by Peter Byrne
(Swans - October 22, 2012) Why Are We in Vietnam? Norman Mailer's novel of 1968 is set in Alaska and only mentions Vietnam once or twice in 224 pages. We could even say the action takes place in the eighteen-year-old head of a white Texan who the author, teasing us, says might be black and from Harlem. Before you growl something about Mailer's soixante-huitard somersaults, try to name another antiwar novel of the time that merits rereading. Agitprop ephemera there were in plenty, all shouting at the top of their voice. They told how "our boys" were suffering out there for no good reason. Some writers even looked into what the other side -- the evil empire of the day -- might be feeling. There was the usual preoccupation with military tactics, lethal bombardments, banging and clanging, crucified civilians.
Mailer took all that for granted, as obvious, needing no substantiation. What interested him was the kind of people that would lend themselves to waging that kind of war. Not that on other occasions over his sixty years of writing he had not displayed a blown mind or entangled himself in frivolous side issues in a one-man personality cult. Even on the Vietnam issue he would spout plenty of nonsense when throwing punches in debater's mode. Ridicule he would risk for the sake of notoriety, but he was never anything but firmly against the war in Vietnam.
Like many young writers, Mailer had contributed to Partisan Review. It had begun in 1934 as the voice of the John Reed Club, the arts branch of the American Communist Party. Arty and up-market, it served as an alternative to the more proletarian New Masses and featured university thinkers, disdaining the cruder forms of propaganda. With the rise of Stalinism, Partisan Review took an anti-Soviet stance with Trotskyist trimmings. In the 1950s it moved away from the international left altogether and became a fierce proponent of the Cold War while maintaining sufficient arrogance to mark it off from less expensively educated patriotism. By the mid-1960s the editors' statement on the war in Vietnam shows them worthy of an invitation to the White House. (All the passages quoted here can be found in the paperback anthology of 1,328 pages that Mailer published in 1999, The Time Of Our Time, Modern Library, ISBN-10: 0375754911.)
We do not think that the present or past policies of the United States in Vietnam are good ones, and we lament the increasing and often self defeating military involvements which those policies require. We have not heard of any alternative policy, however, which would actually lead to a negotiated peace in Vietnam or promote the interest of the people of Southeast Asia. This is not to say that the critics of American actions in Vietnam are therefore required to propose a specific policy. But it is not unfair to ask that their criticism be based on more than the apolitical assumption that power politics, the Cold War, and Communists are merely American inventions. Most of the criticism of Administration policy at the teach-ins and in the various petitions we have been asked to sign has simply taken for granted that everything would be fine if only the Yanks would go home. It is not clear whether these critics think Asia will not go Communist if American troops are withdrawn or whether they don't care. Nor is it clear whether they really care what happens to the people of Southeast Asia so long as America gets out.
In Partisan Review's high-toned exercise in weaseling out, we can bring the wording up to date:
- "Apolitical" = Not the editors' politics.
- "The Cold War" = The Global War on Terror (GWOT); or if you are not afraid of blushing, "Operation Enduring Freedom" (OEF); or, if you have no sense of humor at all, "Operation Infinite Justice" (OIJ).
- "Yanks" = The crumbling Coalition of the -- more or less -- Willing. Also NATO far from the North Atlantic.
- "Asia going Communist" = Establishing havens for terrorists to strike the Homeland, i.e., Omaha and Peoria.
- "Negotiated peace" = No talking to the Taliban except on our terms even though the Taliban have already won. Any talk, moreover, must be under the table for the sake of our sensitive generals, the folks back home and votes.
- "Really care what happens" = Hamid Karzai and his drug-dealing cronies don't want to leave power via helicopter from the roof of the sacked US Embassy à la Saigon.
- "People of Southeast Asia" = The Afghans, especially those poor little girls weighed down by their head scarves for whom our heroes with their drones have come to make possible a genuine American teenage experience.
We can hardly blame Mailer for countering this evasive and so very "responsible" hypocrisy with one of his cocktail-party numbers where the drinks get spilled. He will have something important to say about Vietnam, but it will come in his fiction. He was a narrator, a storyteller. His forays into policy debate are simply airings for his ego and grabs at attention, more publicity.
What Mailer offers the Partisan Review editors as an alternative policy is simply to get out of Asia and leave it to the Communists. He's with Mercutio's "A plague a' both your houses." "A Communist bureaucrat is not likely to do any more harm or destroy any more spirit than a wheeler-dealer, a platoon sergeant, or a corporation executive overseas." As the Communist world holdings grow, so will conflict between its members, says Mailer, citing the USSR's falling-out with Red China. Once his "policy statement" made, he set off pyrotechnics in one long sentence that's worth remembering because from it flows his remarkable novel, Why Are We In Vietnam?
If the Lord of the Snopes went to war in Vietnam because finally he didn't have the moral courage to try to solve an impossible mix of Camp, redneck, civil rights, street violence, playboy pornography, and all the glut that bugs our works, if Lyndon Johnson finally decided in his fine brain that only a war was going to get America off the pot (we were that mercilessly screwed to the john by fifty years of smelling our national armpit every time the truth rose up to kiss us), well, what he didn't realize was that the war in Vietnam was not going to serve as cloaca for our worst emotions but instead was going to up the ante and give us more Camp, more redneck, more violence in the streets, more teenage junkies, more polite society gone ape, more of everything else Lyndon was trying to ship overseas.
Mailer's speech at Berkeley on Vietnam Day took another tack. As a novelist and explorer of personality there were more directions he could go in than points on the compass. After beginning by declaring that at the moment we all suffered from alienation, especially the villain of the hour, President Johnson, Mailer gave a bleak review of the country's history in his lifetime. Then he pulled a trick out of his sub-Hemingway locker: If we insisted on continuing the war in Vietnam we ought to fight it on a man-to-man basis without any technology at all, Marine against Vietcong, as in bare-fist boxing. Until this bout was arranged, Mailer suggested that his audience flood the world with tiny pictures of Lyndon Johnson that would be stuck upside-down on all reachable surfaces.
While the orator Mailer never stopped gushing high-octane hooey, his novelist double wrote the stunning Why Are We In Vietnam? It would be wrong to assume that there was no connection between the two. In matters of form, Mailer's novels had never been innovative. The Naked And The Dead of 1948 had been a realistic novel, just that much more realistic than expected. Between 1951 and 1965, Barbary Shore, The Deer Park, and An American Dream stood out for their audacious subject matter, not for their original shape or verbal weave. Long afterward in 1991, Harlot's Ghost delighted in a cynical view of the C.I.A., but its epistolary framework and too-sensitive narrator harked back to Edwardian days. The Castle In The Forest that Mailer finished in 2007, the year he died, had the structure, pace, and length of a Victorian novel.
Why Are We In Vietnam? stepped out of line and was anomalous in more ways than one. With it Mailer managed to channel the wild fantasy of his oratorical riffs into a novel that was consistent from beginning to end. Like an allegory, the story, complete in itself, floats above American reality of 1968 and, unusual for Mailer, leaves connecting the two levels to the reader. The texture of the prose was new in Mailer, a kind of 1960s jive talk that he put in the mouth of his narrator, the eighteen-year-old D.J., "disk jockey to the world." The style triumphs because Mailer maintains it throughout at the same driving pace with a mesmeric effect.
In the early pages there's mention of William H. Burroughs, and it's conceivable that Mailer got the idea for his novel from Burroughs's Naked Lunch that had been around for several years by 1967 and was much admired, as was all Burroughs's work, by Mailer: "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius." If so influenced, Mailer was only repeating a feat he would perform on the "New Journalism." Taking a hint from other writers, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, and Hunter S. Thompson, he wrote his Armies of the Night in 1968. He would then by sheer energy and talent take New Journalism over, as it were, himself king of the hill, with Miami And The Siege of Chicago, Of A Fire On The Moon, The Fight, and more. Likewise, if the suggestion of a style for Why Are We In Vietnam? came from Burroughs, Mailer would surpass him in coherence, consistency, and seriousness of intent. Mailer said something profound and deadly about America while Burroughs only played the naughty, spoiled son of the Republic.
What the eighteen-year-old recounts in his hopped-up language is a hunting trip he made with his father, Rusty, to the Brooks Range of Alaska two years before. Rusty was a prototypal Texas top-of-the-ladder corporate honcho. Far from having acquired some humanity in his global business dealings, Rusty -- not unlike some well-traveled military men -- remained a redneck primitive. Competition rules him in his outdoor leisure just as it does in the defense of his corner office in corporate headquarters back in Dallas. In Alaska he immediately comes to grips with an illustrious white hunter. Big Luke's reputation as a guide of expeditions is so exalted that billionaires and world leaders have to suck up to him. If he leads them to a rich kill of the biggest game, their reputation as real men is made. If not, they return to the office with their manhood shrunken and -- it happens -- on their way down in the commercial or political hierarchy.
The laconic Luke knows all this, of course. He recognizes Rusty's crude need to score and enjoys keeping him from big kills for a while. But Luke, though not incorporated, is a businessman too. Eventually he brings in the aircraft.
We broke open a war between us and the animals. That helicopter made us like a bee pulling honey from flower after flower. Among the five of us safari payers we had a limit of twenty-five assorted grizzly, moose, ram, goat, and caribou.
What D.J. has witnessed at sixteen is a struggle in which the heaviest technology has been pitted against vulnerable prey to satisfy one macho's need to display his cojones. D.J., who has not been edified, will be drafted two years later to join in the competition. The ambiguity about his possible blackness lets us know that other young men, not all of them the sons of corporation executives, are in the same drunken boat. The answer to the question of why they will be in Vietnam is that men like Rusty have a headlock on the American psyche.
True to his novelist's slant, looking into people and their interactions, Mailer saw the drive to war in the perspective of character. It's a valid approach for a writer working in fiction especially when put across so vividly. We will have to look elsewhere for a more explicit description of the economic and social forces behind the conflict of nations. Enough that one writer has shown how the workings of his imagination can tell us more than slogan-laden polemics.
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