Colonialism in American Literature of Vietnam War Essay

The Vietnam War lasting from 1959-1975 (also known as the Second Indochina war) is dubbed as the “longest military conflict in U.S. history” (Vietnam War ¶ 1) with casualties numbering 58,000 on the American side and a mind-blowing 3-4 M from the Vietnamese (both North and South) camp (¶ 1). With these statistics in mind and the horrific ending to the war in consideration, it does not come as a surprise that the Vietnam War has inspired more than a handful of American literature ranging from fiction (novels, drama and comedy) and poetry to songs, biography and personal narratives that center on the military conflict’s irony, hollowness, misery and aftermath.  The involvement of the American government in the war judged by critics slash historians as taking the nature of colonialism renders the bulk of American literature on Vietnam War as largely colonial in structure, content and focus.  Michael Adas in his article, “A Colonial War: The United States’ Occupation of Vietnam” argues and historically proves the colonial inclination and interest of America in Vietnam claiming that America veered away from its earlier anti-colonial position under Roosevelt then  proceeded to support the continuance of French colonization in Indochina ( 29). In Adas’s own words:

In the next decade, three American presidents presided over an escalating political and military involvement in Indochina that had most of the main attributes of colonial interventions in the preceding centuries of European global domination. Defying the decidedly anti-colonial rhetoric of the Roosevelt years, they committed the United States to a massive colonial occupation in a postcolonial era. (29)  

Since the Vietnam War is the result of America’s efforts to participate in the colonization endeavor of Europe in an era of decolonization, the subsequent literary product is essentially and categorically colonial. A colonial literature tackles and examines the issues arising from Imperialism such as the moral dilemma(s) of the colonizer or the imperialist as shown in the essay “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. In the essay Orwell recalled how as a sub-divisional officer of the town he shot an elephant in Burma to earn the approval of the Burmese and to “avoid looking a fool” (Hunt & Perry 295) even though he thought it wrong to deliberately kill the beast.  George Orwell’s personal essay demonstrates how an imperialist system morally confuses the colonizer or the member of the colonizing nation who believes that imperialism is “an evil thing” (289) but on the one hand because of a sense of nationality is forced to play his or her part as the oppressor.  

One of the defining characteristics and key quality of a colonial literature is its denunciation of colonialism and its negative impact both on the colonizer and the colonized.  It is highly critical of the system of imperialism, noting the impartiality in the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed with the oppressor receiving most of the gains while the other party suffers and gets traumatized. Colonial literature discusses the social, economic and psychological implications or consequences of colonialist experience.  

In structure, colonial literature is “characterized by a strong sense of ambiguity: uncertainty about the morality of imperialism about the nature of humanity, and about the continuing viability of European civilization” (“Colonial Literature” ¶ 1). Through its form, colonial literature exposes the contradictions, paradoxes and ironies of imperialism. 

American Literature of Vietnam War is Colonial in theme, content, structure and focus


  1. Robert Olen Butler (The Alleys of Eden) 1981

This fictional narrative centers on Clifford Wilkes, an American soldier trapped in Saigon at the closing of the Vietnam War. In part, it is a romantic tale with Lanh, a Vietnamese lass, serving as his love interest and partner for nearly five years.  Clifford’s love for Lanh is keeping him from seeking refuge in the United States Embassy and making that necessary escape. The novel seeps with colonial theme/s as it reproaches the immorality of the war and the sheer wrongness of it through the character of Clifford Wilkes. Wilkes is stricken with pangs of guilt over the senseless killings of many Vietnamese locals. He confesses his acts to Lanh one afternoon as they lie in bed together-“We took your trees. We burned them away” (Anisfield 16). A distinguishing colonial feature of the narrative is the apparent ambivalence or ambiguity of Clifford Wilkes towards the whole affair of the war. Although it is true that Wilkes is ridden with guilt and shame he still seems unsure (almost hesitant) about having to proclaim the war an absolute evil. While verbally announcing to Lanh his perceived misgivings to the Vietnamese lot, he appears to be seeking from Lanh a form of validation or a sign of reassurance (that his acts are not wholly wrong) to ease the naggings of guilt and lighten the load of responsibility and accountability.  

Another salient colonial characteristic of the novel is the presence of colonial stereotypes in the text.  The oppressed is still projected as insecure, devoid of national pride and identity, always the subservient subject and follower.  Lanh is depicted as a stereotypical Vietnamese girl conscious of her skin color, her modest physical make-up and endowments.  This is evidenced in the replies of Lanh when Clifford complimented her outward beauty: “You’d trade me in for the first pair of size 36 American breasts you could get your hands on” (15); “I don’t believe you; you’d be crazy to love a tiny little dark thing like me” (16). Even the novel’s representation of the Vietnamese people is hackneyed and obviously patterned after the misguided assumptions of a colonizer who in his arrogance thinks he is master of the culture of the colonized. In the novel, the people are portrayed as indolent, passive and fatalistic-always prepared to accept the things life and fate may throw at them. Lanh, in her statements, channels these stereotypical qualities of the locals:

If I am in our fields and the sun wears me down, I go under a tree and sit quiet, feel warm, take my joy, but the sun is hot all around me. I see it, I know it’s part of where I am. If there is no tree, I must sit in the field and accept it (16).

 Why is your coming to us any different from the coming of the heat of the day?…let me keep my acceptance of things (16). 

B.) Going After Cacciato (Tim O’ Brien) 

Going after Cacciato explores the absurdity of the war-the pointlessness of it and its tragic silliness.  In the novel, Cacciato, a Private First Class, brazenly attempts to escape the Vietnam War by fleeing to Paris.  Cacciato’s unauthorized exodus to Paris serves as the impetus of the surrealistic narrative as the rest of the platoon or squad to which he belongs follows on hot pursuit eager to catch him before the elusive Cacciato sets foot on Paris. The novel is colonial in all aspect as it focuses on the negative impact of war as by-product of America’s involvement in France’s re-colonization ventures in Indochina particularly in Vietnam.  Tim O’Brien highlights in the novel the absence of reason, order and purpose of the military conflict in Vietnam. This absurdity is made to resonate in the narrative by infusing misplaced humor verging on the weird and strange as well as flights of fancy into the characters’ dialogues, imaginations and silent soliloquies. In the Night March-one of the novel’s section-Paul Berlin, the novel’s narrator becomes a sharer in the war’s absurdity. He fears and shows dislike for the war but the seriousness of his situation and gravity of his emotions is underscored throughout the narrative by the tendency of Paul Berlin just like the rest of the characters to trivialize and to turn to the comedic when the adventures of the night and the entire mission become tense.  In one of the scenes in Night March, Paul’s imagination veers to the hilarious and funny as he thinks about Billy Boy dying of heart attack because of fear: 

He giggled. He couldn’t stop it, so he giggled, and he imagined it clearly. He imagined the medic’s report. He imagined Billy’s surprise. He giggled, imagining Billy’s father opening the telegram: SORRY TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON BILLY BOY WAS YESTERDAY SCARED TO DEATH IN ACTION IN THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM. Yes, he could imagine it clearly. (Perkins, ed. 1947).  

Tim O’ Brien’s characters all show inappropriate affect in response to the war’s absurdity.  The plot of the narrative, apart from the characters’s responses, is also absurd with Cacciato suddenly abandoning his military post on foot to flee to Paris and the platoon desperately following traces of Cacciato’s escape. In real life, these odd occurrences rarely happen but O’ Brien has a purpose in structuring his narrative in a surrealistic mode. He wants to depict the strange realities of the Vietnam War: American boys barely past their teens convinced to fight in a war not of their own making, deaths-all senseless-by the thousands and millions, massive destruction not only in the material sense but also of the individual and the self.  All these for Tim O’ Brien’s standpoint are part of the absurd that was the Vietnam War.  

Short Story 

A.) Shirley Ann Grau (“The Homecoming”)

In a sense, the prose is anti-war not so much in exploring the indirect impact of the Vietnam War on those (wives, children, parents, and siblings) left behind to mourn and piece together a life without the dead loved ones but in questioning the idea and meaning of heroism within the context of the war. Shirley Ann Grau makes a bold statement by claiming that there is nothing glorious about the war in Vietnam, no one to be called heroes and nothing to take pride in. For her, everything the war is is entirely wrong. Susan, the bereaved, echoes the author’s point when she made the following remarks after the neighbors and her mom praised-“The young men are so heroic”; “All the young men are so brave” (Grau 159)-Harold (her dead fiancé) and the rest of the soldiers who died in Vietnam: “No. Not my father and Harold. They were not brave; they just got caught (159). 

B.) The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert (Ward S. Just)

The short prose is ripe with irony in structure and situation.  Colonial literature such as this one makes use of irony as a literary technique to denounce the reality of war in their narrative. Irony is the “recognition of a reality different from appearance” (Holman & Harmon 254) and in the The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert Ward Just creates a situation wherein the lead character, La Ruth, refuses to support Wein and his committee of scientists and philosophers by passing a Congressional resolution to end the war in Vietnam because he believes such a cause would only spurn useless debate in the House. His refusal does not mean that he approves of the war but a sign that he is disillusioned by the system of politics in the Lower house, by the stance of America and the rest of his comrades in the House toward the war in Vietnam.  La Ruth knows fighting for the cessation of war in Congress is an exercise in futility simply because America wants the war (“…a majority of the members of this House do not want to lose Asia to the Communists” 100).  The irony and seat of tension in the prose lie in the difference between La Ruth’s seeming nonchalance or lukewarm attitude toward the war and what he really believes in and values.  On the outside La Ruth is a realist, a lover of Flaubert, a cynic who thinks putting an end to the war is a lost cause while inside beneath the layers of cynicism is a man who opposes imperialism and the war believing both to be immoral acts. 

Poetry and Song

  1. Yusef Komunyakaa (“Prisoners”) (Source: Internet Poetry Archive 2006)

The speaker-obviously an American soldier- talks about the Vietnamese prisoners and the discrepancy of their battered physical form and their inner resolve. In lines 23-32 the speaker brings attention to this apparent contradiction, noting that the prisoners’s bent figures belie the strength of character that each one possesses even with a barrage of threats and imminent death: 

I’ve heard the old ones/are the hardest to break./An arm twist, a combat boot/against the skull, a .45/jabbed into the mouth, nothing works./ When they start talking/with ancestors faint as camphor/smoke in pagodas, you know/you’ll have to kill them/to get an answer”.

 “Prisoners” is a typical colonial literature as it tackles war themes such as death, imprisonment, torture and interrogation.  Also, there is a sense of ambiguity in the poem as the speaker could not define his attitude and response or more accurately the reason behind his feelings toward the Vietnamese prisoners held in their camps.  This ambiguity is expressed in lines 40-44 as the speaker admits having had the urge to bow to one of these prisoners but knowing not why he felt as such : “I remember how one day/I almost bowed to such figures/walking toward me, under/a corporal’s ironclad stare/I can’t say why”. Although the reason behind the speaker’s emotions are ambiguous what is clear in the poem is the speaker’s lack of pity, affection or empathy for the prisoners: “How can anyone anywhere love/these half-broken figures?/bent under the sky’s lightness” (17-19); “Who can cry for them? (22). 

Aside from ambiguity as a distinctive feature of the poem, “Prisoners” contain rich imagery suggesting weakness, pallor and tiredness. The following words, clauses and phrases evoke the preceding mental image: stumble-dance, thin-framed, sticks, wind, tug & snatch, bent, half-broken marionettes, strings of light.  

Another element in the structure of this colonial poetry slash free verse that is distinctive is the use of parallelism.  The parallel structure that is repeated throughout the poem is the verb/noun/adjective & verb/noun/adjective pattern (ex. night & day; sticks & black silk; tug & snatch; alone & amazed).  

B.) Bruce Springsteen (Born in the USA)

This song is no doubt political and relays much irony in its verses especially in the chorus:” Born in the U.S.A…” (5-8). Many listeners overlook the despair, the sad story of American dreams lost and broken amidst the unmet promises of war (“Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go”). The ambiguity of the song may be partly to blame as Springsteen uses words with multiple meanings and connotations.  

Works Cited 

Adas, Michael. “A Colonial War: The Unites States’ Occupation of Vietnam.” America, the Vietnam war, and the World: Comparative & International Perspectives. Ed. Andreas W. Daum, Lloyd C. Gardner and Wilfried Mausbach. New York: Cambridge University press, 2003.27-42.

Ann Grau, Shirley. “The Homecoming.” Shirley Ann Grau (Selected Stories). Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. 152-191.

Butler, Robert Olen. “The Alleys of Eden.” Vietnam Anthology American War Literature. Ed. Nancy Anisfield. Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987. 14-16.

“Colonialism: 28 April 2008

Holman, Hugh and Harmon William. “A Handbook to Literature.” 6th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992. 254-255.

Just, Ward S. “The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.” The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert:21 Stories and Novellas. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998. 85-129.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Prisoners.” Internet Poetry Archiive. 2006. 28 April 2008

Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” The Dolphin Reader. 5th ed. Ed. By Douglas Hunt and Carolyn Perry. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.288-295.

O’ Brien, Tim. “Going After Cacciato.” The American Tradition in Literature. 6th ed., Vol 2. Ed. George Perkins, et al. New York: Random House, Inc., 1985. 1942-1949.

Springsteen, Bruce. “Born in the USA.” Lyrics Domain. 28 April 2008.

“Vietnam War.” Vietnam 28 April 2008