The Vietnam Reader – Review

The Vietnam Reader. Ed. Stewart O’Nan. New York: Doubleday, 1998. Print.

I do not review every book I read. Some because they are not worth reviewing, and some because I feel that I have nothing to add to the discussion. I have looked over and read large portions of The Vietnam Reader, but I decided that I did have a little to add to the discussion.

This is a large anthology (724 pages) that does cover the American writings related to the war pretty well. It is arranged somewhat chronologically. There are songs, poems, articles, short stories, and selections from books, both fiction and nonfiction.

While it does have an excerpt from Robin Moore’s The Green Berets, it focuses on the protest literature. The introductions to each section are well thought out and helpful. O’Nan’s observations on some of the stereotypes speak volumes. Except for discussions of the films about the war, nearly everything included was written by a veteran or journalist involved in the war.

The editor notes that these are all American writers because that is how he limited his anthology. There are no Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, or Australian writers here. It would be appropriate for a college level class looking over the literature of the war. O’Nan put it together because there was nothing like it for a class he wanted to teach. He has done a good job.

There are numerous selections from Tim O’Brien. Songs range from Barry Sadler’s “Green Berets” to Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag.” The selection from Bloods was very moving. A poem called “Christmas” may be one of the most effective. It is written from the point of view of a Hessian mercenary at Trenton: It makes us see the American soldiers like the Hessians of the Revolution, outsiders inserted into someone else’s war.

Except that it wasn’t. The French were interested in our War for Independence. So Russia and China were interested in Indochina, and the United States got involved as well. As Tom Lehrer would say, “Who’s next.”

I really appreciated O’Nan’s brief reviews of the main films about the war. He notes that there was a lot of stereotyping and a lot of inaccuracies in most of them. The most glaring omission is that he does not even mention The Hanoi Hilton. I recall reading back in the eighties that veterans of the war thought that film was the most realistic. However, it was spiked by the press. Hardly anyone reviewed it, so few theaters showed it. It was spiked for political reasons because it did not fit the left-wing worldview of most of the media at the time. Alas, it appears that O’Nan spiked it, too. He did not even name it in his list of “other films.”

I appreciated what he wrote about Apocalypse Now. It is visually effective and a stunning story. I have shown it to my classes, but not my American Literature classes. I show it during my British Literature classes when we study Heart of Darkness. It is truly not so much about the Vietnam War but a retelling of the Conrad novel.

The other surprising omission is anything by Robert Olen Butler. He was a veteran of the war as well, and his stuff is some of the best story telling to come out of the war. Some of his short stories are perfect tales. He was a naval supply officer who had studied the Vietnamese language, not a “grunt” like most of the authors included. His writings have been some of the few by Americans who wrote about Vietnamese as much as Americans. The only thing I can imagine is that either Butler or his publisher did not give O’Nan permission to include any of his work in the anthology.

Still, if one were using The Vietnam Reader for a class on the war, it would be easy enough to supplement it with the missing film and works by Butler. It would probably get some students interested in reading the entire books such as Bloods, Dear America, The Green Berets, or any of the O’Brien books.

This may not be as thorough a review as some other books reviewed here, but I felt I could add a few comments to the discussion. Why did all the elites hate The Hanoi Hilton so much when the veterans called it the best?

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