From The Archive
Robert Nedelkoff
No. 11  June 1998

Remainder Table: Poe in Vietnam

  

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some little oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error….

—Edgar Allan Poe, “William Wilson”

I.

Back when I lived in California, I used to travel to Orange County to shop for secondhand books. I followed the same routine each time I went. First, I would drive to the Book Baron at Ball and Magnolia Boulevard in Anaheim, home to about a million volumes. Then I would proceed to the town of Orange, where I would go south on Tustin Street. I frequented three stores on the west side of the street, to my right. One day I happened to look to the left and spotted a secondhand bookstore I hadn’t previously seen. I stopped by and looked over the merchandise. Most of the titles were unexceptional and a little overpriced. But one title grabbed my eye among the fiction paperbacks: The LBJ Brigade. The name of the author, as given on the spine, was William Wilson. I wondered if that was his real name, or a pseudonym inspired by the well-known Poe story.

The book’s cover gave me a bit of a jolt. It featured a painting of a war medal, complete with ribbon. On the face of the medal, rather than an eagle, a sword, or the other standard emblems, was the head of a dead soldier fixed on a bamboo pole, his lips sewn shut. The absence of an ISBN number showed that it was a book from the sixties, and I figured it dated from 1968 or 1969, when antiwar sentiment was reaching a peak. I checked the copyright page. To my astonishment the book turned out to have been issued—as a paperback, anyway—in May 1966, a time when the war was still supported by most American citizens and when only a few professors, old and new Leftists, and students ventured to disagree. Furthermore, the name of the original hardbound publisher, “The Apocalypse Corporation,” hinted, along with the decapitated GI on the cover, at the nightmarish style that would become the standard vocabulary for literary treatments of the war more than a decade later. The volume was clearly worth picking up at its marked price of thirty cents.

Reading the novel some weeks later, I realized that whoever William Wilson was, his book was as far removed from the common run of war novels—or antiwar novels, for that matter—as humanly imaginable. I decided to do a little research on him at the University of California at Santa Cruz library. I soon determined that he apparently had published one other novel, Detour, which I purchased in Palo Alto not long afterward.

While Cain’s and Kromer’s novels appeared fairly late in the development of their genres, Wilson’s novel came very early in the history of the genre to which it belongs.

Beyond that, I could find little information about Wilson. He was born in 1935, according to the Library of Congress catalog cards for his books. He had two addresses, one on Sunset Drive in L.A., whence Wilson apparently published his first book, and another, the Manhattan address of his agent, given on the copyright page of his second novel. That is all. And that is apparently how Wilson wanted it. Reviewing The LBJ Brigade for Carey McWilliams’s Nation, Joel Lieber (later to write the novel Move!, which was made into an Elliott Gould movie, and still later to fatally defenestrate himself) commented that when he wrote to the publishers for information beyond what was on the jacket—“a young American soldier’s shocking story of warfare in Vietnam”—he was given no more than that sentence, once again.

The absence of even the sketchiest facts about the novelist’s life, naturally, forces attention on the texts themselves. And, indeed, both books are worthy of close attention because, in their savagery, in their hopelessness, in their utterly pitiless view of human society, The LBJ Brigade is to the Vietnam novel and the American horror novel what Paul Cain’s Fast One is to the hard-boiled fiction of the thirties and Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing is to the “proletarian” novel of the same decade. But while Cain’s and Kromer’s novels appeared fairly late in the development of their genres, with styles and themes that could only have been achieved by stripping down previous attempts, Wilson’s novel came very early in the history of the genre to which it belongs. In fact, The LBJ Brigade could not have been refined from other novels of American combat in Vietnam because there were none when it came out.

II.

The first novels about World War I, published while the battle still raged, were modeled after the upbeat tales of adventure, glory, and derring-do made popular in the last century by G. A. Henty and Richard Harding Davis. Not until 1920, in the wake of Versailles, did the first grim exposés of war’s futility begin to appear, a literary trend that culminated in 1929 with the international success of All Quiet on the Western Front. A Farewell to Arms, published the same year, combined that sensibility with a code of fortitude and thus produced what was for many years the reigning model for American war writing. It clearly served, for example, as the pattern for the first novel of World War II combat published in America—1942’s East of Farewell, by future Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt (though Hunt’s subsequent books reverted to the blither style of Henty and Davis). American novels published during the half-decade after the war, like The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity, updated Hemingway’s stoicism by infusing it with the tired, indifferent tone of Bill Mauldin’s GI cartoons. It wasn’t until the sixties that novels treating the war in a less realistic style, like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, began to appear.

By the same token, almost all the early novels written about Vietnam came in the mold of James Jones or Norman Mailer. The LBJ Brigade, alone in the sixties, prefigures the surrealistic treatment of the war done so effectively by Tim O’Brien in Going After Cacciato (1976), even as it surpasses that book in its hallucinatory quality. But William Wilson’s status as the first “Vietnam novelist” is a little deceptive: The LBJ Brigade is “about” Vietnam in the same way that “Heart Of Darkness” is “about” Belgian colonialism in Africa.

According to the bibliography in Sandra Wittman’s Writing About Vietnam, of the four hundred novels and story collections about the Vietnam War and related events published before 1989, only about a dozen titles predate January 1966. Of these, six are about the French war in Vietnam, focusing on Dien Bien Phu and its immediate aftermath. One is a James Bond ripoff set in Hanoi. Two are romance tales of Army nurses. One concerns CIA activities in Vietnam and Laos in the early sixties. One was The Green Berets, an egregious bit of 1965 gunghokum that had more in common with Floyd Gibbons’s stirring stories of manly valor than with any serious war novel since Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire. Three are more or less based on the fateful escapades of Cols. Edwin Lansdale and Lucien Conein in the late fifties and early sixties: Graham Greene’s prophetic The Quiet American and William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s two works, The Ugly American and Sarkhan.

Although the present tense has been used to lend “immediacy” to a vast range of mediocre novels over the last twenty years, it seems almost mandatory here.

The history of the latter two books may have had some bearing on Wilson’s decision to initially self-publish his novel. The Ugly American, set in an obvious stand-in for South Vietnam called “Sarkhan”; it was a national bestseller in 1958, was later made into a movie starring Marlon Brando, and probably contributed in no small degree to the initial reluctance of American opinion to sanction military action in Vietnam beyond the presence of a few thousand “advisors.” Some years later its authors wrote a sequel. But problems developed. The initial publisher pulled out of the deal. Lederer and Burdick managed to place Sarkhan with another house, but even then the book, despite some good reviews, failed to appear in a number of bookstores and terminated their string of successes. The two believed that federal pressure had been applied to keep the book from having the impact of their previous efforts.

That was the milieu in which someone, identifying himself by the title of Poe’s tale of the doppelgänger, chose to publish his extraordinary novel.

III.

R. Z. Sheppard, who wrote the first review of The LBJ Brigade for the New York Herald Tribune in February 1966, found the novel shocking. The cover illustration in particular, he pointed out, caused a “reaction … strangely similar to the momentary disbelief I experienced a few months ago when I opened the newspaper to a photograph of [President Johnson] displaying his gall-bladder scar.”

The book retains a good deal of this power to disturb. It is composed entirely in the first-person present tense, and is related by a narrator with no name. Although the present tense has been used to lend “immediacy” to a vast range of mediocre novels over the last twenty years, it seems almost mandatory here.

It opens with what seems to be a scene from a Frankie and Annette beach-party movie, and images from this vision flicker incongruously through the narrator’s head almost up to his grisly end. It is phrased as a sort of incantation, in its odd way bringing to mind both Lautréamont’s command that the reader of Maldoror close the pages at once before it is too late, and his assertion in Poésies that school prize-giving speeches are the highest form of literature:

I am 1-A.

1-A is the national seal of approval, it means that I am the cream of American manhood.

I am 1-A, there is a war in Southeast Asia, the President says, “We are in Vietnam to fulfill one of the most solemn pledges of the American nation.”

This is immediately followed by:

It is summer and the Sunday beaches are crowded. We swim and sing, and some glide the phosphorescent crowns of wild breakers carrying cans of beer above their heads. The girls have blue eyes and green, with frames of dark paint, and they cheer and dig at the hot sand with coy toes…. Our bodies are wet with sun and greased with oils, and we are overcome with childish delight.

Childish delight, that is, which must nonetheless be defended: “A young man should have a few adventures before he settles down,” the narrator observes, preparing to move from the world of Beach Blanket Bingo to that of, perhaps, The Wackiest Ship in the Army.

He is inducted in Los Angeles, and then takes the train for Oakland before sailing overseas. When he reaches Oakland, however:

Crowds begin to appear on street corners, this is more like it, the people are out to wave and shout. But we find that they are not people, they are Communists and pacifists, they hold signs, STOP THE WAR IN VIETNAM, they have come to sit in front of the train to stop the war in Vietnam, most of them are young, college-age, they wear expensive clothes…. We wave and the kids wave and yell back, everybody is having a good time, but we are going to war and they are standing in the streets breaking laws and getting free publicity, the government should draft them all, that is the only way to treat them.

Two things are worth noting here. They wear expensive clothes. Most other novelists treating this subject would go on for pages about the class structure of the draft, the bourgeois background of the protesters, etc. But for Wilson, those four words will do. They are not people. This lets the careful reader know early on in which direction the narrator’s thoughts will proceed, but this is not something I picked up in my first reading. A 1967 reviewer noted Wilson’s style of “nervous anguish,” and we can detect the beginnings of this beneath the narrator’s still-intact bravado. As the book progresses these two opposed tendencies will become better and better defined, alternately rising to the surface of the narrator’s consciousness and disappearing. But what makes Wilson’s treatment of them remarkable (and also prescient) is the way in which the rhetoric of bravado eventually becomes inseparable from that of anguish.

The next paragraph opens: “The Vietnam countryside is calm and serene.” Three paragraphs later: “Corporal Cohn is dead,” accidentally shot when returning from patrol. “I do not even know his first name,” the narrator remarks—not that the first names of any of the other soldiers are ever given, either. (Meanwhile, the narrator’s scattered memories of “the girls back home” include first names only, beach-movie names like Joan, Donna, Brooke, and Lynn.)

In the next section, the reader meets Sergeant Sace, who announces, simply, that “I been here for ten years. [That is, since Dien Bien Phu.] I’m still alive.”

“You’re gonna have ta kill some people. Ya best get used ta the idea.” He talks but we do not learn anything. He knows it. He ends by saying, “This’s all bullshit, ya gotta learn it the hard way.”

Before the soldiers learn it that way, however, they make each other’s acquaintance: Corporals Smith, Ames, Handson, Maria, Banner. Captain Shine is their officer. We learn that Shine is a bit of a martinet, Banner is black, Smith is “a bigot from Arkansas” who nonetheless is not mean when he drinks, and that Corporal Handson, the only college man in the brigade except the narrator, is already skeptical about the war, asserting every day: “The government kidnapped me.” When Handson remarks, “La guerre sans fronts,” Corporal Ames muses: “He’s a spy, he speaks Communist.”

The men head out on patrol, and before long are burning a village and beating up some teenagers. Sergeant Sace warns: “Don’t touch nothin’, the little bastards’ll booby trap turds.” For the moment, no one is killed. Then they are back in Saigon, and the narrator editorializes for a few terse pages about a behind-the-lines situation that filled books for other writers:

Our folks taught us that liquor and cursing and pimps and narcotics and thieves and whores are evil, and they have sent us right to these very things, to a summer-camp of sin. Our folks are angry. And Vietnam, Vietnam is angry, because we are turning their daughters into whores. But we are close to war and death, we are risking our lives for their goddam country, the least they can do is provide some free ass.

Eventually the soldiers reach a bar where they encounter a well-dressed American reporter. The tone of the conversation that ensues, in which the various characters ruminate about the war and its goals in tones ranging from the cynical to the tiredly defensive, has since become a cliché of Vietnam writing and Vietnam film. But this was published in the first weeks of 1966, and the device here makes its very first appearance. The reporter asks the men if they are glad to be doing what they do. “We’re here to stop Communists,” the still-idealistic narrator asserts. Handson, the college-educated doubter, asserts that “this is genocide, not war.”

I’m fighting so that my family can live in freedom. Shit. My family lives in a thirty-thousand dollar tract house. My mother worries about losing her freedom about as much as she does about growing a third tit.

Sergeant Sace, dismayed by the scarcity of whores in the bar, offers this view of how it, and perhaps all of Vietnam, should be handled: “We oughta Hiroshima the whole joint.” The reporter, a latter-day disciple of Richard Harding Davis, is displeased with these responses. When Handson says of LBJ that “he’s giving a whole new meaning to the ‘I’ pronoun,” that the president is “the Christ of mediocrity,” the journalist yells, “Jesus, buddy, whose side you on?” After years of hearing about the perfidy of the media in Vietnam, contemporary readers may find it hard to believe that journalists were capable of such blind loyalty, but such was the case, especially in the earliest days of the conflict. (Some of these journalists later moved into the “dove” camp in spectacular fashion.)

The next day the men go on a search-and-destroy mission and are landed right into an ambush. Within seconds of stepping out of their helicopter all of them except the narrator and Sace are killed. Wilson’s lingering descriptions of each man’s end bring to mind the “magic realism” of the Latin American novel—hallucinatory and yet all too accurate. Captain Shine is the first to go:

“I’m shot,” he tells Banner. “I’m shot!” he yells. “I’m shot!” he screams. He sits down, comically, his legs snap out and he falls heavily on his buttocks, he crosses his arms on his chest, leans back, his head thumps the ground. He says, “Momma,” and is dead.

“Ames disintegrates like a glass house, he rains back into the weeds,” Wilson writes, reminding us what happens to people who throw stones out of turn. Then “the right side of [Banner’s] face explodes.” A soldier named Stein goes next:

[T]here are a dozen bullets in him before he screams, “Don’t let me die, don’t let me die, please don’t let me die!” It is a death-chant, the notes run down the scale.

Handson, the antiwar character, puts his gun to his own head and curses God—the sin which became such a familiar trope in subsequent antiwar books and movies—just as a sniper’s bullet finishes him. All the while, “The rifle in my hands softly kicks, but it is like trying to kill an ocean. You can’t kill jungle, fella,” the narrator remarks to himself. This image, too—technology’s futility against vast, chaotic nature—would soon become standard in writing about the conflict. Nonetheless, he and Sace manage to survive.

So there they are, Dante and his profane Virgil, in their green inferno. Army choppers show up, and the narrator, overjoyed, is ready to signal them. Sace shoves him down and the choppers strafe the ground with fire meant to kill Vietcong who have already left. As the two men slowly move out, Sace gives an explanation of war that at first repulses the narrator:

“Screw what ya been told in the States. Ya ain’t fightin the Communists, ya ain’t fightin Charlie. Ya ain’t fightin for liberty or America or the cunt next door. You’re fightin ta stay alive. If you wanna live, ya gotta kill…. Ya ain’t gonna have no trouble knowin who ta shoot. If he ain’t white, shoot em. This’s a race-war kid. A hundred-year-old hag can kill ya just as dead as a hot Charlie. So can a ten-year-old kid. If he ain’t white, screw the question, shoot…. The Arvin [South Vietnamese soldier] can throwaway his uniform and he’s one a the crowd, but not you. You’re white, un the white man’s a target.”

“But it’s wrong!”

He leaps up, he yells, “Ya get that crap out a your head!”

Putting his words into practice, Sace mows down two men in uniform along with a woman. The narrator is repulsed as he contemplates the dead Vietnamese but it is clear that he has already begun to move closer to Sace’s thinking. The men are becoming spiritual doubles in the manner of Poe’s story “William Wilson”:

Large wet dents show the concentrated impact on the man and woman, but the last man’s face is pulped, the head half ripped from the neck. There is a sickening and sad odor at the end of living when that end is violent, it is the embarassing odor of fertilizer. The girl’s breasts are exposed, one is round, still flushed, the nipple extended and rigid as though excited, but the other is slashed, like a lid it hangs down on her stomach. Her cheekbones are long and wide, they dimple her cheeks with large half-moons of baby flesh, she should not be dead, she should be alive, we should have captured her, she would rather be my slave the rest of her life than dead, she would be thankful, she would cherish and love me.

But before many pages have passed, Sace, too, has been killed, leaving the narrator to wander Vietnam with only his murderous hallucinations. At one point he mows down eight villagers on a jungle path. Almost ludicrously evoking the language of the Dick and Jane primer, he muses: “See? See, the bodies are dead. On the path the bodies are dead, poor bodies. See the poor dead bodies.” But a moment later he switches gears to an equally childish triumphalism: “The Communists are dead, they are all dead, I have killed the Communists, now they cannot hurt America, now America is safe, I have saved America.”

The narrator then enters a village that is instantly gassed by American planes, causing the villagers to choke, vomit, and “die of fear.” But Peter Arnett may rest assured that a tear-gas attack is what is being described, since the narrator lives and is taken prisoner by a Vietcong officer named Vo Chi Diem who passes the time reciting Radio Hanoi boilerplate.

With plenty of time to meditate on Sace’s “kill or be killed” philosophy, the narrator now begins to spin his own variation of it. “All these guys know is that the white man dropped the bomb on the colored man,” Sace had told the narrator; the “colored” people surrounding him in the bush want only to get back for it by killing him; ergo, his job is to kill them first. The crude sergeant had not been interested in ideology, countries, or governments. But the narrator, being an educated man, begins to put Sace’s homicidal racism in precisely the political terms that Sace warned him against, transforming it into the megalomania of a rampant, pretentious fascism:

We must rid the world of all the Communists, we cannot go half way, we have to go all the way, we cannot kill just some of them, they are not all evil but we cannot take any chances, a Communist is a Communist, they all look alike. Hitler had the same problem with the Jews, he did not kill them all and he failed, when free men fight for the survival of mankind they cannot take chances…. We must act before it is too late, we must kill them all, every last one, even the children, children grow up into Communists.

Moments later, as dusk falls, the narrator changes his tone entirely. Now he is penitent and fearful: “I didn’t mean anything, really, I didn’t do it on purpose, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” But then a titanic air attack, powerful enough to put a dent into the vastness of nature, annihilates his Vietnamese escorts:

A block-wide section of jungle collapses into itself, then squirts out like a fist smashing down on a cube of jello. Greenery is pulverized, it splashes like water, trees catapult upward trailing long tails of bush and vine….

Feeling “something” approach his prostrate form, the narrator lapses into a final burst of megalomania:

It thinks it can trick me. I cannot be tricked. I cannot be harmed. I laugh, exaltation blazes, I am God, I am the American Dream, I am Mars. It senses my rage, it perceives the destruction I create in the heart of the universe, it raises the knife, it feels and hears the death I bring to the enemies of America and of God, it swings, it swings, too late, the air hums and turns to fire, the world shudders, the ground dissolves, trees explode, the earth bursts, I

And on that pronoun The LBJ Brigade ends.

“What is most effective about the book is that the ending is unexpected,” noted the Times Literary Supplement reviewer. “We expect that the narrator will see the futility of the war. He doesn’t.” Instead, the narrator practically articulates Lieutenant Calley’s defense of his role in the My Lai massacre—They were all the enemy. They were all to be destroyed—more than two years before that massacre occurred.

“Obviously, the book can be read as propaganda,” the TLS continued, “but it deserves discussion as vision rather than argument because Mr. Wilson persuades us that he is more concerned to explore feelings than merely to attack American policies.” Indeed, much of the book’s power derives from its refusal to conform to the established patterns of the war novel. The captain may be a martinet, but he is not the coward familiar from so many books penned by enlisted men; he leads the men out of the chopper and is the first to die. The sergeant enters the story straight from The Sands of Iwo Jima, but then becomes more recognizably human as the narrator far surpasses him in bigotry and craven monstrosity. For all its blood and bullets, the book’s lesson is subtle and subjective rather than openly argued: Vietnam is making us into fascists. The only real contemporary parallel to The LBJ Brigade, the one creative work of the mid sixties that most brings to mind its combination of terror, crude humor, mindless longing for home, and what one reviewer called a “jumping muscularity,” is not a book but an album made in Germany by five former GIs in tonsures: the Monks’ Black Monk Time, reissued last year on American Recordings.

Since his second novel, Detour, Wilson has never published again, and perhaps with reason. His critique of the darker side of American aspirations, embedding his strange social theory in a gruesomeness more advanced than that of Bret Easton Ellis, seems more like the stuff of Aeschylus or Euripides than of David Cronenberg or Wes Craven. Wilson’s constant theme—that American efforts to purify or escape the corruptions of civilization merely substitute one corruption for another—hearkens back to Edgar Huntly, Arthur Gordon Pym, Moby Dick, and, of course, “Heart Of Darkness.” Today the idea has gone stale, rehashed again and again in films like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. But there is a difference: Wilson’s books never offer us even the small shreds of hope that these otherwise dark films insist on holding out. In Platoon, for example, Oliver Stone pits a soldier of decency and sweetness against one of unalloyed viciousness and evil in a battle for the soul of Charlie Sheen: the two cancel each other out. But for Wilson there is only Sace’s repulsive but undeniably authentic view of the Vietnamese and what to do with them—“authentic” in the Greek sense, referring to a murderer who does not shirk from admitting the nature of his actions—and the narrator’s repulsive but inauthentic version, larded with patriotism and anticommunism. Only to the extent that the narrator echoes Kurtz’s call to “exterminate all the brutes” does he express something heartfelt; and, unlike Kurtz, he insists on garbing his sentiments in imperial rhetoric to the end.

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