Science Fiction Studies

#52 = Volume 17, Part 3 = November 1990

H. Bruce Franklin

The Vietnam War as American Science Fiction and Fantasy

(Winner, Pioneer Award, 1991)

America's war in Indochina cannot be dissociated from American SF, which shaped and was reshaped by the nation's encounter with Vietnam. Out of American pulp, comic book, and movie SF of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s poured two streams of images that profoundly influenced how the war was conceived and conducted: fantasies of techno-wonders and of superheroes. Of course these streams intermingle; after all, in order to fight for "truth, justice, and the American way,'' the American S-F superhero requires fantastic powers, which may be internalized (Superman) or externalized in high-tech paraphernalia (Batman). Indeed, the war cannot be fully comprehended unless it is seen in part as a form of American SF and fantasy.1 For a simple paradigm of the American self-images that helped engineer that war, just imagine Buck Rogers—as he uses his manly skills and 25th-century technology to lead the good fight against the Mongol hordes—sporting a Green Beret.

This essay focusses on a less speculative and far more overt interplay between SF and the war. For American SF very explicitly defined the war, which unalterably redefined American SF.

SF fans who tried escaping from the Vietnam War by diving into the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Galaxy Science Fiction in the spring of 1968 instead found themselves plunged right back into the conflict— in the form of two opposing advertisements about the war, each signed by scores of SF writers, artists, and editors. The June 1968 issue of Galaxy showcased the two ads on facing pages,2 followed by pages of anguish by editor Frederik Pohl, who chastised both groups for turning what he called "a choice of tactics'' into a "polarized debate,'' thus making "opponents of people who should be friends'' and threatening to "endlessly'' protract the national debate, and hence the war. Pohl pleads for a unified vision that he expects readers to find in SF:

Look down the list of signers to the two divergent ads.…from their stories, you have an opportunity to judge of the kinds of worlds they would like for the future.…[T]here's not a pennyworth of difference between them.… [I]f these two groups were each constituted a committee for the construction of a World of Twenty-Sixty-Eight, and their optimum worlds were compared, they would be essentially the same world.

Looking backward at the rival camps, we may be puzzled by Pohl's inability to distinguish between either their ideologies or their conflicting roles in modern SF. For the pro-war list reads like a roll call of champions of super-science and supermen, of manly and military virtue, while the anti-war list includes almost the entire vanguard of "New Wave'' SF, profoundly hostile to technocracy, militarism, and imperialism. Yet Pohl's yearning for the vanished if not mythical community of SF also represented a wider national nostalgia. For the apparently unified, content, smiling-faced nation of the late 1950s, product of the post-war repression that had stifled almost all dissent, seemed in the process of being torn asunder by America's war in Vietnam.            

Indeed, when Kate Wilhelm and Judith Merril began soliciting signatures for the anti-war statement, they had assumed that "95 percent'' of the writers would sign because of the "global and anti-racist view'' that supposedly guided SF.3 Surprisingly, Merril was shocked to discover that Robert Heinlein was among those who responded with vociferous declarations of "America first'' and the "US must win.''

Perhaps the very first literary fantasy or SF flowing from America's war in Vietnam was Heinlein's Glory Road, which was serialized in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for July, August, and September of 1963. Written more than two years before the first official dispatch of American troops in February 1965, the novel presages ominous features of American culture of the late 1970s, '80s, and '90s.

Resentful about the Korean War because "we weren't allowed to win'' (July, p. 23), the hero of Glory Roadgoes off to fight as a "Military Adviser'' in the jungles of Vietnam, which he describes: "Wherever you step it squishes...The bushes are filled with insects and natives who shoot at you'' (July, p. 9). Although boasting that there "I had killed more men in combat than you could crowd into a—well, never mind'' (July, p. 16), he receives no GI educational benefits because the government was still pretending that it was not at war. Indeed, when Glory Road was published, few Americans were aware that the US was engaged in major combat in Vietnam and Laos.            

Our hero comes to resemble a familiar figure in post-Vietnam American culture. Like Rambo, he is embittered by what he sees as government betrayal during the war and is thoroughly alienated from the domestic American society he finds when he returns. Unappreciated as a warrior, he is reduced to beating up a bearded poet who labels him a "mercenary'' for fighting in Southeast Asia (September, p. 87). Here he is, "a hundred and ninety pounds of muscle and no fat,'' a fearless expert in martial arts, a hero in a society run by bureaucrats and dedicated to "single-minded pursuit of the three-car garage, the swimming pool, and the safe & secure retirement benefits'' (July, pp. 13, 14). Adroit in the arts of killing, and stripped of all ideals but those of the lone warrior, he seeks a destiny he can only hope to find in classified ads for mercenaries.

Thoroughly contemptuous of Third-World peasants, our hero brags about disemboweling "a pragmatic Marxist in the jungle,'' a man he sardonically refers to as "little brown brother'' (July, p. 11). His feelings foreshadow those of the Vietnam veterans later recruited through ads in Soldier of Fortune magazine to fight as mercenaries against peasants in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The psychology of these warriors is well described in a 1979 Wall Street Journal report on the 80 to 90 US veterans of Vietnam then fighting in the army of the white supremacist government of Rhodesia:

   Thus, Hugh McCall, a corporal in the Rhodesian army, describes the first man he killed in combat. ‘It's the most exciting goddam thing in the world. There's nothing else like it. The feeling you get when you come out of a contact—well, you bet your own life, and you know it...'
   'I went big-game hunting here once, but I haven't bothered again because it doesn't do that much for you,' says one American who wants to remain anonymous. 'After hunting men, hunting game is sort of tame.'
   Liam Atkins, 34 years old, who fought as a captain with the green berets in Vietnam, says he has been here two years as a captain in the Rhodesian army [and]...'I like killing communists.' ("Ex-GIs in Rhodesia...'')

The hero of Glory Road answers a classified ad which promises even more thrills: "We badly need a brave man...proficient with all weapons… indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger'' (July, p. 27). It turns out that the employer in search of a true hero is none other than "Star,'' the most beautiful, sexy, adoring, and exciting woman in "the Twenty Universes'' (of which she is the Empress). So off he goes with her on "Glory Road,'' killing monsters, having sexual encounters even more amazing than his martial encounters, and achieving fabulous wealth and admiration.            

The guiding political philosophy of Star's realm typifies Campbellian SF: "Democracy can't work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that's all there is—so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work'' (September, p. 69). This view was also central to US decision-making in Vietnam. Two months after the final installment of Glory Road, President Kennedy's Administration directed the coup that killed Ngo Dinh Diem, the US-installed puppet ruler of South Vietnam. The President was guided by this secret advice cabled in August 1963 from Henry Cabot Lodge, his Ambassador to the Diem government:

We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government...[T]here is no turning back because there is no possibility, in my view, that the war can be won under a Diem administration, still less that Diem or any member of the family can govern the country in a way to gain the support of the people who count, i.e., the educated class in and out of government service.… (Vietnam and America, p. 225)

If the peasants of Vietnam or other Third World nations contest the political philosophy shared by Heinlein and Lodge, it becomes necessary to find heroes, like the narrator of Glory Road, to kill as many of them as possible.            

But in the midst of his romantic sword-and-sorcery adventures, the hero of Glory Road discovers that he is merely a character in a book, somebody else's fantasy (July, p. 50). For he comes at the tail end of the epoch of the bourgeois hero, who replaced the feudal hero with the rascal of the picaresque novel and then went on to metamorphose into Robinson Crusoe, Horatio Alger, Tom Edison, Jr and Frank Read, Jr of the American dime novel, Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter and Tarzan, the detective, the cowboy, James Bond, Superman, Batman, Luke Skywalker—almost anyone but that alienated wage-slave who pays some of his earnings for the fantasy. Now the bourgeois hero seeks happiness in the lost world of the romantically mythologized feudal past, where he can dwell forever, sword in hand and empress in bed.

The hero's lament that "we weren't allowed to win'' the Korean War alludes to the decision not to drop nuclear bombs on Korea or China or both. The same kind of illusion informed one of the first US government fantasies about Vietnam, which envisioned nuclear weapons as the magical power that would allow American will to reshape Indochinese reality.            

As early as April 5, 1954, while France teetered on the brink of defeat by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the US National Security Council's plans for possible intervention stipulated: "Nuclear weapons will be available for use as required...'' (Pentagon Papers, I:466); and later that month the United States offered two nuclear bombs to be dropped on the forces besieging the French bastion of Dien Bien Phu.4 A decade later, US policymakers considered the use of nuclear weapons to support its own forces in Vietnam, even though officially these troops weren't even there yet (Pentagon Papers, III:65, 175). In 1968, as US forces were being defeated on the ground, their supreme commander, General Westmoreland, suggested to the Pentagon the use of nuclear weapons.5 The facts of political life, however, evidently kept these fantasies, elaborated in the secret councils and plans of American military and political leaders, from bursting upon the world.

But reality had no such control over the fantasies of some of the signers of the 1968 pro-war advertisement in the SF magazines. Under the spell of technological fetishism, some imagined a final solution to the Vietnam problem in the form of that ultimate technological fix: nuclear weapons.            

One of those signers, Joe Poyer, back in 1966 had published a two-part series in Analog which confidently asserted that all guerrilla insurgencies from now on were doomed by the evolving technological wizardry commanded by counter-insurgent forces—such as spy-satellites and people sniffers (electronic devices to detect the chemicals exuded by guerillas).6 Poyer's 1966 fantasies were shared by the generals and politicians running the war, who confidently predicted throughout 1966 and 1967 that the Vietnamese insurgency was on the verge of total collapse. But then came the stunning Tet Offensive of early 1968, which reduced US and puppet forces to a desperate defense of their own bases and the cities. In July of that year, while the pro-war ad he had signed was running, Poyer published a revealing story in Analog.            

Entitled "Null Zone,'' this tale combines two dominant American cultural images of what it takes to win wars: superwarriors and techno-wonders. Its hero is Special Forces Lieutenant Philip Schmittzer, a Rambo type who, stalking alone deep in the jungles of Indochina, ambushes and slays innumerable North Vietnamese soldiers who are tracking him, while taking pictures with an infrared camera to augment the computer-generated holograph map back at his base in Thailand. Echoing fantasies prevalent in the Pentagon and the White House, the story argues that America can win the war and secure Southeast Asia merely by blocking the Ho Chi Minh trail: "...its importance to the North Vietnamese is such that their entire military efforts in South East Asia must collapse if this route is successfully interdicted'' (p. 63). Poyer goes so far as to assert that the United States should never agree to a peace accord until this supply route is permanently nullified. So Lieutenant Schmittzer receives—and heroically carries out— his greatest mission: clearing the ground for an impenetrable "Null Zone'' formed by air drops of "deadly radioactive waste'' (p. 70).            

Another signer of the 1968 pro-war ad was Jerry Pournelle, who was to emerge in the 1970s and '80s as the loudest, most strident voice in SF exalting militarism and worshipping in the complementary cults of the superweapon and the mercenary. Although his first outright SF would not appear until 1971, Pournelle in 1970 co-authored with right-wing ideologue Stefan Possony a technowar apologia entitled The Strategy of Technology, which may best be comprehended as SF.            

Pournelle and Possony's prescription for victory in Vietnam bestows powers on nuclear weapons even more wondrous than those conjured up by Poyer. After claiming that the US held the remote outpost at Khe Sanh because "B-52s smashed the Communist positions and inflicted heavy casualties,'' they argue:

The B-52s dropped about 30 megatons of TNT munitions. If we had used some 3 megatons of small nuclear bombs with a strong neutron flux, we could have lifted the siege of Khe Sanh in one or two hours and we would have crippled the North Vietnamese divisions for a long while to come. We might have won the war in the Khe Sanh engagement.… (p. 149)

The alleged "facts'' upon which the authors base their fantasy are themselves dubious: there is little evidence that "heavy casualties'' were suffered by the besiegers; Khe Sanh was not held, but was evacuated under fire.7 Pournelle and Possony's belief that B-52s dropped 30 megatons on the Khe Sanh besiegers reveals how far out of touch with material reality the techno-warriors can soar. It would have taken almost a million B-52 sorties to drop 30 megatons of high explosives, which would have amounted to 15 times the total tonnage dropped by the US throughout the Second World War. So the imagined nuclear alternative is merely an expansion of the fantasy into a realm—like the magic empire in Heinlein's Glory Road—where one can simply dispense with such nuisances as facts and logic and probabilities. That "we might have won the war'' if we had dropped "some 3 megatons of small nuclear bombs with a strong neutron flux'' near Khe Sanh has no more nor less validity than the statement that we might have won the war if the Empress of the Twenty Universes had personally intervened. The technological mumbo-jumbo here has the same function as the warp drives and phaser shields that allow SF spaceships to travel faster than light and conquer alien evil empires.            

If the techno-warriors of the Pentagon, White House, and Analog were possessed by their fantasies, New Wave SF sought to exorcise them through alternative visions. Norman Spinrad, one of the signers of the anti-war ad, offered a splendid example of this contradictory mode of fantasy in his 1969 apocalyptic story "The Big Flash,'' which deeply probes the sources of the urge to use nuclear weapons to "win the war'' in Vietnam.            

In Spinrad's tale, a demonic rock group called "The Four Horsemen'' bursts upon the late-1960s' American scene. Sporting swastikas and "a shrunken head,'' garbed in the clothes of the counterculture, and peering from "eyes that looked something like a morgue,'' "The Four Horsemen'' swiftly climb from a sleazy rock club called the Mandala to "a network-owned joint'' named The American Dream (p. 199). The Four Horsemen seem to offer the perfect solution to those, like General Westmoreland and Jerry Pournelle, who believed that they could win the war with tactical nuclear weapons if they were not hamstrung by public opinion. (As opposed to strategic nuclear weapons, which are designed for annihilating cities and other "strategic'' targets, tactical nuclear weapons, which merely have the destructive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, are intended for battlefield use.) Since the band's whole repertoire consists of orgiastic numbers that mesmerize their audience into lust for "the big flash,'' the Administration and Pentagon plan to use them to remold public opinion into a clamor for nuclear weapons. Businessmen searching for new sales-stimuli, promoters greedy for bucks, network executives grovelling before big advertisers, a think-tank guru who uses the pseudo-rational technocratic discourse of a Possony or Pournelle—all become tools of the Four Horsemen's media blitz. The aerospace companies sponsor their huge televised concerts to win over "precisely that element of the population which was most adamantly opposed to nuclear weapons'' (p. 211). The campaign succeeds —demonstrations fade away and zeal for nuclear weapons surges— though far beyond the dreams of the sponsors, who never do get to use their tactical nukes on Vietnam. Possessed by the Four Horsemen's overpowering beat and images and command to "Do it!,'' the missilemen in the ICBM silos and the SLBM-armed submarines launch their strategic rockets, thus initiating the annihilation of the human species. Evidently America has not been using but is being used by this demonic group, which is no mere rock band with a weird name, but the actual Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Spinrad's story, on the other hand, is using and not being used by fantasy. Whereas Poyer, Pournelle, and Possony try to convince their readers that dropping nuclear weapons really would allow us to "win the war,'' Spinrad does not expect his readers to believe that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might really appear in the guise of a rock band. But if they did, he suggests, isn't it plausible that the military-industrial-political powers would collude with them to make us stop worrying and love the bomb, thus helping them hurl us into the thermonuclear apocalypse?            

Combined with the illusions of technowar and Special Forces was yet another official US fantasy, one glowing with liberal ideological colors. This was epitomized in the slogan "Winning Hearts and Minds,'' whose true meaning, as soon recognized in GI jokes, was succinctly expressed by its acronym: WHAM.            

"Winning Hearts and Minds'' received its fullest realization in 1968 and 1969, when the CIA conducted a gigantic carrot-and-stick campaign aimed at re-establishing control in some of the countryside lost during the Tet Offensive. The stick was Operation Phoenix, a massive program of torture and assassination designed to root out the insurgent infrastructure. US intelligence officers subsequently testified to Congress that not one of the many "Viet Cong suspects'' whose arrest they witnessed ever survived interrogation; the death toll from Phoenix ran well into the tens of thousands.8 The carrot was a so-called land reform program that co-opted Lenin's slogan "Land to the Tiller.'' It was designed and run by University of Washington law professor Roy L. Prosterman, who also drew up the document that asserted a legal basis for Operation Phoenix (Wheaton: 260). Five years after the last US-sponsored forces were overwhelmed in Vietnam, Prosterman, again functioning in a CIA operation, was given the job of implementing his "Land to the Tiller'' program in El Salvador. In 1970, between these two attempts to impose his American fantasies on other peoples, Prosterman wrote a SF story entitled "Peace Probe,''9 which was published in the July 1973 issue of Analog, a few months after the US agreed to withdraw all its combat forces from Vietnam and to pay four billion dollars in war reparations to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam ("North Vietnam'').            

Prosterman's tale expresses the overarching fantasy that was being shattered in Vietnam, the vision of a world entirely subservient to American intentions, which, of course, are always thoroughly benign. After two unnamed nations convulse the world in a 1978 nuclear and bacteriological war, the US President, being "a very good and a very wise man'' (p. 99), issues a Unilateral Declaration stipulating that "any nation, entity or person other than the United States'' found to possess any "weapons of mass destruction'' or "such other weapons, armies and armaments as the President of the United States shall from time to time designate'' shall be utterly annihilated by the United States. To enforce this decree, he establishes the Unilateral Declaration Agency (UDA), which is authorized to use drugs and "other techniques'' to "probe'' the minds of "officials and citizens'' throughout the world, "without limitation as to persons, times or places'' so as to guarantee that the world will remain perpetually under the sway of this Pax Americana (pp. 100-01). This vision of a global Operation Phoenix is narrated by a heroic UDA agent who ferrets out a plot by some renegade Argentines to force the US to deal with other nations "as 'equals''' (p. 98). By using chemical interrogation to unmask the conspirators, he spares the entire population of Argentina in the nick of time from righteous thermonuclear incineration by the UDA.            

Just as Prosterman's "Peace Probe'' betrays in the form of SF the interchangeability of "very good'' US intentions with genocidal US practices, events in post-Tet Vietnam displayed to many Americans how the benign appearance of "Winning Hearts and Minds'' translated into wholesale terror and indiscriminate slaughter. The most infamous example occurred in the province of Quang Ngai, suspected of being an insurgent stronghold, where US forces by late 1967 had already destroyed 70 per cent of the villages.10 In the aftermath of Tet, units of the Americal Division were sent by their commanders on a rampage of arson, rape, and murder through the remaining rural settlements of Quang Ngai, including the village of My Lai. Because photographs of the My Lai massacre were sold to Life and because some US soldiers testified to the atrocities, the American public learned that American soldiers had gone through the village murdering a total of 500 unarmed civilians while systematically raping and sodomizing the women and girls, butchering the animals, and using babies and small children for target practice.11           

Perhaps the finest work of art memorializing My Lai—and similar scenes that appeared on American TV—is Kate Wilhelm's story "The Village,'' first published in Thomas Disch's seminal New Wave anthology, Bad Moon Rising (1973). Comparable to Picasso's "Guernica'' mural, which also used non-realistic conventions to portray a reality too atrocious for realism, "The Village'' uses the SF convention of transposing realistic surfaces into an unfamiliar time-space zone.            

The village of the title has two referents, one Vietnamese, the other American, and the story deftly crosscuts between the two scenes. It opens in an all-American town which is experiencing a strange heat wave that seems to make festering problems and petty antagonisms leak through the placid surface of everyday life. There is a stink of dead fish from the local paper mill's pollution, plants seem unhealthy, inflation stalks the local market, the glare is more oppressive because maples have been cut down to widen the main street, and staid townspeople are appalled by some young people's marijuana, long hair, and lack of bras. Mildred Carey, whose son Mark is due back from the war in a few weeks, complains to her husband about some omnipotent "they'' who seem to be behind all the town's troubles: "They've done something to the weather'' (p. 147).            

The Vietnamese scene interwoven with this domestic fabric is envisioned from the point of view of an American company ordered to conduct a "search-and-clear'' sweep through a village. Here, too, the heat is overwhelming, and the men begin to suspect that their own omnipotent "they'' don't know what they are doing: "They've got us lost, the bastards. This fucken road ain't even on their fucken map'' (p. 153). But this may not make much difference, because "one fucken village is just like the others'' (p. 147), and their helicopters will give them lots of air cover.            

The two scenes come together as green and brown helicopters—"monstrous machines''—appear over the American village, gunning down people in the street. Now the point of view shifts rapidly back and forth between the American soldiers, who of course cannot comprehend a word from the villagers whom they beat, rape, and randomly shoot, and the American villagers, who are dismayed to discover that the US-uniformed soldiers who are beating, raping, and randomly shooting them do not speak English but some incomprehensible "gibberish.'' "What are you doing here?'' screams Mildred Carey, "You're American soldiers! What are you doing?'' (p. 155). Trying to stop a gang rape, an old townsman futilely shouts that the soldiers are brutalizing "the wrong town'' (p. 156).12           

Wilhelm's fantasy of a time-space zone where America and Vietnam merge poignantly expresses a growing consciousness that America's war against Vietnam was coming home. Perhaps the most compressed fantasy projecting what America's war against Vietnam was doing to America is a 14-line poem by Steve Hassett, who served as an infantryman and intelligence analyst in Vietnam:

And what would you do, ma,
if eight of your sons step
out of the TV and begin
killing chickens and burning
hooches in the living room,
stepping on booby traps
and dying in the kitchen,
beating your husband and
taking him and shooting
skag and forgetting in
the bathroom?
would you lock up your daughter?
would you stash the apple pie?
would you change channels?

Here American troops are both victimizers and victims, roles concatenated in the verb "shooting,'' which ends the ninth line. We first imagine them shooting "your husband,'' but it is themselves they are shooting with heroin as they try to forget their Vietnamese nightmare. The fantasy of America's sons stepping out of the TV to threaten ma and apple pie turns out to be the reality, which can be denied only by switching to fantasies on other channels.            

In Ronald Anthony Cross's story "The Heavenly Blue Answer,'' a returning veteran discovers that America itself had somehow become "Orientalized.'' Amid all the "karate and kung fu and Thai boxing schools,'' Vietnamese restaurants, and "weird kids in orange robes [who] danced in the streets chanting Hindu mantras,'' he senses "the essence of Orientalism,'' "a sort of melting of the borders, of all the borders, so that everything ran together'' (p. 263). Haunted by the memory of the incomplete dying words of an old man he had killed in Vietnam, which sounded like "I am...,'' he at last hears the final word from a coke bottle in the gutter: "You. I am you'' (p. 269).            

In Lewis Shiner's story "The War at Home,'' the protagonist has flashbacks of combat in which he never participated, his wife wears fashionable black pajamas and a conical straw hat, bamboo erupts in his garden, a supermarket massacre is carried out by a "gun nut'' wielding an M-16 and shouting "You're all fucking gooks,'' and finally America itself is transformed into a surrealist Vietnam:

   I walk through the haunted streets of my town, sweltering in the January heat. The jungle arches over me; children's voices in the distance chatter in their weird pidgin Vietnamese. The TV station is a crumbling ruin and none of us feel comfortable there any longer. We work now in a thatched hut with a mimeo machine.
   The air is humid, fragrant with anticipation. Soon the planes will come and it will begin in earnest. (pp. 326-28)

Alienation is taken even further in The Forever War, by wounded Vietnam combat engineer Joe Haldeman. Despite wide admiration by SF critics and sales of over a million copies, The Forever War is ignored by surveys and criticism of Vietnam War literature.13 The novel is a kind of autobiography in fantastic disguise (its protagonist's last name, Mandela, is an anagramatic derivative of [H]aldeman, whose middle name—William— he bears as his first). It extrapolates both kinds of extreme alienation experienced by US veterans—first as alien invaders of a foreign land, then as aliens returning to what seems no longer their own society—into the experience of becoming both extraterrestrial invaders of alien planets and exiles in time and space from planet Earth.

The Forever War fantasizes and extrapolates America's longest war into an 1143-year intergalactic combat instigated by generals and politicians, waged for profits, and conducted as a devastating fiasco from beginning to end. A fabricated attack by the "Taurans'' on a Terran spaceship, like the fabricated attack by North Vietnamese on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, serves as the pretext for ordering attacks on Tauran ships and sending troops to invade an alien land, here a strange planet. When the Terrans encounter the inhabitants of the planet—harmless, possibly intelligent, telepathic vegetarians—they massacre them, recalling the US campaign to slaughter all the elephants in Vietnam. Reflecting on the senseless carnage of these "aliens,'' Mandela begins to sense what he is becoming: "But they weren't aliens, I had to remind myself—we were'' (I:13:47). The Terrans butcher every single Tauran they encounter in the first actual contact between the two species, mirroring the US slaughter at My Lai and countless other Vietnamese villages. Most of the deaths suffered by the soldiers from Earth come from their traumatic revulsion against what the military and the government has made them do: "They conditioned us to kill anything that moved, once the sergeant triggered the conditioning with a few key words. When people came out of it, they couldn't handle the memory. Being a butcher'' (II:7:104-05).

Haldeman explodes the pet practices and illusions of US militarism by taking them to absurdly fantastic dimensions. The boot-camp transformation of civilians into masterful killers, officers molded by military academies into battlefield Clausewitzes, herculean feats of production and logistics, and unrestrained technowar all lead nowhere but to a convergence of Terran society with the civilization Earth has defined as its enemy. Haldeman delights in twisting the futuristic hardware and adventure formulas of old-fashioned militaristic SF into their opposite. Inventions such as a "one-microton'' nuclear device (IV:6:186) are described in the "Wow! Gosh!'' style of combat fiction, inviting careless bomb-loving readers—the personality type that craved nukes for Vietnam—to overlook the fact that they are being thrilled by an imaginary weapon with the force of one-thirtieth of an ounce of TNT —a firecracker. The interface between human beings and the technology of devastation, so electrifying to technophiliacs, here serves to reduce people to killing machines, as foreshadowed when Mandela just before his first combat "dreamed that I was a machine, mimicking the functions of life'' (I:13:48). Ultimately the greatest marvels of technowar create a "stasis field'' on a remote useless planet where Terrans and Taurans must slaughter each other with arrows and swords, not knowing that the war has long since ended. Whether flashing nova bombs or swords, this glory road leads to a renunciation of infantile fantasies such as Heinlein's, in which killing is the most gratifying human activity.            

Ursula Le Guin wrote The Word for World is Forest in 1968—the year that her name appeared in the anti-Vietnam-War advertisement in the SF magazines—partly as an interpretation of the war's meaning (see Le Guin's "Introduction,'' p. 151). The novella shifts at crucial points to the perspective of an extraterrestrial forest people subjected to global pillage and rape and genocide by men from Earth. From this point of view, the kind of fantasies that governed US political and military decision-making in Vietnam appear as expressions of alienation not just from historical reality but also from humanity, nature, and sanity.

The Word for World is Forest projects in the form of SF one of my main arguments about the Vietnam War as fantasy and SF. For it poses against each other the unconscious imperialist fantasies that dominated the US war and the conscious anti-imperialist fantasies that developed in opposition to it.

In Le Guin's story, the men from Earth, like the US leaders of the Vietnam War, are possessed by fantasies of themselves as rational, civilized, self-controlled superior beings, wielding irresistible technology that makes them masters of all other life-forms, including not only the flora and fauna of the alien planet, but also the females of the human species and the images that appear in their own dreams. As Captain Don Davidson, who embodies the fantasy in its most unmitigated form, puts it: supremacy is all "a matter of will, skill, and weaponry'' (p. 112). This slogan could summarize the SF written by such apologists for the war as Jerry Pournelle, Joe Poyer, and Roy Prosterman.

Rather than denying and burying their unconscious, the small, green, furry Athsheans cultivate that part of life they spend in dream-time, allowing the insights gained there to interpenetrate with those they derive from what they call "world time.'' Just as their word for "world'' is also their word for "forest,'' their word for "dream'' is also their word for "root.'' Because they embody harmony between the human and the natural and between the conscious and the unconscious, there is  a sane wholeness of the intellectual and emotional components of their consciousness. To them, the colonists from Earth, possessed by their own uncontrolled dream selves, seeking escape from the prison of their own barren consciousness in hallucinogenic drugs, seem terminally sick: "The yumens poison themselves in order to dream.…But they couldn't call the dreams, nor control them, nor weave nor shape nor cease to dream; they were driven, overpowered'' (p. 104). Controlled by fantasies that they are unable to shape, the invaders are so dangerously insane that the Athsheans must kill them to survive.

On another level, The Word for World is Forest suggests that the nearest counterparts in our society to the Athshean dream-weavers are the fantasists who seek to introduce a visionary dimension into our perception of daily and historical life, and into our conduct within that life. Thus fantasy and SF conceived in response to the Vietnam War are offered as an antidote to the SF and fantasies from which it materialized.

As a Vietnam War sequel has been shooting in Latin America, amid a US culture bubbling with militarist fantasies, SF has responded with increasingly apocalyptic visions of the war and its aftermath. A leading figure here is Lucius Shepard, whose special blend of SF and magic realism mixes the Vietnam War of the past, the Latin American war of the present, and a future combining the most grotesque elements of both.

In "Delta Sly Honey'' (1987), one of Shepard's few works actually set in Vietnam, he portrays "a war twisted into a demonic exercise'' (p. 34). "In Vietnam, with all its horror and strangeness,'' the narrator explains, "it was difficult to distinguish between the magical and the mundane, and it's possible that thousands of supernatural events went unnoticed as such.'' Yet "I'm certain,'' he confesses, "that I want there to have been some magic involved, anything to lessen my culpability, to shed a less damaging light on the perversity and viciousness of my brothers-in-arms'' (p. 34). This revelation suggests how and why Shepard uses the fantastic to mediate between us and a reality too appalling to handle.

The society left in the wake of the war is explored in Shepard's 1985 story "Mengele.'' The narrator, an ex-spotter pilot in Vietnam, finds a post-war America that incarnates "the triumph of evil'': "In the combat zones and shooting galleries, in the bombed-looking districts of urban decay, in the violent music and the cities teeming with derelicts and burned-out children, I saw reflected the energies that had created Vietnam'' (p. 329). If the bland, safe, prosperous society that so alienates the hero of Glory Roadis a before-Vietnam picture of America, this a picture of America after.

Yet the narrator of "Mengele'' is just as alienated as Heinlein's hero, and his first response is similar. Seized by a desire "to soar above decay,'' he goes into the business of ferrying small planes, no questions asked, "the farther away the better'' (p. 330). Forced to crash land in the rain forest of Paraguay, he encounters what appears to be the fiendish Nazi experimenter of Auschwitz, Dr Joseph Mengele, who has rejuvenated himself and created a legion of deformed monstrosities. In this modern version of The Island of Doctor Moreau, the mad scientist differs from Wells's prototype in two respects: he embodies pure evil and he exists in historical reality. Returning to New York, the narrator now understands that the society around him has succumbed to the most hideous fantasies of science and power gone insane, that "Mengele had won, that his principle, not ours, was in accord with the times'' (p. 342).

Shepard's extrapolation of the evolving Vietnam in Latin America into a future nightmare where devastating technology is under the control of unre strained depravity is presented most succinctly in his 1984 story "Salvador.'' Here each member of the US Special Forces trying to crush the revolution in El Salvador can instantly turn himself into a super-warrior like Rambo or the hero of Heinlein's Glory Road—just by popping a couple of ampules of standard-issue designer drugs. Under the influence of these magic chemicals, Dantzler, the protagonist, finds himself "marveling at his efficiency, at the comic-strip enthusiasm he felt for the task of killing'' (p. 65). His platoon leader, "DT,'' who has painted the words ""DIE HIGH'' on his helmet, "collects trophies...and not just ears like they done in 'Nam,'' but dried testicles (p. 65). When DT murders a teenage prisoner by pushing him out of a helicopter—a routine procedure in Vietnam—he jokingly evokes a theme that passed from 1950s' American SF into establishment politics: "‘Space!' shouted DT, giving the kid a little shove, 'The final frontier!''' (p. 67).

The Americans "waste'' a village in Morazán Province, a place where "dreams afflicted everyone'' (p. 67). Possessed by guilt, paranoia, and the magical spirits that seem to haunt the mountain cloud forest through which they trek, Dantzler is soon popping combat drugs just to function. While on nighttime guard duty, his chemical fantasies and the phantasmagoric reality of El Salvador merge, as though the dreams of Le Guin's Athsheans—or her own morally controlled fantasy—could interpenetrate and dominate the murderous fantasies of the Alpha-male imperialists. Firing in every direction at the accusing apparitions around him, he blindly slaughters his sleeping platoon, and then completes the operation by methodically killing the other sentries, including the crazed leader DT.

Later, when Dantzler is back home, a friend who has been drafted implores him to come to a send-off party at a garish rock club to explain to him "what it's like, man'' (p. 81). At the end, ready to "explain about the war,'' Dantzler becomes its incarnation. As he prepares to enter the club, the explosive neon sign that spells out its name seems to recreate the hallucinations that had possessed him in the cloud forest, and the building itself merges with the enveloping blackness into which he had fired in his murderous panic. So he carefully adjusts the survival knife he has hidden in his boot, and takes out two combat ampules he had secreted the night of his killing frenzy. The story ends with these words: " be on the safe side, he popped them both.'' One could not ask for a more cogent paradigm of the Vietnam War as fantasy and SF.


1. In The Perfect War, James William Gibson brilliantly analyzes the ideological basis of what he labels US "technowar'' in Vietnam as a self-enclosed universe of discourse, essentially a mode of fantasy. The role of SF in the development of US military discourse and war-making, especially in relation to techno-wonders, is discussed in depth in my War Stars, while the connection between the superwarrior in American SF and John F. Kennedy's sponsorship of the Green Berets is elucidated in my book on Heinlein.

2. The March issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction had discreetly separated the foes by 84 pages of fiction and reviews apparently having nothing to do with Vietnam.

3. I am indebted to Judith Merril for a September 1989 interview which provided these particulars about the origins of the advertisement. The conflicting tendencies in the rival ads are noted by Lupoff (pp. 26-27), who argues (1) that "the 'peace' ad carried more names than the ‘war' ad even though it was signed exclusively by professionals while the other was padded with the signatures of fans,'' (2) that "every author or editor who signed the 'war' ad was a traditionalist,'' and (3) that "these traditionalists'' were "united by their engineering mentality, and its prefence for violent, repressive solutions to the political problems posed in its novels.''

4. French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault describes US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles' offer in the documentary film Hearts and Minds (BBS Productions, 1974).

5. Schandler, pp. 89-90; Pisor, pp. 153-54; Westmoreland, p. 338.

6. "Challenge: The Insurgent vs. the Counterinsurgent'' in the September and October issues of Analog.

7. Even the official body count of 1,602 killed was labelled by Marine commanding General Tompkins "a bunch of poop'' (Pisor, p. 237). In July US troops retreated from the base, which was then turned into an enemy SAM site.

8. Vietnam and America, pp. 403-04; "U.S. Assistance,'' pp. 321, 357.

9. Prosterman summarized the story, and says that he wrote it late in 1970, in his 1972 volume Surviving to 3000 (pp. 343-44), which offers a revealing display of his ideological assumptions and fantasies.

10. See Schell, The Military Half, for a detailed account of this genocidal campaign.

11. The official investigation of the My Lai massacre was headed by  three-star General William Peers, who concluded that "war crimes'' had been committed, including "individual and group acts of murder, rape, sodomy, maiming, and assault on noncombatants'' and recommended courts-martial against over two dozen officers, including the commanding and assistant commanding generals of the Americal Division (Report of Department of Army Review, pp. 12-1 through 12-5). Only one junior officer, Lt. William Calley, was ever  convicted.

12. In British SF, the Vietnam War has generated similar images of American troops as alien invaders, dating at least from J.G. Ballard's 1966 "The Killing Ground'' through Brian Aldiss's 1987 "My Country 'Tis Not Only of Thee,'' each of which imagines England as another Vietnam. Ballard's story is told from the point of view of an officer of the British National Liberation Army, whose ragged half-starved guerrilla band, "living for months in holes in the ground,'' desperately resists an overwhelming army of American invaders, armed with a technology "so sophisticated that even the wrist-watches stripped off dead prisoners were too complicated to read'' (pp. 140, 142). Despite a US "puppet regime in London,'' the British insurgents can maintain their struggle because "thirty years after the original conflict in south-east Asia, the globe was now a huge insurrectionary torch, a world Vietnam'' in which England is merely a "remote backwater'' for the Americans' "global war against dozens of national liberation armies'' (pp. 139-40). Aldiss's story projects a British civil war between a communist north and a capitalist south, which US intervention degrades to a puppet nation of "slimeys,'' the GIs' equivalent of "gooks.''

13. For example, the novel is not even mentioned or listed in the bibliographies of Anisfield, Beidler, and Hellman, though Beidler does give half a sentence to Haldeman's more overtly autobiographical War Year. Lomperis and Pratt mention it briefly. For discussions of The Forever War as a Vietnam War novel, see Schweitzer, Gordon, McGuire, and Weil.


Anisfield, Nancy, ed. Vietnam Anthology: American War Literature. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.

Ballard, J.G. "The Killing Ground,'' in The Day of Forever (London: Panther Books, 1967), pp. 138-41.

Beidler, Philip D. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens, GA: 1982.

Cross, Ronald Anthony. "The Heavenly Blue Answer,'' in In the Field of Fire, ed. Jeanne Van Buren Dann & Jack Dann (NY: TOR Books, 1987), pp. 258-69.

"Ex-GIs in Rhodesia Provide Slang Terms and Zest for Combat,'' Wall Street Journal, Apr. 30, 1979.

Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. NY, 1980.

__________. War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination. NY, 1988.

Gibson, James William. The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam. NY, 1986.

Gordon, Joan. Joe Haldeman. Mercer Island, WA, 1980.

Haldeman, Joe. The Forever War. NY: Ballantine Books, 1976. [Originally published in Analog as "Hero'' (June 1972, pp. 8-59), "We Are Very Happy Here'' (Nov. 1973, pp. 104-47), "This Best of All Possible Worlds'' (Nov. 1974, pp. 137-49), and "End Game'' (Jan. 1975, pp. 66-103).

Hassett, Steve. "And what would you do, ma,'' in Carrying the Darkness: The Poetry of the Vietnam War, ed W.D. Ehrhart (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech UP, 1989), p. 131.

Heinlein, Robert. Glory Road in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1963 (pp. 5-85), Aug. 1963 (pp. 15-87), Sept. 1963 (pp. 17-89).

Hellman, John. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. NY: Columbia UP, 1986.

Le Guin, Ursula. "Introduction to The Word for World is Forest,'' in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed Susan Wood (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979), pp. 149-54. [Originally published in Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest (London: Gollancz, 1977).]

________. The Word for World is Forest, in Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison (NY: New American Library, 1973), pp. 35-126.

Lomperis, Timothy J. "Reading the Wind'': The Literature of the Vietnam War. With a bibliographic commentary by John Clark Pratt. Durham, NC: 1987.

Lupoff, Richard. "Science Fiction Hawks and Doves: Whose Future Will You Buy?'' Ramparts, 10 (Feb. 1972): 25-30.

McGuire, Patrick L. "The Foreover War,'' in Survey of Science Fiction Literature, ed. Frank N. Magill (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1979), II:813-18.

The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking in Vietnam. Senator Gravel Edition. 4 vols. Boston, 1971.

Pisor, Robert. The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh. NY: Ballantine, 1982.

Pohl, Frederik. "On Inventing Futures,'' Galaxy, June 1968, pp. 6-10.

Possony, Stefan T. & J[erry] E. Pournelle. The Strategy of Technology: Winning the Decisive War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970.

Poyer, Joe. "Challenge: The Insurgent vs. the Counterinsurgent,'' Analog, Sept. 1966, pp. 69-90; Oct. 1966, pp. 72-91.

________. "Null Zone,'' Analog, July 1968, pp. 54-72.

Prosterman, Roy L. "Peace Probe,'' Analog, July 1973, pp. 86-101.

________. Surviving to 3000: An Introduction to the Study of Lethal Conflict. Belmont, CA: Duxbury Press, 1972.

Report of Department of Army Review of Preliminary Investigations into My Lai Incident. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1976.

Schandler, Herbert Y. The Unmaking of a President: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam. Princeton, NJ: 1977.

Schell, Jonathan. The Military Half: An Account of Destruction in Quang Ngai and Quang Tin. NY, 1968.

Schweitzer, Darrell. "An Interview with Joe Haldeman,'' Science Fiction Review, 20 (Feb. 1977): 26-30.

Shepard, Lucius. "Delta Sly Honey,'' in In the Field of Fire (see entry for Cross), pp. 25-43.

________. "Mengele,'' in The Jaguar Hunter (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1987), pp. 329-43 [Originally published in Universe 15, ed. Terry Carr (NY: Random House, 1985).]

________. "Salvador'' in The Jaguar Hunter, pp. 64-81. [Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Apr. 1984.]

Shiner, Lewis. "The War at Home'' in In the Field of Fire (see entry for Cross), pp. 325-28.

Spinrad, Norman. "The Big Flash,'' in Orbit 5, ed. Damon Knight (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969), pp. 199-222.

"U.S. Assistance Programs in Vietnam,'' Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, House of Representatives, 92nd Congress, First Session.

Vietnam and America: A Documented History, ed. Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young, & H. Bruce Franklin. NY: Grove Press, 1985.

Weil, Ellen R. "From Autobiography to Fantasy: Joe Haldeman's War Year and The Forever War,'' Paper delivered at the Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, Ft. Lauderdale, March 17, 1989.

Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.

Wheaton, Philip. "Agrarian Reform in El Salvador: A Program of Rural Pacification,'' in Revolution in Central America, ed. Stanford Central America Action Network (Boulder, CO: 1983), pp. 247-67.

Wilhelm, Kate. "The Village,'' in Bad Moon Rising, ed. Thomas M. Disch (NY: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 147-57.


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