Americans wrote roughly one percent of Vietnam’s literary record.  By contrast, African-Americans made up 12.6 percent of the American force in Vietnam between 1965 and 1969[1].

Not much has changed since Wittman and Loeb first sounded the alarms. LaSalle University’s collection of Vietnam War multimedia—LaSalle and Texas Tech possess the most comprehensive collections I’m aware of—lists 8,053 entries, but categorizes only six under the subject matter search “African American Veteran Biography.” Just two are memoirs you can hold in your hands. Multimedia and Loeb’s essay comprise the rest of the entries. I used to think that the reason I could only point out one Vietnam book by a African-American vet—the poetry collection Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa—was due to my ignorance of what I imagined to be a wealth of African-American-produced war literature. The truth has proven far more uncomfortable.

In his critique, Sam Sacks can be forgiven for another thinly-veiled jab at MFA-produced writing and its effect on the literature of The Forever War, versus focusing on its lack of diversity. He’s a critic after all, forever tilting at the windmill of The Secret Sauce. Hell, I laud him for paying attention in the first place. Forever War literature rarely appears in widely circulated book reviews. [2] Nonetheless, the subject of identity is important ground to tread in any consideration of contemporary war literature; especially now, as identity-related brushfires have sprung up across the country.

A little research reveals that the genre came of age against a backdrop of identity-related controversy. Twelve years after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, Toni Morrison’s Beloved was up against Philip Roth and some guy named Larry for the 1987 National Book Award. When Paco’s Story, Larry Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel, was announced, the literati were flabbergasted. Michiko Kakutani began her column the next day with the breathless “What happened?” and 48 authors signed a letter in The New York Times Book Review that alleged something short of racism on the part of the National Book Award judges for passing Morrison over in favor of the white Larry Heinemann.[3]

While its rare successes have been far less contentious, contemporary war literature since Vietnam hasn’t changed too much: mostly white and male. Under the categorization “Books: History: Military: Afghan War: Memoir,” Amazon spit a list of 177 back at me, a number which decreased by a handful after I ruled out the puzzling inclusions of The Letters of Virginia Woolf and a book by the 19th-century Frenchman Stendhal. So far as I could tell, there were 10 authors of color.[4] Peruse the virtual stacks for a book about The Forever War, and the odds are solid that what ends up in your checkout cart will have been written by a white guy or gal.

Expanding an identity-based evaluation of contemporary war literature to gender provides some cause for optimism. But for every Rule Number Two, Heidi Squier Kraft’s Iraq memoir, there are a dozen memoirs, novels, and collections by male veterans. It’s a trend that extends to even the essays and reviews that consider war literature. In consult with Rutgers University Professor of English and retired Army Lt. Col. Peter Molin, I assembled a list of 17. It isn’t all-inclusive, but women have written only a fraction of them, and fewer of those women were veterans. If there is an empirical evaluation of readily available contemporary war writing, critical or creative, it’s hard to argue that it is not largely written by men.

In my experience, you have to go looking for work by women veterans, and all indications point to literary writers who are taking their time to perfect their craft through shorter work. An essay by Katherine Schifani, an Air Force veteran of Iraq, won literary journal The Iowa Review’s 2014 Jeff Sharlet Prize, and Marine Corps veteran Teresa Fazio’s short story “Float” won Consequence Magazine’s 2016 Fiction Prize. I know of at least five women veterans who are at work on their service-related memoirs, and most are around a decade removed from their time in the military. I look forward to the day I open their well-wrought books.

The lack of women’s veteran narratives might have something to do with what’s considered a “traditional” war story: the old blood-and-guts combat book. And despite women having engaged in combat during The Forever War, combat job specialties—infantry and special operations, namely— remained closed to women until 2016. Earlier this year, Task & Purpose broke the news that a woman was due to report to the storied 75th Ranger Regiment as the first female special operator in the history of the U.S. Department of Defense. It’s simply a matter of time until women like her pen memoirs of their war experiences; until an armchair historian thrills to the tales of a female Navy SEAL a la Chris Kyle’s American Sniper.

By contrast, plenty of Americans of color have served in combat specialties during The Forever War. So while the combat exclusion might explain the lack of women’s books, the reasoning falls short with regards to the lack of diverse narratives. As of 2015, the Department of Defense was 41 percent non-white. Expecting to see author demographics fall cleanly in line with such a statistic is a tad simple, but it’s fair to ask why so few veterans of color publish books.

Drew Pham, a Vietnamese American Army officer and Afghanistan combat vet, believes it’s a matter of “privilege and access.” In an email exchange, he wrote, “the arts are a luxury. If you aren’t raised with much exposure to that world, it seems like the distant domain of the social elite.” He noted that unlike many of his fellow officers, he “needed the Army to attend college.” In other words, if college is just something you do along your way to a commission in the service, then you might have come from a place that could afford to expose you to the arts. Conversely, if the only way you’re going to college is because you got a military scholarship, you come from a background of necessity. And while all writers, myself included, tend to think of our work as “necessary,”Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy is a pyramid for a reason.

Pham, now clear of the military and an editor of the online journal The Wrath-Bearing Tree, went on to say that the remedy is representation:
If marginal[ized] people don’t see themselves represented, then the literary world seems inaccessible to them. For my part, seeing another Vietnamese-American writer like Viet Thanh Nguyen win the Pulitzer made me think that I could make a life out of writing fiction. The veteran writing community is small and tight-knit, and as a community we have to make a concerted effort to lift up marginalized voices rather than reproduce the biases—however unintentional—that dominate society.
Mary Doyle, on the other hand, was told to “reflect the angst of being black” by her white MFA workshop cohorts, as she put it in a phone interview. “I couldn’t relate,” Doyle said, citing that trying to adopt the feedback gave her an inauthentic feeling. She ended up leaving her MFA program for financial reasons, but noted that her awareness of how she fit into white expectations of a black author began then. A black woman who enlisted in the Army Reserves in 1979, Doyle served 17 years in military public affairs before embarking on a 21-year-and-counting career as an Army civilian employee. During that time, she’s co-authored the memoirs of two black women veterans, and written a series of mystery novels featuring a black protagonist named Master Sgt. Lauren Harper. Doyle threw in the towel with mainstream publication after being pushed by agents and editors to better reflect “The Black Experience” in her writing, and now self-publishes.

Doyle seemed as puzzled as I over the lack of diversity in contemporary war literature. However, she was also quick to point out that the current political moment is
bound to generate words on the page in one way or another from people of color. I also think it will be the kind of thing publishers will find in their comfort zone…the racial divide, the conflict that comes from speaking out in the voice of the other. It’s what they always want and what they expect. So hopefully, the lack of diversity we see in military writing will get an injection of new voices…now that racism, white supremacy and all the other topics that go along with that are so prevalent…again.
This makes sense to me, a layman when it comes to the murky world of what books get published. But my gut warns me that even timely subject matter might not be enough. In 2015, Lee & Low, “the largest publisher of multicultural children’s books in the United States” according to their website, conducted a survey of the publishing industry based on data from eight review journals and 34 publishers. Including their own staff, Lee & Low sent out 13,237 surveys, and 3,415 returned complete. The data: 79 percent white, 88 percent straight, 92 percent non-disabled, 78 percent women. I’d like to have seen more data on the books published by some of the surveyed publishers just to get that last nail in the coffin, but selection bias seems firmly at play when it comes to race and books. And if it is, the odds will ever be against the veteran writer of color so long as the publishing industry continues to look like this.

Until conditions change, we’ll have to widen our gaze and do a little digging.  Brian Castner, a veteran and author of two books of war nonfiction, noted that Ralph Ellison and Alex Haley both served in WWII, but neither wrote about their military experiences outright[5]. For a more contemporary example, he noted Wes Moore, a black Army veteran and author of the bestselling The Other Wes Moore, and I was surprised to learn that Pulitzer Prize-winner Gregory Pardlo was once a Marine Corps Reservist. None would argue any of these black writers should have written military-themed books. But it won’t stop me from wishing they had.

A high school English teacher who can afford one Vietnam book on the syllabus will fall back on the familiar, not the obscure. It will be The Things They Carried, not Dien Cai Dau; A Rumor of War, and not the oral history of black Vietnam veterans, Bloods. What we read is what we buy; the bought books make the lists, and before long, the canon conceives itself. And until the canon becomes more inclusive, its narrative will remain singular and simplistic.

Facing issues of class and race, it becomes clear that there are no bromides to remedy The Forever War’s literary lack of diversity. But one can hope that as Pham and Doyle indicated, increased consciousness in tandem with current events might spur a growing production of gender-, race-, and ethnically-diversified voices within the military writing community. One can hope that we might draw lessons from the Vietnam War’s legacy of near-erasure of non-white experiences; that the growth of veterans writing workshops and anthologies will represent to future generations a more complete picture of The Forever War.

The grim reality is that The Forever War shows no indication of ending anytime soon, a fact that Sacks chooses rather niftily to ignore when concluding his thesis against a backdrop comprised of the literature of previous wars. The war my generation began has become the next generation’s to conclude. If there is a perverse truth to the current state of affairs in contemporary war literature, it is this: there appears to be plenty of time left on the clock for the canon to grow.

 

[1] According to the 2004 version of The Oxford Companion to Military History

[2] I am aware of only two other well-heeled critical surveys: George Packer’s “Home Fires” in The New Yorker and Michiko Kakutani’s “Home Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill A Bookshelf.” Kakutani was one of the few book critics to regularly review contemporary war books.

[3] Professor Joseph Darda’s essay in Contemporary Literature, “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness After Vietnam,” made me aware of the controversy.

[4] The Amazon results included works by non-U.S. authors.

[5] Ellison’s early drafts of The Invisible Man prominently figured the recovered journal of a dead Merchant Marine named Leroy.  Ellison, like Jack Kerouac, served in the Merchant Marine during World War Two.

Image Credit: Army.mil.

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