Literature and the Vietnam War

Literature and the Vietnam War

A Rumor of War
by Philip Caputo
1977, 346 pp.

by Anthony Grooms
2001, 320 pp.

by Michael Herr
1968, 260 pp.

Tree of Smoke
by Denis Johnson
2007, 702 pp.

War Story
Jim Morris
1979, 342 pp.

The Sorrow of War, A Novel of North Vietnam
Bao Ninh
1996, 240 pp.

If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up 
and Ship Me Home
by Tim O’Brien
1969, 251 pp.

Going After Cacciato
by Tim O’Brien
1975, 395 pp.

The Things They Carried
by Tim O’Brien
1990, 246 pp.

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace
by Dang Thuy Tram
2007, 256 pp.

Father, Soldier, Son
by Nathaniel Tripp
1996, 261 pp.

Fields of Fire
by Jim Webb
1978, 410 pp.

The literature about the Vietnam War, as raw and real as it was, seems to have faded from view. Unlike great war fiction—The Red and the Black, The Red Badge of Courage, War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front, and A Farewell to Arms—that is read for generations, becoming part of a literary culture, the Vietnam novels and memoirs are specific to a time and place. The soldiers and journalists who wrote about the war were close to the action; they wrote of an experience they lived. Their books had a spurt of recognition but are probably read now only by people with a special interest in the war or by high school students confronted with Tim O’Brien on their English curriculum.

We didn’t win the war, and it didn’t represent us as either noble or idealistic. On some level, many who opposed the war (and some who supported it) feel guilty, still. No matter how strenuously we protested, it was our country that did this. We are haunted by U.S. participation and feel implicated. We wonder about our loss of standing as defenders of freedom. We worry about whether we learned any lessons from Vietnam. Are we more cautious in international relations? Are we less “quick on the trigger”? Even partially positive answers to these questions are dubious. Nostalgic “cold warriors” may believe that we were fighting to prevent the establishment of a communist/totalitarian regime. Others, skeptical of that rationale, think about the cost in lives—the nearly sixty thousand Americans who died for no benefit to their country or the world and the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who died as their long-embattled country was nearly destroyed—and the cost to our national reputation.

If the Vietnam experience casts a shadow on our conscience, then the literature of the war should be useful—to remind us of how it was understood by those who were in it. But these works make that difficult; they are often disturbing to read. They suffer from too much realism, stressing physical descriptions of battle and the details of horrible slaughter. In the great novels about war, writers grant us furloughs from the battlefield, redirecting our attention to other subjects—love, marriage, family, coming-of-age. The prison of combat is balanced by other personal and public experiences. Later novels of war—The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, From Here to Eternity—use humor, irony, and self-mockery to relieve readers from the fearful realm of killing. We feel no guilt about those wars, and earlier war literature deals with a history to which we have no direct connection.

The Vietnam literature has no “escape hatches”—few moments of romance, virtually no comic relief, and scant emphasis on coming-of-age energy (even where that is relevant). It also lacks reflection on the history the writers have witnessed and has little variety of subject or technique. They were there, and their primary goal is to make us feel we were there. This is one way to write about extreme situations: to thrust readers into the physical horrors. But we suspect the approach stems as much from a moral numbness as from a desire to plunge us into the reality; we crave a critical view. Exhausted by what they have experienced, these writers are unable to judge.

Irving Howe, discussing the literature of the Holocaust, has said that

the canniest of the writers keep a distance. They know that their subject cannot be met full-face. It must be taken on a tangent, with extreme wariness, through strategies of indirection and circuitous narratives that leave untouched the central horror—leave it untouched but always invoke or evoke it as a hovering shadow. (“Writing and the Holocaust,” Selected Writings, 1950-1990).

Writers about the Vietnam War are not “canny” in this way. They want the war to be “in your face,” reconstructing the terror of the moment. One of the few North Vietnamese authors available in English shares the same goals. Bao Ninh, a soldier, states his purpose in The Sorrow of War, A Novel of North Vietnam:

It was necessary to … bring to life the electric moments, to let [the readers] in the reading and the telling feel they were there in the past, with the author.

Whenever he moved to other subjects, he says, his “pen disobeyed” him. He can only write about death, “re-stoking” his “horrible furnace” of war memories.This might be the program of American writers about Vietnam. They want their readers to be assaulted by a reality they cannot share, to be forced to acknowledge its authenticity and sense what soldiers know. But there is no catharsis. The terrors go on until the end; desperation prohibits any resolution. We are left suspended in no-man’s-land. Although we realize the pathos of our safety and our separateness from actual combat, it’s doubtful that the knowledge we gain will assuage (or confirm) the worries about our country’s role in Vietnam with which we started.

What It Was Like

Tim O’Brien’s first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, is an “autobiographical memoir” about his service. But it reads like a novel—as do all the Vietnam memoirs. In a parallel way, the fiction tends toward memoir, emphasizing the first person. O’Brien begins with his ambivalent “choice” to sign on and his attempts to extricate himself when he realizes that he doesn’t want to fight and is “not soldier material.” With characteristic directness, he writes,

But I submitted. All the personal history, all the midnight conversations and books and beliefs, were crumpled by abstention, extinguished by forfeiture, for lack of oxygen, by a sort of sleepwalking default. It was no decision, no chain of ideas or reasons that steered me into the war.

Refusing to serve would cut him off from his roots, and he fears the “chaos” that would cause. In “On the Rainy River” (in The Things They Carried), a friend brings him to the Canadian shore; he could escape the draft right then, but it’s not so easy:

I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, Now.…It just wasn’t possible. All those eyes on me—the town, the whole universe—and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river …Traitor! They yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule….It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was…

Most writers don’t bother describing this decision; they bring us to their story in medias res. But Anthony Grooms, in Bombingham, which is less about Vietnam than about the “war” at home for civil rights, has a hero who is even less enthusiastic than O’Brien: “One day my father came to me and said, ‘You might as well join the military. You’ll be drafted anyway and you’ll never get to college with those grades.’” Grooms doesn’t argue but joins without a fight, as many volunteers and draftees from the South and from the African American community must have done. (The war novels by African Americans, who were heavily represented in combat operations, center on racial issues and on the problems encountered by returning veterans. They reflect more broadly on the whole of American life—but they are mostly not about the war. They deserve a study of their own.)

O’Brien’s If I Die is the “basic” Vietnam book. His preoccupations are typical, and he is a master of realistic description, a pattern in all the work that follows. As in his decision to go to war, he avoids deep thought and gives it to us “straight.” What philosophizing there is comes only after extended depiction of the war. In Jim Webb’s and Anthony Grooms’s work, and that of the memoirists Michael Herr and Philip Caputo, the pictures drawn—whether swiftly or in detail—are of physical misery: marches through the impenetrable jungle; exposure to rain, mud, insects, stifling heat; and relentless fear. Soldiers are victims of the elements— climate and terrain that menace. O’Brien writes,

April 16 was hot, just as every day in April had been hot….An absolutely cloudless, silent sky crept out of the dark over the sea. The early mornings were clear, like a kind of distorted glass. A person could see impossible things. But the sun mounted.…By ten o’clock each morning, the rifles and uncovered canteens and ammo were untouchable… The sun owned the afternoon. It broiled Alpha Company, that dusty red hill the skillet. We came to accept the sun as our most persistent and cunning enemy. All the training and discipline and soldierly skill in the world shriveled and decomposed.

Yet there are moments in these books when the soldiers look at their surroundings and marvel at them: the vastness of the forest, the variety of plants and trees, the whiteness of high clouds, and the blue of the skies. Some even develop affection for the rice paddies:

The paddies gave depth to the land. Depth that he’d never known before, not in Fort Dodge, where the land was smooth with corn in August, not in cities where the land was concrete. In Quang Ngai the land was deep… there was nothing loathsome about the smell of the paddies. The smell was alive: bacteria, fungus and algae, compounds that made and sustained life….Sometimes when there was no choice he had slept in the paddies. He knew the softness and warmth, later the chill. (Going After Cacciato)

But you can’t study the matchless qualities of a landscape when you are dodging fire from an enemy you can’t see. Does the gradual awareness that the physical world around them and the people in it have an existence and a value apart from combat eventually stimulate thought about what is happening? Thought appears rarely in any of these books. Confusion is a hazard that overshadows thinking. Where is the enemy? And who is he? Grooms writes, “The whole war was like a game of hide-and-seek, except with killing.” It was often impossible to move. For hours, sometimes days and nights, patrols suffer the frustration of not reaching their destination. Then there is the enigma about what it would take to win, if one were (as some of the soldiers say) “allowed” to win. The notion persists that more firepower, more air power, more materiel would finish it—and they could go home.

One wonders about the field leadership of the war, since so many of these stories focus on muddle. As Caputo writes,

In the maze of thickets it was impossible to keep any kind of formation. Units got mixed up; platoons disintegrated into squads, squads into fire-teams, until the company had no more organization than a crowd at a train station. (Rumor of War)

And again,

It’s the same old hammer and anvil plan, but we have learned that, in the bush, nothing ever happens according to plan. Things just happen, randomly, like automobile accidents.

A coherent strategy seems absent. Did we know how to wage this war? Or did we just blunder through it, with woeful ineptitude? Historians like Frances FitzGerald emphasize the fact, echoed in the fictions, that fighting dominated the American approach to Vietnam. We neglected the country’s social and economic development. Known for our pragmatism and technical competence, we misunderstood Vietnam and were also unable to construct a viable military strategy.

Pondering the Meaning of the War

Although locked in combat, the soldiers are not unaware of the human environment. Descriptions of the villagers are sometimes appreciative, even tender. The writers see them as gentle, peaceable people, living a traditional life, in which land, family, and the connections between them mean more than politics and ideology. But difficulties arise. Are the villagers innocent farmers? Whose side are they on? Are they “unprincipled,” siding with the Viet Cong when it is they who dominate and with the South Vietnamese when they have the upper hand? Are they hiding combatants and materiel or only stores of food in the tunnels beneath the villages? The answer to all the questions seems to be the same: “Yes,” but “It depends.” The villagers are treacherous in spite of themselves as they try to protect their lives, families, and land. Civilians are caught in the trap of war and killed whether innocent or not. And the soldiers are betrayed by them as often as they are aided.

O’Brien writes an angry exchange between a major and a journalist after the My Lai scandal has broken:

I’ll tell you those civilians—you call them civilians—they kill American GI’s. They plant mines and spy and snipe and kill us. Sure you all print color pictures of dead little boys, but the live ones—take pictures of the live ones digging holes for mines. (If I Die

There is a description in Bombingham of an American killing an old man because he is wearing the typical Viet Cong black, baggy pants and shirt (called pajamas by our soldiers), although the soldier probably knows he isn’t a combatant. If you cannot reliably tell the difference between “civilian” and “soldier,” it is hard to act rightly. In James Webb’s Fields of Fire, a marine laments the unnecessary acts of cruelty he has witnessed—from his men denying villagers their surplus food to a comrade abandoning a wounded enemy soldier in a water hole because he grows tired of carrying him. There are painful incidents in these books, reaching to actions that we would call “atrocities.”

Webb’s novel touches on another military phenomenon: the soldier who is part of a family tradition, who fights because it’s “in his blood.” Lt. Hodges is the son and grandson of soldiers. He sees himself as a link in a chain of duty and honor that he can’t break. Hodges is at the center of Webb’s book, but other characters feel differently about the war, even though they risk the same dangers and are wily and effective survivors.
The Vietnamese also have family loyalties, and observations of the cooperative and rooted nature of village life in a ravaged land may slowly provoke soldiers to question the war. Our cruelty and destructiveness seem less bearable and less necessary as the time “in country” drags on. Even the most gung-ho begin to doubt the lengths to which we have gone. Is this the totalitarianism we have been taught to detest? Dug into the muddy forest, a soldier wonders,

I had reasons to oppose the war in Vietnam. The reasons could be murmured like the Psalms on a cold moon Vietnam night: kill and fight only for certain causes; certain causes somehow involve self-evident truths; Hitler’s blitzkrieg, the Attack on Pearl Harbor, these were somehow self-evident grounds for using force, just as bullying will, in the end, call for force, but the war in Vietnam drifted in and out of human lives, taking them or sparing them or angering them like a headless, careless taxi hack. Without evident cause, a war fought for uncertain reasons.…was my apparent courage in enduring merely a well-disguised cowardice? (If I Die)

The question of responsibility for a misguided war is not directly raised here, but it becomes an unspoken undercurrent in O’Brien’s work. Later, he watches his company fire repeatedly at some cows and the boys herding them. The herd has wandered into a forbidden area, so the soldiers shoot mercilessly. The boys escape, but the soldiers keep shooting and smiling. Pointless brutality is one result of fighting under these conditions, without leadership, strategy, or a compelling reason.

We misunderstood the politics of Vietnam’s village society. We never grasped how the core unit—the farming village—operated. And so we couldn’t see what the Viet Cong and the National Liberation Front had accomplished for the people. We didn’t recognize how they integrated themselves into local life from the “bottom up,” how cleverly they used the prevailing collective approach to farming to enlist cooperation in political organization and economic development. In contrast to South Vietnamese officials, Jim Morris writes, the Viet Cong “lived in the villages like everybody else…” We seem to have been ignorant as well of how religion functioned—whether Catholicism, Buddhism, or local sects—and how Confucianism underlay the traditional way of life, whatever an individual’s beliefs. These are observations from the more journalistic memoirs and the histories. The novelists depict the culture without intending to; the society with which they have intimate contact remains strange to them.

One would get a better sense of Vietnamese life from reading their writers, but few are translated. In addition to the gloomy, desperate novel of Bao Ninh, there is a remarkable book by a young Vietnamese doctor: Dang Thuy Tram’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace. Sent from Hanoi to treat the wounded in South Vietnam, her diary, a day-by-day narrative of experiences on the front, was discovered long after the war (1991) and published still later (Hanoi, 2005). The book gives us a poignant sense of how a young person’s ideals tie her to her people’s quest for independence. Her integrity shines its light on her comrades and their steadfast dedication to the “struggle.” But though her service as a physician is exemplary, she is not yet a member of the party and longs to be a full-fledged “cadre.” An educated woman, she is chided for her “bourgeois” roots.

Bourgeois sentiments are always complex. It’s strange that I still prefer to be like that than to be clear and simple like a farmer. I am bourgeois only in sentiments, not in attitudes, as some have claimed. How can they accuse me of having bourgeois attitudes, when I can blend myself with all classes of citizens?

Even after she is admitted to the party, she is subject to a critique:

  • Good awareness of the revolution, clear and correct idealistic motivation.
  • Considerable progress in many areas.
  • Needs to do more scientific research.
  • Certain bourgeois characteristics still remain.
  • Dang Thuy Tram was killed in June 1970, walking down a trail with a North Vietnamese Army soldier and civilians. Her diary provides a necessary counter-balance to sympathy for the beleaguered American troops. Whatever one’s judgment of the North Vietnamese Communist Party’s authoritarianism, her book reveals that political idealism, sadness, kindness, love, and doom can exist together in a knot. The book has human qualities that much of the American literature lacks.As devoted as she is to a political cause, Dang Thuy Tram is also passionately loyal to her comrades, much as American soldiers are to theirs. On the battlefield, relationships are everything. When O’Brien abandons the realism of If I Die and writes a novel with a “surrealistic” story, Going After Cacciato (National Book Award, 1979), he puts the complete dependence of soldiers on one another at the story’s core. The journey he describes is a fantastic one, but the bond between the men is utterly realistic. Cacciato is a “dumb” seventeen-year-old who hates the war and decides to walk the 8,600 miles to Paris. He disappears, and his unit resolves to track him down. They see him on top of a hill, find hints of him—a smoldering campfire, scraps of a meal—but although they never find him, they persist, traveling to Europe, deserting their duty. He is one of them; they cannot let him go. It’s a darkly comedic novel, a wonderfully ridiculous “take” on how to escape a useless endeavor.

    The move from reporting facts to playing a fantastic game has an imaginative lucidity. In the crazy circumstances of the war, nothing seems to move forward, and running away becomes weirdly believable. The story jerks back and forth between the squad’s mad pursuit and echoes of the combat they’ve faced together.

    The bond between fighting men is a theme in all the literature about Vietnam. That devotion, the key to survival, becomes the reason for fighting. While the soldiers struggle desperately to stay alive, they do not think about why their country is at war. Even in lulls in the action, they are gripped by uncertainty, anticipation, fear of injury and death. They think of self-preservation, and about their unbreakable bond with one another, a bond that seems stronger than any other human connection. Caputo, introducing his beautifully written soldier’s memoir, A Rumor of War, writes,

    I have also attempted to describe the intimacy of life in infantry battalions, where the communion between men is as profound as any between lovers. Actually, it is more so. It does not demand for its sustenance the reciprocity, the pledges of affection, the endless reassurances required by the love of men and women. It is, unlike marriage, a bond that cannot be broken by a word, by boredom, or by divorce, or by anything other than death. Sometimes even that is not strong enough.

    After experience in combat with his men, he reflects,

    Their old fellowship had an adolescent quality to it; it was like the cliquishness of a football team or a fraternity. The emotion in them that evening was of a sterner kind; for Vietnam had fused new and harder strands to the bonds that had united them before the Danang landing, strands woven by the experience of being under fire together, and the guilt of shedding first blood together, by dangers and hardships shared….There were more admirable men in the world, more principled men, and men with finer sensibilities, but they slept in peaceful beds.

    Memoirs of the Vietnam War

    A number of the best narratives about Vietnam—like Caputo’s—are not novels, although they are full of good storytelling. The requirements of fiction, the necessity of calculating the effects of structure and character, exert less pressure here. Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1968) is a journalist’s memoir; Caputo’s A Rumor Of War (1977), Jim Morris’s War Story (1979), and Nathaniel Tripp’s Father, Soldier, Son (1996) are soldier’s stories. Herr wrote his book in the style of a foreign correspondent filing his daily “dispatches” in the heat of battle. Other writers took more time to reflect. Tripp took decades to mull over his experience.

    Herr’s memoir is one of the most powerful and affecting narratives about Vietnam. It is written with such a passion for style and language that the reader is caught up in the action as if it were a novel. It’s the experience of a reporter who, before we used the expression, was “embedded” in combat units. The book amazes with its immediacy and graphic descriptions that are so electric and frightening that they are hard reading. He captures feelings during combat:

    But once it was actually going on, things were different. You were just like everyone else, you could no more blink than spit. It came back the same way every time, dreaded and welcome, balls and bowels turning over together, your senses working like strobes, free-falling all the way down to the essences and then flying out again in a rush to focus, like the first strong twinge of tripping after an infusion of psilobycin, reaching in at a point of calm and spring all the joy and all the dread ever known, ever known by everyone who ever lived, unutterable in its speeding brilliance, touching all the edges and then passing as though it had all been controlled from outside, by a god or the moon. And every time you were so weary afterward, so empty of everything but being alive that you couldn’t recall any of it.

    The pace is fast, the battles fierce, the emotional tone piercing, and the reader wants to hide. Herr could not have been closer to combat; he is in it every minute. He goes everywhere with the unit; dodges the same bullets, suffers the same heat, and grieves the same deaths. He puts himself “in harm’s way” deliberately.

    But once again, there is no argument about the war. The story sticks to the courage, perseverance, and loyalty of the “ordinary” men who fight. Herr doesn’t ask, why should courage be expended in such an unworthy cause? The dangers of battle and the absolute need for solidarity deflect, or postpone, an interest in purposes. But a more generalized political sensitivity than appears in many of the novels is hidden in the background. The conduct of the war is bewildering; Herr sees that it is futile because we are not winning. The waste of effort and life shakes him because courageous men are dying, not because he worries about the reasons for fighting.

    Occasionally a “grunt” wonders why journalists are there when they don’t have to be. A sergeant who tries to keep him from taking a helicopter into combat says,

    I was too new to go near the kind of shit they were throwing around up in those hills. (“You a reporter?” he’d asked, and I’d said, “No, a writer,” dumbass and pompous, and he’d laughed and said, “Careful. You can’t use no eraser up where you wanna go”)… (Dispatches)

    The soldiers want the journalists to tell the world what’s happening:

    And always, they would ask you with an emotion whose intensity would shock you to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn’t being told for them, that they were going through all of this and that somehow no one back in the World knew about it.

    When Herr leaves Vietnam, we are still wondering about what he really thinks. His accomplishment is great, but he seems to have written himself into literary exhaustion. He has not been much heard from since: he’s credited with the narration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), and is featured in a documentary on Vietnam, First Kill (2001). But that is about all. Silence from the writer of such a stunning book as Dispatches is deafening.

    If anything, the memoir writers outdo the novelists in their grasp of reality; they are consistently moving and true to life. No one exaggerates his bravery. Nathaniel Tripp writes,

    I remember once being told by an old officer that leading a platoon of soldiers in combat was the greatest honor that a man could have….I think he was confusing honor with humility. At any rate, the only thing I felt during my first moments as a platoon leader was my overwhelming terror and sense of helpless incompetence.…I was as naked as a jaybird in the locker room of war.

    His loneliness at war is like his father’s, when he crossed the Pacific (in the Second World War). “It is the elemental loneliness of birth, of death, of soldiers. I had not yet felt the balm of marching together.” Again, “marching together,” the closeness and the loyalty are essential to his story.

    Tripp’s recollections are entangled with his father’s absence from his life. He focuses on that loss of attention and his determination to stay close to his own sons. But any explicit comparison of the wars father and son fought is absent. Jim Morris’s War Story poses other difficulties. It is a study in contradiction. Did he read what he wrote? Or is he of the “I contradict myself, so I contradict myself” school? Either he bemoans the conflict and America’s aims, sympathizing with the people—in this case the Montagnards—or he relishes the violence and belittles the noncombatant jobs to which he’s assigned. Much of the time he yearns to get into battle and do some killing. He doesn’t reconcile these views or explain them but continues to complain about his situation:

    The hell of it was that in my present job I was the economic and educational advisor. I was the Special Forces S-5 for the Central Highlands. I suppose I did as good a job at it as most, but I didn’t really give a damn about that. What I wanted to do was get back out in the woods with troops, kill some VC and get the old adrenalin flowing. (War Story)

    He fears that a promotion will prevent his getting into the field again as leader of a combat unit. But he sympathizes with the local people and is hostile to the conduct of the war. This swinging back and forth reveals an ambivalence that many soldiers shared, an inevitable by-product of this war.

    Morris’s ideal soldier is not a GI but a Montagnard, nicknamed the “Cowboy,” who operates like a Wild West outlaw. He has courage, daring, a talent for violence, and a will to power that Morris envies. The South Vietnamese army expels him for forming a unit of 3,000 men who fight without pay or proper supplies, relying only on him. “He was some dude, all right, was my friend the Cowboy.”

    Why Read These Books?

    The books discussed here deal directly with wartime action. Other fiction deals with veterans and their suffering (Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, National Book Award, 1975), the effects of the war on families (Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country, 1985), living and working in Vietnam before the war (Ward Just’s A Dangerous Friend, 1999) and re-interpretations of our involvement (Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, National Book Award, 2007). They take account of a broader context and are not limited to the battlefield. If you are interested in how Vietnam was considered later on, they are important reading. Johnson’s book, however, is a tricky one. Aimed at capturing the miasma of lies, half-truths, and fantasy in which the United States was mired, it creates puzzles within puzzles. Johnson is an accomplished writer, but it’s difficult to penetrate the forest of “smoke.” Writing about confusion should not itself be so confusing.

    In the books that appeared immediately after the war writers wanted to bear witness, and readers wanted authentic information. But why read them now, when the war is forty years old and lingers only as a painful memory? Because we have to grapple with the past, remembering that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it—and, as Michael Herr says, those who remember the past are also condemned to repeat it. Literature holds this history close and gives it a shape and a voice.

    Many aspects of life were shunted aside by these soldiers’ and journalists’ books. Perhaps the character of the war, the troubling questions it could provoke, kept the writers glued to the daily course of battle, wary of analyzing their experience, and numb to the significance of what they were doing. Perhaps unacknowledged distress at the badness of their actions was what drew novelists and memoir writers so close to the things they saw and heard. Perhaps the determination to describe it to us further strengthened the hand of the memoir writers. It enabled those writers to provide us with the most moving accounts in the most striking prose—truths that are more real, if not stranger, than fiction.

    Judith B. Walzer is a retired professor of literature who has written for Dissent about fiction and films.