excerpts from
Sexism and Racism in Vietnam War Fiction
by Philip K. Jason
MOSAIC: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Summer 1990



    . . . In these ways and others, the fictions of the Vietnam War continue to reveal what the literature of our previous two wars had begun to discover about attitudes which, though not unique to the military environment, were fostered and heightened by it.  The perpetuation of crude stereotypes is the method and madness of basic training.  Getting rid of, getting to hate, the woman in one's self is the message of the litany and language of boot camp.  Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers (1979) shows us how those connections are made in the Parris Island chapter called "The Spirit of the Bayonette."
    Over and over again, Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim addresses the new recruits as "ladies" contemptuously: "I can't hear you, ladies" (5).  To "have balls" is to be capable of any cruelty, to have no soft emotions: "Marines do not cry!" (14).  At the same time, a contradictory signal is sent by the identification of weapons as women: "I don't want no teen-aged queen; all I want is my M-14" (12).  Joker  narrates, "Sergeant Gerheim orders us to name our rifles.  'This is the only pussy you people are going to get.  Your days of finger-banging ol' Mary Jane Rottencrotch through her pretty pink panties are over.  You're married to this piece, this weapon of iron and wood, and you will be faithful'" (13).  The Corps becomes affectionately known as "the Crotch": "'Do we love the Crotch, ladies?"' (17).
    One inept recruit, Leonard, tries so hard to follow directions and shape up that he goes crazy:  he does make love to his fifle, talks to "her"...and "she" talks back:  "Leonard reaches under his pillow and comes out with a loaded magazine.  Gently, he inserts the metal magazine into his weapon, into Charlene" (27).  At the end of training, even Joker, the cynical narrator, succumbs: "In my rack, I pull my rifle into my arms.  She talks to me.... She tells me what to do.  My fifle is a solid instrument of death.... My weapon obeys me.  I'll hold Vanessa, my rifle.  I'll hold her.  I'll just hold her for a little while.  I will hide in this dark dream for as long as I can" (32).  Joker, however, clearly sees through his own madness, and Hasford, his creator, is never for a moment other than critical of how the preparation for war inflames and feeds the sexist virus.
    The dark dream is a dream of faith in the killing efficacy of Charlene or Vanessa, penises turned into weapons turned into women.  It is a dream through which rises an unexpected suspicion:  that if fucking is killing, it is also death.  So it is death that must be killed.  Death is Claymore Face, the battlefront whore, whose name is an ugly reminder of the pockmarked country.  She is the enemy without and within.  Death is the woman in Dosier's daydream -- she whose eyes are black and red, whose "skin is scarlet" -- the woman of "strong and beautiful thighs" with whom he "makes it" in the hatch of the track:  "Are you a witch, I say, or a conjurer?  Some soft evil?" (113).  Death is what Lt. Chris Hawkins imagines throwing a grenade at: it -- or she -- waits for him still in the ammo-box hut.  And Mitsuko?  No, she is not death.  Lt. Hodges forsook her for death -- his true love.  Or perhaps he died twice.
    Killing that posits the woman as enemy aims ultimately at the destruction of the species -- an ironic suicide.  For many, America's involvement in Vietnam was suicidal.  For others, the outcome of the war was liberating, to the extent that it exposed a diseased patriarchal culture.  A masculinist diagnosis might say that Americans had gone soft, inviting the "remasculinization" Susan Jeffords, describes in her new book.  Jeffords sees in her sampling of literary representations of the  war a discourse "linked to the process of remasculinization current in American culture" (185).  I would contend, although there is no space here to detail the argument, that a fairer sampling of the literature supports no such generalization (even if one granted that such a predictably patterned group of works could be a reasonable index of cultural directions).  Moreover, much of this literature exposes, in critical and therapeutic ways, the sexist and racist elements in the call to arms.  Of those works treated in the present study, Hasford's novel (as Jeffords recognizes) testifies to patriarchal modes of thought without succumbing to them.  The novels by Webb and Huggett come closer to supporting her contentions, but Heinemann's work -- on one level the most graphically and brutally sexist and racist of the group -- can just as well be read as a critique of its narrator's behavior and the conditions that occasion such behavior.  Many of the representations of the Vietnam War intentionally respond to issues of gender as they were made manifest during the war years, not as readings of the cultural climate in the years of the works' publication.  Literature that is inevitably about "masculinization" does not necessarily reinforce it or celebrate it or partake of it.  (If that were the case, feminist criticism would constantly subvert one of its premier concerns.) . . .

    Yet whether or not Jeffords is right about short-term cultural tendencies, there is no escaping the fact that Americans live in a culture in which patriarchal values continue to dominate.  Our larger sense of American culture and the dynamics of war might lead us to expect to find women, especially Asian women (twice removed from the "norn" in their otherness), treated as objects.  We might expect to find released in this literatur -- even in our supposedly enlightened times -- a deep-seated fear, even hatred, of women as enemy or as a reminder (for male readers) of the feared and hated "womanish" side of one's self.  The equating of women with weaponry and killing in Vietnam War fiction, however, brings into focus an even more perverse and dangerous strand of America's patriarchal culture: the ultimate confusion of love and death.
 
 

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