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Literature at War - A Comparison of American War Literature of WW II and the Vietnam War

©2007 Magisterarbeit 83 Seiten


The 20th century was a century of conflict. Never before in the history of mankind had there been that many nations at war, fighting each other with huge armies and weapons of mass destruction. The two World Wars and the ideological battle between East and West had a huge impact on the social and political world. Many of today´s conflicts can be traced back to the great wars and years that followed them, in which the nations involved tried to find a new balance and world order.
The USA took part in several significant wars and is now the last remaining super-power in the world. Of all the conflicts the U.S. was involved in, its role in the Second World War and the war in Vietnam are the two most vividly remembered. Throughout history, people have constructed and displayed a sense of their past, their collective memory and cultural knowledge through works of art. In the twentieth century, this process of myth-making has been fulfilled mainly by novels and movies. Many of these "vehicles of memory" have portrayed the wars and captured the atmosphere in America at that time. Yet, there is a big difference in the way and the extent to which WW II and Vietnam have been digested in
the conscience of the nation. Although the Second World War affected more families directly and more Americans fell in those years than during the war in Vietnam, there seems to be a tendency to suppress the memories of the latter. It is only in times of crisis (as the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq) that the nightmarish image of "Vietnam" appears in media commentaries and political speeches and becomes a topic of public awareness. What is the reason? What role did literature play in the process of coming to terms with the terrible experience of war? Which lessons do writers of war literature offer in terms of dealing with present or future conflicts? In this thesis, I will try to answer questions like these by examining American post-war
literature after WW II and Vietnam. Joseph Heller´s Catch 22, Michael Herr´s Dispatches, Ron Kovic´s Born on the Fourth of July and James A. Michener´s Tales of the South Pacific will all be in the focus of this analysis. As these books cover thirty years, the similarities and differences of their portrayal of war and combat, and the distinctive narrative styles and perspectives will give us a better understanding of the changes that took place in American society, its self-perception and the nature of war.



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Second World War
2.1. The Lead-up to WW II
2.2. America at War

3. The Second World War and Literature
3.1. Literary Conventions and New Developments

4. James Michener´s Tales of the South Pacific
4.1. Structure
4.2. Language and Point of View
4.3. War and Combat in Tales of the South Pacific

5. Joseph Heller´s Catch 22
5.1. Plot Summary
5.2. Historical and Cultural Influences
5.3. Structure
5.4. Language
5.5. War and Combat in Catch

6. Vietnam
6.1. The Aftermath of WW
6.2. The Vietnam War

7. Literature of the Vietnam War
7.1. Developments since WW

8. Michael Herr´s Dispatches
8.1. Vietnam and the American Myth
8.2. Structure
8.3. Language
8.4. Movies, Perspective and Perception
8.5. War and Combat in Dispatches

9. Ron Kovic´s Born on the Fourth of July
9.1. Plot Summary
9.2. Structure and Narrative Perspective
9.3. Language
9.4. War and Combat in Born on the Fourth of July

10. Conclusion and Future Prospects

11. Bibilography

1. Introduction

If history is not a science, then are historians any different in essence from novelists…? [1] Richard. J Evans

Il n´y a pas d´histoire, mais seulement des histories. French saying

The 20th century was a century of conflict. Never before in the history of mankind had there been that many nations at war, fighting each other with huge armies and weapons of mass destruction. The two World Wars and the ideological battle between East and West had a huge impact on the social and political world. Many of today´s conflicts can be traced back to the great wars and years that followed them, in which the nations involved tried to find a new balance and world order.

The USA took part in several significant wars and is now the last remaining super-power in the world. Of all the conflicts the U.S. was involved in, its role in the Second World War and the war in Vietnam are the two most vividly remembered. Throughout history, people have constructed and displayed a sense of their past, their collective memory and cultural knowledge through works of art. In the twentieth century, this process of myth-making has been fulfilled mainly by novels and movies. Many of these "vehicles of memory"[2] have portrayed the wars and captured the atmosphere in America at that time. Yet, there is a big difference in the way and the extent to which WW II and Vietnam have been digested in the conscience of the nation. Although the Second World War affected more families directly and more Americans fell in those years than during the war in Vietnam, there seems to be a tendency to suppress the memories of the latter. It is only in times of crisis (as the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq) that the nightmarish image of "Vietnam" appears in media commentaries and political speeches and becomes a topic of public awareness. What is the reason? What role did literature play in the process of coming to terms with the terrible experience of war? Which lessons do writers of war literature offer in terms of dealing with present or future conflicts?

In this thesis, I will try to answer questions like these by examining American post-war literature after WW II and Vietnam. Joseph Heller´s Catch 22, Michael Herr´s Dispatches, Ron Kovic´s Born on the Fourth of July and James A. Michener´s Tales of the South Pacific will all be in the focus of this analysis. As these books cover thirty years (Tales was published in 1947, Dispatches in 1977), the similarities and differences of their portrayal of war and combat, and the distinctive narrative styles and perspectives will give us a better understanding of the changes that took place in American society, its self-perception and the nature of war.

As pointed out by the initial quotes, it is not easy to determine whether a historical document can ever be objective in the sense that it gives us an all around clear-cut idea of "what really happened." Especially in times of war, "even the most basic information – casualty figures, the disposition of the different forces and the actions of the combatants – often remains in question because of the confusion that war brings,"[3] as historian Mark Taylor admits. Because of the chaotic nature of war and combat, all reports of participants (which are a main source for historians) are to a certain degree subject to interpretation. Additionally, no historian has access to all the facts; the reconstruction of the past demands a certain amount of imagination. Critic Adhikari compares this act with the reassembling of a fractured antique vase. Some pieces have been lost with time and have to be filled by something else, material which is not "real" in the sense that it was part of the original vase, but helps to see and construct the whole.[4] Literature – fiction - offers something which is oftentimes missing in conventional history: the human dimension of events.

In conventional history, the emotions and thoughts of the people involved tend to be overlapped by the coverage of the event itself.

In order to reach a better understanding of WW II and Vietnam, an inter-disciplinary point of view considering the historical background and literature offers new perspectives. The four authors, whose works will be examined in this thesis, witnessed the wars they wrote about first hand and tried to communicate what they had seen to the public. None of these authors intended to write a history book. Yet, while they might not offer a chronological overview and scholarly knowledge about the wars, the hybrid approach combining literature and history does offer new insights and perspectives which give us a broader, more vivid and more detailed idea of life in those wars. An isolated analysis of the novels would take away from their social and historical dimension. In order to be able to examine the novels, it is therefore essential to be familiar with the historical background. On the next pages, I will give a brief summary of WW II and the Vietnam War and America´s involvement in them. The historical insights will be followed by an examination and juxtaposition of the literature of the respective wars.

2. The Second World War

2.1. The lead-up to WW II

America´s position during the months before the nation actually entered WW II in December 1941 is connected to the history of America´s involvement in the First World War. The Great War was regarded a European problem and shortly after its outbreak in 1914, President Wilson declared that the U.S. would remain neutral. However, public opinion changed quickly. The deep-rooted relationship with Great Britain and France was one of the reasons for this transformation; another was the acts of German aggression against neutrals. In 1925, a major incident occurred that enraged the nation, when a German submarine sank the Lusitania, a British liner with 128 Americans aboard. In 1917, America entered the war and shifted the balance of power towards the side of the Allied forces: "In aller Eile wurde die allgemeine Wehrpflicht eingeführt und [. . .] nahezu drei Millionen Soldaten eingezogen. Ihre Beteiligung am Krieg in Frankreich sollte von ausschlaggebender Bedeutung sein."[5] One year later, Germany surrendered. The loss of human life was staggering: "up to 10 million men [fell] on the battlefield – and another 20 million were wounded."[6] The U.S. lost approximately 116.000 men in the Great War. In the following years, the pendulum swung back again and a new phase of isolationism began. As there seemed to be no need for an active foreign policy, America only played a minor role in the rearrangement of borders and power in Europe after the war. "America´s physical security [. . .] seemed assured, because of the distance between America and any potential enemy."[7] In the years before WW II, the U.S. was satisfied with the global status quo and focused more on domestic issues. In addressing the problems of the Great Depression, Roosevelt promised a New Deal for the American people. According to Horst Dippel, this approach demonstrates the main difference in behavior to that of European countries. Instead of hesitation or a rush back to allegedly secure values of the past, Roosevelt, in the midst of a world-wide economic crisis, announced a policy that was future-oriented. It shows America´s understanding of politics, which is hard to comprehend from an European point of view: "Hier wird Politik weder nach einem ausgefeilten Plan noch nach einem in sich stimmigen parteipolitischen Konzept gemacht, sondern mit dem Vorsatz, möglichst viele, selbst gegensätzliche Wege auszuprobieren, um dann den erfolgversprechenden dem Kongress und damit dem Volk zu präsentieren."[8] When Germany started the war with its attack on Poland on the 1st of September in 1939, the majority of the American population was against direct involvement. Step by step, Roosevelt changed America´s position in the conflict. The Cash-and-Carry - Act (passed in November 1939) enabled the U.S. to sell weapons and other supplies to the Allies, as long as they would pick it up with their own ships. To further protect the U.S. Navy, Roosevelt declared that American ships must not enter the sea areas around Great Britain and the Scandinavian coast. The Lend-and-Lease-Act of 1941, which was basically an add-on to the Cash-and-Carry-Act, enabled the nations of the Allies to buy U.S. equipment without immediate payment and was another step that illustrates America´s greater involvement in the war. While the U.S. kept its neutral status in the first years of the war, the military budget was slowly increased and public support for an intervention on the continent was slowly rising. After the fall of France, it was apparent that the balance of power on the continent had gone. As Stephen Ambrose points out, there seemed to be a real possibility that Hitler may actually be able to "conquer England and get control of the British fleet, then overrun Russia, which would have put him in command of the greatest military might the world had ever known"[9] The U.S. reacted to this threat by occupying Iceland, releasing British troops for the front, and the U.S. Navy commenced patrolling the Atlantic. It seemed only a matter of time before an incident would allow Roosevelt to completely discard his policy of neutrality.

On the other side of the world, in the Pacific, the tension was also rising. The expanding Japanese empire endangered America´s economic position in the region. The U.S. response was an embargo: "Roosevelt [ordnete an], dass hochwertiger Eisen- und Stahlschrott künftig nur noch in Länder der westlichen Heimsphäre verkauft werden [dürfe]."[10] Japan, dreaming of a great empire in Asia, was dependent on imported oil and steel to keep its military going. By December 1941, its army had already conquered huge areas on the continent including French-Indochina (the area of today´s Vietnam), Korea, Thailand, Manchuria and parts of China. To secure both its position and its resources in the South Pacific, Japan attacked America´s naval base in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The war became a world war.

2.2. America at War

Keeping in mind that this thesis is about the literature that dealt with WW II and the Vietnam War, the focus will be mainly on the war in Asia. Thus, a spatial connection to the latter is maintained and it will become clearer that in the Pacific, contrary to the war in Europe, America was confronted with the unconventional ways of jungle warfare and a culture they did not understand.

The American public was shocked by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, the U.S. was at war and had to focus its industrial power on the production of weapons. This transition did not take long. Less than half a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. produced more weapons than all countries of the Axis combined. The war affected American economy and society in many ways: "Der Umfang der amerikanischen Mittelschicht verdoppelte sich. [. . .] Millionen Amerikaner verließen das ländliche Amerika, um in die Industriezentren [. . .] an der Westküste zu ziehen."[11] While the U.S. built up a powerful army and a fleet that could match the empire, Japan had advanced farther on the continent and on the islands in the Pacific, with Northern Australia enduring Japanese bombardments. In June 1942 Japan was hoping for a decisive victory against the American Pacific fleet at Midway, but instead suffered a crushing defeat in which they lost more than just four of their most modern carriers: "Die Niederlage war Beginn eines Initiativwechsels und leitete eine dauerhafte U.S.-amerikanische Gegenoffensive ein."[12] In the following months, the U.S. attacked and conquered several Japanese bases on Pacific islands. The so-called island hopping proved to be successful, due to American sovereignty over the airspace, the naval support of the troops and the numbers of soldiers involved. Yet, the battles were harder than the U.S. military had expected. They had underestimated the will of an enemy who rarely surrendered as well as the difficulties of jungle warfare: "Eine der wichtigsten Erfahrungen der beinahe sechsmonatigen Schlacht um die Salomoninseln ist, dass die U.S.-Marines den japanischen Truppen im Dschungelkampf unterlegen [waren]."[13] The U.S. military responded with a safety first policy, increasing the extent and duration of bombardments to reduce their losses, a strategy they later tried to use in Vietnam. An immensely productive industry combined with technological advances were decisive factors in America´s favor. Even the Japanese Kamikaze pilots could not endanger America´s advance although the Allied command was shocked by this fanaticism which was, from their point of view, completely irrational.

On May 8th, 1945, about one year after the successful invasion of Normandy, the war in Europe was over. Germany had been crushed by the combined forces of the Allied nations and its territories were now occupied by the Allies. However, the war in Japan was not over yet. Two Japanese cities had to be completely destroyed in order to bring the empire to its knees. In August 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were towered by huge mushroom clouds. America had used her new weapon, the atomic bomb. The devastation caused was beyond anything the world had ever witnessed before. Of the 300.000 people living in Hiroshima, some 110.000 lost their lives immediately and an unknown number of people suffered fatal exposure to radioactivity which resulted in their deaths even decades later. In Nagasaki, some 36.000 people died in this grim beginning of the atomic age. A few days later, Emperor Hirohito declared Japan´s surrender – the Second World War was finally over.

3. The Second World War and Literature

Within a couple of years, the U.S. had transformed into the most powerful nation on earth. Its economy was booming while other countries involved in the war had to invest billions to rebuild their cities and their industry. It is not surprising that a war of such magnitude was very often represented in literature. "In the United States alone [. . .] more than four hundred novels about the war have been published [between 1940 and 1973]."[14] Of course, some of these novels were mere combat adventures or propaganda novels of limited literary value and some did not manage to give the reader perspectives on and ideas about life and war that had not already been in the focus of literary discourse. For this thesis, I have chosen Heller´s Catch 22 and Michener´s Tales of the South Pacific. While both are set in WW II, they deal with the period in very different ways, partly due to the different dates they were published (Tales in 1947, Catch 22 in 1961). Literary conventions changed over time and the traditional ways of dealing with the topic of war were followed up by a more experimental style of writers who represented the Second World War in new aesthetic forms. To understand this development, it is necessary to take a look at the conventional approaches.

3.1. Literary Conventions and New Developments

Writers who tried to express the true terrors of modern, industrialized warfare faced the problem that it simply seemed to overstrain the capacity of language to refer to reality; it failed to signify in the face of horror. It became clear that literature had to turn away from its traditional usage of language in a world where abstract words such as "courage" or "glory" lost all their earlier meaning when juxtaposed to the grotesque mountains of decaying bodies on battlefields like Verdun. The disillusionment that the writers of the so-called lost generation experienced during the years of war demanded a step away from traditional forms of writing. As abstract terms had lost their value in this new world, it was characterized by a clear, basic language as used by Hemingway, one of the period´s most famous and arguably best writers. His style demands the participation of the reader, as the "gaps" are often more telling than the parts visible at first glance: "Hemingway selbst vergleicht in einer [. . .] Analogie sein Verfahren mit der Bewegung eines Eisbergs: >>The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. << Die Einfachheit der Sprache Hemingways ist insofern nur trügerische Oberfläche. Es sind die Leerstellen und Ellipsen, in denen sich seine Texte – unter intensiver Mitarbeit des Lesers – erst entfalten."[15] Chester Eisinger´s opinion about the fiction of the Forties is that many writers of the Second World War simply imitated this style, which resulted in less "continuing vitality [and] cultural importance"[16] of their books. Especially when it came to describing combat and what it "had been like," many writers would use the matter-of-fact sort of language that seemed to be the only known way to portray war, the way Hemingway had done it in the vignettes in In Our Time:

"The first German I saw climbed over the garden wall. We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. He had so much equipment on and looked awfully surprised and fell down into the garden. Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that."[17]

On a different level, there is an important difference between novels of the First and Second World War. Ellen Fitzgerald points out that "on the whole [. . .], the novelist of the second World War rebelled against the war in much more limited ways than their predecessors had against the First World War. [. . .] All the World War I clichés about making the world safe for democracy were, ironically, more true in 1945 than they had ever been in the mud of France in 1918."[18] The result was that the Second World War was widely seen as a necessary evil. A position of protest as evident in WW I literature thus became complicated, as the war could be defended on political, social and economic levels. Instead of being in the focus of protest or rejection (as it had been the case in WW I literature), this war became "almost an essential character in its own novels."[19]

All the agreement on the necessity of the war aside, it is apparent that in retrospect, the reality of those days has been over-simplified and mythologized. As Michael Adams puts it (in his book with the telling title The Best War Ever): "The Second World War has been transformed into the good war, the Good War."[20] He explains that especially in a world that has become more complex, facing solutions which are uncertain and villains less obvious, the tendency to heighten an earlier period to the position of a golden age is understandable. This way of remembering distorts reality:

"To make World War II the best war ever, we must leave out the area bombings and other questionable aspects while exaggerating the good things. The war myth is distorted not so much in what it says as in what it doesn´t say. Combat in World War II was rarely glamorous. It was so bad that the breakdown rate for men consistently in action for twenty-eight days ran as high as 90 percent. Soldiers of all nations performed deeds of courage, but they also shot prisoners, machine-gunned defenseless enemies in the water or in parachutes, and raped women, including their own military personnel."[21]

Of course, propaganda was one reason for this image (for example, fifty camera men were on hand to cover Eisenhower´s first step on the beaches of Normandy and instructed over which angles they were allowed to take his picture[22] ), but it is unlikely that propaganda alone was powerful enough to affect the minds of the whole public. The consistent portrayal in literature and film also played an important role in transmitting this image of the Good War to the people. As will be demonstrated later, this folklore version of WW II is especially important in the context of this thesis, as the generation that went to fight in Vietnam grew up with this consistent image. James Michener and Joseph Heller both captured life during WW II, and while they chose very different ways to do so, both managed to overcome some of the restricting conventions mentioned above.

4. James MichenersTales of the South Pacific

If you sit at home and read that two hundred and eighty-one men die in taking an island, the number is only a symbol for the mind to classify. But when you stand at the white crosses, the two hundred and eighty-one dead become men: the sons, the husbands, and the lovers. Tales of the South Pacific[23]

"I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was."[24] The very first words of Michener´s book already hint at his intent. He wants to share what he has experienced in the war (most of the book was written in off-duty hours of Michener´s service years in the South Pacific). As the book´s title already says, it is a collection of tales, episodes from different islands and navy bases in the Pacific. These 19 tales are only loosely connected by reappearing characters and show the war from different perspectives, focusing on different people involved in the Pacific War. Because of the variety of settings and characters, an examination of structure and language of the book will be more useful than a summary of every short story.

4.1. Structure

To tell the reader how it "actually was," Michener uses a method one could refer to as literary island hopping: Tales is not a single novel, but a collection of short stories, most of them linked to a (fictitious) American landing on the island of Kuralei and the preparations that took place the months before. The stories are set on different islands in the South Pacific and apart from Kuralei, the reappearance of certain characters is the main connection between them. Thirteen of these stories are told by a first person narrator, the others by an omniscient third person narrator focusing on different characters such as a young officer, a nurse or a doctor. The first person narrator is an unnamed officer who takes part in the preparation of the. While the narrator interacts with other characters and has a lot of insight into the organization of the military, the reader never learns anything specific about him but his thoughts and emotions about the war and the people involved in it. He is more witness than active participant in the events. The fragmented structure of the book mirrors the experience of Navy and Marine personnel who were living and fighting on different islands, suffering under the tropical sun. The narrator sums up this experience in the first short story, The South Pacific. The following paragraph demonstrates the ability of literature to reveal a layer under the military event itself, giving us an idea of what the war was like for the Marines involved:

"Our war was waiting. You rotted on New Caledonia waiting for Guadalcanal. Then you sweated twenty pounds away in Guadal waiting for Bougainville. There were battles, of course. But they were flaming things of the bitter moment. A blinding flash at Tulgai. A day of horror at Tarawa. An evening of terror on Kuralei. Then you relaxed and waited. And pretty soon you hated the man next to you, and you dreaded the look of a coconut tree."[25]

Despite the spatial jumps, the stories are ordered chronologically and all take place in "the bitter days of ´41 through ´43,"[26] when American troops were fighting against a Japanese empire which was still far from defeated. The chronological order of the stories in Tales is connected to the progress of the American military in the pacific. After Pearl Harbor, there had been no major setbacks and the frontline moved closer and closer towards Japan. Other authors left this traditional way of telling a story and chose other structures with very different effects, as will be illustrated later with Catch 22 and the two novels of the Vietnam War. While the atmosphere of the Pacific warfare is captured in detail, Tales does not feature historical characters, famous admirals and leaders. Michener´s conscious decision to use only fictional characters can be seen as a message about war itself: "In the general tumult and fury of the war, the identity of individuals is the first casualty."[27] Names and exact historical facts are not of significant importance when the aim is to remind us of the human dimension of the war.

4.2. Language and Point of View

One of the first things that readers of Tales will notice is Michener´s eye for detail and his style which covers the full range from lively to somewhat dreamy passages. The stories of Tales"stand almost alone in the fiction of the Second World War in their frankly romantic quality,"[28] as John Frederick observed in 1956. Despite this overall "romantic quality," Michener is honest about the reality of army life in the Pacific. He does not get carried away by his memories of beautiful Pacific islands, but also mentions attempted rapes, tropical skin diseases and suicides.[29]

Apart from this kind of honesty, style and language in Tales offer more hidden information as well. The careful choice of words and the points of view which are expressed by them give us many insights into the American society of the 1940s. Throughout the book, the observant reader can discover the less glamorous aspects of those years, such as hypocrisy and questionable tendencies in thoughts and behavior. Because of the time it was published, Michener had to avoid the explicit use of the f-word, while, as we will see later, expletives are quite common in the literature of the Vietnam War. The ways he tries to get around the use of offensive words are almost amusing:

"`Don´t stand there gawking. Get someone who can fix those zippers,´ he snapped, only he had a lot of adjectives before the infuriating zippers."[30]

"[. . .] she screamed hoarsely, following that with bursting Tonkinese epithets, and ending with the Marine Corp´s choicest vilification: ` Soandso bastard!´"[31]

What this clean, acceptable language does is to create and maintain an illusion of innocence. It can be compared to what Michael Adams expresses about the efforts of the American Army to ban alcohol from its ranks: "It must be the ultimate act of willful naïveté to pretend that a man engaged in killing other men will be morally corrupted by a bottle of liquor."[32] Likewise, swearing does not seem quite as offensive and "morally corrupting" when it is put in the context of war, in which more severe atrocities take place.

War invites euphemisms. In many cases, especially in the military jargon, the tendency to cloud reality by using abstract, masking terms, can still be found: friendly fire or collateral damage are only two among many. Authors who write about war have to decide whether they are willing to capitulate to the demand for niceness or resist it. In this sense, Michener simply plays along with the socially accepted language of his time, never crossing a certain line in his descriptions.

As the soldiers in the Pacific were confronted with different cultures and races, this topic is also very present in Tales. On many occasions, we can find direct and indirect expressions of racism. For this thesis, it is not important whether James Michener actually shared a particular bias against other races, as the main focus is on the connection of history and literature. The question is how truthfully Tales captures the perspective of the soldier in the South Pacific. Because of propaganda and the mounting hatred during the years of war, it is not surprising that the enemy, the Japanese, is always referred to as "Japs" or "yellow bastards," and their behavior as being "cold and cunning."[33] The contrast to the description of the brave acts of American Marines in the novel makes the latter seem even more heroic, as the narrator juxtaposes the two parties in a biased way. Only one of the Japanese in any of the stories receives honorable mentioning: Lt. Col. Kenjuro Hyachi, the man who organized the defense of the island Kuralei. But even in this case, it is not the man himself who gets the credit, but the high standard of American education:

"We would have captured Kuralei according to plan if it had not been for Lt. Col. Kenjuro Hyachi. An honor graduate from California Tech, he was a likely choice for the job the Japs gave him."[34]

It is not hard to imagine that a Japanese writer would have presented him very differently. Yet, the biased view does not stop there. For the Marines in Tales, all Asian people look alike and therefore, the natives, too, are watched with uneasiness, as the soldiers have difficulties in determining whether one of them might actually be an agent of the enemy:

"Each of us studied the native boys suspiciously. What would they do when the Japs came? Would they help track us down?"[35]

The natives are described as ugly and primitive and never exceed their stereotypical roles and characteristics: the "noble savage" and the beautiful, innocent island girls in the stories create a very simplistic image of the cultures in the Pacific region. The narrator openly admits that the idea of a relationship with a native woman makes him "a bit sick at my stomach."[36] In addition, they are regarded as less important than the Westerners, the white soldiers and officers. Their life and culture is not understood or valued and apparently there is no effort to do so:

"Hiking into the jungles for ivory nuts you might meet a naked native with his naked wives and children, walking somewhere, going to do some unimportant thing."[37]

The perspective of the narrators is a patronizing one; it is a white, colonial point of view. As in Vietnam, this behavior leads to tension between the soldiers and natives in Tales. The mistrust is not only common among the soldiers of lower ranks. When the military leaders plan a major operation against several islands occupied by the Japanese, they order that every native should be considered a possible danger:

"Instead of finding the natives opposed to Japanese rule, [U.S.] forces will find them apathetic or even hostile. Under no circumstances should they be used as runners, messengers, or watchers.

They should, however, be questioned if captured."[38]

This passage shows that the situation in Vietnam and the tension between American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians were not all new. American attitudes toward Asians and natives did not change in the few years between the Second World War and Vietnam, but it became more apparent. In WW II, the U.S. could justify its actions in the Pacific region. The implicit racism evident in Tales was covered by this feeling of righteousness. It became more explicit in the ambiguous world of the Vietnam War, where a comforting justification was not available. The effects of racial bias were not quite as significant in WW II, as there were fewer natives on the islands than South-Vietnamese in Vietnam, and American forces were not in contact with them as often. In general, it has to be added that, especially for the winning party, every war also has cultural elements. "War invariably juxtaposes two cultures and superimposes one over the other,"[39] as Madhumalati Adhikari rightly observes. This makes the Pacific warfare different from the war in Europe, where America was fighting an enemy whose culture was familiar. After the successful landing on an island, two marines in Tales discuss the battle and it becomes apparent that they have more respect for the German soldier than for the Japanese they just fought:

"Wait till we hit France. I doubt we get a boat ashore. That is one party I sure want to miss. [. . .] You thank your lucky stars you ain´t goin´ up against the Krauts. That´s big league stuff."[40]

Racism was not limited to the behavior towards the enemy and the natives. Even in their own army, soldiers belonging to minorities had to deal with prejudices. They were often assigned for more dangerous missions and "even black´s blood plasma was refused on the [. . .] basis it would `mongrelize´ the white race."[41] Accordingly, the black soldiers in Michener´s book only play background roles and fulfill certain stereotypes such as the thick Southern dialect. Like other products of human culture, wars can give us an idea of a nation´s mentality, its ideals and also its conflicts. As Milton Bates puts it: "A nation´s domestic problems [. . .] travel overseas in its soldiers´ rucksacks."[42] Thus, Tales mirrors the social tensions and racist tendencies of those years in its language. Language can transmit certain messages not only explicitly but also "hidden" in the choice and usage of words. It will be illustrated later how the other authors, very aware of this power of language, expressed their point of view through vocabulary and style.

4.3. War and Combat in Tales of the South Pacific

When it comes to combat in particular, literature can overcome some of the problems that historians face. It can experiment with language and form in ways that go further than the reconstruction of events in history. The four authors I chose all approach combat and battle differently, but before one examines the approaches themselves, it is necessary to be aware of what kind of obstacles limit history´s ability to reconstruct the past. Mark Taylor explains:

"The closer the historian gets to the heart of combat, the greater the problems. Soldiers expecting a violent end, in the clamor and horror and chaos of battle, do not make reliable eyewitnesses and it is upon eyewitnesses that those who seek the truth about combat must usually depend. Investigating and interpreting what happens at the heart of the combat experience involves wrestling with the confused, the contradictory, the irrational and often the incredible. [. . .] It is significant that philosophers of history have often couched their strategies of historical interpretation in terms that effectively exclude combat, history´s darkest corner."[43]

Literature can also reach its limits when it tries to describe war and especially the chaotic nature of combat. The focus in Tales is thus less on the war itself and much more on the people and their thoughts and emotions. "The result, if not a war novel, is a novel about men at war in the Pacific. [. . .] [These] episodes enacted on the different islands of the South Pacific reveal a different human story definitely missing from the annals of scientific history [. . .]"[44] By bringing the experience of war into a broader perspective, Tales reveals more of the war than a pure description of battles and combat ever could. The decision to focus less on the war itself was taken very consciously as Michener is aware that no description could ever completely capture reality. In several of the stories in Tales, the narrators comment that only men who experienced war themselves can fully understand what it is like:

"The islands which are cut upon my mind will be to others mere stretches of jungle or bits of sand. For those other men cannot be expected to know. They were not there."[45]

"I suddenly realized that from the farms, and towns, and cities all over America an unbroken line ran straight to the few who storm the blockhouses. No matter where along that line you stood, if you were not the man at the end of it, the ultimate man with his sweating hands upon the blockhouse, you didn´t know what war was. You had only intimation, as of a bugle blown far in the distance. You might have flashing insights, but you did not know. By the grace of God you would never know."[46]

Additionally one has to keep in mind that a combat scene, although it might be the most intense and arguably most thrilling part for a reader of war literature, is only one part of war. As quoted above, the first person narrator of Tales describes the Pacific war as comprising mostly of waiting. He admits that the war has changed his opinions about many things and reminiscing, he comments on how he had to discard some of his earlier expectations such as his belief that navy men were heroic:

"Seeing these men in their dirty clothes after long hours of work knocked out any ideas I had of heroes. None of them was ever a hero to me."[47]

Throughout the book he mentions heat itches, malaria and mosquitoes that make the men in the South Pacific suffer. It is in those long hours of waiting that the enlisted men begin to wonder about their situation, realizing that they are in an alien world, confronted with cultures they don´t understand:

"[. . .] and like many fighting men stationed in the South Pacific the terrible question assailed him once more: What am I, Joe Cable, doing here?"[48]

It is quotes like these that make the reader realize that this feeling of isolation and of being lost, which is commonly more associated with the Vietnam War, was already true in the Pacific warfare of WW II. The difference is that in Tales, the question is not a moral one. Lt. Joe Cable does not question the war itself because he heard of protests in his home country; he is wondering instead about his role in the whole system of this war. Only admirals and officers of a certain rank and position had a rough overview of planned operations and the ones carried out at that moment. The common marine was left in the dark until one day he was sent into combat:

"It always makes me laugh when I see a war movie. The hero and his buddy get on a ship in Frisco and right away land on the beachhead, where the buddy gets killed and the hero wipes out four Jap emplacements. You get on the ship at Frisco, all right. But you get off at Luana Pori. You wait a couple of months. You move to Santo and wait some more. At Guadal you wait, and in the Russells. But the day finally comes when even a moron can see [. . .] the next move…"[49]

This policy leads to rumors and gossip amongst the men who are sitting on the islands and can only assume what is going to happen. From story to story, the battle comes closer to the men. In the first half of the book, it is still far away and only reported to the men on the island through radio by the "Remittance Man," who tells them the latest news about ongoing battles and about the latest movements of the Japanese fleet. He always finishes his reports with the phrase "Good hunting!" masking the dangerous reality of war in which the hunter might soon be the hunted. The reports also put the reader in the same position as the Marines on the island who try to make sense of what they have heard and wonder about the situation of the Remittance Man who is hiding on another island in the Pacific, observing the Japanese fleet. Apart from the Remittance Man, the narrator wonders about basic questions. Why do men and women go to war? How do they find the courage? He answers these questions himself a little later and this short passage shows that Michener observed and recorded the feelings and hopes of the young men with authentic detail and great understanding:

"Each man I knew had a cave somewhere, a hidden refuge from war. For some it was love for wives and kids back home. That was the unassailable retreat. When bad food and Jap shells and the awful tropical diseases attacked, there was the cave of love. There a man found refuge. For others the cave consisted of jobs waiting, a farm to run, a business to establish [. . .] For still others the cave was whiskey, or wild nights in the Pink House at Noumea or heroism beyond the call of valor."[50]

The first incidences of combat the narrator actually witnesses in Tales are quick flashes of violence, small groups of ships and planes fighting each other and they are described as a bitter-sweet experience, both appealing and terrifying at the same time:

"The sky [. . .] was a beautiful misery of streaming fire, retching planes, and pyres flaming out of the sea."[51]

The beauty the narrator observes is due to his relatively distant position. He witnesses the battle from a beach and not from one of the planes or ships involved in combat. He gets closer to the heart of combat in the second half of the book, in which the men prepare for a landing on Kuralei, aware that the battle awaiting them will surpass everything they have seen and lived through so far. Perhaps more striking than the actual combat scenes are the passages of the book that deal with the planning of military operations. Specialists estimate "probable percentages of leg wounds, stomach wounds, head wounds, arms shattered, faces blown away, testicles destroyed, eyes lost forever, and feet shot off."[52] It shows the coldness of war, in which everything comes down to simple math. The remorseless predictions are the benchmarks that determine victory and defeat. If the death toll of one´s own army would stay below a certain number X, the operation would be considered successful. Not without some sarcasm, the narrator points out that "the men who would make up the difference between the expected dead and the actual dead would never know that they were the lucky ones."[53] A few days before the battle, everybody is feeling anxious as they realize that the war which seemed far away not too long ago has finally caught up with them. When the narrator is describing the ocean, the romantic images and colors of Southern Pacific islands become intermixed with foreshadowing of horror:

"Now the flaming red of the sun itself took control, and this sovereign color filled the sky and ocean. It was not merely red. It was a vivid, swirling, violent color of blood; and it touched every cloud that hung above the water. It filled the boat, and men´s hands looked red for the moment. Hills on distant islands were red, and waves that sped away from the prow of the boat were red, too."[54]

The actual landing and the battle against the Japanese is written in a Hemingway-like style which was quite common in early WW II literature. In short and precise sentences the narrative focuses on the most important facts of the landing and its tone becomes more detached. Many paragraphs of this chapter begin with a simple stating of the time, followed by a short summary of the events that took place at that point, making its style very different from the rest of Tales. It resembles a military report, seemingly the only way the narrator can reconstruct what happened. Interestingly, the narrator repeatedly explains that luck was a very important factor in deciding whether a soldier survived or not. Pilots that had been shot down either "died horribly of thirst, days later [or] were picked up almost immediately and had chicken for dinner."[55] In a separate scene, it is the brave Marines who initiate an attack that get hit by friendly fire. The ones that were too afraid to move and stayed in the dugout holes survived:

"To be saved, all those men needed was less courage."[56]

It might seem unusual for a novel of the Second World War to stress the point of the possible benefits of cowardice and in fact, despite their moments of doubt, most characters in Tales perform their duty in the courageous, honorable way one might expect from characters of a novel published shortly after the war. It was about fifteen years later that Joseph Heller´s Catch 22 featured a main character in a war novel whose primary aim was to survive the war.

5. Joseph HellersCatch

Heller´s novel was published in 1961 and therefore chose very different ways and techniques of approaching WW II. Catch 22 did not use the wartime setting for mere violence and sensation. Instead for absurd humor and satire to point out the often ridiculous situations one faced living and working in an institution like the military and it criticized the misuse of power by people in high-ranking positions. Catch 22 was so unique and original in its style and structure that some critics regard it as "one of the most important American novels published in the last forty years."[57] After a short summary of the plot, this thesis will explain the historical context and cultural influences before examining the novel on various levels.

5.1. Plot Summary

The story takes place in a (fictitious) military base on the island of Pianosa, near the Italian cost. Yossarian, the main character of the novel, and his friends, are stationed with their bomber squadron on this island. The most important thing for Yossarian is his own survival and he lives in constant fear as his overly ambitious commanders send the bombers to more and more missions in order to get noticed and in turn promoted by their own superiors. Whenever the pilots get close to the number of missions required to end their tour of duty and be sent home, their colonel simply raises the required number to be the first officer that demanded 50, 60 or 70 missions of his men. As the novel takes place in 1944, and the Allied victory seems certain, Yossarian does not see why he should be risking his life any longer. He takes the war personally and is in constant argument with other army members who cannot understand his points and call him crazy:

"`They are trying to kill me,´ Yossarian told him calmly. `No one´s trying to kill you,´ Clevinger cried. `Then why are they shooting at me?´ Yossarian asked. `They are shooting at everyone,´ Clevinger answered. `They are trying to kill everyone.´ `And what difference does that make?´ [. . .] Clevinger really thought he was right, but Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn´t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them." [58] [. . .] "`It doesn´t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who´s dead. [. . .] The enemy,´ retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, `is anyone who´s going to get you killed, no matter which side he´s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart.´"[59]

Yossarian himself thinks that everyone around him is crazy for not following his logic. He tries to get out of the flying more missions by faking illnesses, poisoning the canteen food or simply moving the frontline on the Colonel´s map in order to delay attack missions. As these are only temporary measures, Yossarian decides to get out of duty once and for all. There is only one way to do so and that is to get a doctor to discharge you from service because of insanity. Yet, there is a catch, the infamous Catch-22 which later became an expression describing impossible choices and paradoxical situations:

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one´s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn´t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn´t have to; but if he didn´t want to he was sane and had to."[60]

This way of circular reasoning is also expressed in the structure of the novel as will be demonstrated later. Yossarian is not a typical hero as he is not willing to risk his own life to save others. Yet, seen in context of the inhumane and very illogical military system in Catch 22, which endangers the lives of its soldiers for unimportant things like nice aerial photographs of bomb patterns or the reputation of an officer, Yossarian´s decision to escape can be seen as a new, different kind of heroism. His determination to survive in the chaos around him is the source of a moral conflict. If he does not take the risk of dying, others will. Several of his friends die or disappear in the progress of the story, and this affects Yossarian deeply. One of these events, the death of Snowden, makes Yossarian realize that he will always be mortal, no matter how hard he tries to avoid death:

"He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden´s secret. Drop him out a window and he´ll fall. Set fire to him and he´ll burn. Bury him and he´ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden´s secret."[61]

After Yossarian gets arrested in Rome for being absent without official leave, he has a talk with his superiors who are unhappy about his behavior as it affects the morale of the other men in the squadron:

"`It´s your fault,´ Yossarian argued. `for raising the number of missions.´ `No, it´s your fault for refusing to fly them,´ Colonel Korn retorted. `The men were perfectly content to fly as many missions as we asked as long as they thought they had no alternative. Now you´ve given them hope, and they are unhappy. So the blame is all yours.´"[62]

The Colonel offers to send Yossarian home if he approves raising the number of missions to eighty. This is the climax of Yossarian´s moral dilemma - the choice between his own safety and the safety of his friends in the. Yossarian´s concern for his friends and his determination to survive the war makes this offer a Catch-22 for him as he cannot choose either of these options. He wants neither to become one of the superficial officers who endanger their men for mundane reasons, nor a soldier who simply obeys his orders without ever questioning them. In the end, Yossarian finds a way to break out of this vicious circle and he leaves the war by deserting to Sweden, turning away from the illogical military system, in which everything seems to be connected to a Catch-22.

Centered around Yossarian´s struggles several secondary plot lines develop. The most striking of these sub-plots describes the career of Milo Minderbinder, who starts as the mess officer and becomes the head of an international enterprise, trading goods all over Europe. He is so successful and influential that he is made Mayor of many cities in Sicily, Assistant Governor-General of Malta and also:

"the Caliph of Baghdad, the Imam of Damascus, and the Sheik of Araby. Milo was the corn god, the rain god and the rice god in backward regions where such crude gods were still worshiped by ignorant and superstitious people, and deep inside the jungles of Africa [. . .], large graven images of his mustached face could be found overlooking primitive stone altars red with human blood."[63]

Milo represents extreme capitalism and his lack of morals and disregard for the outcome of the war are apparent when he makes a deal with the Germans to bomb his own squadron. He simply pays back the damage he caused on material and personnel while still making a profit which not only makes him morally questionable, but also the military and society that then decide to drop all charges against him. Even more telling is his treatment of the planes he gets put at his disposal. He merely paints over the emblems decorating the planes, "laudable ideals as Courage, Might, Justice, Truth, Liberty, Honor and Patriotism,"[64] replacing them with his M&M company logo. The only thing Milo really believes in is profit and this ethic crosses all boundaries. The many titles of Milo Minderbinder and the fact that countries on both sides of the fighting parties are his customers are proof of the power of money and business which "boomed on every battlefront."[65] Milo stresses the point that "everybody has a share" and therefore all the men in the squadron would benefit, "except the ones that died. And the dead men never complain."[66]

5.2. Historical and Cultural Influences

As Catch 22 was first published in the 1960s, many of the social and cultural developments of the time had been incorporated into the novel, which made its treatment of the war very different from earlier literature. Because of the critical message of the novel, Heller was often confronted with the claim that he would be minimizing the importance of winning WW II. Heller himself repeatedly stated in interviews that Catch 22 is rather anti-traditional establishment than anti-war. He was "really writing about the cold war that followed, with its anticommunist purges and its smug hypocrisies."[67] Nobody in the novel, not even Yossarian, raises the question whether America´s involvement itself is justified, and Heller points out that the military organization in the novel is really a metaphor for institutional structures of many kinds. [68] The struggle of the individual against powerful and faceless bureaucracies was a main theme for many of Kafka´s works, arguably the most influential figure in the absurdist literary tradition. "Kafka´s most important contributions to the literary absurd [. . .] are his maddeningly complex human institutions – a grand metaphor for the inefficacy of rational structures."[69] Many of the absurd discussions and trials in Catch 22 are rooted in this idea.

Despite his continuingly unsuccessful revolt, Yossarian is not really a victim, because he at least takes action and never allows himself to be fully victimized In that sense, characters like "Clevinger or the Colonels are much more the Kafkan absurdist hero,"[70] as they live by the rules of the system, accepting them without questioning the whole institution. The conflicts in the novel are full of satire, or even almost cynical black humor, a form of humor that came to "dominate the literary absurd in the United States in the 1960s."[71] Humor and the cyclical logic of the novel will be further examined in the next chapters. On a different note, aside from general literary and cultural streams, Catch 22 offers satirical comments on certain historical events of the time and the reality of life in the military. Heller served as a navigator in the Second World War and became familiar with the bureaucracy of the army and the way officers thought. While the depiction of Yossarian´s superiors turns them into caricatures, publicity hounds that spend the whole day thinking about ways to get into the media or looking for shortcuts to promotion instead of ways to win the war, some of their real life counterparts came close to this behavior. Many generals employed "platoons of advertising agencies to make sure they looked good."[72] General Douglas MacArthur, in charge of large parts of the Pacific naval forces and the defending of the Philippines, is a good example of this ideology: "During the first months of 1942, when the Japanese were smashing his defenses in the Philippines, he still found time to publish 140 press releases. [. . .] When he did return [to the Philippines], the dramatic scenes of him wading ashore were filmed several times on different beaches to get the right effect."[73] Another allusion to an actual historical event was Senator McCarthy´s witch-hunt for "Un-American Activities," born out of the anticommunist paranoia of the early cold war period. The exaggerated actions of his committee were a fight against windmills. Stephen Pott sums up the atmosphere of this time:

"[McCarthy found] communists, ex-communists, and communist sympathizers everywhere throughout American life. There was no escape from the depredations of McCarthyism; people called up to testify [. . .] had no constitutional guarantees to protect them. If they [were] pleading the Fifth Amendment right that protects against self-incrimination, they could be summarily imprisoned for contempt of Congress. Sometimes even being called as an unfriendly witness was enough to prove one´s guilt [. . .] and many who managed to avoid imprisonment found themselves blacklisted, which usually meant they lost their livelihoods and most of their friends and associates, who could also be blacklisted for having ties to them. [. . .] During this time, loyalty oaths proliferated; it was difficult, if not impossible, to gain employment [. . .] without signing one. Politicians, Democrat and Republican alike, fell over one another in public trying to prove who was more patriotic by proposing tougher and tougher legislation against the leftist threat."[74]

The trials in Catch 22 are reminiscent of the trials of McCarthyism. The very act of being accused becomes in itself proof of one´s guilt. After Clevinger´s trial, the narrator observes:

"Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do so."[75]

The trials are truly Kafkaesque, as the individual has no chance against the institution that sets and changes the rules as the trial goes on. Additionally, the trials expose the significance of language and the nature of Catch-22. Both will be closer examined in the chapter concerning the novel´s language. The signing of loyalty oaths, which already seems at least questionable in actual history, gets completely out of control in Catch 22. Every officer makes his men sign more and more loyalty oaths to prove their patriotism. The simplest tasks of everyday life become insanely difficult and time-consuming due to this development; effective actions against the enemy become almost impossible. It infiltrates all areas of life, even the mess hall:

"At the far end of the food counter, a group of men who had arrived earlier were pledging allegiance to the flag, with trays of food balanced in one hand, in order to be allowed to take seats at the table. Already at the tables, a group that had arrived still earlier was singing `The Star-Spangled Banner´ in order that they might use the salt and pepper and ketchup there."[76]

For Captain Black who came up with the oath, anyone who questions the procedure is suspicious, as a real patriot would be "proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to."[77] The decision to sign the loyalty oath is voluntary and up to each man, but as with all choices in the novel, there is a catch:

"This whole program is voluntary, Milo – don´t forget that. The men don´t have to sign [the] loyalty oath if they don´t want to. But we need to starve them to death if they don´t."[78]

By exaggerating the pledging of loyalty oaths, Heller exposes them for what they really are; pieces of paper without any meaning of their own and powerful only as long as a majority of people does not question their purpose and value. The misbalance of image and real content, style and actual substance that is prevalent in the hypocrisy of American society during the early Cold War period is a major theme of the novel.

5.3. Structure

What makes this book so unique is its deliberately confusing structure and its original treatment of the WW II theme. It constantly plays with the expectations of the reader, parodying traditional forms and the behavior and character expected of the hero. The structure of Catch 22 is very interesting because it contains a lot of meaning itself. While it appears to be simply chaotic at first, a closer analysis shows that Heller put a lot of thought and effort into it to make it seem chaotic. It is only in the last chapters, that this seemingly chaotic structure progresses forward and the plot is narrated in an almost chronological way, only interrupted by short flashbacks. While Yossarian is still dangling in the cyclical logic of a world that is a slave to Catch-22, the also cyclical structure with reappearing scenes and constant jumps between different spaces and times expresses his struggle. "The confusion in the time scheme [can be seen] as reflective of Yossarian´s psychological disorientation and moral development."[79] When Yossarian makes his decision to desert, order is recovered – morally and chronologically.

Many critics have tried to analyze the structure the novel. They chose very different approaches focusing either on time, character development, or the plot in general which makes it difficult to make out one coherent set of divisions that incorporates all the ideas. In general, most agree on a cyclical structure of the novel which mirrors the logic of Catch-22, a gradual darkening of the novel´s tone and the development of Yossarian´s consciousness when he realizes that something has to be done after witnessing Snowden´s death and discovering his "secret".

The foundation of the spiraling, cumulative way in which the story is told, is the motif of déjà vu. "Déjà vu – the feeling of having experienced something before – is considered expressly and at great length by Chaplain Tappman [. . .] at the novel´s midpoint. [. . .] The reader almost never receives the full text of an episode at its first mention. Characters and scenes recur, and each time they do, the narrative adds more information."[80] Snowden´s death and the hospital scenes are the most frequent amongst these examples. Each repetition offers more details than the last, and with each one, the events lose more of the novel´s characteristic humor, increasingly exposing the horror hidden under the light tone of the first half of the book. While Snowden is merely mentioned to be dead in the first couple of chapters, his violent death and Yossarian´s feelings about it become clearer with every repetition in the novel. Because of this way of telling the story, Snowden is basically dying throughout the whole novel and not only in a single scene, which constantly reminds the reader of the dangerous situation that Yossarian is in. Even in the first half of the book, in which the humorous side of the novel dominates, this sword of Damocles is always hanging above his head. In addition to the actual repetitions, many scenes are similar to each other in the story. For example, Clevinger´s trial and the trial of Chaplain Tappman are much alike. Yet, the latter appears in a later chapter, in which the slapstick humor of the first trial has disappeared. Tappman is "accused of unspecific `crimes,´ threatened with torture [. . .] and declared guilty after a long interrogation session, the first premise of which had been that he was indeed guilty."[81] While Clevinger´s trial seemed more like a funny introduction to the distorted logic of the authorities, the chaplain is afraid he will actually be killed. While the ideological basis of both trials is the same, it is the second trial which reveals the possible outcomes more directly and in a more frightening atmosphere.

In order to be able to keep track of the chronology, there are certain helpful markers such as the required number of missions which is a continuous theme throughout the plot, as is the development of Milo´s career. With its seemingly chaotic, yet meticulously elaborated structure, Catch 22 can be seen as a bridge between the conventional, chronological plot development of earlier war literature and the confusing structure of Vietnam War literature. Yet, it is not only the structure that makes Catch 22 unusual in its approach; its language and treatment of the war play important roles as well.

5.4. Language

A key factor of the novel´s success is that despite its difficult structure and the grim setting in war-torn Italy, its humor makes it very readable. Although the topic itself is very serious and a lot of characters die or disappear throughout the story, especially the first few chapters play with the reader´s expectations by introducing a number of comic devices. Stephen Potts recognized "the surprise substitute word [. . .] repetition, contradiction and oxymoron, deflation of accepted (or clichéd) attitudes, the misjoinder of subject and tone, choiceless choices."[82] Many of these devices are more common in the early chapters of the novel, as they need the element of surprise to be fully effective. The surprise substitute word is in most cases contradictory ("Yossarian stopped playing chess with him because the games were so interesting they were foolish."[83] ), the deflation juxtaposes expectations of a certain behavior with the unglamorous reality ("Colonel Cathcart had courage and never hesitated to volunteer his men for any target available."[84] ) – these examples show why the tone of the novel almost necessarily needs to become darker as the comic devices and the distorted logic of Catch-22 lose their surprise effect in the course of the novel. While the absurd behavior of the authorities is introduced in a humorous way, the consequences it bears are not funny at all, as many of Yossarian´s friends lose their life as a result. The humor of Catch 22 highlights the limitations of the individual facing an institution whose way of thinking cannot be understood by common sense. The language of the authorities is used to objectify the men, stripping them of their individual identity. Colonel Cathcart develops a form letter of condolence which he sends out to the family members of Doc Daneeka after he is reported dead:

"Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action."[85]

In many instances throughout the novel, the line between signifier and signified becomes blurred, symbols replace reality: Generals are worried more about aerial photographs and tight bombing patterns, military parades and the correct outfit of their soldiers than about the outcome of an actual battle. Yossarian uses this logic for his own benefit by secretly moving the frontline on the general´s map during the night, leading to the delay of his mission. The change of the symbolic frontline has consequences in reality as everyone simply believes that Bologna has already been liberated. In a similar case, Doc Daneeka is declared dead, because the records show that his name was on the passenger list of a crashed plane. Despite the fact that he is still alive, he is unable to convince his superiors as the official papers have more weight than his obvious physical presence. In the course of the novel, one becomes more and more aware of the power of language, in its consequences similar to Orwell´s 1984. It is what gives the officers in the novel the power over their men, because it is the authorities that define the rules of a discussion and the meaning of the words used in it. The trials of Clevinger and the chaplain are examples of the exertion of this power. What gives the ruling class its power is the ominous Catch-22, which is not a written law but a clause that only holds as much power as it does, because people never question it. When Yossarian visits Rome in one of the last chapters of the novel, he finds that the girls he knew in the brothel have been chased away by the authorities. He asks an old woman nearby why this happened:

"`No reason,´ wailed the old woman. `No reason.´ `What right did they have?´ `Catch-22.´[. . .] `Catch-22,´ the old woman repeated, rocking her head up and down. `Catch-22. Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can´t stop them from doing.´ [. . .] `Didn´t they show it to you?´ Yossarian demanded, stamping about in anger and distress. `Didn´t you even make them read it?´ `They don´t have to show us Catch-22,´ the old woman answered. `The law says they don´t have to.´ `What law says they don´t have to?´ `Catch-22.´"[86]

With this explanation, Catch-22 completes its cycle. It has transformed from a catch that prevents soldiers from getting out of bombing missions to a rule that allows the people in power to do anything "we can´t stop them from doing." The true meaning of the catch becomes clearer with every chapter of the novel: "The powerful are not only fully capable of victimizing the weak, they have the self-defined right to do so."[87] It is a virtual construction and not based on any facts, as Yossarian discovers:

"Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed and that was much worse for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon and burn up."[88]

Thus, Catch-22 is the glue that holds the whole institution together, powerful because it does not actually exist except in the minds of people. This comes with a moral consequence: the victims are partly guilty because they are not revolting but instead simply accepting what they are told. Therefore Yossarian´s decision to desert, which would have looked simply cowardly in the beginning of the novel, becomes a heroic act in the context of Catch-22, as he dares to play by his own rules.

5.5. War and Combat in Catch 22

As mentioned previously, Catch 22 is more about the sometimes grotesque and cruel outgrowths of modern mass society and its leaders than the actual Second World War itself. Nevertheless, Heller´s depiction of combat and the sections in which he lets characters talk about war contain a lot of interesting perspectives. The narrator talks down the idea of heroism and glory that others associate with war. Accomplishments in the military only have meaning, because people believe so: "To Yossarian, the idea of pennants as prizes was absurd. [. . .] Like Olympic medals and tennis trophies, all they signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else."[89] Already in the second chapter where comic elements are dominant, the description of the horrible reality of war stands out in stark contrast to the light tone of the rest:

"It wasn´t funny at all. [. . .] There was nothing funny about living like a bum in a tent in Pianosa between fat mountains behind him and a placid blue sea in front that could gulp down a person with a cramp in the twinkling of an eye and ship him back to shore three days later, all charges paid, bloated, blue and putrescent, water draining out through both cold nostrils."[90]

Yossarian loses almost all of his friends in the war and the extensive description of Snowden´s death and Yossarian´s reaction bring the focus to an individual level. The reader feels with the dying man and with Yossarian, the scene gives a better idea of the reality of war than an abstract press statements would do in which it might simply say "our losses were relatively small."

The most extensive comment on the war is made by an old Italian man who has an argument with Nately, a young American soldier, over the question of an American victory. While his position is very extreme, his ideas seem to foreshadow the problems America faced in Vietnam (a few years after Catch 22 was published) and even its most recent complicated entanglement in the Middle East and in the war against terrorism today. The old man believes that Italy is the true winner of the war, not in spite of but because of its weakness, and America´s biggest weakness is its strength:

"The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. [. . .] Italian soldiers are not dying any more. But American and German soldiers are. I call that doing extremely well. Yes, I am quite certain that Italy will survive this war and still be in existence long after your own country has been destroyed. [. . .] The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity [. . .] will last as long as. . .the frog? [. . .] You put so much stock in winning wars. The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost."[91]

Yossarian comes close to this position until he realizes that there are, after all, things worth fighting for. Yet, the means and rules by which this fight is fought are very important, especially in conflicts in which good and bad seem ambiguous, where the roles are not as clearly allocated as in WW II.

During the Vietnam War, many events and statements could remind the observer of Catch 22. "[It] reared its head in the frequent reports of Vietnamese villages that American troops burned to save and of people who were killed to protect them from the enemy. [. . .] We saw language tortured by White House spokesmen to explain away exposed lies as `inoperative statements´."[92] In this war, truth was among the victims as well: soldiers were awarded with medals for fictional missions and "similarly, and more paradoxical, [are] the missing names from the Vietnam War Memorial, names of those Americans killed in action [. . .] before the `official´ date of U.S. involvement in Vietnam."[93]

In the next chapters, this thesis will examine the literature that came out of the war in Vietnam, a war in many ways different from the Second World War, fought for different reasons, by different means and resulting in a different legacy. As above, the historical background will be illuminated first to build the foundation for the literary analysis.

6. Vietnam

6.1. The Aftermath of WW II

In contrast to the First World War, the U.S. was determined to play a major role in creating a new order in Europe this time, but in Asia, its presence was not significant enough to do so: "America had failed to get onto mainland Asia because she did not have enough manpower to carry on a large-scale land war in both Europe and Asia."[94] This meant that communists could take over power in that area. The French, who had been colonial rulers of Indochina before the war, wanted to reign over the region again. Although the U.S. did not approve, it accepted this development as it needed France´s support to contain communism in Europe. America started to support the French in their war against the Vietminh who demanded independence. Yet the French were decisively defeated in Diem Bien Phu in May 1954 and forced to accept Vietnam´s independence. Vietnam was partitioned and Ngo Dinh Diem became premier in the South of Vietnam. France´s withdrawal from the region prompted the U.S. to fill the power vacuum in Vietnam to avoid the communists´ taking over of the country. In the following years, America supported the government of South Vietnam and backed Diem, who announced himself President of the Republic of Vietnam and began to fight the opposition of the Vietminh. Acts of aggression increased on both sides and the situation seemed to get completely out of control: "More than 400 South Vietnamese government officials were killed as the Vietminh took up arms again."[95]

An arms race and the competition for control in the Third World were characteristics of the Cold War. The tension between the East and the West was rising, evident in the Cuba Crisis and the division of Germany with the Berlin Wall. Vietnam became the center of U.S. interests because, according to the idea of the "falling domino", a communistic Vietnam would endanger the whole of Southeast Asia. The Truman Doctrine of 1947, which showed American determination to conceal the spread of communism, promised help to all nations whose freedom was endangered by armed minorities or outside pressure. This turned the decision about an increased involvement into an ideological question. "[The decision] seems to have been dictated more by a desire to stand up to the Soviet Union and (according to Secretary of State – Dean Rusk) to China, and to demonstrate the administration´s `credibility´ - a word which would appear more and more frequently in the justification for U.S. military involvement in Vietnam – than by any specific American interests in Southeast Asia."[96]

In America, Kennedy was elected to the presidency in 1960 with his slogan of the New Frontier. He represented the youthful energy of his country at that time and his famous appeal "ask not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" inspired many. His administration agreed that the spread of communism in Asia had to be stopped, and they started to send out more and more military advisers to South Vietnam. Kennedy would only live another three years before he was assassinated on the 22nd November of 1963. His sudden death created a myth around him, the image of a heroic young president who would have led America to new heights. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, would have a hard time to compete with the public´s admiration for Kennedy. In the same month of Kennedy´s assassination, Diem was killed as well, when the South Vietnamese military successfully staged a coup which was backed by the U.S. in the hope that a new regime would be able to stabilize the region. At that point, there were already more than 16.000 American military advisers in the country.

6.2. The Vietnam War

Inside of every gook there is an American trying to get out.

Full Metal Jacket[97]

I am not going to be the first President to lose a war.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1967

Richard Milhous Nixon, 1972[98]

Despite the new government in the South, the tension in Vietnam was rising. The situation finally escalated in 1964, when President Johnson announced that boats of the North Vietnamese army had attacked an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. This incident resulted in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and provided Johnson the justification for military action in the region. Aerial bombing and a rising number of soldiers in the region (almost half a million men by the end of 1967) [99] were supposed to clear the road for a decisive victory in Vietnam. The draft was reestablished to provide the army with enough young men. Yet, the landscape of Vietnam was a completely different battlefield compared to the ones of the wars in which the U.S. had fought before and the technological advantage of its army did not count in the mountains and jungle regions. Contrary to the Korean War, America was alone in this war, as "many Western countries and NATO allies opposed U.S. action."[100] It was an optimistic miscalculation that the regime of Hanoi would soon accept the independence of the South. While the casualties were mounting on both sides in Asia, the violence of the war reached America back home as well. The main event which affected the public opinion in America was the Tet Offensive of 1968. It was a large-scale attack of forces of the National Liberation Front (NLF) which seemed to contradict all the official statements of the years before that had claimed North Vietnam was almost defeated. Although the offensive was not a success in military terms, it changed U.S. strategy. When Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1968, he announced that the American force in Vietnam would be reduced. The policy of "Vietnamization" and a heavier reliance on air power was supposed to limit the number of American casualties. "Even so, 9.400 Americans died in combat [in 1969], poor morale hindered military effectiveness and large anti-war demonstrations took place across America."[101] Television reported of atrocities of both parties and the images shocked the nation to its core. A growing sector of the public began to question the purpose of the war and whether it could be won at all. The sad highlight of the violence back home was reached in 1970, when the National Guard shot four students of Kent State University participating in a demonstration against the war. Because of the mounting domestic pressure and the conclusion that a military escalation would not provide the desired results, the U.S. began to withdraw its men from Vietnam, but kept on bombing the North and enemy bases in Cambodia and Laos, still hoping for a stronger position in peace talks. "In four years, this bombing almost doubled the death and destruction from military activities of the Kennedy-Johnson years."[102] Finally, on 27 January of 1973, a cease-fire was formally agreed and the last Americans left the country. The Watergate scandal of 1974 led to a cut of U.S. aid to South Vietnam and without this support, Saigon fell into North Vietnamese hands in the following year.

The failure of its involvement left deep scars in the American consciousness. For the young nation, it was hard to accept that, "having won two World Wars, with wealth and technology at their command and a brimming confidence in their ability to get a job done, they [were] unable to secure a satisfactory settlement in Vietnam."[103] The more the country´s economic and military commitment in the region had grown, the harder it became to admit failure, as so much had been contributed already. Vietnam itself was affected in more immediate ways. As the country did not possess big industrial centers and a developed infrastructure as Europe had during the Second World War, a large part of the bombs were simply dropped on swamps, jungles and other areas where enemy activity was suspected. One fifth of the country´s forest area was destroyed by bombs and herbicides, a program which military leaders justified by calling it a "test of our enlarged military capacity."[104] The extensive use of airpower and the fact that the U.S. strategy was a war of attrition focused on "body count" resulted in a high number of casualties, including many civilians. This strategy, although resulting in heavy losses for the enemy, proved equally devastating to U.S. political goals. America had "no hope of winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people with a military strategy that destroyed the civilian population´s very existence, which was so closely tied to the land."[105] A comparison to WW II reveals the dimensions of destruction: "During World War II the U.S. dropped slightly over 2 million tons of bombs in all theaters [. . .]; the total tonnage of explosives used by the United States in Indochina reaches 14 million tons."[106] The toll of dead was staggering: More than 58.000 Americans lost their life in Vietnam while the estimates for casualties in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos vary between 1.5 and 2.5 million dead, depending on the source. As with all statistics, these numbers are a callous instrument to measure human suffering. Literature offers new perspectives and ways to express the reality of Vietnam.

7. Literature of the Vietnam War

No Victor Charlie ever raped my sister. Ho Chi Minh never bombed Pearl Harbor. We are prisoners here. We are prisoners of the war. They´ve taken away our freedom and they´ve given it to the gooks, but the gooks don´t want it. They´d rather be alive than free. The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford[107]

7.1. Developments since WW II

The uniqueness of the experience of Vietnam is expressed in many works that came out of the war and in order to understand Vietnam War literature, it is necessary to examine what makes Vietnam stand out the way it does. The young men and women who went to WW II and Vietnam were "products of particular cultures that had a lot to do with determining how they would behave as soldiers"[108] and changes in this cultural background necessarily affected the experience and therefore the literature. Apart from this broader cultural background, the smaller but equally important factor of the military experience of Vietnam needs to be examined: "If we are to understand the experience of writers of participant literature we must understand them, among other ways, in the context of the specific military culture that shaped them."[109] Cornelius Cronin names the major differences of the military experience of Vietnam and the way the soldiers were drafted and treated compared to earlier wars: Because the National Guard and the reserves were not mobilized the war was mainly led by career-minded field and general-grade officers, a cadre unleavened by reserve counterparts who would have a greater interest in getting the war over with. Most of the draftees came from the lower classes of society and felt more like victims of the system than like contributors to a common goal. The practice of one-year tour of duty enhanced the soldier´s individual status while weakening his status as a member of a group. Soldiers arrived and left alone, which meant that the individual soldier had to deal with the transition from military to civilian life and identity by himself, a process lacking the clear boundaries which parades and ceremonies had provided for returning soldiers of WW II. Additionally, the focus on body count and kill ratio made the Vietnam soldiers more aware of their status as socialized killers (some units were even provided with cold beer or extra time at base camp as a reward for a large number of certified kills).[110] The result was that the literature of the Vietnam War tends to present the war from a more personal, individual point of view. The belief they were fighting a justified war enabled soldiers engaged in the Second World War to witness cruel behavior without making it become a moral issue. As a consequence, the focus of the literature emerging from WWII is not the cruelty and single events of atrocities, but the war as a whole. "World War II writers [. . .] almost never question the rightness of what they are doing – even the excesses are the fault of a series of impersonal agencies known collectively as `the war.´"[111] They left it to the imagination of the reader to complete scenes describing the horror of combat. When the narrator of Tales of the South Pacific describes a battle against the Japanese, the open end of the last sentence of the paragraph suggests that he is aware of the cruelties that happened, but also believes that the behavior was understandable, if not justified in the context of the war:

"I suppose you know it was a pretty bloody affair. [. . .] Our men did not lust after the killing. But when you´ve been through the mud of Guadal and been shelled by the Japs night after night until your teeth ached, when you´ve seen the dead from your cruisers piled upon Savo, and your planes shot down, and your men dying from foes they´ve never seen; when you see good men wracked with malaria but still slugging it out in the jungle. . ."[112]

Where WW II literature simply acknowledges that atrocities are an inevitable part of war, the authors of Vietnam War literature use the active form "I did" instead of the more neutral "it happened" and try to find a way to deal with their behavior in retrospect. Critic Cornelius Cronin explains: "What has changed is not the nature of the actions but the way they are perceived by those performing them."[113]

The series of ambush patrols and small battles in Vietnam and the absence of a clear front are also evident in the literature. In many cases, there is little sense of causality, battles and events simply take place, apparently without an obvious connection. The language used in Vietnam War literature is very different compared to its WW II counterpart. While authors before the 1960s had to get their war narratives sanitized in order to be published, the new generation of storytellers could use more colloquial and obscene language to describe the war.[114] This extension of the vocabulary made it possible to change the perspective of the war story as it enabled writers to turn away from the abstract euphemisms of the military leadership to the level of the common soldier. Considering the origins of the conflict in Vietnam, which were far more complicated to explain than the American involvement in the Second World War, it is not surprising that the element of confusion is more dominant in the literature that came out of the Vietnam War than in its counterpart of WW II. "What the fuck are we doing here?"[115] - This question, asked by an American soldier in Herr´s Dispatches, sums up the situation of the common soldier who was thrown into a conflict he didn´t understand. The war in Vietnam was very different to the Second World War: the jungle setting, foxholes, napalm, helicopters and booby traps characterized this war against an invisible enemy. The gradual progress of the frontline that had been the case during WW II was replaced by a seemingly endless series of small battles and ambush missions, making it hard for the people involved to make out any progress at all. Another difference to WW II was that Vietnam was the first televised war. The media reached the public back home a lot faster than two decades before and the horrifying pictures contradicted the optimistic announcements of government officials.

In the midst of it all was the American soldier who was torn between his duty and his doubts, the orders of his superiors and the protests back home. The American soldier engaged in the Vietnam War could not return home with the feeling of accomplishment. They felt at least "contradictory emotions about what they had experienced."[116] Even more important, they faced an American public that scapegoated and rejected the veterans returning from the war. This was turning the traditional pyramid of hierarchy around. The ones with the least responsibility in the military system had to take the blame for the failure and moral loss. In the following chapters, this thesis will examine different literary approaches to the Vietnam War on the basis of Michael Herr´s Dispatches and Ron Kovic´s Born on the Forth of July.

8. Michael Herr´s Dispatches

I went to cover the war but the war covered me.


The unfamiliar culture and landscape of Vietnam, the invisible underground movements of the Vietcong (VC) units and the uncertainty who was friend or foe in this country affected the perception of the war; fact and fiction seemed to blur in Vietnam. Instead of obscuring this blurred dividing line, some writers chose to highlight the uncertainty, experimenting with "various styles of writing that became known as New Journalism."[118] Most New Journalists were reporters and they mixed observations and interviews with fictional techniques, creating a new way to tell the story of Vietnam. Michael Herr was one of the writers who felt that the traditional ways of reporting were not adequate for the Vietnam War. He went to Vietnam to report about the war for Esquire magazine but soon realized that he could not write a monthly column as he had intended to. He realized that it was the correspondent´s own cultural background and conventions that made him fail to report about the war in a meaningful way. Attending official press conferences and interviewing generals was not helping if one´s goal was to get closer to the truth. In the words of Don Ringnalda, it was like "eating the menu instead of the meal." Instead, Herr began collecting material for a book which would cover more than the superficial version of Vietnam: besides the usual information from military officials and press conferences, interviews, conversations, rumors and anecdotes all found their way into Dispatches. The first person narrator of the novel points out that "conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it."[119]

He is comparable to the first person narrator of Tales of the South Pacific as he is (for the most part) more witness than participant in the action. The difference is that in Dispatches, he is very aware of his position as a correspondent and the fact that the thin line between observing and acting tends to blur occasionally. In the later chapters of the book, Herr switches from the first person singular to the plural form "we" which shows that he sees himself as a part of the group. On the one hand, he has to pay for this closeness by losing some of his objectivity but on the other hand, this loss is balanced by a gain in credibility as he becomes more involved in the action and even operates a machine gun during the Tet Offensive. The title Dispatches itself is telling as it can mean both a news report and a killing. As a consequence of Herr´s own ambiguous position and the evasiveness of truth in Vietnam, Dispatches crosses the boundaries of journalism and fiction. Herr openly admitted in interviews that some of the soldier´s dialogues in the book were invented. Yet, he manages to establish a sense of authenticity, as the source for theses passages included all the talks he had with "grunts," the common soldiers in Vietnam.[120] All the different conversations seem to have created a collective voice in his head, the voice of the common soldier and his perspective on things. This new way of telling "the truth" challenges the reader to rethink what he thought he knew about history and the way we perceive reality. In an early chapter of the book, Herr argues that not even the most basic facts could be agreed upon in Vietnam:

"You couldn´t find two people who agreed when it began [. . .] Mission intellectuals like 1954 as the reference date; if you saw as far back as War 2 and the Japanese occupation you were practically a historical visionary. Realists said that it began for us in 1961, and the common run of Mission flack insisted on 1965, post-Tonkin Resolution, as though all the killing before wasn´t really war. Anyway, you couldn´t use standard methods to date the doom. [. . .] Straight history, auto-revised history, history without handles, for all the books and articles and white papers, all the talk and the miles of film, something wasn´t answered, it wasn´t even asked [. . .] hiding low under the fact-crossfire there was a secret history, and not a lot of people felt like running in there to bring it out."[121]

Leaving the traditional paths of journalism and history, Herr could view and describe the war on a different level. He realized that the truth about Vietnam is "inextricably linked with self-discovery [and that] the methods and means by which Herr and, thus, the reader gain access to [the truth] is as much a part of his story as the truths themselves."[122] The way we "gain access" to the truth depends on our cultural background, the glasses through which we perceive events and put them in a mental order. Thus it makes sense that American mythology plays an important role in Dispatches. The self-perception and expectations of the nation and the loss and confusion during and after the Vietnam War are evident in the book. For a better understanding, it is necessary to take a look at the fundamental aspects of American mythology to locate Vietnam in the mythic landscape of America.

8.1. Vietnam and the American Myth

From the very beginning of their nation, Americans saw themselves as "western pilgrims" with a special destiny. The idea of the western pilgrim was rooted in the belief that they had to finish a great circle that had begun in Asia a long time ago. John Hellmann explains:

"This concept held that civilized progress had developed in a westward pattern through the successive empires of the Far East, the Near East, Egypt and Persia, Greece, Rome, the Italian city states, Spain France and England. [. . .] From this perspective the new country of America, positioned between Europe and the Orient, appeared destined to expand westward to the Pacific before completing in Asia the progress that had begun there thousands of years earlier."[123]

Another part of this belief was that America was "the leader of the Forces of Light and its enemies necessarily the Forces of Darkness."[124] Americans had turned away from the seemingly decadent ways of European society, creating a nation in which everyone should be equal, as they proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Moving westwards into the wilderness of the frontier, distancing itself from its European roots, America´s connection with Asia became literally closer. The countries of Asia and the American West became "symbolic landscapes, separate yet connected, possessing a moral geography in which Americans perceived themselves achieving their identity and working out their special destiny."[125]

In the frontier myth, the pioneers had to fight with savages and the wilderness of the West in order to reach their destiny. In this context, conflicts and obstacles were seen as a "test of American will," a phrase not uncommon during the build-up to the war in Vietnam. The landscape of Vietnam with its jungle and swamp areas made it easy to see an analogy to the mythic "wilderness" of the American West. The enemy also seemed to be similar to the one in the frontier: "In Vietnam American soldiers fought an enemy whose straight black hair signaled a racial connection to the American Indian."[126] This mental connection to American mythology was evident in the language used in Vietnam. "Territory controlled by the enemy was called `Indian country.´ Going on patrol was `playing cowboys and Indians´ and inevitably the only good gook was a dead gook."[127] All these terms are used frequently in Dispatches as Herr wants to highlight this connection. The belief in America´s unique position in the world was accompanied by a feeling of righteousness. Therefore, Americans have often reacted in confusion or panic when events seem to contradict their image of the nation’s spiritual destiny. When China became communist in 1949, one of the results was the witch-hunt of the McCarthy period mentioned above in the historical section about Catch 22. It was a popular opinion that this surprising turn of events in Asia could have only been made possible by traitors. It also led to the determination that no other Asian country must be "lost." Kennedy introduced the term New Frontier and when Americans thought about Vietnam in the years before the war, they indeed "saw themselves entering yet another frontier, once again western pilgrims on a mission of protection and progress."[128] This feeling of having a special destiny and the faith in American righteousness took serious damage in Vietnam.

8.2. Structure

In a way, the structure of Dispatches is a logical continuation of the unusual, cyclical structure of Catch 22. It leaves the reader confused because there does not seem to be a gradual, chronological development of the plot, only a collection of fragments and flashbacks. The main difference to Heller´s novel is the focus of Herr´s fragmental approach. While most of the plot in Catch 22 is set on Pianosa and in Rome, the events in Dispatches are set in countless different places all over Vietnam. The unfamiliar names of Vietnamese cities and places add to the feeling of being lost. The confusion in Dispatches is due to its imitation of the space of Vietnam, while it was the cyclical chronology - time - which was the source of confusion in Catch 22. While the action in Dispatches develops more or less chronologically, the chapters are not logically connected. Herr presents the war in a patchwork style which stylistically imitates his rapid movement through the action by helicopter: "Whereas the foot soldier keeps moving in linear, earthbound time, the correspondent jumps spatially from one narrative to another, inserting himself vertically into linear time."[129]

The first and last words of the book already hint to the importance of space: "There was a map [. . .] Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we´ve all been there." Maps appear frequently in Dispatches and they do express both the dilemma of the Vietnam War and the problems of telling its story. The military heavily relied on maps to develop strategies, but troop movement diagrams that might make sense on a two-dimensional map are not much help in a jungle setting. It is a symbol for the uselessness of conventional journalistic approaches as well:

"Even the most detailed maps didn´t reveal much [. . .] reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese and that was like trying to read the wind. [. . .] It would be impossible to know what Vietnam looked like from reading most newspaper stories as it would be to know how it smelled"[130]

In a later chapter, a map appears in a different context which reveals more of the structural idea behind Dispatches. Herr is describing the wall in the room of a helicopter gunner and what he sees is a composition of seemingly disconnected pieces:

"It included glimpses of burning monks, stacked Viet Cong dead, wounded Marines screaming and weeping, Cardinal Spellman waving from a chopper, Ronald Reagan, his face halved and separated by a stalk of cannabis; pictures of John Lennon peering through wire-rimmed glasses, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix [. . .] coffins draped with American flags whose stars were replaced by swastikas and dollar signs; odd parts of playboy pictures [. . .] a map of western United States with the shape of Vietnam reversed and fitted over California and one large, long figure that began at the bottom with shiny leather boots and rouged knees and ascended in a microskirt, bare breasts, graceful shoulders and a long neck, topped by the burned, blackened face of a dead Vietnamese woman."[131]

This wall works in much the same way as Dispatches. It is a collage and one needs an overview to make out anything meaningful. The single bits and pieces might not make much sense if one looks at them solely; it needs to be seen as a whole. The overlapping maps show the way the war was perceived – through the glasses of American culture and conventions (Hollywood is in California), with the soundtrack of Lennon and Jagger in the background. As in Catch 22, repetition plays an important role in Dispatches. The invisible movements of the enemy in the Vietnam War made it necessary to patrol areas that had already been "cleared" again and again. Soldiers and correspondents were therefore quite familiar with the feeling of déjà vu. It was a war "that seemed to start over with each change of command and each rotation of troops,"[132] as critic Milton Bates points out. This cyclical structure turns many novels of Vietnam War literature into an anti-bildungsroman. There is no gradual growth from innocence to experience; the repetition leads to a different kind of development. Bates elaborates: "Herr carries [it] a step further: it is as though the soldier or correspondent must lose his innocence every day of his tour."[133] The sentence structure in Dispatches is another tool with which Herr expresses ambiguity. Short simple sentences as used by the grunts are juxtaposed with the often complex and long sentences with which Herr depicts the war (the description of the gunner´s wall above was shortened by almost half). Herr´s Vietnam overwhelms the reader with its breathless rhythm and the variety of images. The turbulent 1960s and the confusion of a nation are mirrored in this style. Dispatches is mimetic in the sense that it puts the reader in the position of a soldier who is new to the war. J. T. Hansen elaborates: "No one gave the soldier an adequate rationale for what they experienced. As the soldiers had to figure it out for themselves, so must the reader."[134]

Herr does not allow the reader to look at Vietnam from a safe distance as from one of the famous Huey helicopters to pick up an analogy above. He forces the reader to the ground and re-creates the chaos instead of simply capturing it. In the next chapter, the unusual language and style of Dispatches will be examined more closely.

8.3. Language

Dispatches uses language and style very effectively, it plays with presuppositions and expectations that readers might have when reading a journalistic account of Vietnam. Information is rarely presented in an ordered way and the novel assumes familiarity with military expressions and the basic facts about the Vietnam War. On many occasions, Herr uses parentheses to comment on events or to give some additional information. While this might not be unusual, the kind of material used in these parentheses is. It is rarely secondary information, but actually often "the most important aspect of the sentence or paragraph in which it appears,"[135] as Mathew Stewart points out. In a paragraph about the ways in which army officials presented information to correspondents, the sentence in parentheses following the mere description of the process contains more information than the rest of the paragraph:

"(There was a week in the war, one week, when the Army lost more men killed, proportionally, than the Marines, and Army spokesmen had a rough time hiding their pride, their absolute glee.)"[136]

These uses of parentheses draw the reader´s attention to the imbalance between the content of the parentheses and the rest. It draws attention to the "secret history," as Herr calls it. In this case, the short sentence says more about the overestimation of the Army´s and Marines´ own capacities, their rivalry and the distance between military leaders and the soldiers in the body bags than a whole chapter might be able to do. Frequently, Herr uses puns and the different nuances of meaning words can have to highlight his own ambiguous position. During the battle of Hue, Herr and another correspondent ask a nearby Marine to cover them, so they can make a run across a street that was open to sniper fire. In the middle of this run, he has to start laughing when he realizes the absurdity of a correspondent asking someone to cover him. It is examples such as the one above that make the reader realize that words are rarely precise and well-defined in their meaning and therefore limited in their ability to portray complex realities.

The fragmentary nature of the Vietnam War, which is already evident in the structure of Dispatches, also affected the novel on the linguistic level. The result is a style very different from the conventional ways of storytelling. Like the correspondent himself, the reader has to let go of familiar aesthetic categories and search actively for valuable information. Don Ringnalda found a nice way of putting it by claiming that Dispatches is as different from other war stories as "the tortured notes of Jimi Hendrix are [to] the happy harmonies of the Beach Boys."[137] Herr makes the reader question his beliefs as they are based on previous assumptions and pre-shaped experience:

"A lot of things had to be unlearned before you could learn anything at all, and even after you knew better you couldn´t avoid the ways in which things got mixed, the war itself with those parts of the war that were just like the movies. [. . .] We´d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult."[138]

The process of un-learning is both one of the themes of Dispatches and at the same time a device to understand the novel´s style. Dispatches demands active reading and sensitivity for language and images. J. T. Hansen differentiates three categories of vocabulary that the reader of Vietnam War literature needs to be familiar with:

"standard American English, military, and conversational. Standard American English predominates in descriptive sections, [. . .] This vocabulary has the advantage of being both a language actually used in Vietnam and one already known to the reader. Military language lends specificity and realism to events, especially combat. The conversational vocabulary is a delightful mish-mash of post-adolescent slang [and] the bluntness and obscenity of lifers.[139]

All three vocabularies can be found in Dispatches. Herr´s written collage jumps between the different vocabularies and images and it is important to literally follow him through this stylistic jungle in order to understand certain passages or reveal new layers of meaning. While these three vocabularies might share the same words, the reader has to be aware of the different contexts which give a whole new spectrum of meaning or connotation to certain words.

Standard American English (SAE) is "the vocabulary of cultural institutions such as the family, schools, churches and the media. As a generic language, its gains in clarity are balanced by losses in connotation and specificity."[140] It is not the most vivid language but if this vocabulary is combined or juxtaposed with words of the other two vocabularies, the resulting tension can give us further insights. In an early chapter, Herr describes the feelings he had when he looked at a group of dead people:

"I could have looked until my lamps went out and I still wouldn´t have accepted the connection between a detached leg and the rest of a body, or the poses and positions that always happened (one day I´d hear it called `response-to-impact´), bodies wretched too fast and violently into unbelievable contortion. Or the total impersonality of group death, making them lie anywhere and any way it left them, hanging over barbed wire or thrown promiscuously on top of other dead, or up into the trees like terminal acrobats, Look what I can do."[141]

In this paragraph, we can find elements of all vocabularies. SAE is predominant, yet it is the contrasting terms and expressions of the other two vocabularies that create a multi-angled view on the same scene. The clear descriptions of the contorted bodies are contrasted to the military term "response-to-impact" and the conversational "Look what I can do." The military vocabulary sounds clinical, almost cynical compared to SAE. Throughout Dispatches, the juxtaposition of official term and brute reality creates these kinds of ironies. Most of the time, Herr simply presents the contrast without elaborating on it. On rare occasions Herr lifts that veil and points out the distortion explicitly:

"It was admitted at the time that a lot of our helicopters had been shot down, but this was spoken of as an expensive equipment loss, as though our choppers were crewless entities that held to the sky by themselves, spilling nothing more precious than fuel when they crashed."[142]

The disparity between "expensive equipment loss" and the fact that several soldiers died in the crash illustrates once again the power of language. As in Catch 22, language enables the ones in power to redefine reality and create a distance between command and front. Herr is very aware of the different nuances of meaning and the necessity of a certain vocabulary in certain situations:

"Vietnam has spawned a jargon of such delicate locutions that it´s often impossible to know even remotely the thing they described. Most Americans would rather be told that their son is undergoing acute environmental reaction than to hear that he is suffering from shell shock"[143]

The conversational vocabulary is both complex and instantly plausible. It draws from "an impenetrable mass of private meanings and multiple ironies."[144] This private perspective makes the reader see through the eyes of the speaker. The comparison of the dead bodies to acrobats hanging in the trees ("Look what I can do") may seem somewhat obscene, but it is this spontaneous image that sums up and emphasizes the absurdity and surreal nature of the whole scene. What Herr illustrates with the different perspectives created by the different vocabularies is that none of these points of view is "wrong." They all describe the same, but a sole point of view would not capture the entire spectrum of truth. It is only through the combination of the different vocabularies that the reader gets an idea of the reality (or better: the "ambivalent realities"[145] ) and Herr´s response to it. These transitions between different layers of meaning and reality are especially evident in the use of expletives. Publishers had still banned this kind of language in the years after the Second World War (as evident in Tales of the South Pacific). Now, authors were able use the f-word and similar expressions to describe and comment on emotions and events with the intense power of their directness. This group of words is partly shared by SAE and conversational vocabulary, but obviously, they do not mean the same thing in the different contexts. Words that are taboo in SAE are quite frequently used in the conversational vocabulary, with different intentions and effects. While he is taking a break on a military base, Herr describes the flak jacket of a marine close to him and on the back, it says:

"Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death I shall fear no Evil, because I´m the meanest motherfucker in the Valley."[146]

In this context, "motherfucker" loses the incestuous meaning it has in SAE. It is only certain aspects and connotations of the term that are relevant in this usage of the word: "passion, violence, a complete lack of moral scruple, and an almost psychotic commitment."[147] The word "motherfucker" gets redefined by its surroundings. The total inappropriateness of the word in the religious environment of the original psalm enhances the tension and the irony it creates. In a later chapter, in which Herr listens to the conversation of a group of marines during a short break, the changes in meaning become even more apparent:

"There were some Marines stretched out a few feet away from us, passing around war comics and talking, calling each other Dude and Jive, Lifer and Shitkick and Motherfucker, touching on this last with a special grace, as though it were the tenderest word in their language."[148]

Amongst the soldiers, "motherfucker" has thus become an expression of sympathy and solidarity. This development reflects the U.S. youth culture´s adoption of Black underground culture (music, dance, and slang) which was taking place at the same time. The reader has to get used to these transitions just as soldiers who had just arrived in Vietnam had to learn to deal with the new environment. Dispatches demands of the reader to take this step and to try and un-learn all the presuppositions that make us unable to perceive events openly. Hansen explains:

"The extent of the reader´s understanding is constantly expanded, tested, and reinforced. This is particularly true of contexts in which the vocabularies are used in combination to dramatize the complexity of the more mysterious, ambiguous aspects of surviving a year in the combat zone."[149]

Despite all these efforts, combat remains something which is, due to its evasive nature, hard to get across. On the following pages, this thesis will analyze the ways in which Herr tries to communicate the reality of this aspect of the Vietnam experience.

8.4. Movies, Perspective and Perception

And always, they would ask you to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn´t being told for them, that they were going through all this and that somehow no one back in the World knew about it.


In order to understand the way combat and war are described in Dispatches, one has to keep in mind the special correspondent status of the narrator. Herr emphasizes his position on several occasions in the novel:

"There wasn´t a day when someone didn´t ask me what I was doing there. Sometimes an especially smart grunt or another correspondent would even ask me what I was really doing there, as though I could say anything honest about it except `Blah blah blah cover the war´ or `blah blah blah write a book.´ Maybe we accepted each other´s stories about why we were there at face value: the grunts who had to be there [and] the correspondents whose curiosity or ambition drew them over. [. . .] Some young soldier speaking in all bloody innocence [told me] `All that´s just a load, man. We´re here to kill kooks, Period.´ Which wasn´t at all true for me. I was there to watch."[151]

This curiosity, sometimes professional, in some scenes of almost voyeuristic quality, was the correspondents´ intrinsic motivation for being in Vietnam. The initial quote above describes their second, extrinsic motivation: they wanted to become a communicating medium for the grunts at the front. Before they could do so, however, they had to learn to uncover the true war which lay hidden not only behind the euphemisms used in press conferences but was invisible or at least distorted to the untrained eye. As mentioned before, Vietnam was unlike any other war the U.S. had fought and soldiers and correspondents alike needed some time to realize that the heroic images of WW II that this young generation had grown up with had nothing to do with reality. Herr frequently refers to movies when he tries to describe events or the behavior of soldiers, because the soldiers´ and his own perception worked in cinematic ways after all the years of conditioning. This effect applies for the reader as well. Whenever Herr relates an actual event to a stereotypical scene of a war movie, the reader can understand his (and the soldiers´) initial problems to distinguish between reality and fiction. We are so familiar with certain patterns of movies that a similar event in real life instantly triggers all the thoughts and expectations connected to them. Instead of perceiving what was really going on, the men "re-enacted those movies and those movie roles."[152] Herr testifies to this in the chapter named Colleagues:

"So we have all been compelled to make our own movies, as many movies as there are correspondents, and this one is mine."[153]

A consequence of this way of thinking was a feeling of immortality – the misleading belief that the main act of one´s own movie could not die. The cultural baggage was hard to get rid off. Again, Herr admits that he was guilty of believing that way:

"The first few times that I got fired at or saw combat deaths, nothing really happened, all the responses got locked in my head. It was the same familiar violence, only moved over to another medium; some kind of jungle play with giant helicopters and fantastic special effects, actors lying out in there in canvas body bags waiting for the scene to end so they could get up again and walk it off."[154]

"That morning when I tried to go out they sent me [. . .] to a sergeant, who took one look, called me Freshmeat, and told me to go find some other outfit to get myself killed with. I didn´t know what was going on, I was so nervous that I started to laugh. I told him that nothing was going to happen to me and he gave my shoulder a tender, menacing pat and said, `This ain´t the fucking movies over here, you know.´ I laughed again and said that I knew, but he knew that I didn´t."[155]

The sergeant´s remark suggests that the delusive way of perceiving reality is not permanent. While he might have arrived in Vietnam with a similar view, reality caught up with him and taught him to perceive things the way they are. It takes Herr some time to see the war as the sergeant does. Episodes in the past (such as the conversation with the sergeant) are told from a future, more experienced self and work like voice-over in a movie which comments on events and his younger self. From chapter to chapter, these two positions get increasingly closer the more experienced the narrator becomes. Likewise, the reader gets a better understanding the more he witnesses through Herr´s eyes. The most complex of these experiences remain the essence of war and combat.

8.5. War and Combat in Dispatches

I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy;

we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us.


It is never easy to write about war and it is especially complicated when the conditions for victory and the social and political background of this war are blurry. Having overcome the perceptual obstacles, Herr realizes that the next step is equally hard: communicating war to an audience who has not spent a year in Vietnam as he did. Instead of giving the reader a causally connected chronological report of battles, Herr is looking for the essence of war. The first war story in Dispatches is a good example of this process. For the uninitiated reader, it seems awfully short and stripped of relevant information:

"Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened. [. . .] I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked [the sergeant] what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, fucked if he´d waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was."[157]

When Herr hears the story the first time, just after his arrival in Vietnam, he is as puzzled as the reader and he admits that it took him a year to understand it: death is the outcome of every war story, and for someone who has experienced war, there is no information as pure as it. "Only the dead can tell complete war stories from firsthand experience," says Milton Bates. "For the Vietnam War," he adds with dark irony, "there are over 58.000 fully qualified story-tellers, none of whom will ever tell the story."[158]

Combat remains a mystery, even to the men who experienced it. Realizing that he cannot describe the action without falling back into stereotypical description, Herr chooses the introspective view. Instead of describing the events that are taking place in front of his eyes, Herr puts the reader in his position and takes an inward look. He shares his emotions and tries to find comparisons for the powerful allure which combat works on him:

"It came back the same way every time, dreaded and welcome, balls and bowels turning over together, your senses working like strobes, freefalling all the way down to the essences and then flying out again in a rush to focus, like the first strong twinge of tripping after an infusion of psilocybin, reaching in at the point of calm and springing all the joy and all the dread ever known, ever known by everyone who ever lived [. . .] And every time, you were so weary afterwards [. . .] you couldn´t recall any of it, except to know that it was like something else you had felt once before. [. . .] It was the feeling you´d had when you were much, much younger and undressing a girl for the first time."[159]

This paragraph can be seen as a confession. Despite all the horrible things he has seen, war does have its appealing moments. Like bungee jumping or similar activities, the maximized feeling of being alive during the excitement of combat which Herr compares to sexual arousal and the influence of drugs seems to have an addictive quality. "Maybe you couldn´t love the war and hate it inside the same instant," Herr admits in another chapter, "but sometimes those feelings alternated so rapidly that they spun together in a strobic wheel [. . .] until you were literally High On War, like it said on all the helmet covers."[160] Especially in retrospect, after returning home, the appealing aspects prevailed in his memory. Herr admits that he misses the rush of adrenaline because nothing back home was able to provoke these kinds of emotions in him.

These mixed feelings make it hard for him and other correspondents to condemn the war the way some might expect them to do it: "Take the glamour out of war! I mean, how the hell can you do that ?"[161] Yet, they can also not ignore the ten thousands of dead American and the unimaginable suffering the Vietnamese people endured. Dispatches does not judge, it presents the war. It is the lies in the system, "the news media, organizations that were ultimately reverential towards the institutions involved: the Office of the President, the Military, America at war and, most of all, the empty technology that characterized Vietnam"[162] that are in the focus of Herr´s observations.

Additionally, Herr criticizes the smugness of the protesters back home who, in his eyes, behaved as if they would never be able to act like the soldiers did. Yet Herr knows that the capacities for violence are present in every human being. By presenting the men at the front in a close-up view, Herr proves that they were no psychotic monsters but regular young men who were merely changed by the war. According to Herr, these changes did not instantly develop out of nothing: "There´d been nothing happening there that hadn´t already existed here, coiled up and waiting, back in the World."[163] In other words, all the war did was to intensify existing conflicts and tensions. One did not have to be fighting in Asia to share the war´s violence. From this perspective, Vietnam was not the source of America´s loss of innocence but a result and reflection of it and the nation´s failure in Vietnam a collective one. These observations lead to the final words of Dispatches: "Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we´ve all been there."[164]

Despite all its insights, Dispatches was written by an observer of the war. As a correspondent, Herr could avoid visiting certain areas or leave them whenever he wanted to. He enjoyed a freedom that most soldiers in Vietnam did not have. They had to obey orders and fight the war America had gotten into which made their experience very different from Herr´s. Ron Kovic was one of these young men and he wrote down his personal story in Born on the Fourth of July.

9. Ron Kovic s Born on the Fourth of July

War stories aren ´ t anything more than stories about people anyway.


While Michael Herr´s statement about war stories might be correct, there are still differences between the approaches of the topic in the stories and the reasons why they are told. As illustrated on the basis of the novels above, the aims of war stories can vary. Information, explanation or entertainment can be among those intentions. Additionally, telling a war story can be a beneficial, cathartic process for the storyteller as well. Milton Bates explains: "War stories often recount events that the storyteller finds painful to remember. Few people would subject themselves to anything so unpleasant unless the narrative process offered some kind of pleasure or at least relief from pain."[166] Born on the Fourth of July fits in this category. Ron Kovic served in Vietnam for two tours of duty and returned paralyzed from his chest down and has been in a wheelchair ever since. In the introduction of the novel, he admits that writing this autobiographical novel was both painful and relieving at the same time:

"I wrote Born on the Fourth of July in the fall of 1974 in one month, three weeks and two days [. . .] It was like an explosion, a dam bursting, everything flowed beautifully, just kept pouring out, almost effortlessly, passionately, desperately. I worked with an intensity and fury as if it was my last will and testament, and in many ways I felt it was. [. . .] I couldn´t stop writing, and I remember feeling more alive than I had ever felt. [. . .] I wanted people to understand. I wanted to share with them as nakedly and openly and intimately as possible what I had gone through, what I had endured."[167]

A recent study shows that veterans who are white, educated and paralyzed have the highest rate for suicide amongst former soldiers.[168] Men who would have died in earlier wars now survive thanks to better and faster medical treatment, yet the psychological burden of their situation can overstrain some. This fact and Kovic´s statement in the introduction show that Born on the Fourth of July goes farther than many other war stories. It is not a story focused on the war itself but a story about an individual trying to move beyond his terrible tragedy without repressing it. As Jacqueline Lawson rightly observes, "the war´s best memoirs are not really about Vietnam at all. They are about America, about young boys coming of age in a nation that believed too much in itself."[169] Veterans returning from Vietnam did not only arrive in a country that had changed during their absence, they themselves had also changed. Therefore, the war was not over for them once they arrived back home. They had to come to terms with their "new" home country and own identity, their guilt and the search for a new meaning in life. As with Dispatches, it is hard to categorize Born as it crosses genre boundaries. On the one hand, it is an autobiography describing the author´s youth in the suburbs, his time in Vietnam, and the years that followed. On the other hand, Born has many characteristics of a novel. It has a distorted structure and elements such as Stream-of-Consciousness and a third person narrator which are unusual for an autobiographical text.

As Born is told in a fragmented way including jumps in time and setting, a chronologically ordered summary will be helpful to establish a better understanding of Kovic´s story.

9.1. Plot Summary

"For me it began in 1946 when I was born on the Fourth of July,"[170] remembers Kovic. Aware of the importance of the cultural background regarding his later confusion and transformation, he extensively describes the America he grew up in: the baseball games and Fourth of July celebrations he enjoyed so much as a child and the fascination that he and other children his age felt for the still rather new invention of television. Kovic grows up with three father figures and every one of them is part of the reason he decides to go to Vietnam: his actual father, President Kennedy and John Wayne. His real father works as a clerk at a grocery store and Kovic decides early that he does not want to follow his steps:

"I didn´t want to be like that, working in that stinking A&P, six days a week, twelve hours a day. I wanted to be somebody."[171]

His second mentor was the mythic leader of a whole generation, President Kennedy. His influence on young Kovic is great. Throughout the sections about his childhood, Kovic admits on several occasions that the Kennedy´s youthful energy assured him of his nation and its values and his famous speech ("ask what you can do for your country") makes him overcome initial doubts when he is confronted with the unglamorous reality of boot camp training:

"Like the young president had said, they would have to bear many burdens, many sacrifices, and now he was in this place, and as crazy and depressing as it seemed, he would face it like a man."[172]

Finally, there is the father figure John Wayne who "was so brave I had chills running up and down my back."[173] Kovic and his friends reenact scenes from his movies after school and he is determined to serve his country in the heroic way of the soldiers on screen. Kovic´s decision to join the marines voluntarily develops out of this threefold background: "I wanted to be a hero,"[174] as he says. This wish becomes more specific when he listens to marine recruiters who speak at his school´s auditorium:

"I was like all the movies and all the books and all the dreams of becoming a hero come true."[175]

Kovic joins the marines and finishes training in boot camp, although he already notices the discrepancy between reality and the images he grew up with. The constant shouting of the drill sergeants and the gradual loss of civilian identity in the military make him question some of his earlier beliefs. Despite these thoughts he is still determined to serve his country the best way he can in Vietnam. Yet, already his first combat experience shatters this somewhat romantic determination. During the confusion of a firefight at nighttime he accidently shoots his own corporal in the throat. He tries to confess it to a major on the following day but he does not want to believe him. Kovic leaves the major, not fully convinced but somewhat relieved that the incident can be seen as a mistake and determined to make it better next time.

On a nighttime patrol a few weeks later, Kovic´s platoon surrounds a hut of a village in which the commanding officer believes to have made out rifles. A nervous member of the group starts firing and again, things get out of control. Everyone empties his rifle into the hut, believing they were being attacked. Entering the hut, however, they realize that there were no weapons inside but a group of sleeping children, shot to pieces by their M16s.

Again, the leaders try to convince him that it had been a simple slip-up but this time, Kovic does not believe them. Convinced that only a serious injury will get him out of this chaos, he starts to take great chances wherever possible, looking for booby traps to step on during patrols. Kovic´s last mission in Vietnam is a direct assault on a village during which he gets shot through the chest. The bullet smashes his spinal cord and he lies helplessly on the ground before he is carried back to his lines.

In the veteran hospital back home, he is shocked by what he encounters. The sanitary conditions are so bad that some men throw bread in the corner of their rooms to prevent their stumps to be chewed on by rats during the night. Doctors and aides are overstrained by the sheer number of wounded and not interested in every individual person in their section. The sight of all the wounded has turned them numb:

"The walls are almost as dirty as the floor and I cannot even see out of the window. [. . .] I push the call button again and again. No one comes. I am lying in my own excrement and no one comes. I begin shouting and screaming. [. . .] I have been screaming for almost an hour when one of the aides walks by. He sticks his head in the door, taunting me and laughing. I am a Vietnam veteran, I tell him. I fought in Vietnam and I´ve got the right to be treated decently. `Vietnam,´ the aide says loudly. `Vietnam don´t mean nothing to me or any of these other people. You can take your Vietnam and shove it up your ass.´"[176]

While there is still a part of him that believes that America´s involvement in Vietnam is just, Kovic begins to understand more and more the position of the ones opposed to the war. During his time in Vietnam he had hated the "hippies and draftcard burners"[177] for protesting him when he was putting his live on the line for his country. Yet now he begins to ask himself what he has lost his old life for and whether anything he did in Vietnam made the world any better. Outside the hospital, after a phase of depression and anger, Kovic realizes that he has to say good-bye to his old life and find a new purpose instead of locking himself in. It is during a Memorial Day parade that he realizes that he and another wounded veteran are being exploited as exhibits and he decides to break out of this system. Joining with others he participates in peace demonstrations which are not rarely beaten down by police forces and he starts to speak in school auditoriums to students and pupils about the unglamorous reality of war. The listeners do not always react in a friendly or understanding way:

"Some couldn´t believe the conditions I told them about in the hospitals. Others could not believe anything at all [. . .] I kept receiving letters from people calling me names and telling me what they would do if I didn´t stop aiding the enemy."[178]

The reactions make Kovic realize that despite his disabilities, he is not helpless. He can affect people because he has the power of his voice, the "power to make people remember, to make them as angry as he was every day of his life."[179] The highlight of his cross-country tour to raise awareness is reached when Kovic and two other veterans manage to enter the ceremony of Nixon´s acceptance speech and shout him down during his appearance with a chant against the war.

For Kovic, it is a great relieve to have finally found someone to direct his anger to: the highest representative of the government that has betrayed him. The chapter ends on a tone that lets the reader suspect that there is more to come:

"We had done it. It had been the biggest moment of our lives, we had shouted down the president of the United States and disrupted his acceptance speech. What more was there left to do but go home? I sat in my chair still shaking and began to cry."[180]

9.2. Structure and Narrative Perspective

Similar to Dispatches, Kovic´s story is not only about war itself, but also the development of the individual within the chaos. However, the conventional Bildungsroman journey from innocence to experience does not apply for most Vietnam narratives including Born. They trace "a process of deterioration, an erosion of belief and a disintegration of illusion experienced by nearly all the war´s participants."[181] The bitterness of the returning Vietnam veteran Kovic, who realizes that his sacrifice was a lie, subverts the conventional rite of passage. It is replaced by "a terrifying movement from naïveté to cynicism."[182] Kovic manages to overcome this bitterness and find a new meaning and purpose in life, but the emotional chaos that precedes this step is evident in Born. It can be found in the structure of the novel: Born on the Fourth of July is not told in a chronological way. It begins with the turning point of Kovic´s life, the moments after he gets shot in Vietnam. From then on, Kovic jumps between his time in the hospital, flashbacks from his youth, events of his life in the military and his growing involvement and commitment in the protest movement. In the last chapters, Born closes the circle and returns to Vietnam, describing the events leading up to the moment he was shot. Although a great part of Born is dedicated to Kovic´s realization that he has to step forward and leave his old life behind, Vietnam is framing the story of his life. To use a military term, the Vietnam War "sets up a perimeter" for all other events in Kovic´s life. As hard as he tries to escape out of it and forget about his time there, his paralysis makes him realize that there is no way to flee from one´s own past. He has to come to terms with it and by choosing to make Vietnam the frame of his story, Born acknowledges its significance on a structural level. The seemingly chaotic jumps between different episodes of Kovic´s life also remind the reader of certain characteristics of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS). Zimbardo and Gerrig sum up the most important facts in their definitive book Psychologie: "Beim posttraumatischem Streßsyndrom handelt es sich um eine verzögerte Streßreaktion, die ständing wiederkehrt, auch lange Zeit nach dem traumatischen Erlebnis. [. . .] Begleitsymptome [sind u.a.] Schlafstörungen, Schuldgefühle, überlebt zu haben, Konzentrationsstörungen und gesteigerte Schreckreaktion."[183] The order of the chapters in which memories of Vietnam and chapters written in Stream-of-Consciousness disrupt the flow mirrors the veteran´s struggle to deal with his present life while the past kept intruding in the form of nightmares or sudden flashbacks. Kovic´s approach which is somewhere between novel and autobiography reflects the complicated situation the returning veteran was in not only through the order of the chapters. Some passages are told by a first person narrator, others by a third person narrator. These jumps between the different narrative perspectives happen suddenly, often within the same chapter. As the third person narrator mostly appears in chapters about his childhood and the time before his transformation to a peace activist, it can be seen as a way in which Kovic tries to distance himself from his naïve younger self. Still in the hospital, Kovic increasingly realizes that he is in an "in-between position:

"I still tell people, whoever asks me, that I believe in the war. [. . .] But more and more what I tell them and what I am feeling are becoming two different things. I feel them tearing, tearing at my whole being, and I don´t want to talk about the war anymore."[184]

The last sentence is contradicted by the very fact that Kovic eventually wrote down his story which is another proof of his torn self. Furthermore, the dual perspective enables the reader to read Born not only as Kovic´s personal story. The distance created by the third person narrator expands the focus which would otherwise only be on one single individual. As Kovic never even mentions his name in the episodes written in third person, it becomes clear that not only Kovic, but all veterans had to deal with the same problems to a certain degree.

9.3. Language

As mentioned in the summary, Kovic is very aware of his "power to make people remember." This power is based on language. Born on the Fourth of July uses the full array, permanently changing in style and language. The chapters written in Stream-of-Consciousness are especially memorable because they put the reader in Kovic´s position. The training in the Marine Corps simply overwhelms his senses and he lets the reader take part in this confusing time:

"EYES RIGHT! I WANT YOU TO BELIEVE THIS AFTERNOON THAT THIS THING OUT THERE IS A COMMIE SONOFABITCH and wops and spics and chinks and japs and GET IN FROMT OF YOUR RACKS!! THAT´S NOT QUICK ENOUGH! (never quick enough, eighteen i´m eighteen now) UP! DOWN! GET IT! OUT! GET IT! o mom o please o someone someone help now somebody [. . .] sir my service number is two-oh-three-oh-two­-six-one sir the president of the united states is the honorable Lyndon Baines Johnson sir the vice president is Our Father, Who art in heaven PREPARE TO MOUNT! aye aye sir hallowed be Thy name MOUNT! [. . .] WE ARE THE BEST WE ARE THE BEST WE ARE THE BEST"[185]

Kovic´s own thoughts and doubts and the shouted instructions of his drill sergeants become combined in his head to create a nightmarish crescendo. The doubts he felt get simply rolled over by the sheer intensity of the shouting around him. In the chapter after he accidently shot his own corporal, the Stream-of-Consciousness appears again, this time not interrupted by orders or other shouting. Yet the silence is not comforting at all; Kovic is alone with his guilt. Without any filters, he lets the reader directly take part in his realization that he just killed another human being:

"The corporal is dead and he is dead because of me. Oh god, oh Jesus, I want to cry, I want to scream, I want him to be alive again, I want him to be alive again I want him to be alive again oh god oh Jesus oh god oh god ogod help me, make him feel, bring him back, bring him back wailing and talking, breathing and laughing again. Who who who who who is he? [. . .] Try not to think about it, the thought, the dead thought. [. . .] I want out, I want out, I want out mom mom mom mom mom mom mom." [186]

While such an accident must be traumatic for anyone, Kovic is hit especially hard as his whole belief system was based on patriotic ideals and simplified ideas of heroism. The contrast between the senselessness of the corporal´s death and his belief in the righteousness of the war haunts him. After the memorial service for the corporal, Kovic reflects on the incident:

"There were always the good guys and the bad guys, the cowboys and the Indians. There was always the enemy and the good guys and each of them killed the other. [. . .] The good guys weren´t supposed to kill the good guys."[187]

This shock is one of the reasons for his later transformation into a passionate pacifist. In his sociological study Bringing the War Home, John Helmer explains this development:

"It was the men who were to become radicals who looked forward the most to military service when they were still in high school."[188]

This might sound paradoxical at first, but it makes sense when one examines Kovic´s story more closely. With the very foundation of his ideological world shattered and exposed as a lie, Kovic is forced to find something new to believe in and turns against his old values and the people representing them. The intensity of the initial shock is reflected in the passages written in Stream-of-Consciousness, his thoughts jumping restlessly from one point to another.

This intensity is especially remarkable when those passages are juxtaposed with his treatment of other incidents that must have been at least as emotionally charged. Many chapters, in which Kovic describes his initial problems of his new life in a wheelchair, are narrated in a calm, matter-of-fact way. In short, precise sentences, he elaborates on the things he is no longer able to do and the way he was treated in the hospital. It is the horrifying and drastic comparisons and images that he throws into these descriptions that give the reader an insight into his emotional condition:

"This is a nightmare. This isn´t like the poster down by the post office where the guy stood with the shiny shoes; this is a concentration camp. It is like the pictures of all the Jews that I have seen. This is as horrible as that."[189]

The power of language and its ability to affect reality are main subjects of the novel which is a similarity to Catch 22. The big difference to the latter is that now it is a victim of the war that speaks out, not the system that waged it. It is during a Memorial Day parade that Kovic notices with growing anger the discrepancy between the patriotic words that politicians and military leaders like to use and the less glamorous reality of war.

"I believe in America! shouted the commander, shaking his fist in the air. And I believe in Americanism! The crowd was cheering now. And most of all . . . most of all, I believe in victory for America! He was very emotional. [. . .] These people had never been to his war, and they had been talking like they knew everything, like they were experts on the whole goddamn thing, like he and Eddie didn´t know how to speak for themselves [. . .] They couldn´t speak because of the war and had to have others define for them with their lovely words what they didn´t know anything about."[190]

He knows that something is missing in patriotic slogans and the blind cheering of the crowd and when another veteran in a wheelchair starts yelling "Fuck all of you goddamn motherfuckers! They made me kill babies! They made me kill babies!" Kovic admits that what the veteran was saying was what he "had been feeling for a long time."[191] The explicit words are an expression of all the anger inside him and while he does not use this kind of language when talking to school classes, the reader gets an idea of how strong the urge to tell the truth must have been for him.

Kovic´s story also reveals a communicative problem that has developed in many democracies. Instead of civilized dialogue, the different parties simply yell out their opinion – the idea being that the loudest party must be right. When Kovic manages to get into the ceremony of Nixon´s acceptance speech and starts shouting anti-war slogans together with the other veterans who made it into the hall, the reaction of the crowd is to shout a pro-Nixon chant themselves:

"Stop the bombing, stop the bombing, I screamed. [. . .] Hundreds of people around us began to clap and shout `Four more years, four more years,´ trying to drown our protest."[192]

While the shouting during the ceremony is more of a symbolic act for both sides, the core of the problem remains. Born on the Fourth of July asks very basic questions which are hard to answer because words are not precise and reality can be ambiguous: What is patriotism? Is someone with a "support our troops"-sticker on his car more of a patriot than someone who gave three-quarters of his body for his country and is now yelling against his own government? Kovic himself has been on both sides of this debate in his life and understands the problems. Whenever he looks back on his youth, he wonders what could have been if he had had more information:

"What if I had seen someone like me that day, a guy in a wheelchair, just sitting there in front of the senior class [. . .] Maybe things would have been different. Maybe that´s all it would have taken."[193]

Despite the fact that communication is not always smooth and flawless, Kovic is aware of the importance of symbols and the act of speaking out one´s opinion. Born is therefore not simply against the Vietnam War itself, it is an appeal for debate, an appeal for an active democracy. Yet, Kovic also joins the anti-war movement for reasons which are somewhat self-interested. It is an act that is supposed to diminish his personal responsibility in the war, a question never asked in Born. An examination of the chapters set in Vietnam can give us a better idea of what it was like to be at war there and what it meant for the 19 year old Kovic.

9.4. War and Combat in Born on the Fourth of July

The importance of movies and the influence of the media, already a topic in Dispatches, also plays a major role in Born. The media probably had an even bigger impact on Kovic than on Herr, who was older and more experienced when he went to Vietnam. Additionally, Herr was more aware of certain characteristics of the media and their effects as he was working in this field. Kovic puts a lot of emphasis on the innocence and naïveté of his childhood years. The significance of the distorted media view on reality is expressed by scenes in which the television screen becomes a shrine on which young Kovic´s projects his patriotic dreams:

"I stayed up most of the night before I left, watching the late movie. Then The Star-Spangled Banner played. I remember standing up and feeling very patriotic, chills running up and down my spine. I put my hand over my heart and stood rigid at attention until the screen went blank."[194]

This almost comical image of the young man standing at attention in front of his TV set is supposed to show how he was lured into joining the military. The consistent representation of the war in the media made him believe in something that did not exist this way in reality. The military, aware of their heroic portrayal in the media, used exactly this image (which Herr calls the "John Wayne wetdream"[195] ) to get young men to enlist. In order to make the reader understand how much of a shock the discrepancy between the official version and the reality of the war was to him, Kovic describes the horror of combat and its effect on the men in detail. The senselessness of it all is hard to bear for Kovic. The bloodshed he witnesses on his three combat missions is of no military or moral value at all as he accidently shoots his own corporal on his first mission and a whole hut of children on the next before he himself gets shot in the chest during his third and final combat. While the killing of the corporal is digested in the introspective Stream-of-Consciousness examined in the chapter above, Kovic describes the incidents of his second mission in such a detail that the reader is thrown into the chaotic events, feeling as helpless as young Kovic did at that moment. After the soldiers have emptied their M16s into a hut in which they suspect an armed VC unit, they walk inside and face a horrible scenario:

"Molina turned the beam of his flashlight into the hut. `Oh God,´ he said. `Oh Jesus Christ.´ He started to cry. `We just shot up a bunch of kids!´ The floor of the small hut was covered with them, screaming and thrashing their arms back and forth, lying in pools of blood, crying wildly, screaming again and again. They were shot in the face, in the chest, in the legs, moaning and crying. [. . .] He heard a small girl moaning now. She was shot through the stomach and bleeding out of the rear end. [. . .] He knelt down in the middle of the screaming bodies and began bandaging them, trying to cover the holes where the blood was still squirting out. [. . .] He moved from body to body searching in the dark with his fingers for the holes the bullets had made [. . .] his hands wet from the blood."[196]

The contrast to the septic, clean on-screen death of war movies could not be greater. Kovic does not allow the reader to look away: the scene in the hut goes on for three pages and is painful to read. While an official source might describe the incident with expressions such as collateral damage or friendly fire, Kovic consciously avoids any words which might take away from the horrible reality in the hut.

The constant confrontation with violence and cruelty turns the men numb. Kovic states that he "couldn´t feel too much anymore,"[197] and the way he describes the dead bodies he comes across on patrols ("The dead, he thought, looked kind of funny in a way, kind of very ridiculous."[198] ) gives the reader a good idea of how distorted his perception became because of the constant presence of violence and death. As Michael Herr who compares bodies blown up into a tree to acrobats, the soldiers avoid looking at reality the way it really is. In order to be able to deal with the situation, the men joke about the dead and take souvenir pictures of them – an outrageous behavior from a "normal" point of view but quite regular in wartime. With every night in Vietnam, Kovic´s old identity fades away more and more and is replaced by blind hatred. Kovic admits that this clouded state of mind affected his behavior towards the Vietnamese:

"He remembered how difficult it had been [. . .] to tell the villagers from the enemy and sometimes it had seemed easier to hate all of them, but he had tried very hard not to."[199]

Kovic knows that it seems to be a part of human nature to look away from unpleasant things. He encounters this behavior on many occasions, the arguably most memorable being a conversation with a TV producer who disinvites him from of her show, telling him:

"We´ve seen enough of that. [. . .] Every night for the last couple of years people have seen it on the six o´clock news and they are tired of it."[200]

Kovic´s answer to this ignorance is to force the public´s attention back on him again. In a scene where Kovic, holding up an anti-war sign, is being ignored by a crowd of people waiting in line for Nixon´s acceptance speech ceremony, he asks them a question that is directed at the reader as well:

"Is this too real for you to look at? Is this wheelchair too much for you to take?"[201]

He challenges the reader to endure the violent scenes in Born just as he had to deal with it in Vietnam. On several occasions, he highlights how important it is to know about the true face of war. The spreading of this truth and the justified revolt against his own government that treated him the way it did became Kovic´s mission. In the introduction to Born, he refers to the Vietnam War as his "awakening" and "a blessing in disguise."[202] The main war of his life is not Vietnam, but the continuing conflict back home. For the veterans who had suffered in this war, the war was not over:

"It is war and we are soldiers again, as tight as we have ever been, a whole lost generation of dope-smoking kids in worn jungle boots coming from all over the country to tell Nixon a thing or two. We know we are fighting the real enemies this time – the ones who have made profit off our very lives.[203]

Once again, the actual war is not in the center of attention. Born on the Fourth of July gives thought-provoking impulses about the reasons why men go to war, the ambiguous nature of patriotism and the importance of speaking out the truth. While it might have been a therapeutic process for Kovic to come to terms with his past and present live by writing everything from his chest, the result is a book which is not simply an autobiography of a veteran. His story becomes history. Its lessons are valuable for the whole society, its images part of cultural knowledge and collective memory.

The four novels chosen for this thesis are all part of this collective memory, they provide the words and shared images that make a public discussion about the wars possible, especially to the majority of people who have not witnessed war with their own eyes. There are still many wars and armed conflicts taking place in countries all over the world today. The U.S. is involved in a global war against terrorism and a complicated conflict in the Middle East. On the following pages, major points of the thesis will be summed up and meaning and significance of literature regarding present conflicts will be examined.

10. Conclusion and Future Prospects

By God, we have finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome! President Bush (senior), reporting to Congress the military success in the Persian Gulf, 1991[204]

Guns tell the truth. Guns never say `I am only kidding.´ War is ugly because the truth can be ugly and war is very sincere. The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford[205]

The very different possible approaches to the topic of war, evident in the novels examined above, show how ambiguous reality can be - both in general and in times of war in particular. The ways in which a society or nation remembers a war affects its arts and the arts construct and affect the memory in return. One example of this interdependency is the mystification of the Second World War which has been portrayed in countless movies and pieces of literature in such heroic and patriotic ways that it has been shaped into the Good War in the cultural knowledge of America.

The far-reaching effects of this one-sided and distorted version of an historical event cannot be underestimated. In the next time of crisis, it will largely affect the nation´s decision whether or not it should take up arms again, the expectations of the public and the soldiers about how the war will be fought, and the evaluation of the actual outcome of the war. Without a realistic frame of reference, there is a great risk that government, military and the public might end up confused and overwhelmed when a situation escalates in ways never imagined before. As demonstrated in this thesis, the blind reliance on America´s mythological destiny was part of the reason why the nation got involved in Vietnam and failed to succeed in the progress. By examining and comparing the literature of WW II and Vietnam, one can get a new, multi-faceted perspective on history and understand the events of a certain time period in ways closer to the human experience. America´s decisive role in the Second World War and the belief system of American society at that time are evident in the war literature that emerged in the years after WW II. The narrators of the novels and their perspective on the war and the foreign culture they encountered give the reader an insight into both the positive and negative tendencies of American culture in the middle of the last century. Tales of the South Pacific mirrors both the heroic efforts of American soldiers in the Pacific and their sometimes almost blatantly racist feeling of superiority in their behavior towards the natives or towards the soldiers of the Japanese empire. For the most part, however, literature portrayed WW II in a positive way. The consistent and generally accepted position made it hard to criticize the war without seeming unpatriotic. Heller was one of the first to denounce this circumstance in Catch 22. Its protagonist Yossarian struggles in a social and military system in which symbols and appearance were more important than actual meaning. Language and the ways in which it is manipulated by bureaucracies and leaders were important targets of Heller´s criticism. Despite the success of this critical novel, one has to keep in mind that the novel was published in the sixties and the generation that went to fight in Vietnam grew up with the consistently glorifying version of the war best represented by John Wayne movies. America´s eventual failure in Vietnam had military, political and ideological reasons. Literature can unveil some of these layers. It is evident in Dispatches and Born on the Fourth of July that this war was very different from earlier experiences. The expectations of the young men at the front and the public back home had been shaped and mislead by simplified or one-sided portrayals of reality and both authors realized that new means of perception and narration were necessary. Their experimental style and the ways they portrayed violence and war force the reader to question conventions of journalism and history. It also makes the reader wonder about fundamental American values such as patriotism or courage. Heller´s Yossarian illustrates in Catch 22 that behavior denounced as cowardice can actually be courageous depending on the situation one finds himself in. In a similar way, Kovic redefines patriotism, proving that protesting one´s government and its actions is a part of every healthy democracy. Especially in times of crisis, when it seems easier to join popular opinion groups, standing up for differing beliefs is an act that takes a lot of willpower.

The power of language to shape and influence reality cannot be underestimated in this context. Tales of the South Pacific with its romantic images and avoidance of explicit language created a clean, dreamlike version of the war in the Pacific. It is not hard to imagine that Michener´s portrayal of the war and the Asian people had an influence on many people´s conception of both, especially at a time when the mythologized version of WW II was so consistent in literature, movies and the media was not yet able to provide stories and images the way it did during the Vietnam War. The topic of language is even more important in Catch 22, where Heller creates a world in which the leading classes define reality by determining the meaning of words and shifting the balance between signifier and signified. In Catch 22, symbolic acts and words are more important for one´s success than actual knowledge and talent. The result is a system full of idiotic rules and laws which go against any form of common sense. Although it is written in a satirical way, the novel´s message is serious: disobedience is a virtue in an unjust world. The mysterious Catch-22, which is the source of the authorities´ power in the novel, is simply the absence of this disobedience.

In Dispatches and Born on the Fourth of July, the power of language to affect reality is also a topic in many scenes where the authors criticize the use of euphemisms as they distort and hide the truth. As these euphemisms are still part of media coverage today, Herr´s and Kovic´s demand to look behind the pleasant curtain of ignorance is still up to date. Especially if a nation is to decide whether or not it should send its young men to war, the public should be aware of the reality behind certain terms or expressions. In the introduction to the 2005 edition of Born, Kovic draws parallels between Vietnam and the current conflicts the U.S. is involved in on the basis of the administration´s language:

"We sensed it very early and very quickly. We saw the same destructive patterns reasserting themselves over again as our leaders spoke of bad guys and evil-doers, imminent threats and mushroom clouds, attempting to frighten and intimidate the American people into supporting their agenda. [. . .] Where we learned of the deep immorality and obscenity of war, they learned to be even more brutal, more violent and ruthless, i.e., shock and awe."[206]

Kovic and the other authors criticize the fact that honest communication is nipped in the bud by the language of military leaders and government. It is hard to argue with laws or operations called "Patriot Act" or "Enduring Freedom," because patriotism and freedom are values nobody wants to question. The outcome is a dialogue crippled from the very beginning, as the names themselves make it very hard to have a neutral and rational discussion. This is similar to the result of Captain Black´s loyalty oaths in Catch 22. The mandatory kind of patriotism is a blinding one; it is like walking around with the Star-Spangled Banner tied around one´s eyes.

Wars and enemies change, but history and the literature that accompanies it both demonstrate that certain problems tend to reappear - especially when one does not pay attention to earlier mistakes or misconstrues the past in retrospect. Historian John Rowe calls for an objective and honest debate about the nation´s past:

"Never again should sheer emotional support for our sons and daughters blind us to our patriotic responsibility to assess the reasons and motives for military action – that is, action that would put those very sons and daughters at risk."[207]

The one-sided victory in the first war in the Persian Gulf did not eliminate the "Vietnam syndrome," as President Bush referred to the nation´s feeling of failure and confusion in the sixties and seventies. It heightened the risk that mistakes of the past would be made again because of this new sense of infallibility. To see Vietnam as a unique case of failure sandwiched between the two victories of WW II and the first war in the Persian Gulf is misleading. It leads to the idea that the failure in Vietnam can be traced back to the lack of public support back then and that the victory in the Middle East presents a positive resolution and explanation to the otherwise confusing war in Asia. Critic Philip D. Beidler cautions against this tempting conception as it is short-sighted:

"It is very American, somehow, to want a ten-minute summary of all we have learned from the Vietnam War – just the salient points, please. One suspects that the search for lessons is motivated in part by the desire to `put Vietnam behind us.´ Once the war can be fitted into a vest pocket, it need not occupy us further."[208]

Yet Vietnam won´t go away. Today, the U.S. once again finds itself in a situation in which it seems to struggle to transform its military might into political power. The invasion of Iraq did not turn the country into a peaceful democracy as optimistic voices had said before the war. It has led to a continuing battle against guerilla forces with casualties mounting on both sides. The lack of military strength does not seem to be the problem in Iraq, but the absence of a clear plan for peace. All in all, America has learned from the military mistakes of the past, but the mistakes made on the cultural level might prove more severe. History and the literature of the Vietnam War both illustrate that Nation Building can only be successful if the other nation is willing to transform. Ordering or forcing a new system on a society without taking the regional culture into consideration creates resistance. In Vietnam, this resistance made it difficult for American soldiers to differentiate between friend and foe. The stereotypical portrayal of Muslims and Middle-Eastern people as terrorists with a violent, fundamentalist nature is proof of similar tendencies today. It also diminishes the chances to find allies amongst the insulted nations as this generalizing point of view is condescending and ignorant. This generalization and oversimplification is also evident in the personification of conflicts: Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden are just a few examples of how individuals have been "used to displace more complicated issues of foreign policy."[209] This hunt is a symbolic one, reminiscent of the bombing missions in Catch 22 which are only flown to gather nice aerial shots. It is questionable at least that a successful capture or assassination of Bin Laden would lead to the extinction of terrorism in the world.

The initial question about the lessons that literature of earlier conflicts offers is hard to answer in a concluding way. As illustrated in this thesis, wars have cultural characteristics. The way in which they are fought and perceived is influenced by the arts and in return, wars influence the arts themselves. Because of this interdependent relationship, the novels examined in this thesis can give us a better idea of life in the military and the experiences of soldiers in the respective wars than a solely focus on history or embedded journalism ever could. Michener, Heller, Herr and Kovic did their share to keep the memory of the horrors of war alive – all in their own way. Passing on their stories is itself a kind of politics, as with greater knowledge comes greater responsibility: the responsibility to act instead of only reacting to events and developments. Their message is none of closure; the past cannot be "accomplished." In a world that never stands still, dealing with history and culture is an ongoing process. Like any form of education, it will be a continuing task to "make people remember, to make them as angry as I am,"[210] as Kovic puts it.

In this context, it will be interesting to examine the first literary novels to come out of the wars in the Middle East and the global war on terror. The developments in literature will offer a more detailed insight into the nature of today´s conflicts, the experience of the young men and women involved in it, and the changes that have taken place in the self-perception of America. Religion might play a more important role in the literature concerning the current wars than it did before, as misunderstandings and unfamiliarity in this sector of culture are the source of many fears and a lot of tension between the nations involved. It might still take some time before this new generation of war literature takes form since the current conflicts are not solved yet. Herr and Kovic needed years to write down their stories; Catch 22 was published more than a decade after the war in which it´s story is set was over. New media and new ways of communication which have emerged since the Vietnam War might also affect the way modern wars are being portrayed. In blogs, soldiers and journalists can write down up-to-date reports and impressions of what they are witnessing. Time will tell if these platforms will become generally accepted as a source for serious examination of the topic. While they might offer very direct insights into the warzone, the questionable reliability of these sources forms an obstacle which is hard to overcome.

Despite of the mentioned advantages, the dual approach presented in this thesis is still far from being complete. Especially considering the lack of knowledge on foreign cultures which is (consciously and unconsciously) evident in the novels, and the problems arising out of it, it is necessary to widen the focus. War literature of the other nations which were involved in the wars would add yet another dimension to our understanding of the nature of the conflicts and the culture and mentality of former enemies. This perspective has often been forgotten in the U.S. although the destruction caused by the wars in these countries was far greater than in America. Rowe elaborates on the example of the denial of carnage during the first war in the Persian Gulf:

"Few are bothered by the sketchy information about civilian and Iraqi troop casualties in this six-week war, even though those figures are two to three times greater than all the American casualties suffered in the nine years of U.S. combat in Vietnam."[211]

In the world of today no country can act on a global scale without acknowledging local realities. This includes an active interest in the culture and history of another country, especially in times when the tension between two countries is rising and a military intervention seems inevitable. Due to the ideological foundation of many of today´s conflicts, they cannot be solved by military strength alone. Political strategies will have to change. Literature, too, will have to adapt to the ambiguous conflicts in the world.

Novels are one important medium to make people remember and understand the nature of war in the hope that it might not be repeated. It is then up to us to make the right decisions.

11. Bibliography

Primary sources

Heller, Joseph. Catch 22. London: Vintage, 1994.

Herr, Michael. Dispatches. London: Pan Books, 1977.

Kovic, Ron. Born on the Fourth of July. New York: Akashic Books, 2005.

Michener, James A. Tales of the South Pacific. New York: Fawcett Books: 1973.

Secondary Sources

Adams, Michael. The Best War Ever. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Adhikari, Madhumalati. History and Story: Unconventional History in Michael Ondaatje´s The English Patient and James A. Michener´s Tales of the South Pacific. In: History and Theory, Vol. 41, No. 4, Theme Issue 41: Unconventional History (Dec., 2002) 43-55.

Ambrose, Stephen. Rise to Globalism. Virginia: Penguin Books, 1981.

Bates, Milton. The Wars We Took to Vietnam. London: UCP, 1996.

Beidler, Philip D. Re-Writing America. Athens: UGP, 1991.

Bellamy, Michael. Carnival and Carnage. In: Gilman, Owen & Smith, Lorrie (Ed.). America Rediscovered. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Confino, Alon. Collective Memory and Cultural History: Problems of Method. In: The American Historical Review, Vol. 102, No. 5. (Dec., 1997) 1386-1403.

Cronin, Cornelius . The Atrocity of Vietnam. In: Jason, Philip K. (Ed.). Fourteen Landing Zones. Iowa City: UIP, 1991.

Daum, Andreas. Ed. America, the Vietnam War, and the World. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Dean, Richard and Leitenberg, Milton. The Wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, 1945-1982. Santa Barbara: Clio Press.

Dippel, Horst. Geschichte der U.S.A. München: Beck, 1996.

Eisinger, Chester. Fiction of the Forties. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1963.

Evans, Richard J. In Defence of History. London: Granata Books, 1997.

Fitzgerald, Sister Ellen. World War II in the American Novel. Michigan: Xerox, 1974.

Frederick, John. Fiction of the Second World War. In: College English, Vol. 17, Nr.4 (Jan. 1956) 197-204.

Hansen, J. T. Vocabularies of Experience. In: Gilman, Owen & Smith, Lorrie (Ed.). America Rediscovered. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Hasford, Gustav. The Short-Timers. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.

Hellmann, John. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: CUP, 1986.

Helmer, John. Bringing the War Home. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1974.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner, 1991.

Lawson, Jaqueline. Telling It Like It Was. In: Gilman, Owen & Smith, Lorrie (Ed.). America Rediscovered. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Meredith, James H. Understanding the Literature of World War II. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Olson, James. The Vietnam War. Handbook of the Literature and Research. Westport: Greenwood Press. 1993.

Potts, Stephen. Catch-22 Antiheroic Antinovel. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Pratt, John Clark. Catch-22 and the Vietnam War. In: Jason, Philip K. (Ed.). Fourteen Landing Zones. Iowa City: UIP, 1991.

Rowe, John Carlos. The "Vietnam Effect" in the Persian Gulf War. In: Cultural Critique, No. 19, The Economies of War. (Autumn, 1991) 121-139.

Searle, William. Ed. Search and Clear: Critical Responses to Selected Literature and Films of the Vietnam War. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1988.

Stewart, Matthew. Style in Dispatches. In: Gilman, Owen & Smith, Lorrie (Ed.). America Rediscovered. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Taylor, Mark. The Vietnam War in History, Literature and Film. Edinburgh: EUP, 2003.

Zapf, Hubert. Ed. Amerikanische Literaturgeschichte. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2004.

Zimbardo, Philip and Gerrig, Richard. Psychologie. Berlin: Springer, 1999.


Kriegsveteranen haben doppeltes Selbstmordrisiko (12 June 2007), 20 June 2007,1518,488097,00.html.

The war to end all wars. (1998), 15 May 2007


Full Metal Jacket, dir. Stanley Kubrick, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr, Warner Brothers, 1987.

Platoon, dir Oliver Stone, screenplay by Oliver Stone, Orion Pictures, 1986.


[1] Evans, Richard J. In Defence of History (London: Granata Books, 1997) 62.

[2] Confino, Alon. Collective Memory and Cultural History: Problems of Method. In: The American Historical Review, Vol. 102, No. 5. (1997) 1386-1403, at 1386.

[3] Taylor, Mark. The Vietnam War in History, Literature and Film (Edinburgh: EUP, 2003) 13.

[4] Adhikari, Madhumalati. History and Story: Unconventional History in Michael Ondaatje´s The English Patient and James A. Michener´s Tales of the South Pacific. In: History and Theory, Vol. 41, No. 4, Theme Issue 41: Unconventional History (Dec., 2002) 43-55, at 45.

[5] Dippel, Horst. Geschichte der U.S.A. (München: Beck, 1996) 84.

[6] The War to end all wars. (1998), 15 May 2007

[7] Ambrose, Stephen. Rise to Globalism (Virginia: Penguin Books, 1981) 13.

[8] Dippel, 96.

[9] Ambrose, 31.

[10] Chronik des Zweiten Weltkrieges (Chronik Verlag, 2004) 72.

[11] Dippel, 100.

[12] Chronik, 171.

[13] Ibid, 228.

[14] Fitzgerald, Sister Ellen. World War II in the American Novel (Michigan: Xerox, 1974) 1.

[15] Zapf, Hubert. Ed. Amerikanische Literaturgeschichte (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2004) 265.

[16] Eisinger, Chester. Fiction of the Forties (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1963) 21.

[17] Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Scribner, 1991) 77.

[18] Fitzgerald, 20

[19] Ibid, 31.

[20] Adams, Michael. The Best War Ever (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994) Preface.

[21] Adams, 7.

[22] Ibid, 10.

[23] Michener, James A. Tales of the South Pacific (New York: Fawcett Books: 1973) 379.

[24] Ibid, 9.

[25] Michener, 2.

[26] Ibid, 2.

[27] Adhikari, 48.

[28] Frederick, John. Fiction of the Second World War. In: College English, Vol. 17, Nr.4 (Jan. 1956) 197-204, at


[29] Michener, 120, 147, 162.

[30] Ibid, 11.

[31] Ibid, 171.

[32] Adams, 94.

[33] Michener, 24.

[34] Ibid, 359.

[35] Ibid, 19.

[36] Michener, 30.

[37] Ibid, 60.

[38] Ibid, 115.

[39] Adhikari, 52.

[40] Michener, 374.

[41] Adams, 83.

[42] Bates, Milton. The Wars We Took to Vietnam (London: UCP, 1996) 6.

[43] Taylor, 14.

[44] Adhikari, 53.

[45] Michener, 113.

[46] Ibid, 373.

[47] Ibid, 11.

[48] Michener, 174.

[49] Ibid, 327.

[50] Michener, 91.

[51] Ibid, 79.

[52] Ibid, 108.

[53] Ibid, 111.

[54] Michener, 218.

[55] Ibid, 365.

[56] Ibid, 368 (my italics).

[57] Meredith, James H. Understanding the Literature of World War II (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.) 4.

[58] Heller, Joseph. Catch 22 (London: Vintage, 1994) 26.

[59] Ibid, 161.

[60] Ibid, 63.

[61] Heller, 554.

[62] Ibid, 532.

[63] Ibid, 302.

[64] Heller, 321.

[65] Ibid, 324.

[66] Fitzgerald, 93.

[67] Potts, Stephen. Catch-22 Antiheroic Antinovel (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989) 13.

[68] Meredith, 57.

[69] Potts, 61.

[70] Ibid, 67.

[71] Ibid, 62.

[72] Adams, 10.

[73] Ibid, 10.

[74] Potts, 52.

[75] Heller, 106.

[76] Ibid, 151.

[77] Heller, 148.

[78] Ibid, 149.

[79] Potts, 27.

[80] Potts, 28.

[81] Fitzgerald, 105.

[82] Potts, 35.

[83] Heller, 16.

[84] Heller, 74.

[85] Heller, 436.

[86] Heller, 514.

[87] Potts, 103.

[88] Heller, 516.

[89] Ibid, 95.

[90] Heller, 27.

[91] Ibid, 311-313.

[92] Potts, 115.

[93] Pratt, John Clark. Catch-22 and the Vietnam War. In: Jason, Philip K. (Ed.). Fourteen Landing Zones. (Iowa

City: UIP, 1991) 90.

[94] Ambrose, 75.

[95] Taylor, x.

[96] Dean, Richard and Leitenberg, Milton. The Wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, 1945-1982 (Santa

Barbara: Clio Press) xxi

[97] Full Metal Jacket, dir. Stanley Kubrick, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr,

Warner Brothers, 1987.

[98] Ambrose, 308.

[99] Dippel, 119.

[100] Dean & Leitenberg, xxii.

[101] Taylor, xxii.

[102] Dean & Leitenberg, xxii.

[103] Taylor, 6.

[104] Dean & Leitenberg, xxiv.

[105] Olson, James. The Vietnam War. Handbook of the Literature and Research (Westport: Greenwood Press.

1993) 108.

[106] Dean & Leitenberg, xxiii.

[107] Hasford, Gustav. The Short-Timers (New York: Bantam Books, 1980) 67.

[108] Cronin, Cornelius . The Atrocity of Vietnam. In: Jason, Philip K. (Ed.). Fourteen Landing Zones. (Iowa City: UIP, 1991) 203.

[109] Ibid. 205.

[110] Ibid. 205.

[111] Cronin, 213.

[112] Michener, 87.

[113] Cronin, 211.

[114] Bates, 224.

[115] Herr, Michael. Dispatches (London: Pan Books, 1977) 31.

[116] Daum, Andreas. Ed. America, the Vietnam War, and the World.( New York: Cambridge UP, 2003) 341.

[117] Herr, 24.

[118] Taylor, 18.

[119] Herr, 175.

[120] Searle, William. Ed. Search and Clear: Critical Responses to Selected Literature and Films of the Vietnam War. Bowling Green (Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1988) 43.

[121] Herr, 46.

[122] Stewart, Matthew. Style in Dispatches. In: Gilman, Owen & Smith, Lorrie (Ed.). America Rediscovered (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991) 190.

[123] Hellmann, John. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. (New York: CUP, 1986) 5.

[124] Hellmann, 6.

[125] Ibid, 7.

[126] Bates, 10.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Hellmann, 15.

[129] Bates, 242.

[130] Herr, 11, 79.

[131] Herr, 144.

[132] Bates, 244.

[133] Bates, 244.

[134] Hansen, J. T. Vocabularies of Experience. In: Gilman, Owen & Smith, Lorrie (Ed.). America Rediscovered.

(New York: Garland Publishing, 1990) 134.

[135] Stewart, 190.

[136] Herr, 86.

[137] Ringnalda, 83.

[138] Herr, 169.

[139] Hansen, J. T. Vocabularies of Experience. In: Gilman, Owen & Smith, Lorrie (Ed.). America Rediscovered.

(New York: Garland Publishing, 1990) 134.

[140] Ibid, 137.

[141] Herr, 23.

[142] Herr, 156.

[143] Herr, 78.

[144] Hansen, 139.

[145] Ibid.

[146] Herr, 75.

[147] Hansen, 143.

[148] Herr, 154.

[149] Hansen, 149.

[150] Herr, 167.

[151] Herr, 24.

[152] Bellamy, Michael. Carnival and Carnage. In: Gilman, Owen & Smith, Lorrie (Ed.). America Rediscovered.

(New York: Garland Publishing, 1990) 18.

[153] Herr, 153.

[154] Herr, 169.

[155] Herr, 25.

[156] Platoon, dir Oliver Stone, screenplay by Oliver Stone, Orion Pictures, 1986.

[157] Herr, 14.

[158] Bates, 217.

[159] Herr, 112.

[160] Herr, 57.

[161] Herr, 199.

[162] Herr, 172.

[163] Herr, 200.

[164] Herr, 207.

[165] Herr, 196.

[166] Bates, 255.

[167] Kovic, Ron. Born on the Fourth of July (New York: Akashic Books, 2005) 17.

[168] Kriegsveteranen haben doppeltes Selbstmordrisiko (12 June 2007),1518,488097,00.html.

[169] Lawson, Jaqueline. Telling It Like It Was. In: Gilman, Owen & Smith, Lorrie (Ed.). America Rediscovered

(New York: Garland Publishing, 1990) 369.

[170] Kovic, 57

[171] Kovic, 81.

[172] Ibid, 93.

[173] Ibid, 64.

[174] Ibid, 72.

[175] Ibid, 80.

[176] Kovic, 133.

[177] Ibid, 136.

[178] Kovic, 150.

[179] Ibid, 167.

[180] Ibid, 181.

[181] Lawson, 372.

[182] Ibid.

[183] Zimbardo, Philip. Gerrig, Richard. Psychologie (Berlin: Springer, 1999) 379.

[184] Kovic, 53.

[185] Ibid, 97.

[186] Kovic, 171.

[187] Ibid, 190.

[188] Helmer, John. Bringing the War Home (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1974) 104.

[189] Kovic, 48.

[190] Ibid, 110.

[191] KovicIbid 129.

[192] Kovic, 181.

[193] Ibid, 142.

[194] Kovic, 83.

[195] Herr, 24.

[196] Kovic, 200.

[197] Ibid, 208.

[198] Ibid, 206.

[199] Ibid, 197.

[200] Kovic, 148.

[201] Ibid, 177.

[202] Ibid, 24.

[203] Ibid, 170.

[204] Rowe, John Carlos. The "Vietnam Effect" in the Persian Gulf War. In: Cultural Critique, No. 19, The Economies of War. (Autumn, 1991) 121-139, at 121.

[205] Hasford, 98.

[206] Kovic, 22 (my italics).

[207] Rowe, 122.

[208] Beidler, Philip D. Re-Writing Americ a (Athens: UGP, 1991) 267.

[209] Rowe, 134.

[210] Kovic, 167.

[211] Rowe, 128.


ISBN (eBook)
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Institution / Hochschule
Universität Augsburg
2008 (April)
Literature Comparison American Literature Vietnam war

Titel: Literature at War  -  A Comparison of American War Literature of WW II and the Vietnam War
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83 Seiten