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The War in Vietnam: Studies in Remembrance and Legacy, 2000–2014 (June 2016): Scope and Organization

By Jerry Lembcke

Scope and Organization

This essay surveys the literature that has helped extend US interest in the war in Vietnam into the twenty-first century.  The essay’s scope is shaped by Brenda Boyle’s observation, made in her edited volume The Vietnam War: Topics in Contemporary North American Literature, that interest in Vietnam began to wane in the 1990s only to surge when policy makers drew parallels between that war and the new engagements in the Middle East that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001.  She cites books such as Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn Young’s Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn from the Past for the eerie comparisons the authors make between those conflicts, and points to historian David W. P. Elliott’s notation in The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930-1975 that the Vietnam tropes of quagmire, light at the end of the tunnel, and exit strategies became commonly used references to the war in Iraq.

Taking Boyle’s cue, then, this essay reviews the books published between roughly 2000 and 2014 that constitute the resurgent interest in the Vietnam War.  Allowances will be made for books published earlier that are recognized for their influence on later works.

A second parameter of the essay is drawn by James Fentress and Chris Wickham’s axiom, from their book Social Memory: New Perspectives on the Past, that “we are what we remember.”  Implicit in their words is the distinction between events themselves and the memory people have of them, a distinction calling forth two different bodies of scholarship: histories of the war in Vietnam, per se, and books about the way social memory of the war has been mediated by journalism, the practices of commemoration, the traditions of folklore (involving myths and legends), and the production and consumption of literary and popular culture.  Necessarily, the latter group of books often delves into the historical record of the war, but their primary interest is in the social construction of the images and narratives through which the United States remembers, and thereby knows, its war in Vietnam.

The essay organizes books into groups softly bounded by their importance for form or content.  The boundaries sometimes overlap, with cross-references provided to suggest the multiple topics covered by some titles.  The essay begins by noting a small number of important new historical studies.  Books grouped into the functional category of biographical/autobiographical work follow.  Next is a content-oriented group that includes studies of how social movements for and against the war are remembered.  The following two groups are about Vietnam veterans: the remembrance of them as activists opposed to the war, including ethnic perspectives, and how that memory was largely displaced by images of them as “victim veterans”—disparaged, neglected, or rejected by the people who sent them off to war.  Then comes a group of books composed of commemoration studies, in which “transnational” practices are highlighted and attention is given to Vietnamese commemoration of the war.  A collection of legacy studies follows, in which the ongoing influence of the war on US ideology, cultural studies, and military policy is seen.  The essay concludes with citations to new film, photography, and literature studies, and a few new collections of documents and reference works.