• U.S.

Books: Fury and Intelligence

5 minute read
Lance Morrow



by GLORIA EMERSON 406 pages. Random House. $10.95.

Gloria Emerson grabs hold like the Ancient Mariner. With an obsessed eye, she recalls the war that Americans lost, now receding in the collective memory —old glossaries of “hooches,” “lurps.” “fraggings” and “Numbah Ten.” or, at home, the Armies of the Night, sheep’s blood spilled on draft records, Veterans Against the War hurling their medals at the Capitol.

Emerson, 45, first visited Viet Nam in 1956, in the days of Graham Greene’s Quiet American. She returned to cover the war for the New York Times from 1970 to 1972. Sometimes in this long documentary meditation on the war she becomes morally proprietary about Viet Nam, brittle with self-righteousness. Yet that indignation gives her book—despite its oddly banal title—a fine fury and intelligence. When someone suggests that too much has already been done on Viet Nam, Emerson replies: “Let the books be written, so when all of us are dead a long record will exist, at least in a few libraries.”

Survivor Numbness. The franchise she has undertaken is rather grandiose—to describe what the nation’s longest war did to the American people, and also, in part, what it did to the Vietnamese. For several years Emerson ranged widely, talking to everyone she could find who had been touched by the war: veterans, fathers, mothers, wives, widows, deserters, P.O.W.s. resisters, Vietnamese. She had long since concluded, however, that most Americans were —and still are—weirdly oblivious to what happened in Viet Nam. Even the Kentucky mother of a boy who came home emotionally bent by the war remarks: “They talk about those 50,000 boys that were killed there, but I bet half that number would have been killed if they’d been at home, killed in automobiles.” Emerson used to show people a photograph of a wounded soldier on a stretcher, touching his eyes with his hands. She writes: ”A lot of people said they had seen it all on M*A*S*H and they were reminded of how much they liked Hawkeye, how cute Radar is …” In any case, as a judge in Tennessee observes, “people forget—fortunately they forget the bad things.” A former CIA man concluded wearily: “It bores me, it’s ancient history.”

Sometimes when Emerson approached Americans whose husbands or sons had died in the war, she discovered what every cub police reporter finds —the survivors’ numbness, an element of blank, nothing much to say. All of the Viet Nam decade, of course, was filled with grotesqueries, wild ricochets of irony. Emerson recalls the case of a poetic 22-year-old private whose job it was to compose elaborate—and totally fictitious—battle citations for senior officers who wished to leave Viet Nam with a Silver Star. The secretary of a local draft board in Gordonsville. Tenn. tells Emerson: “Five died [from here], but they were all volunteers, none of them draftees. Isn’t that marvelous?” Billy Graham remarked: “A thousand people are killed every week on American highways, and half of these are attributed to alcohol. Where are the demonstrations against alcohol?”

Winners & Losers sweeps back and forth from the postwar U.S. to wartime Viet Nam when Emerson was there. She observes battle with a clear but horrified eye: “Sometimes the dark would be pierced by the flares which lit up the landscape like a sickly white sun, leaving small parachutes in the trees that hung from the branches like pale, sleeping bats.” She is fascinated by the grunts’ rituals and taboos. A certain squad of Marines, for example, would never eat the apricots in their C-rations. “The day we hit a mine, a sergeant ate apricots.” explained a Private Hobbs. “If a guy eats apricots, he is not coming with us.” Americans, she notes, spoke “that curious, fast, deadly baby talk. E and E meant ‘evade and escape.’ An attack was expected …”

Ground Pounders. G.I.s frequently detested the Vietnamese, but loved the dogs of that pulverized country. They gave them names like Dink. Gook. Slut. Pimp and Trouble. A Saigon shopkeeper who made plaques for Americans to send back to “the world” was appalled by the names they found for their units: Jungle Eaters or Ground Pounders or Delta Death Dealers. “Really,” she said, “[Americans] are crazy.”

Unlike many indignant writers on Viet Nam, Emerson tries for balance in giving space to a number of Americans who supported the war. A father in Troy, N.Y., told her: “My son gave his life fighting for freedom. And I say this, and I wrote it to Ray in Viet Nam: Where you stand, there stands America. Where an American boy stands, there stands freedom.” The author leans more toward Graham Greene’s verdict in The Quiet American: “Such innocence is a form of insanity.” Deadpan, she quotes a plaque that some U.S. officers chose to send home—a slightly modified version of Kipling’s poem called “Epitaph”:

And the end of the fight is a tombstone white,

With the name of the late deceased,

And the epitaph drear:

A Fool lies here

Who tried to hustle the East.

Lance Morrow

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