The 10th anniversary of the fall of South Vietnam coincides almost exactly with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Nazi Germany. V-E day came on May 8, 1945, but Adolf Hitler had committed suicide on April 30, the very date on which, 30 years later, the last evacuation helicopter would twist away from America's abandoned, panicked friends on the Saigon earth below.
World War II dominated our understanding of the Vietnamese War. South Vietnam was an "ally" whom we had gone to support against a brutal foreign invader; but when we got there, the brutal invader was not foreign, and, worse, we found ourselves doing much of the fighting alone. Where was the gallant ally? The World War II model required him to be there, and so--by "Vietnamization"--we set out to create him. Imagine, in the early 1940s, Britannicizing the battle for Britain or Gallicizing the French resistance. A joke, but it hurt too much to laugh.
Reading newspapers and magazines and watching television specials on this double anniversary, one might easily enough conclude that the anniversary of the defeat means more to this country than the anniversary of the victory. But book publishing tells another story. To be sure, on April 28, the Book Review will feature the six Vietnam books announced today on Page 8. In effect, we shall publish a special Vietnam issue. But this issue will not reflect what publishers are actually offering.
Book publishers do no formal market research. Their publishing decisions represent only an educated guess about what the American public wants. It is notable nonetheless that book publishing seems collectively to guess that what the American public wants is more books about World War II. The Los Angeles Times receives for review, by my rough estimate, three World War II books to every two Vietnamese War books, and those three are joined by another two or three Holocaust books. When America wants to read a war book, in short, World War II is the war it most wants to read about. If Herman Wouk had set his "Winds of War" in Southeast Asia, he would not have sold as many copies as he did. Europe is more familiar than Asia. Victory is more agreeable than defeat.
Will this market change? I think it may, but only if two conditions are met. First, American writers must take artistic possession of the new facts of war. War may remain, as Ernest Hemingway said, "the best subject of all." It may be true, as he said, that war "groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get." But the distinctive wars of our day are not wars of one nation against another. They are wars by governments against their own peoples.
The facts of this kind of war are as distasteful to us--artistically, they are as inaccessible--as the facts of World War I were to readers whose sensibility was still Victorian. Paul Fussell has shown in "The Great War and Modern Memory" how great a shift had to take place before World War I could be accommodated artistically. A second shift followed World War II. A third may be under way now.
Recently, a Latin American writer described to me how agents of his country's right-wing military regime, in a nighttime raid on a remote farm, amputated the arm of one member of the farm family and used it as a club to beat the other members. Government-sponsored atrocities like this are precisely the kind of bad news that makes people stop reading the newspaper. But there, precisely, is the literary point: Something more than the newspaper is called for. As we shrink from such "senseless" violence, so we shrink from a definition of war heroism in terms of the stealthy, endlessly patient resistance to it. But a great writer can make us grow to what we shrink from.
Examples of atrocity and of resistance rise on the Left and the Right alike. In Poland, a priest is tortured and mocked with cross-shaped cigarette burns. In Cuba, a young man celebrates his 30th birthday in prison for the crime of writing anti-Castro graffiti at the age of 16. No Marine landing will save such victims. Their struggles are not, may the word perish with Henry Kissinger, "geopolitical." But theirs is the true struggle of this era, a war of eternal attrition in which foreign intrigue and crime in the streets become a single problem and a nation's greatest victory may be the one that wins it an honest police force.