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American Culture During and After the Vietnam War

The war in Vietnam is unique amongst American wars not simply for its painfully enduring length, the widespread controversy it invoked and its continuing role as a point of contention in the ideology of ‘just war,’ but for the extremity of its psychological impact as well. If it is not unusual for a war to produce so many participants with deep-seeded and inescapably nightmarish memories, it may be unique that so many of these stories have found their way to history’s permanent record.

In the case of the Vietnam War, the psychological impact on the soldiers who fought their would mirror that levied on the American public. This is well captured in the politics of the era as well as in many of the most prominent examples of literature and film based on the nation’s experiences in the losing war. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a useful point of consideration. This account of the Vietnam War through the first-hand perspective of one of its veterans is illuminating of the chaotic, futile and perpetually haunting nature of war that reveals long-term emotional ramifications for its survivors.

In a sense, this work helps to direct a discussion on the way this impact was likewise imposed on America as a whole. In his description of the experiences of his troop, O’Brien’s words give a palpable sense of the horror experienced by combatants in mid-fight, even in a seat of victory. Though the United States could not claim this, it had certainly succeeded in dispensing a remarkable degree of destruction in its enemy’s homeland. This would impose a sense of responsibility for average Americans, who would exit the war with a clear realization of the carnage for which they were responsible.

In a telling passage, O’Brien captures the guilty American psyche through the eyes of a young and somewhat reluctant soldier. Here, O’Brien’s depiction of the extent of war’s impact on his psychological state of being extends to his sympathetically distraught consideration of his enemy as well. But even more, it provides a metaphor for an America stripped of its innocence and weighed down by a recognition of what it had done. O’Brien tells of a recently killed enemy soldier that “the blood at the neck had gone a deep purplish black. Clean fingernails, clean hair–he had been a soldier for only a single day.

After his years at the university, the man I killed returned to his new wife to the village of My Khe, where he enlisted as a common rifleman with the 48th Vietcong Battalion. He knew he would die quickly. He knew he would see a flash of light. He knew he would fall dead and wake up in the stories of his village and people. ” (130) Just as O’Brien’s novel would be suitable in such passages for identifying the experience of the soldier with the experience of American as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now would be a powerful demonstration of what had been visited upon the soldier himself.

This is a theme that is unified in Platoon and especially Deer Hunter, by the portraiture of men who have survived the physical strains of war but have nonetheless been mentally destroyed by what they have witnessed. In Apocalypse Now, this theme is given visual representation. Just as with the novel, the film makes a point of contrasting the horrific and chaotic violence with a beautiful, often serene jungle landscape. Likewise, the tensions that shroud this time in American history also invade the riverboat journey of Captain Willard.

His mission to find and kill Officer Kurtz becomes an exploration of himself within the setting of war. In the film, when Willard does finally reach Kurtz, he is so drastically impacted by the difficulties of war which had afflicted him to that point that he actually experiences sympathy for the clearly insane AWOL officer. Though Kurtz’s lair is flanked by decapitated human heads on spears and he has clearly become guilty of exploitation of the natives, Kurtz can be seen as a tragic victim of the war.

His humanity has been fully stripped of him, leaving a dangerously empty shell of a man in a hostile setting. The result is that he becomes a demagogue with little grounding in a reality other than the one which he has created. In essence, that is a problem which can be seen to characterize the dangerously lost America which fought this war. This could also be characterize by the new level of internal rancor which would come to divide America. Those inclined toward cultural radicalism—and there were ever more of these during this time—were those who practiced a general rejection of American values.

Mostly identified by the mainstream as the longhaired hippie freaks that seemed to be growing in dangerously unpredictable numbers by the end of the decade, the counterculture was operating on a set of values and lifestyle decisions that marked a dramatic generational/cultural gap. The rampant experimentalism, that manifested itself in a boom of drug use, sexual liberation and a modestly ambitious reflection on a pacifistic pluralism to that point only hinted at in popular interpretations of the Constitution had carved out a statistically significant portion of America’s youth at the time.

Though it had been the internal goal of these groups to operate outside the bounds of the American dream, never more dulled of its luster than it had become by that point, by rejecting trends of consumerism, political passiveness and traditional familial values, the 1960s would serve up a new call to action against old enemies. Returning the Port Huron Statement, a rallying cry is drawn from the acknowledgement of core contradictions in American society.

Particularly, the statement, referring to the failures of policy in America’s execution of its own constitution, notes that “while these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration ‘all men are created equal’ . . . rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.

” (Hayden, 1) Tying together the war and America’s inherent policies of racism, the radical cultural movement was able to set itself apart from less distinctly legitimized forces in American radical politics by authoring a statement with a sound philosophical premise. Indeed, its identification as the radical culture is something that we recognize in the study only as a distinction from the notion of ‘mainstream culture. ’ Certainly, one can make the argument that the radical label may tend to delegitimize ideologies with greater reflection of the constitution than those applied by the United States government.

It also allowed student movements to draw associations between America’s governmental hegemony, its military structures, its corporations and its universities, with the radical culture coming into a more lucid understanding of itself as existence in antithesis to these various aspects of the mainstream. To the radical movement, the an important effect of the Vietnam War on American culture would be its unifying impact on the many different protest and counter-culture movements that were springing up as a natural response to America’s core inequalities.

Importantly, by the time Vietnam had reached a heightened pitch of conflict, the radical cultural movement had already become something significantly greater than a counter-culture or a fringe political sect. Instead, galvanized by a growing sense of disenchantment with the Vietnam War as well as an increasingly more widespread revulsion amongst white activists of southern treatment of black Civil Rights marchers, the ‘radical’ movement was gradually evolving into its own mainstream context.

While the multitudinous splinter groups that would come to be identified as radicals were geared toward many of their own causes, they all shared a rallying point in the failing Vietnam War. Sold to Americans on the back of America’s deeply embedded Cold War policy, the situation in Vietnam was qualified to the public as a necessary step in the dispatching of the Communist threat in yet another sphere of the world. And though there were certainly those who opposed its inception, most of America accepted blindly the responsibility to defend democracy in the fight for global freedom.

The struggle in Vietnam, though never as widely accepted as necessity as was World War II, which had been proudly espoused and successfully waged by the previous generation of youth, was collectively adhered to. Like most military acts levied by the U. S. , this one was regarded as an unfortunate but altogether unavoidable implementation of power. Fundamentally, we might consider Watergate as the quintessential close to the sixties. The decade that initiated itself with so much clamor during the Kennedy-Nixon election, tore through over ten years of tumultuous fury and evolution.

With Watergate though, a nation, exhausted by rebellion and a split down the moral divide, came together to limp defeated out of the decade. Amid the scandal, Nixon supporters hadn’t a moral leg to stand on. On the other side of the culture coin however, protestors and leftists who had devoted themselves to ousting Nixon and all that he stood for found Watergate to be a most unsavory vehicle with which to accomplish that feat. The nation would suffer scars that, from any perspective, were severely detrimental to American morale.

Essentially though, this culmination of a decade of accomplishment laced with disgrace was the firm dose of reality that, in the long run, seemed to jolt America into the next decade. As the death knell of a bloody era, Watergate put a stamp on the characterization here of this time as the end of American innocence. For its people and its culture, the war and its surrounding political devices removed all future illusions of American moral or constitutional superiority, making way for the cynicism and economic struggle to follow.

Simultaneously, though, we can see that the bleakness of this outcome would not diminish the progress achieved and hinted at toward racial and gender equality in America.

Works Cited

Coppola, Francis Ford. (1979). Apocalypse Now. Hayden, Tom. (1962). Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962. Students for a Democratic Society. O’Brien, Tim. (1998). The Things They Carried. Broadway, Reprint Edition.

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