In American literature of the Vietnam War, the dominant discourse is one of victimization, and the most prominent victim is not the Vietnamese civilian or the Vietnamese fighter but the ordinary American soldier. Upon first acquaintance, the American soldier seems an unlikely victim. Many thousands of miles from home, participating in an internecine war, he is an aggressor on the world stage. Yet, in his own heart, he is a victim.
“In war,” Philip Caputo (author of the memoir A Rumor of War) explains, “a man does not have to be killed or wounded to become a casualty. His life, his sight, or limbs are not the only things he stands to lose.” Victimized by his government, which misleads him, by a populace at home that despises him, and by the ever evasive Viet Cong enemy that relentlessly targets him, the American soldier emerges in numerous works of memoir and fiction of the Vietnam War as a man more sinned against than sinning.
This paper presents an analysis of the way in which victimization becomes the prevailing understanding of the American soldier’s experience in popular antiwar works of memoir and fiction from the Vietnam War. It questions the assumptions and agendas of this shared interpretation of the American soldier. Specifically, it explores the ways in which victim hood - real or perceived - serves the purposes of individual writers and, more broadly, of the antiwar literary genre.
The paper demonstrates that through the rationalization of victim hood the individual soldier is able to disown responsibility for the atrocities he has committed, even for murder. The soldier becomes a victim not a victimizer, a casualty not a killer. Furthermore, the paper argues that this shared perception of victimization allows Vietnam War writers - the most accomplished of whom are all men who served in the war as soldiers, officers, or journalists - to condemn the war, while still defending the men who fought in it.