Tell me Lies About Vietnam (1989)

Inter-Arts 9 (1989)

Tell me Lies About Vietnam: Cultural Battles for the Meaning of the War, edited by Alf Louvre and Jeffrey Walsh. For the F.V.A.C. Research Group, Open University Press (Milton Keynes and Philadelphia) 1988. xiv + 217pp., £27.50 hardback, £9.95 paperback.

As against specialist analyses ... we wished to explore a range of discourses, some of which have so far received scant attention (hence our concern for visual and aural as well as exclusively verbal modes – for cartoons, comics, songs and films as well as poetry and the novel). This range inevitably means that the collection offers sample studies, test cases and work-in-progress rather than the definitive scholarly last word. [‘Preface’, p.xii.]

This passage from the editors’ preface to the latest collection of ‘revisionist’ essays about Vietnam encapsulates both the virtues and vices of their book. On the one hand, many of the contributions are excellent and intriguing (notably the essays by the editors themselves –their joint introduction, Alf Louvre’s ‘The Reluctant Historians: Mailer and Sontag as Culture Critics’, and Jeffrey Walsh’s ‘First Blood to Rambo: A Textual Analysis’). On the other hand, there is a basic unclearness about the aims of the project, imperfectly masked by critical rhetoric (‘visual and aural as well as exclusively verbal modes’), which has resulted in the inclusion of many flawed and tendentious pieces – above all, Antony Easthope’s ‘Realism and Its Subversion: Hollywood and Vietnam’, which succeeds in turning a potentially fascinating subject into a babel of conflicting jargons. Easthope’s description of the opening scene of Apocalypse Now is perhaps the clearest example of this: “From its start in the hotel room where Willard, punching his image in a mirror, tries to break out of a close dyadic world of self on self, the man is always in search of a symbolic position outside himself with whom he can identify” (p.41).

The trouble with this sort of statement is that, leaving aside its potential status as self-parody, it actually serves to obscure Easthope’s argument rather than advancing it. One ends up knowing less about the film than when one started, with the dubious privilege of assenting to such judgements as “Every film of the [Vietnam] period, then, contains an implicit, sub-textual reference to the war (how could it not?” (p.34). How, indeed? How, to take the argument a little further, could it not contain a reference to the Second World War – or to Edison’s invention of the moving-picture camera? It is not that Easthope’s statements are in themselves foolish or wrong (indeed, his central point, that the successive waves of Vietnam films to date have played a more important role in echoing the various stages in the American public’s perception of the war, than in portraying its actual character, is a good one) – rather, it is that in overstating his points, and introducing random critical sophistications from other genres (such as Beckett’s definition of the ‘three laughs’, which reads even in context as a pointless distinction) he manages to discredit his own theoretical enterprise.

Even some of the best essays in the collection lapse occasionally into portentous assertions which serve to damage a carefully presented case (James Aulich’s ‘Cartoon Representatives of the Vietnam War in the British Press’ is a case in point). The book’s undoubted successes, by contrast, lie in encouraging a closer scrutiny of the ‘range of discourses’ which have so far lain outside the field of Academic criticism. David Huxley’s entertaining account of the response of American war comics to Vietnam is perhaps the best of these, but W.D. Ehrhart on the poetry of the war, Jeffrey Fenn on the dramatic response, and Robert Hamilton on British photojournalism also deserve mention.

The question of the scope of their book is, of course, addressed by the editors in the statement I have quoted above (‘sample studies, test cases and work-in-progress’) – but unfortunately the ideological presuppositions about Vietnam’s importance, which they share with the majority of their contributors, mean that this ‘tentativeness’ is often a mask for a deeper consensus on the ways in which the war has been falsified in most of our channels of communication. (A consensus, what is more, which they have explicitly absolved themselves from justifying, since they are not providing the ‘definitive scholarly last word’.) This does not seem to me a fatal objection to the work (by and large, I must admit, I am in accord with their ideological bias) – but it certainly illuminates the dangers of assuming that your case has been proved when in fact you have done nothing but present a set of materials that might, some day, contribute to such a solution.

As John Storey entertainingly puts it in his essay ‘Rockin’ Hegemony’, about the response of rock music to the war; ‘What I mean is this: the fact that Country Joe and the Fish sang songs against the war was enough to make all their songs seem implicitly against the war” (p. l88). What I mean is this – the fact that one has compiled and classified a series of responses to Vietnam in different media does not add up to a consistent view from which one can generalize. The war was ‘appropriated’ by various Interest groups – and (as is common in such cases) it is now impossible to disentangle what was appropriation and what was reality, but the infinite suffering and death that was inflicted on Indo-China by the Americans and their allies seems to me to be a fact which somewhat outweighs the importance, in the final analysis, of yet another spate of Narcissistic films and books about ‘the end of American innocence’. The virtues of this book lie in its particularity – its emphasis on individual artists (Ralph Steadman, Tim Page, Susan Sontag) and popular media (cartoons, comic books, rock music). Its errors reside in the assumption that some over-view of the falsification of the war can be deduced from all this – an attitude which is, in itself, as dangerous a ‘lie’ about Vietnam as any of those which the contributors expose.


Inter-Arts: A Quarterly Journal of Cultural Connections 9 (1989): 31.

[1000 wds]

Inter-Arts 9 (1989)

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