Fiction and Memoirs, Vietnam

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The Vietnam War spawned a large number of informative and artistically successful memoirs and novels. These personal accounts and works of fiction helped readers to understand the war from a variety of perspectives and often in considerable depth. In addition, they reflected societal attitudes and helped to transform those attitudes, especially regarding American war veterans and the war itself.

coming-of-age memoirs

Some of the best novelists of the war, such as Philip Caputo and Tim O'Brien, first wrote memoirs of their actual experiences before turning to novels. The two genres share narrative techniques and thematic concerns, most strikingly the coming-of-age motif, with the young soldier typically advancing from idealism and naïveté to disillusionment and skepticism regarding those political and military figures who controlled the prosecution of the war and the fate of its combatants. Among these coming-of-age memoirs are O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1969), Caputo's A Rumor of War (1977), Ronald Glasser's 365 Days (1971), and Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July (1976). Kovic's memoir became the basis for a popular film in 1989 directed by Oliver Stone. Michael Herr's Dispatches (1978), something of a hybrid—part memoir, part reportage—is a powerful rendering of the war as seen by combat infantrymen and by a perceptive and sympathetic journalist.

Most published memoirs are by male veterans, but one of the finest examples of the genre is Lynda Van Devanter's Home Before Morning (1983). Van Devanter chronicles her departure from the United States as a young, idealistic nurse. She returns to the States emotionally scarred, only gradually realizing that she shares with many male combat veterans (and other women veterans) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her ultimate success in gaining recognition for her role in the war and her at least partial recovery from PTSD represent struggles faced by large numbers of women veterans of the Vietnam War.

novels: from enthusiasm to disillusionment

Many of the early novels depicting the Vietnam War were strongly supportive of the war effort, including Robin Moore's The Green Berets (1965), later made into a film starring John Wayne (1968); Carl Krueger's Wings of the Tiger (1966); and Peter Derrig's The Glory of the Green Berets (1967). That most of these novels are artistically forgettable does not negate their enthusiasm for fighting the war, an enthusiasm at least partly explained by the strong support that the Vietnam War enjoyed in the United States during the early and mid-1960s.

David Halberstam, a prominent journalist who initially supported the Vietnam War, marks a turning point in American attitudes toward the war in his novel One Very Hot Day (1967). The novel's sense of hopelessness about the military effort parallels America's growing opposition to the war after the large military buildup of 1965, opposition that accelerated quickly after the Tet Offensive of 1968.

The 1970s saw not only a growing number of novels about the war but an increasing diversity of perspectives. Many novels showed aspects of the conflict not widely known to the civilian population: the brutality of combat in Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers (1979), transformed into the powerful film Full Metal Jacket in 1987; the narcotics trade in Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers (1974); and racial conflict in John Crowther's Firebase (1975).

Also in the 1970s the Vietnam War novel began to take a close look at Vietnamese, including the enemy. The Defector (1970), by the television correspondent Charles Collingwood, James Carver's The Shadows in Go-Yeu (1971), and Lloyd Little's Parthian Shot (1975), examine objectively, even sympathetically, the enemy's viewpoint, determination, and humanity.

Possibly the finest novel ever written about the war, Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (1978), won the National Book Award. The complex structure and mixture of realism and fantasy in the book symbolize a war that many Americans believed possessed no logical coherence or order in its planning and implementation.

Serious recognition of women veterans in novels, as in memoirs and American society, was slow in coming. Until publication of Patricia L. Walsh's Forever Sad the Hearts (1982), most novels about women in the war were superficial romances, among them several with the title Vietnam Nurse—by Della Field (1966), Suzanne Roberts (1966), and Ellen Elliott (1968).

During the postwar years, novelists continued to present vivid accounts of combat: James Webb's Fields of Fire (1978), John Del Vecchio's The 13th Valley (1982), and Philip Caputo's DelCorso's Gallery (1983), the latter narrated through the eyes of a news photographer.


As the United States moved farther away from the war years, the fictional focus began to shift more toward postwar veterans. Once again fiction paralleled and contributed to societal concerns, as American society reached a better understanding of the hardships that the veteran faced both in Vietnam and upon returning to this country. Philip Caputo's Indian Country (1987) and Larry Heinemann's National Book Award-winning Paco's Story (1986) are about men trying to cope with the consequences of their war experiences. James Webb in Lost Soldiers (2001) narrates the story of a veteran who returns to Vietnam, a land he had come to love, to search for the remains of soldiers missing in action. In Carry Me Home (1995), John Del Vecchio follows a group of veterans home from Vietnam, where they encounter new sorts of conflicts. Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country (1985) focuses on a teenage girl's search to discover her father, who died in Vietnam before her birth. Mason's novel brings Vietnam War fiction full circle. Her protagonist's search is also society's attempt to understand who these young men and women who died in Vietnam really were and to grasp the scope and historical significance of their sacrifice.

vietnamese refugees

Those American soldiers who survived the war were soon joined by large numbers of Vietnamese displaced by the war. Once again American novels reflected the new social realities associated with the conflict, with many featuring Vietnamese communities in America and relationships between war veterans and the newcomers. Notable novels dealing with Vietnamese immigrants include Wayne Karlin's Lost Armies (1989), Charles McDade's The Gulf (1986), and Robert Olin Butler's The Deuce (1989). The Deuce also chronicles the story of a "child of dust," the offspring of a Vietnam veteran and a Vietnamese woman.

Memoirs and novels about the Vietnam War provided new insights into the veteran and his (or her) various roles within the war. Through the literature of the war, readers could better understand how the Vietnam experience affected the lives of veterans and the society to which most of them returned. The legacy of the Vietnam War continues to influence American society and culture in the twenty-first century.


Beidler, Philip D. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

Jason, Philip K., ed. Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Lomperis, Timothy J. "Reading the Wind": The Literature of the Vietnam War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.

Newman, John, with Hilfinger, Ann. Vietnam War Literature: An Annotated Bibliography of Imaginative Works About Americans Fighting in Vietnam, 2d edition. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1988.

Schroeder, Eric James. Vietnam, We've All Been There: Interviews with American Writers. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.

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

Taylor, Mark. The Vietnam War in History, Literature, and Film. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Walsh, Jeffrey. American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.

Edward J. Rielly

See also:Popular Culture and Cold War; Vietnam Veterans; Vietnamese and Hmong Refugees; Who Served in Vietnam?

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Fiction and Memoirs, Vietnam

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