Back in the World: Vietnam Veterans through Popular Culture
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In his Dispatches, Michael Herr quotes the gonzo photojournalist Tim Page: "Take the glamour out of war! I mean, how the bloody hell can you do that?[...] Ohhhh, war is good for you, you can't take the glamour out of that. It's like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones." This dissertation is in essence an exploration of Page's question, examining how popular media during the American conflict in Indochina first removed and then restored the glamour of war. For most of its history, the United States has been defined by a certain level of militarism, a glamorizing of the process of regeneration through violence reflected in this quotation, but the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a challenging of this warrior ethos; this challenge was reversed by the 1980s, when American militarism was taken to a new, paramilitary, level. In this project, I propose that this oscillation in the association of masculinity and violence was directly linked to popular media's depiction of the Vietnam war and of the soldiers who fought it. American society is haunted by Vietnam, not just because it was the first war the US lost (as the cliché would have it), but because of the ways in which popular culture presented the war to Americans: in particular, because of the ways the American public received this war through the emerging technologies of their television screens. The rapid response of television news to the conflict created an image of mundane warfare not through any intention on the part of broadcasters but because of the nature of the medium itself; over the next twenty years this image was both mystified and moderated by the more delayed media of film and literature and eventually molded into the now-familiar Vietvet killing machine.
In five chapters, I chronicle the evolution of the iconic Vietvet through the twenty years following the war. Following the methods of Raymond Williams and the Birmingham School, I trace the history and development of images from Vietnam as well as the interaction of those images with popular narratives of war, violence, masculinity and heroism in America. I start with Susan Jeffords' work in The Remasculization of America, taking her emphasis on the cultural narratives that fostered the restoration of patriarchal ideologies; I then move through Marita Sturken's discussion of the creation of cultural memory from historical artifacts in Tangled Memories. To these foundational texts, I bring an emphasis on form and technology to shift the focus from the narratives to the mechanisms of transmission themselves. In my first chapter, I show how the relatively new medium of television, and the depiction on the nightly news of Vietnam as both mundane and corrupt, called into question the image of the heroic soldier, finally replacing that image with the demon of the uncontrollable violent vet, driven insane by an unjust war. My next two chapters look at how this image was rehabilitated through its recharacterization in the less immediate channels of novels and film, a recharacterization driven by national debates over the diagnosis of PTSD and the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And in my final two chapters, I show how the image of the overly-muscled Supervet killing machine from pulps and blockbusters replaced the broken, victimized effigy.
I focus on the evolving history of veterans of the Vietnam War in particular because the strong interdependence of the history of that war and popular culture functions as a spotlight on the nature of the relation between media, history and cultural memory. Television coverage of the Vietnam War to a large extent worked not only to expose the inherent immorality of that particular conflict, but also of war more generally and of the image of the soldier hero. But in the two decades between the end of the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, the standard history of the war had resolidified into one glorifying combat and violence. By looking at this changing social understanding of Vietnam, I hope to reveal the greater mechanisms by which the newly emerging media technologies of the 1960s through the 1980s drastically changed the nature of representation of warfare, violence, and masculinity: first routinizing, then rejecting, and finally enthroning the image of the explosively violent soldier yoked to the state.
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