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'I Was a Coward. I Went to the War.'

VIETNAM AND OTHER AMERICAN FANTASIES By H. Bruce Franklin; University of Massachusetts Press: 256 pp., $28.95

NORTHERN PASSAGE American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada By John Hagan; Harvard University Press: 372 pp., $27.95

DESERTION In the Time of Vietnam By Jack Todd; Houghton Mifflin: 294 pp., $24

May 13, 2001|TOM ENGELHARDT | Tom Engelhardt, consulting editor at Metropolitan Books, is the author of "The End of Victory Culture."

Women, children and old men slaughtered in a free-fire zone. Shame, denial, anguish over tainted American heroism, the doubting of accounts from "the other side." Here we are again, so many decades later, back on the ground in another Vietnam horror-scape, this time with former Sen. Bob Kerrey. It's like one of those nightmares in which something chases you until you wake up, and the second you close your eyes, there it is again.

Our responses to this always forgotten, always familiar scenario are by now no less familiar. There's the invocation of the "tragedy" of Vietnam--by which no one means Vietnam, the land or its people--but "Vietnam," an American war that somehow went drastically astray. There's the breast-beating, and then the breast-beating about the breast-beating, in all of which the Vietnamese are "mere shadows," as the scholar and former antiwar activist H. Bruce Franklin puts it in "Vietnam and Other American Fantasies." They are, he says while discussing "Dispatches," Michael Herr's classic down-and-dirty journalistic account of the war, merely "hobgoblins in America's bad trip."

Above all, our postwar version of Vietnam has largely been restricted either to the experiences of American "grunts" on the ground in a relatively brief period when our casualties soared or to fantasy POWs still imagined to be in prisons somewhere in Southeast Asia--a mythology devastatingly dismantled by Franklin in a previous book "MIA or Mythmaking in America" (and reprised in a chapter of this collection). In popular culture, the replay button has been hit again and again as Americans watched a stripped-down version of a lost war that, depending on your dating, lasted from 1945 or 1954 or 1961 to the fall of Saigon in 1975--if, that is, you don't toss in the Cambodian horrors that followed or the Chinese-Vietnamese war that was linked to it or the three decades of loss and revenge fantasies that are part and parcel of our lives. (Even that "greatest generation" World War II film, "Saving Private Ryan," is a distinctly post-Vietnam fable, focused as it is on a patrol of grunts extracting an MIA from behind enemy lines.)

Of course, as Franklin points out, our focus on the American ground war has also led to "an astonishing body of imaginative literature" written by American vets. He calls it "the second of the two great Vietnam War achievements in which Americans can legitimately take pride." Momentarily leaving aside the first of those achievements, the stories, novels, memoirs and poems still pouring out from former grunts have indeed sometimes driven us beyond where the rest of the culture has been willing to go. Take the last lines of a poem by W.D. Ehrhart, quoted in Franklin's book. Ehrhart, wounded in the battle for the old Vietnamese imperial capital Hue in 1968, speaks of patrolling one of "those strange Asian villages where nothing ever seemed quite human but myself and my few grim friends moving through them hunched in line," whose inhabitants, as we've recently been reminded by Kerrey, did not live in houses or even huts but "hootches" (as rabbits live in hutches). Suddenly, he leaps into a Vietnamese space few enough Americans have been willing to enter, asking, "When they tell stories to their children/of the evil/that awaits misbehavior,/is it me they conjure?" Or take Tim O'Brien's 1994 novel "In the Lake of the Woods," which takes direct aim at American denial in a story that now feels eerily prescient about a Minnesota lieutenant governor whose presence at the My Lai massacre leaks out during his race for the U.S. Senate. Let's admit, watching Dan Rather interrogate Kerrey on "60 Minutes II" about the SEAL kidnap and assassination team he led into the village of Thanh Phong, that the phrase "war crimes" still has an odd ring on prime-time TV. However shocking, though, there's also something deceptive about this bit of recovered memory that seems to reach so high without taking us anywhere new. Unlike My Lai's Lt. William Calley, Lt. Kerrey, of course, went on to become a governor, a senator and a presidential candidate before accepting the presidency of the New School University in New York. His subsequent celebrity gives a thus-fall-the-high-and-mighty feel to his present situation, even as we find ourselves yet again on patrol in Vietnam, dealing with atrocity, the Mbius loop of memory and the fog of war without a commander in sight. (Just as in popular culture, the command-level war film, once so popular, has long disappeared.) Perhaps the shock, then, is in imagining that we might have had a man sitting in the White House who committed heinous acts in a foreign land in the dark of night.

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