The Journal of American Culture and Literature -- Uprising: The Protests and the Arts -- Editors, David Landrey and Dr. Bilge Mutluay, 1994 -- Department of American Culture and Literature, Hacettepe University, Ankara. Co-Published with the Poetry/Rare Books Collection, SUNY Buffalo


David Espey

Among the many changes in American culture influenced by the Vietnam War in the years 1968-75 were transformations in the popular image of the American Indian and in Native American political consciousness. Vietnam and the Indians share a curious association in the American imagination. In the early years of the war, the United States often thought of Vietnam in images of the American West and cast the Vietnamese in the role of Indians. But this perception eroded as the anti-war movement grew and the mythic association of Vietnam with the Indians changed.

In his study of frontier mythology, historian Richard Slotkin called the Vietnam War "our last great Indian war.''1 American soldiers in Vietnam routinely called enemy territory "Indian Country." In her study of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, Frances Fitzgerald argues that the term "Indian Country" was more than just a joke or a figure of speech: "It put the Vietnam War into a definite mythological and historical perspective: the Americans were once again embarked upon a heroic. . . conquest of an inferior race" (368).

General Maxwell Taylor, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the mid-1960s, defended the policy of "pacification" in Vietnam by using the analogy of Indians and the frontier: "It is very hard to plant the corn outside the stockade when the Indians are still around. We have to get the Indians farther away in many provinces to make good progress."2

Taylor was echoing language from the Eisenhower years, when the Military Assistance Program, which supported American intervention in anti-communist struggles around the globe, popularized these policies by linking them to "politically acceptable precedents such as the U.S. Army's role in developing the American West."3 Thus Communists were cast in the role of Indians in regions as different as Africa, Latin America, or Vietnam.

Hollywood exploited the Vietnamese-Indian parallels. In the John Wayne movie, The Green Berets (1968), the Vietnamese talk like the Sioux and "whoop like marauding Indians." In the novel of the same name, the Americans show a cowboy film to South Vietnamese, who knowingly yell "V(iet)C(ong)" whenever the Hollywood Indians appear.4 The movie was one of the few feature films to support explicitly the Vietnam venture.

The garrison mentality of American forces in Vietnam recalls the Puritans' fear of the Indian and the wilderness-what has been called the "gothic frontier" (dark and evil) rather than the "pastoral frontier" (sunny and virgin).5 In his study, Vietnam in American Literature, Philip Melling notes among American soldiers "A fear of the wilderness, of 'Indian' captivity," which distorted American perceptions of Vietnam:

Just as the enclaves of church, plantation, covenant, and garrison were necessary to the Puritan experiment in New England. . . so in Vietnam the role of protective enclosure-in combat, defense, hospitalization, entertainment-restricted the soldiers' grass-roots knowledge of Vietnamese life. (21)

This garrison mentality, intensified by the guerilla nature of the warfare and the association of Vietnamese with the treacherous and hostile terrain, helped fuel a fear and anger which often erupted in a kind of counter savagery in which Americans acted out the very roles they associated with their Indian adversaries of the past.

Richard Drinnon, in Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building, reports that"a My Lai veteran equated 'wiping the whole place out' with what he called 'the Indian idea. . . the only good gook is a dead gook'. The Indian idea was in the air of Vietnam." The perception of the Viet Cong as Indians is shown most dramatically in the words of infantrymen in the Charlie Company of Lieutenant William Calley as they described the Indian-hating fantasies that fueled incidents like My Lai: "They cut ears off guys. . . If they got an ear, they got a VC. Like scalps, you know, like from Indians. Some people were on an Indian trip over there" (456-457).

By 1971, the Indian analogy began to be used against our Vietnam policies rather than in support of them. John Kerry, testifying before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, quotes a fellow Vietnam veteran, a Native American:

An American Indian friend of mine who lives in the Indian Nation of Alcatraz put it to me very succinctly. He told me how as a boy on an Indian reservation he had watched television and he used to cheer the cowboys when they came in and shot the Indians. Then suddenly he stopped in Vietnam one day and said, "My God, I am doing to these people the very same thing that was done to my people." And that's what we are trying to say, that we think this thing has to end.6

Kerry's Indian friend expressed the feelings of many Vietnam veterans- white or Indian-and Kerry's testimony dramatizes the reversal of the Indian analogy. As the myth shifts, American soldiers change from heroic rescuers of settlers on the frontier to slaughterers of the red man. Instead of f gures like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, they bring to mind the foolish exploits of the overmatched General Custer, who underestimated the Indians as the Americans underestimated the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. A piece of American graffiti on a military latrine in Saigon expresses another side of Custer: "We'll bring peace to this land if we have to kill them all'. (signed) General Custer" (Pratt 236).

In the early 1970s, as Indian activism and cultural renewal flourished in the anti-establishment climate of war protest, Vine Deloria Jr. published an "Indian Manifesto" entitled Custer Died for Your Sins. He tells a popular Indian joke of the era:

. . . a survey was taken and only 15 per cent of the Indians thought that the United States should get out of Vietnam. Eighty-five percent thought they should get out of America! (155)

Deloria and other Indian critics noted disturbing parallels between nineteenth-century military tactics against the Indians and contemporary ones against the Vietnamese: obliteration of civilian settlements and food supply, relocation, destruction of ecosystems. And Deloria found it ironic that the United States justified its presence in Vietnam by citing the obligations of treaties, given America's historic failure to honor treaties signed with Indian tribes.

The years of the Vietnam War saw a decline in the numbers of movie and television westerns, partially because anti-war consciousness brought into question national myths of conquest. Westerns of the period, like Little Big Man, an irreverent account by an Indian veteran of the battle with Custer, poked fun at traditional lore of the American West. Arthur Kopit claimed that his play Indians (1968), a meditation on Buffalo Bill and Indian-killing, was really about Vietnam.

As writers reflected back on the years of the Vietnam War, a view more reflective of American Indian history began to emerge. One of the best books on the war, Michael Herr's Dispatches (1978), a non-fiction account of a journalist's tour of duty with the troops, places Vietnam at the end of a succession of American betrayals and victimizations of the American Indian, starting with the European settlers on the East Coast and President Andrew Jackson's forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the southeast to Oklahoma. Where did our involvement in Vietnam begin?

. . . you couldn't use standard methods to date the doom; might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along. . . might as well just lay it on the proto-Gringos who found the New England woods too raw and~empty for their peace and filled them up with their own imported devils (94).

Sometimes this guilt about America's treatment of the Indian fuses with guilt about Vietnam. In a novel like Philip Caputo's Indian Country (1987), which looks back to the 1960s and 1970s, the psychic wounds of a Vietnam veteran must be cured by the symbolic reuniting of Indian and white man--as if Vietnam were an extension of the Indian wars. In this work, protagonist Christian Starkman, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, climaxes his return to health by taking part in an Ojibwa medicine ceremony in Hemingway's upper Michigan, itself a kind of "Indian Country" back home. Christian's Indian mentor is the grandfather of his boyhood Indian friend killed in Vietnam by friendly fire. In order to be healed, Christian must face the truth that he himself has caused his friend's death. The moral and spiritual conflict caused by Vietnam is thus absorbed and resolved within the older and larger conflict between white man and Indian.

Critics have remarked on the strong parallels between Indians and returning Vietnam war veterans, alienated from American society. They appear in countless photographs from the Vietnam era. Before: the recruit in crisp uniform and crew cut, about to embark for Southeast Asia. After Vietnam veteran with long hair, headband, beads and fringe. The cowboy has become an Indian. The similarities between many Vietnam war veterans and Indians were not merely cosmetic; both felt betrayed, misunderstood, and ignored by American society.

One of the crudest and best-known images of the betrayed veteran is Sylvester Stallone's Rambo. He is a symbolic half-breed who becomes a scourge of his own society. Rambo's strong association with American Indians has been noted:

. . . Rambo is described as half-German and half-American Indian. . . The Indianness of costume signifiers--long hair, bare chest, headband, and necklace/pendant--ironically reverses the appropriation of Native American iconography by the sixties counterculture. . . [and] permits Rambo to symbolically evoke the Indian as the romanticized victim of past government deceitfulness.

In fiction of the Vietnam era written by Native Americans themselves, Indian protagonists are often war veterans whose post-traumatic symptoms typify the alienation of Indian people in general. It is as if the figure of the troubled returning war veteran best captures the spiritual malaise of Indians who have to contend with memories of violence and loss. Two Vietnam-era novels by Indians, House Made of Dawn (N. Scott Momaday, 1968) and Ceremony (Leslie Silko,(1976) center on young returning veterans of World War II--confused, alcoholic, and desperate. In these novels, the contemporary reader might instinctively substitute Vietnam for World War II, the effects on the veterans are so similar. Like the obviously white and Anglo-Saxon Christian Starkman in Caputo's Indian Country, the Indian veterans must undergo a complex healing through Indian ritual.

For the Indians to fight in the white man's wars is an offense against their nature, according to Red Sky, the Indian ancestral figure in Caputo's novel. Red Sky remembers the sad history of Indians who--in accordance with their warrior tradition--fought in the white man's earlier wars (the Civil War and the two World Wars) and returned to their people as strangers. Each of those wars posed the kind of question to Indians that the Vietnam war posed to Americans. Is this really our war to fight?

A similar pattern occurs in Louise Erdrich s novel, Love Medicine (1984). Indian military service symbolizes a submission to white conquest. Henry Lamartine, a Chippewa veteran of Vietnam, has been psychologically damaged by the war. He is silent, withdrawn, and haunted by memories of killing; finally, he commits suicide. His younger brother, who has just enlisted in the army, realizes by his brother's death that he must reject the army to save himself. He flees his induction, encouraged by his father (a perpetually escaping convict whose imprisonment represents the same kind of subjugation as military service.) "Glad I didn't have to go," says the father, whose heart murmur kept him out of the military. "They couldn't pay me enough to commit their murders" (232).

In both Love Medicine and Ceremony, the Indians identify with the Asians they have killed in war, as if the Japanese and the Viet Cong were fellow tribesmen. In Love Medicine, the Chippewa veteran remembers his Vietnamese victims as he makes love to a young Chippewa woman. He confuses her with a Vietnamese girl he killed, a girl who saw in his Indian face, the face of a fellow Vietnamese:

And he saw her as the woman back there.... They had used a bayonet. She was out of her mind. You, me same. Same. She pointed to her eyes and his eyes. The Asian, folded eyes of some Chippewas (138).

In Ceremony and Indian Country, a medicine man and healing ritual are necessary to return the traumatized warrior to health. But the post-Vietnam America of Silko's massive novel, Almanac of the Dead (1991), may not offer the possibility of healing, until it has itself been healed. And that healing may necessitate some cataclysmic change in American society. Vietnam is seen as just another example of the long line of destructive actions by white men, and to recover from the experience of modern war, Indians must recover from political and spiritual domination by whites. That may necessitate something akin to revolution.

In Almanac of the Dead, Silko incorporates Vietnam into prophetic Indian myths which foretell the downfall of white civilization and the restoration of the Indians. She paints a picture of a death-ridden contemporary American society, peopled by drug addicts, sexual perverts, murderers, and criminal entrepreneurs. The influx of Indian refugees from Central America into Mexico, and from Mexico into the American Southwest, portends the coming revolution.

In the United States, the revolutionary leaders preparing for this cataclysm are three Vietnam veterans--a white named "Rambo," a black named "Clinton," (there is both deliberate and fortuitous humor in the naming) and an Indian called "The Barefoot Hopi." Rambo wears his Green Beret and organizes homeless Vietnam veterans for the imminent uprising; Clinton appeals to Black Americans whom he calls "Black Indians." (Like Indians, he argues, blacks were once tribes which suffered similar destruction at the hands of the whites.) The Barefoot Hopi is the chief prophet of the coming apocalypse, which will be ecological as well as political.

Vietnam has been the common illuminating experience shared by these three racially different spokesmen for the new order. The war in Southeast Asia is one of the culminating catastrophes; Vietnam was the crucible in which these three prophets were shaped and tempered. The war is not merely another entry in the long Almanac of death and destruction, another chapter in the 500-year holocaust. In this novel, Vietnam becomes the penultimate disaster, one of the final signs of the white man's degeneration and an omen of Indian restoration.

The processes of history and myth have come full circle. The American soldiers sent to save South Vietnam from revolution fail in this mission but return to revolutionize America instead. Although the Barefoot Hopi prophesies racial, cultural, ecological, even geological upheaval, he implies political transformation as well. There is more than a comic reference to Karl Marx in Silko's apocalyptic vision.

Any war tends to change the perceptions of the combatants. In American Indian literature, in Silko's novel and in other American Indian fiction, male characters/often undergo a transformation "from warrior or hunter to shaman, who, like the Christ-logos figure, values the power of language" (Busby 109). This is precisely the transformation undergone by many Vietnam veterans. Philip Beidler, in his book Rewriting America: Vietnam Authors and their Generation, examines how American literature of the Vietnam War has attempted "to forge myriad forms of new and creative alliance between literature and the work of cultural revision." Beidler quotes Paul Fussell on World War I: "At the same time the war was relying on old myth, it was generating new myth" (xii-xiii). If the Vietnam War initially relied on the frontier mythology of Indian/Viet Cong as enemy, it led to the rejection of the generation of a new mythology of Vietnam veteran as warrior turned shaman, the wounded victim who is healed, then becomes a healer who works through the power of the word. Beginning by distancing the Vietnamese as the archetypal Indian enemy, the Vietnam veteran, whether fictional character or writer, often ends in the traditionally Indian role of warrior turned healer and visionary.



1 Richard Slotkin, Regeneration and Violence: the Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1800. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1973. 562.

2 quoted in Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake. Boston: Little Brown, 1974. 367-368.

3 Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State. New York: Pantheon, 1970. 120.

4 John Pratt, "The Lost Frontier," in The Frontier Experience and the American Dream, ed. David Mogen. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 1989.

5 Mark Busby, "The Significance of the Frontier in Contemporary American Fiction," in The Frontier Experience and the American Dream. 101.

6 John Kerry, "Vietnam Veterans Against the War: Testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee," in Vietnam and America: A Documented History, ed. Marvin Gettleman. New York: Grove P, 1985. 457.

7 David Dresser and Gaylyn Studlar, "Never Having to Say You're Sorry: Rambo's Rewriting of the Vietnam War," in From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. Eds. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. 108.

Works Cited

Beidler, Philip. Rewriting America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens: UniversityofGeorgiaP,1991.

Busby, Mark. "The Significance of the Frontier in Contemporary American Fiction," in The Frontier Experience and the American Dream.

Chomsky, Noam. For Reasons of State. New York: Pantheon, 1970.

Caputo, Philip. Indian Country. New York: Bantam, 1987.

Deloria, Vine Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins. New Yorlc Macmillan, 1969.

Dresser, David and Gaylyn Studlar, "Never Having to Say You're Sorry: Rambo's Rewriting of the Vietnam War," in From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, ed. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990.

Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building. New York: Schocken Books, 1990.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Holt, 1984.

Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake. Boston: Little Brown, 1974.

Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Kerry, John. "Vietnam Veterans Against the War: Testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee," in Vietnam and America: A Documented History, ed. Marvin Gettleman. New York: Grove P, 1985.

Melling, Philip. Vietnam in American Literature. Boston: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Pratt, John. "The Lost Frontier," in The Frontier Experience and the American Dream, ed. David Mogen. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 1989.

Silko, Leslie. Almanac of the Dead. New York: Simon and Schuster: New York, 1991.

Silko, Leslie. Ceremony. New York: Penguin, 1979.

Slolkin, Richard. Regeneration and Violence: the Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1800. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1973. 136