The Portrayal of Vietnam in The Things They Carried and Good Morning Vietnam
Most veterans of the Vietnam War will remember a land that was radically different from what they knew and were used to, a country that was hot and humid, full of diseases and traps that seemed to advantage the enemy while crippling the soldiers. The territory was unfamiliar and treacherous, as rain led to large mud patches and landslides and the jungle was easy to get lost in. The overwhelming heat and humidity was a perfect climate for disease and sunstroke to develop, afflictions that affected many soldiers.
Vietnam was a hostile environment for the young American soldiers that went to fight in it, and this hostility is well portrayed in Tim O’Brien’s collection of short stories, The Things They Carried, while it is not as well displayed in the famous film “Good Morning Vietnam”.
In the book The Things They Carried, the reader follows a platoon of soldiers as they venture through Vietnam in search of the Vietcong.
As we read, we see that the soldiers are frequently confronted by the hostile land and have to be on their guard all the time to avoid getting injured or separated from the rest of the group. The book works quite well to give the reader an impression of the uncertain conditions of Vietnam, and translates a very real situation well into a more fictional context.
In particular, the story “Speaking of Courage” shows a metaphor for the uncertain conditions and terrain of Vietnam. In this story, one of the characters, a young Native American soldier by the name of Kiowa, drowns in a field of mud and excrement. At the start of the story, it is explained that the field seems solid enough, though muddy because of the unending rain. However, as the rain goes on and the platoon advances on the field to find a place to set up camp, the field becomes increasingly treacherous and when bombs start falling around the soldiers and their settlement, the terrain is extremely dangerous, even though it originally seemed somewhat safe and stable.
The events that take place in this field are a symbol of many of the day-to-day situations that the American soldiers had to face in Vietnam; land that they considered safe because authority had told them it was turned out to be perilous and life-threatening and the calm night quickly turns bad as bombs start to fall. The uncertain conditions of Vietnam are well shown in this chapter, and are also described in “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong”. In this story, a young American girl, the girlfriend of one of the soldiers, is flown over to Vietnam to join the platoon and her boyfriend.
Yet this turns out unexpectedly as she does not share the soldiers’ antipathy of the land, instead finding herself head over heels in love with the completely foreign country that is so different from everything she knows. The soldiers are bewildered by the passion that Mary Ann Bell, the girl in question, has for the Vietnamese culture and country, and do not understand how she can love the place so much. Again, the uncertainty of Vietnam is showed, as it seduces some while leaving others confused and antagonized.
In “Good Morning Vietnam”, another side of the uncertainty in Vietnam is shown. Adrian Cronauer, the main character (played by Robin Williams) arrives in Vietnam as a DJ for the radio show that is broadcast all day for the whole of the country to hear. Cronauer is originally content with his position, and feels distanced from the fighting. However, when a bomb explodes in a restaurant where he is eating and the news report is censored by the U.S. army, Cronauer is bewildered and does not understand at all.
He was not expecting attacks on Saigon, where he and most of the new forces are stationed, mainly because none of the attacks were allowed to be broadcasted. He is appalled at the censorship going on and turns to his commander-in-chief, Sergeant Major Dickerson and says: “What are you afraid of Dickerson? People might find out there’s a war going on?”1 This shows the uncertain conditions of Vietnam because the soldiers who have just been transferred into Vietnam – and usually arrive in Saigon – hardly have any information to work with, because they don’t know who or where the enemy is, and don’t even know that the war has gotten to where the headquarters are.
Though “Good Morning Vietnam” displays to a minor extent the uncertainty of fighting a war in Vietnam, it is a Hollywood movie, and therefore over-exaggerates some points while de-dramatizing others. It does not show much of the uncertainty that is felt out in the field, where the soldiers are working and searching for the enemy on a day-to-day basis. For example, we are often shown scenes of soldiers sitting around, loading things onto trucks or exercising, all the while listening to the radio, but we rarely see scenes of combat or violence which did take place in Vietnam. In that way, the film does not really do a good job of translating the unsure and treacherous conditions that soldiers in Vietnam found themselves in.
Fiction can serve well to show a reader (or watcher) with no previous experience of the subject matter what the situation was like, but some forms are better than others. The advantage to film is that we can very obviously see a set of circumstances and thus empathize with it better, provided it is clearly shown. However, reading a novel in which events are described in a personal voice, as is the case in The Things They Carried can also help to immerse the spectator into the situation, especially when the work is written from numerous perspectives or gives a view of varied circumstances. If fiction is to accurately portray real situations, it must be clear and preferably unbiased, or allow the third party to have reference points by comparing the unknown to that which is familiar, or by using vivid imagery. All in all, fiction can display facts, but these are often obscured by the emotions that are felt when responding to a piece, whether of text or film.
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