Poetry of the Vietnam War
The prevalent nature of dissident poetry in the period of the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975) is unsurprising for a war grounded in ideological discourse. The political rhetoric of necessary justification for the cause against an inherently evil cause – communism – became a shared mindset in American culture. The ideological justification, through the propagation of the burning need to protect the American symbols of democracy, freedom, and with it, capitalism, became a widespread cause.
As Subarno Chatterji (1997) writes, support for the Vietnam War was rooted in the “assumption that the modern-day American pioneers would rescue the nation from the perceived evils of a political ideology that seemingly threatened freedom and democracy” (p. 141). As is the case with modern war rhetoric, justifying conflict relied upon the idea of a necessary evil, an antagonist on the world’s stage who threatened the ideals and culture of the predominant power. As such, justification for the Vietnam War played upon prevalent fears of communism in American culture. As Paul Haridakis (2021) argues, “after WWII, fear of Communism became more intense, particularly following the Soviet Union’s annexation of Eastern Europe” (p. 201).
Government policy during the Cold War (1947 – 1991) intensely focused on a “policy of containment”, reliant on general support that could only occur with the widespread underlying fear of communist domination. Haridakis (2021) warns about the government’s role in sustaining communist fear with “government-sponsored propaganda; films, audio, and printed materials [...] fueling an underlying fear of the threat of Communism” (p. 202). Films such as Big Jim McLain and Red Nightmare were a major part of the fear campaign, featuring inherently bad communists who plotted to infiltrate and spread their ideological mission as a way to destroy democratic freedom. Thus, deeply rooted and intertwined were the conflict in Vietnam and this frenzy of fear, the Office of War and Mobilisation and Reconversion worked directly with the film industry in Hollywood (Haridakis, 2021, p. 205), evidencing the contribution of media ideological direction in the rallying of the war effort.
The desire to protect the nation, their families, and their ideological democratic roots then became an intense incentive for support of the Vietnam War. The concerns were not only in domestic interests. Chatterji (1997) speaks of “America’s obsession with making the world safe for democracy”, citing a “quasi-religious fervour” with which they believed Vietnam was a nation in need of protection against communism so that it would serve as a “proving ground for democracy” (p. 141). Referred to as the “white man’s duty” (p. 14, the protection of the democratic state became a necessary endeavour – a burden of protection that could only be completed by the strong, ideologically-correct American people.
What role did the proliferation of anti-communist discourse as a justification for the war effort has upon the poetry of the period? Michael Bibby (1993) speaks of the Vietnam War as an “incitement to discourse in American culture” (p. 159), whilst Chatterji (1997) refers to the direct response of war poetry to the “political rhetoric that created and sustained the war” (p. 144). It is significant to realise that the Vietnam War was a failure. The war cost nearly 60,000 American lives, with many more casualties. The American military’s brutal tactics and inability to adapt to the terrain and mindset of their enemy led to brutal losses and astounding failure.
Under the pretence of fighting the war in the defence of the Vietnamese people, missions such as the My Lai Massacre – where US soldiers massacred hundred of defenceless civilians – severely undermined support for the war both at home and from the Vietnamese citizens. The ideological justification for the war became less and less compelling, and the loss of support at home took a toll on those soldiers who believed their actions to be a just endeavour. Disillusionment was widespread, as a once victorious effort came to be known as a failure. Opinion towards the war turned sour, as victories turned pyrrhic and failures incited the peace effort at home even deeper into their anti-war endeavours. As Bibby (1993) attests, the War become immortalised as “the war [America] lost” (p. 158).
Poetry surfacing in the midst of, and out of, the Vietnam War, responded directly to the pervasive ideological and political rhetorics that formed the root of their disillusionment. As Chatterji (1997) notes, the poetry of the Vietnam War directly “questions the [...] benelovent, self-congratulatory political rhetoric that created and sustained the war” (p. 144). The act of writing became an intervention against dominant rhetorics, as a way to reclaim the war, and “reconstitute projections of Vietnam” (p. 144). This is supported by Rick Berg, who speaks of deep anxiety within the soldiers, as they “desperately [sought] to win the lost war” (Bibby, 1993, p. 159).
Marvin Bell’s What Songs the Soldier’s Sang (1965) epitomises this very reclamation, bringing perceptions of the war away from dominant ideological rhetoric, focusing on the soldier’s perspective of disillusionment. In the poem, the speaker laments the “idea of breakfast” (line 6) which became a favourite evening discourse for the speakers. The mundane simplicity of this statement, which retracts from grand ideological visions, reclaiming the mundane experiential immediacy of the war, has a dual meaning. One might imagine the longing for breakfast at home, miles away, a peaceful recollection that contrasts the horror and brutality of the war. Another perspective takes a darker meaning, a statement of mortality – a love for the discussion of breakfast rooted in the soldier’s fears that this evening may be their last, transforming breakfast into an imaginary ideal.
In his poem, Bell continually deconstructs popular myths and fantasies of the war. The blunt evocation of “it was natural to welcome them/with triumphal marches./Many would return in halves” (lines 15-17) highlights combatant disillusionment, and serves to overshadow the continuing governmental attempts for patriotism in the face of horrific death and losses. The use of “natural” here is striking. Bell speaks directly to the naturalisation of justificatory tactics that became the foundation of American perception. By overturning the naturality of “triumphal marches” with the abrupt and immediate perception of the tragedy of the war, Bell reclaims the true nature of the conflict. His war, his comrade’s war, was a war of brutality, horror, and disillusionment, unseen by the government that strived to propagate its agenda of victory and justification.
The songs, too, about their singing, are lies. The truth is that some songs were obscene And that were no words for others. (lines 18 – 20).
The parenthesis of “too” (line 18) evocates the continual lies fed into the soldier’s and citizen’s mouth as a governmental attempt to keep morale for the war effort high. In his summative statement of the poem, Bell reclaims combatant experience from the misjudged and manipulative political rhetoric of the war, forming soldier experience as an inclusive world detached from political narratives. He paints the truth clearly: the songs were obscene, and the horrors of war created songs that were better kept within the immediate knowledge of those who experienced it. Bell follows a predominant motif of Vietnam war poetry: an attempt to retrieve language, experience, and meaning, and revive it within the combatant experience. His poetry can be read as a direct reaction to the tendency to perceive “language to be tainted by the lies of the government” (Chatterji, 1997, p. 145). Language, here, and knowledge, is an inclusive matter – from which the government and its politics, to which many soldiers grew increasingly disillusioned to – were invariably excluded.
The obscenity raised in Bell’s poem was a common feature of the poetry of the Vietnam war. The poem On Death by Michael Casey uses obscenity as a reclamation in a similar way to Bell.
No jaw Intestines poured Out of the stomach The penis in the air. It won’t matter then to me but now I don’t want in death to be a Public obscenity like this. (lines 1-7)
The brutal treatment of the death of a soldier is portrayed without sympathy or censorship. The imagery of “intestines poured out of the stomach” (lines 2-3) creates a brutal reality of war, an immediate experience which is again separate from the lies and myths created by a government still attempting to justify a horrific war. As with Bell, the soldier experience becomes inclusive, a reclamation of the meaning of war separate from the language of lies rooted in governmental justification. The obscenity of language uncovers a reality masked by government propaganda filled with hyperbole, exaggeration, and a masking of the brutality of war. The isolating feeling of such propaganda, which left soldiers feeling unseen and unheard in their true experience, is reclaimed in poetry by creating their own combatant inclusivity. Their tone is the desperation to speak to their own truth, affecting the air of speakers who are “not really poets at all but rather soldiers so hurt and bitter that they could not maintain their silence any longer” (Ehrhart, 1987, p. 247). Their desire to speak, to reclaim language and their own reality, is a pressing and unbearable need for these soldiers.
W. D. Ehrhart (1987) speaks of Casey’s “matter-of-fact speech rhythms” that work to “mirror” the Vietnam soldier’s favourite phrase – “there it is” (p. 248). The obscenity of the poem, combined with its mundane and matter-of-fact tone speaks to the reality of war, to the mundane experience of death that has become normality to the soldiers. The reclamation of the language of war, here, takes a morbid tone, yet it is undoubtedly effective in its endeavour to “bear witness and responsibility” (Chatterji, 1997, p. 145) to a true nature of war untainted by propaganda fuelled lies.
Other poems about the Vietnam war follow the same hints of mundane obscenity. Basil T. Pacquet’s poem Morning – A Death is described by Ehrhart (1987) as a “masterpiece” (p. 248), which captures “at once the new, sophisticated battlefield of Vietnam and the ancient, ageless human misery and futility of all wars” (p. 248). The evocative statement “I grow tired of kissing the dead” (line 5) evokes mundane futility, representing death in war as an exhaustive endeavour. The obscenity of “kissing the dead” is overshadowed by the evocation of “tired”, suggesting a brutal mundane reality here, whereby a phenomenon as rare as kissing the dead becomes a tiresome habit.
Pacquet’s poem opens with the declaration “you are dead just as finally/as your mucosity dries on my lips” (lines 1-2). The blunt statement beckons to an understanding of the combatant experience as one haunted by death and evokes the same matter-of-factness archetypal of the poetry of this war. The reclamation of language brings an immediate experiential meaning to the war: a new symbol, away from the propaganda at home, even away from its anti-war protests. It is a symbol of tired soldiers, haunted by death and finding no words to reflect their reality but obscene statements of the truth.
Viewing poetry from the Vietnam War as obscene statements of truth holds great weight. Forced into a war in the name of, what John Carlos Rowe deemed, a “collective fantasy” (Chatterji, 1997, p. 142), of defeating communism and protecting the domestic ideal of democracy, the soldier’s disillusionments quickly turned into a repossession of the language and discourse that left them in this morose and deathly battlefield. Vietnam War poetry is an attempt to retrieve meaning – not as a pompous or grand enterprise – but in a genuine reaction against government propaganda, lies, and deceit, as a revival of the true reality of war that left its soldiers haunted, disillusioned, and with a burning desire to write back against false dominant rhetoric.
Bibby, M. (1993). Where is Vietnam? Antiwar Poetry and the Canon. College English, 55(2), pp. 158-178.
Bell, M. (1965). "What Songs the Soldiers Sang". Poetry, 105(6), https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=30008
Casey, M. (1975). "On Death". Obscenities, Carnegie Mellon University Press, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26436749seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents
Chatterji, S. (1997). Vietnam Poetry. Irish Journal of American Studies, vol. 6, pp. 139-169.
Ehrhart, W. D. (1987). Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War. The Virginia Quarterly Review, 63(2), 246–265. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26436749
Haridakis, P. (2021). Fear of Communism in the Twentieth-Century United States and the Vietnam War. Palgrave Macmillan.
Pacquet, B. T. (1972). "Morning - On Death". Winning Hearts and Minds : War Poetry by Vietnam Veterans, First Casualty Press, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26436749?seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents
Figure 1: Faas, H. (1965). Hovering U.S. Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into a tree line to cover the advance of South Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet Cong camp 18 miles north of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/03/the-vietnam-war-part-i-early-years-and-escalation/389054/
Figure 2: Faas, H. (1965). Larry Wayne Chaffin [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/soldier-war-is-hell-vietnam-1965/
Figure 3: Ford, J. (1971). Gunner Ernie Widders writes a letter from Vietnam [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C325537
Figure 4: Bettman Archive. (1965). Anti-Vietnam War protestors march on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1965/12/11/the-price-of-peace-is-confusion
Figure 5: The Washinton Post. (1971). The Washington Post front page, Sunday, April 25, 1971D.C. [Article]. Retrieved from: historic-newspapers.co.uk/blog/anti-vietnam-war-protest-1971/