Why Me? Understanding Ideas of Fate and Chance in Vietnam Conflict Literature

Pattie Flint

Why did this happen? Why us? Why me? Veterans of the Vietnam Conflict have struggled for decades with these questions, perhaps more so than survivors of other wars, for they took part in the war “that had no reason.” The sheer amount of violence and trauma suffered by any victim of war requires many veterans to answer these questions, both as a means of rationalizing the violence and as a method of coping with the emotional damage. As a result, it would be severely disappointing for any scholar to dissect war literature without critically examining answers to the question, “why?” Whether it is destiny, choice, chance, or luck that leads combatants to the battleground and back, examining the reasons behind each writer’s answer to this age-old question can give readers, scholars, and other veterans a better understanding of the texts and how they were written as a response to trauma. In Worlds of Hurt, Vietnam veteran Al Hubbard describes the process in verse as:

Sacrificing a portion of your

Consciousness so you won’t have

To deal with

Being there

And

Building mental blocks

So you won’t have to deal with

Having been there. (Tal 129)

This article shall examine three authors who emerged from the Vietnam Conflict–Michael Herr, Philip Red Eagle, and Bao Ninh–and how these writers address the theme of fate in their respective works. By carefully studying the particular responses to trauma each author experiences and how those responses fit into each man’s respective cultural frameworks, we can better understand how trauma is most effectively processed within each man’s personal life, and to an extent, the life of the larger community.

Before examining the texts themselves, one must contextualize the Vietnam Conflict into understandable terms of psychological change, and potential reasons for why this particular war had such a disastrous emotional and cultural effect. As already mentioned, this war was unique in many ways, and as a result the types of trauma suffered are distinct. Kali Tal’s critical review, Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma, examines the distress and shock of the transformation of identity that takes place in military recruits, a pattern of identity-reconstruction that is particular to 20th and 21st century Western military groups and organizations rigorous training and emotionally fragmenting initiations strip away the civilian identity and remolds it into the soldier. Tal notes, “the recruit brings with him to basic training a set of values, beliefs, and expectations about his rights as an individual member of society. He has taken for granted a whole framework of supporting cultural factors, a conception of himself and his achievements which reflects the statue he has been accorded in his past social environment” (128). This “framework of supporting cultural factors” can be described as a general affirmation and support of popular society for the development of individual, independent identities among its members. From archetypal ideas such as “The American Dream,” which emphasizes the importance of the individual, to modern modes. From a self-identity affirming environment the soldier is thrust into an entirely different set of ideals and series of conflicts–essentially restructuring philosophical frameworks and systems of value for coping. This rebuild is, in itself, a form of trauma used to condition the individual and brace him for the trauma of combat. Tal further observes that the three goals of Basic Training are to “destroy the soldiers’ civilian identity, to force him to acknowledge and accept discipline from the military, and to convince him of the validity and justice of the military system” (128). The obvious implication is that outside of the military judicial system there is a more widely accepted standard of justice, and within the military the different sets of rules and standards of discipline are somehow superior, or at least more just. This shift from a democratic justice system to a strict impersonal system of discipline necessitates a drastic reconstruction of the man into the soldier. Meaning is removed from the individual, replaced with an infrastructure of strictly communal validation, reconstructing the meaning of being from the self to the whole.

This alienation from societal norms is exacerbated by the geographical setting of the Vietnam Conflict. John Wolfe, a paratrooper of the 2/327th Infantry, wrote in his short memoir “A Different Species of Time” that, “it [was] as if, when the world was created, allowances were made for special zones, non-homogenous with the rest of the world, redolent with supernatural mystery where man could experience the full expression of his darker side” (1). The strange, steamy jungles of Vietnam, exploding with leeches, malaria, jungle rot, and dangerous animals, removes the soldier from his home and widens the gap between the homogenous home reality, and the uncanny, almost sinister presence of Vietnam. Wolfe goes on to explain that, “reason, sanity, and order seem remote peculiarities of a civilization from which you have been isolated, banished, and your Christian God seems a deity out of His jurisdiction” (1). The isolation and removal from “regular” society invades and excludes the soldier, deepening his need for rationalized reasoning and a sense of purposeful meaning, which is given to him by his commanding officer. However, the alienating, harsh, and haunting setting of the Vietnam conflict casts doubt and insecurity over the place and purpose of the solider. Why is he suffering from jungle rot, gangrene, and fever before he even reaches the purpose of his training and reconstruction? The combination of regular military training that is intended to break one off from normal social ideas and boundaries, coupled with the unsettling isolation of Vietnam, prompts many to question the idea of fate and chance–opening up the perfect grounds to begin discussing the narratives in question.

Michael Herr’s Dispatches examines a number of different responses to the question why me? The text takes on a nonlinear format to describe the series of events that Herr underwent, letting readers experience intimate moments with the soldiers as they “hump” through the terrors they faced, explained away by various combinations of luck, chance, and rationalized fate. Herr uses the personal moments he participates in or witnesses to question the idea of the “American Dream” or “American Duty” as the sole explanation given the men in order to cope with and justify their participation in the war. As Marine veteran Philip Caputo states in the preface to his memoir, A Rumor of War, young men were “seduced into uniform by Kennedy’s challenge to ’ask what you can do for your country,’ and by the missionary idealism he had awakened in us. . .[they] believed [they] were ordained to play cop to the Communists’ robber and spread our own political faith around the world” (14). A sense of heroic purpose or humanitarian duty in fighting the Vietcong predominately justifies all the various reasons for the soldiers to be in battle. This feeling of responsibility is conditioned into soldiers during training as a coping strategy in times of high stress or uncertainty. To waver is to lose your life, or to endanger the lives of your comrades, thus blind belief is necessary. However, Herr writes that, in Vietnam, “the rules were now tight and absolute, no arguing over who missed who and who was really dead; no fair was no good, Why me? the saddest question in the world” (55). While the idea of duty and patriotism substantiated the life of the soldier in Vietnam, it did nothing to explain the randomness and impartiality of death and destruction in the war. Herr determines that “no fair was no good,” implying that while there prevailed a strong sense of duty among the troops, there was an undercurrent of ethical and moral questioning, and a sharp sense of personal injustice. How, then, does one rationalize the detached and unbiased chance? In his novel Herr points out several situations in which this particular brand of military idealism and political responsibility was not a sufficient answer for those who were fighting.

Death had to be justified by a reason other than duty, and thus sprang a desperate belief in fate and luck. From the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we can understand fate to be “the principle, power, or agency by which, according to certain philosophical and popular systems of belief, all events, or some events in particular, are unalterably predetermined from eternity” (1). Luck, on the other hand, is defined as “the imagined tendency of chance (esp. in matters of gambling) to produce events continuously favorable or continuously unfavorable; the friendly or hostile disposition ascribed to chance at a particular time” (1). Clearly, fate implies predestination and fatalism, whereas luck is based on probability and chance, a marked and desperate difference. While the indoctrination of duty served as an intellectual foundation for the soldiers, the randomness of violence and death in war forces them to reexamine and question the attitudes and implications of both fate and luck. Herr reminds the readers again of this conflict, from the types of characters he meets who believe in certain omens, symbols, or lucky images, to the ones who reason that fate alone has kept them alive. One of the most memorable examples of the former is the boy from Miles City. As Herr remembers,

I met this kid from Miles City, Montana, who read the Stars and Stripes every day, checking the casualty lists to see if by some chance anybody from his hometown had been killed. He didn’t even know if there was anyone else from Miles City in Vietnam, but he checked anyway because he knew for sure that if there was someone else and they got killed, he would be all right. “I mean, can you just see *two* guys from a raggedy-ass town like Miles City getting killed in Vietnam? (Herr 53)

While this scene is humorous, it masks a raw and deep sense of needing rationality and reason. The boy refuses to acknowledge that there is no sensible pattern to who is killed, and instead uses the idea of statistics to rationalize that two guys from a place as small as Miles City couldn’t die, therefore preserving the idea of his own life. It is a common combination that Herr notes several more times in the text, in which the ideas of fate and luck are blended, and that, while both are impartial, they operate through possibly rational laws of probability. Consequently, while a solider isn’t necessarily convinced of the idea of predestination, he does get an idea of fate being rational and reasonable. As Herr goes on to mention however, it is not the luck that saves a man; “what you really needed was a flexibility far greater than anything the technology could provide, some generous, spontaneous gift for accepting surprises… if you were one of those people who always thought they had to know what was coming next, the war could cream you” (13). This idea of flexibility mirrors the randomness of chance and luck, yet as Herr mentions later on in the text, he was unable to come to terms with this idea. He proposes the theory that humans desire rationalization and meaning, which directly contradicts the randomness of the horrors of war. In Worlds of Hurt, “Ideas of valor and heroism are undermined by the randomness of death in combat” (Tal 128).  Therefore, there is a feeling of disconnect between the idea of patriotic duty and heroic bravery, and the ruthless irony and chance of war. As Herr comments sadly, however, “Even bitter refracted faith was better than none at all” (56). To have faith and believe that there is some sort of pattern or reasoning to the war was better than a sense of complete helplessness. As a result, there is constant tension among the troops Herr witnesses as they cling to every symbol, hope, charm, rule of logic, or even love of God to try to come to terms with the trauma.

Fate, as defined previously, is blended with the idea of chance, in which there is an implied rationality or regularity. Chance can be defined simply as, “A happening or occurrence of things in a particular way” (OED 1). Conveyed is a sense of logic that contradicts the term fate, which is often seen as illogical or unfair, creating a rift in the text that Herr examines carefully while balancing between the lines of being humorous, and being extremely abject. As a war correspondent for over a year during one of the most brutal times of the war, Herr observed many strange rituals among the men, some that he treated with utmost respect, some with curiosity, and some with scorn. For example, Herr writes, “On operations you’d see men clustering around the charmed grunt that many outfits created who would take himself and whoever stayed close enough through a field of safety, at least until he rotated home or got blown away, and then the outfit would hand the charm to someone else” (57). There is a natural attraction built around “the lucky guy”: the man who stepped on a mine that didn’t go off, or was thrown a grenade that didn’t explode, which granted that man the aura of well-being, and good chances. However, there is a dual idea here of a single man being lucky, and simultaneously the outfit bestowing upon this same man their expectations and faith to see them through. The phrase “hand the charm to someone else” implies that luck is something that can be given to an individual by a group through their faith in him. There is a combination of luck and chance in their attitude and struggle to survive, and a denial of fate as the reasoning for a man’s good luck, reinforcing the idea of a need for justifiable or understandable logic in warfare. Herr observed this same trend, although applied in a dramatically different manner, saying, “no one expects much from a man when he is down to one or two weeks. He becomes a luck freak, an evil-omen collector, a diviner of every bad sign. If he has the imagination, or the experience of war, he will recognize his own death a thousand times a day, but he will always have enough left to do the one big thing, to Get Out [sic]” (91).

Interestingly, while the man from Miles City believes luck will save him because the law of probability suggests that the chances of two men from his city getting killed are impossibly small, the short-timers held the very opposite to be true. The unbiased randomness of death in war leads one to the idea of fate being cruelly ironic, and unfair. Therefore, while in the beginning or middle of their tours men hold on to the “lucky ones” or their own good luck charms, near the end these lose value because the irony of death is that it strikes when the solider is the most vulnerable, right before he goes home. Along these same lines, Herr writes, “what a prodigy of things to be afraid of! The moment you understood this, really understood it, you lost your anxiety instantly. Anxiety was a luxury, a joke you had no room for once you knew the variety of deaths and mutilations the war offered” (133). This passage brings one full circle to the question once again of the idea of duty to one’s country versus fate or chance. Patriotic sacrifice serves as a solid rationale for the horrors of war, and yet this is juxtaposed by the question of chance: Will the soldier make it out alive? By using the tropes of luck and chance, the solider can forgo the idea of cruel fate and irony to transcend his fear of the unknown, or at least cope with that fear. In regards to this acceptance and resignation, Robert Stone, an American novelist and author of an introduction to Dispatches wrote,

“There it is,” they used to say in Vietnam, a despairing catchphrase to signify the presence of some ineluctable force at the core of the situation. The force would appear suddenly out of whirl as if to explain everything, shimmer for an instant and be gone, a malign antic spirit. It never stayed in view long enough to disclose useful intelligence but people came to recognize it. “There it is,” they would say, just to let their friends know they had seen it and to be sure their friends had seen it too. (3)

Conclusively, there is a sense of passive acceptance in Dispatches that is unmatched by the desperate attempts of the men within the novel to cope with and counter the imperturbable nature of fate. There simply is, and there simply isn’t. Thus, the idea of chance and luck are blended together with the “mission” of the soldiers into a numbing mix that is simplified to the phrase, “there it is,” suggesting that whether it be chance, luck, or fate that brings about the events of war, there is no denying nor coming to terms with it.

Philip Red Eagle, a Native American of Dakota and Puget Sound Salish heritage, looks at this idea of fate in his Vietnam novel Red Earth as a cyclical, spiritual journey that is necessary for self-understanding and growth. Everything has a reason and purpose, even pain, and though it may not seem rational or reasonable, with time one always comes to learn and understand the purpose of the journey. The main character, a combat veteran and Native American named Raymond Crow-Belt, experiences a series of flashbacks of his childhood and his time in Vietnam, which he reconciles to his present journey of healing and acceptance. As Raymond talks to his grandfather, an extremely large influence on his life, his grandfather teaches him: “There is no magic. Just the mystery and power of what is. Wakan” (16). This “Wakan,” meaning “powerful” or “sacred,” is simply the life flow of every living thing. There is no tangible or measurable power in it, only that it is in everything, and flows in and out of everything with every moment. From the start, one is given an idea that everything has its journey, its purpose, its ultimate goal. This spiritual justification for everything having its individual reason carries Raymond through the war as his rationale for the war’s horrors. Raymond describes this breach between thinking and being in the war by saying, “most of the men who came here killed themselves off at some point; not a real death. A spiritual death, an act of kindness to oneself, an act of survival. A man was required to die here, to stop thinking and feeling. It was the only way to beat the fear, the frustration and the insanity of this crazy war” (20). Raymond recognizes a divide between the spirit of a person and the actual physical body of a person as necessary to cope with the war. Thus, he answers the why me? question of war by reasoning that everyone has their own personal journey to make, and the war is an important part of that very same journey. As opposed to Kali Tal’s suggestion that soldiers enter into the war no longer as individuals but as parts of a whole, Raymond retains his idea of individual spiritual purpose, providing rational for his personal role in the war.

However, while Raymond’s cultural and familial roots in mysticism and spirituality hold him to reality, reality was unbearable in the war and caused him to lose his connection to himself. When Raymond realizes that the breaking of his spirit in the war was the cause of his nightmares, pain, and emotional distress, he accepts that his journey is only just beginning, and, “with that journey, the longest of journeys, the journey from the head to the heart, came some peace. The night problems became only remnants of what they had been” (48). Raymond therefore rationalizes that the problems he has are not just because of his spiritual unrest, but because of his refusal to continue with his life’s journey. There is an inherent trust, then, that his time in Vietnam was necessary for him to fulfill his ultimate life’s purpose. As he prays to his grandfather, one catches a glimpse of the depth of this journey: “grandfather, tunkashina, help me on this sacred journey so that I may finally heal myself. So that I may come to serve my people, clear of my dark past, clear of all the pain and anger that was” (52). This spirituality gives Raymond a clear purpose and direction for his life, and thus a justification for his time in the war. In particular, we see this spiritual healing taking place through the character of Phuong. Phuong, a Vietnamese woman who Raymond interacts with only for a brief time, nevertheless makes a deep impact on Raymond’s Vietnam experience. For example, Raymond gives Phuong a Medicine Wheel in order to remember him, but also much more than that. As he explains, “it holds the truth of all things. It helps you remember the things you should keep in mind as you travel your path” (39). There is an implication that Wakan, the “power,” is held within truth, and that truth is in many ways what holds reality together. When Raymond goes home and loses the reality of the war and along with it his spiritual journey, he feels lost. Through his close companion Phuong, however, he is able to find that meaning and purpose again, and realize what role the war played in his fate. As he writes about his reunion with Phuong, “he couldn’t feel that difference those years were supposed to make. It was as if all that time hadn’t passed. It was as if all that pain hadn’t happened. He felt reborn and he cried” (63).

There is a rebirth in coming back and accepting the truth of the war as it is, and yet he justifies the horrors of war and the suffering he undergoes afterward by reminding himself that there is an ultimate, spiritual truth that holds its own plan and fate: saving Phuong and remembering his spiritual journey and purpose. Without this truth, he is lost. Raymond recognizes this while praying, when he realizes, “The words felt empty. They didn’t work. He couldn’t get to his center. He still felt that terrible, overwhelming guilt, sadness and deep sorrow. He had transgressed and the dark spirits were making sure he paid, in full” (81). One gets a clear idea of a moral boundary that guides Raymond’s spirituality, a type of morality that drives him throughout the novel. Like his grandfather’s guidance and advice, the spiritual world also offers its own type of direction. Ultimately, fate remains as a predetermined entity. For example, when Raymond converses with Smiley, he says, “heroes never really have a choice. Any more than I did. The Creator made you a hero…. That’s the way the Creator made it. That’s the way it is” (107). Therefore there is not only an idea of predetermination, but of creation, of destiny. A sort of fatalism that is very much the Western philosophy of destiny and “taking hold of one’s dream.” It is reminiscent of Doris Day’s tautological rendition of  “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be).” He relates this to the metaphor of water that “flows” throughout the novel. As Raymond explains, “Gramps said that the water that’s here now has always been here. Almost always. Right after maka, the mother earth. Water was born from mother earth. It’s always been the same amount. Never changes. And it moves. It flows through everyone and everything. Like a river of life” (110). Water is transformative and easily transformable. It is relentless in its power, and yet flexible. One drinks the same water, knowing it to be our own, when really it has belonged to everyone. Thus, one gets a sense of fatalism, as whatever happens has to happen. As a result, Raymond accepts his life with a spiritual resignation and contentment, relying on nature and those around him to transform him. In the second half of Red Earth, we are introduced to a different Native American combat veteran: Clifford Goes-First. The story recounts how Clifford protects the FNG (Fucking New Guy) of his unit, a man named James (Stoney) Hailstone. Their roles are reversed, however, when they go home and Clifford discovers that it is Stoney who takes care of him. As Clifford explains to Stoney, we’re “two skins from the same blood, but from different places. Different lives. Ya’ know what I mean? What does it mean? Ya’ know what I mean? Grandpa says miracles are happening all the time… if you look hard and listen, you begin to know things. To understand things” (130). This passage conveys a sense of acceptance and inevitability. But while Herr treats this resignation as something unbearable, here Red Eagle finds comfort in his idea of personal growth through his predetermined fate. He conveys a sense of patience and acceptance, because it is not about the whole, but about the personal growth and understanding of self. If one can understand and accept the war, then one can understand and accept the self.

Bao Ninh’s Sorrow of War, told from the perspective of a South Vietnamese solider in the war, approaches the question of “why” with the idea of a universal, unchanging destiny that controls every action and movement. There is a mix of Herr’s idea of chance and Red Eagle’s spiritual fatalism that combines in this novel to give a desperate sense of national duty and helpless destiny. A simple definition of destiny can be as follows: “that which is destined to happen to a particular person, country, institution, etc.; (one’s) appointed lot or fortune; what one is destined to do or suffer” (OED 1). This theme of helplessness and predestination is first hinted at when main character Kien, a North Vietnam soldier, receives a pack of playing cards from a friend. His friend, Tu tells Kien, “I’ll go in this fight. You keep them. If you live on, gamble with life. Deuces, treys, and fours all carry the sacred spirit of our whole platoon. We’ll bring you permanent luck” (11). While there is a note of well-being and acceptance of his own fate, Tu urges Kien to gamble with his own life. Essentially, Tu urges Kien to move past the predetermined fate of the soldiers (to serve their country) to make his own fate. The image of the deck of playing cards, of literally gambling with destiny, haunts Kien throughout the book, In particular, it is this deck of cards he thinks about the most as he tries to escape his fate and finds himself hopelessly enslaved by it. For example, after his time in the war, Kien finds himself in mental agony, thinking, “When will I calm down? When will my heart be free of the tight grip of war? Whether pleasant or ugly memories, they are there to stay for ten, twenty years, perhaps forever (44). Kien sees himself as helplessly trapped within his own destiny, unable to change himself or his circumstances. In the same dialogue he goes on to say, “but my soul is still in turmoil. The past years out here imprison me. My past seems to enfold me and move with me wherever I go. At night while I sleep I hear my steps from a distant peacetime echoing on the pavement. I just have to shut my eyes to conjure up those past times and completely wipe out the present” (44). Kien is trapped in the idea of a destiny that he cannot escape, and much of that identity is held within his time in the war.

However, Kien does come upon a painful justification for his experiences in the war. He begins to write down his stories. This creates a conflict within him, in which he is once again doing something that he had little intention or desire of doing. For example, Ninh writes, “Why choose war? Why must he write of the war? His life and that of so many others was so horrible it could hardly be called a life. How can one find artistic recognition in that kind of life?” (56). While Kien expresses deep pain and regret at his participation, he finds himself drawn to write about the war. This new pursuit gives justification for his time in the war, answering “why” for him in a very frustrating way, because he finds himself believing that his destiny is to write about a war he hates remembering. Kien, stuck in his belief that fate is inescapable, questions himself, saying, “Is this the author who avoids reading anything about any war, the Vietnam war or any other great war? The one who is frightened by war stories? Yet who himself cannot stop writing war stories, stories of rifles firing, bombs dropping, enemies and comrades, wet and dry seasons in battle. In fact, the one who can’t write about anything else” (56). Ninh writes that the war captures people and holds them prisoner to fate. As one of his injured friends in the hospital tells him, “sometimes I wish I could kill myself and end everything quickly. War has robbed me of the liberty I deserve. Now I am a slave” (79). Ninh gives us a sense of the war interrupting the regular flow of fate, that there was a disruption in the stasis of life and therefore, countless people suffer. Kien notices this subtle shift when he first goes to battle, that “the rumors and predictions were all seen as warnings of an approaching calamity, horrible and bloody, and those who leaned towards mysticism or believed in horoscopes secretly confided these fears to their friends” (14). Those who had religion and divining signs sensed that there was an ill, foreboding feel to the battle. Unfortunately however, there is nothing to be done concerning the future because it has already been preplanned. This sense of fatalism relates to Ninh’s idea of spirituality concerning the dead as well. When walking through the forest of screaming souls, a driver informs him, “Under the ground in the grave human beings aren’t the same. You can look at each other, understand each other, but you can’t do anything for each other” (41). Once again, one is struck by the sense of inescapable destiny. There is a predestined course for everyone, including the dead. Kien lives as one who is dead, moving, talking, and understanding, but unable to do anything for himself. This acts as a coping mechanism, however. When one cannot ask the question “why,” one has no need to answer it. The “why” is that destiny has chosen this life for you, and you cannot change it. However, as Kien mourns, “still, even in the midst of my reminisces I can’t avoid admitting there seems little left for me to hope for. From my life before soldiering there remains sadly little. That wonderful period has been heartlessly extinguished. The lucky star of fortune I once had seems also to be gone forever. It once shone brightly, but quickly burned out” (47).

While the idea of a predetermined fate is comforting, it is also restricting. Relating back to Kien’s drive to write down his war stories, he also finds himself caught in the past, and unable to move forward because he cannot grab hold of a future that will carry him beyond war. In this way, the question remains unanswerable. If one is chosen to live, how does one then justify the people who were chosen to die? By making something out of one’s self after the war, perhaps? But what is worthy enough of justifying so many deaths? From this unanswerable question does Kien produce the pain and suffering of his writing career. As he notes to himself, “the future lied to us, there long ago in the past. There is no new life, no new era, nor is it hope for a beautiful future that now drives me on, but rather the opposite. The hope is contained in the beautiful prewar past” (47). Because fate has already chosen his destiny, he is unable to move forward and find his own destiny. Very much like Raymond in Red Earth, there is an inescapable sense of wanting to return to the past, and to the innocence of what once was. This image is particularly striking during Kien’s reunion with Phuong, in which he discovers her disloyalty. He exclaims, “So this was what the peace and happiness would be! The glorious, bright rays of victory, his grand, long-awaited return. So much for his naïve faith in the future” (83). With destiny putting him in the war, Kien is unable to move beyond the past, and expect that destiny has something else in store for him. This is particularly revealed in the organization of the novel, in which there is a cyclical jump between the painful present and the mourned past. He juxtaposes his dreams of what happened to his nightmares of what may happen. Whether or not his dream are in the past or present is not important, and time itself is not important. Only the events themselves are relevant. This feeling is compounded by one of Ninh’s most compelling part of the novel, in which he writes retrospectively,

To win, martyrs had sacrificed their lives in order that others might survive. Not a new phenomenon, true. But for those still living to know that the kindest, most worthy people have all fallen away, or even be[en] tortured, humiliated before being killed, or buried and wiped away by the machinery of war, then this beautiful landscape of calm and peace is an appalling paradox. Justice may have won, but cruelty, death, and inhuman violence have also won. Just look and think: that is the truth. (Ninh 193)

In this sense, Kien is stuck in a place between time and space, in a fate that holds him to an era that has already past. Destiny, in this sense, is neither past nor present but all encompassing. Destiny has been predetermined before Kien had even been born. This is a comfort to Kien, but at the same time a burden because he lacks the freedom to change his future. Thus, in the next paragraph Kien thinks to himself, “Losses can be made good, damage can be repaired, and wounds will heal in time. But the psychological scars of the war will remain forever” (193). Kien resigns himself to being hurt and wounded for the rest of his life, condemned to writing war stories as his destiny, though he is miserable doing it. In other ways, this novel is cyclical because it is partially the story of Bao Ninh himself. Kien acts as a foil for Ninh, who is writing his war story despite his reluctance. But, because he believes it is his destiny, he copes with the horrors of war by fulfilling that very same destiny. By writing the stories that fate has compelled him to write, he justifies and redeems those who died on the battlefield. Thus, the question of “why” is answered by a communal, universal sense of duty and obligation. As Kien wonders, “whose soul is calling whom as he swings gently and silently in his hammock over the rows of dead soldiers?” (11). The circular pattern of fate in Ninh’s novel implies that while the dead may call out to the living, the living respond to the dead as well.

In examining how these authors cope with the question of why me? in their respective works, one gleans a better understanding of the text and the author’s intent, as well as a better understanding of the psychological horrors of Vietnam. Herr approaches the text with a non-linear, broken-up narrative that juxtaposes the ideas of duty, patriotism, luck, and cruel chance. In all cases, Herr examines the ways in which soldiers coped, in everything from humorous to tragic ways. In doing so, Herr also examines his own role in the war, as someone volunteering to witness the pain and suffering of those who had no choice but to be there. This interweaves into traditional Western cultural ideas of paving one’s own destiny, juxtaposed with the equally important idea of loyalty and service to one’s people and country. Philip Red Eagle, on the other hand, examines this question from a very deep, spiritual point of view. In a circular fashion, Red Eagle dissects the meaning of spirituality and the duty one has to live one’s own life, as spiritual growth can be found iin the journey. Fate plays an important role, as everything has a purpose and meaning, including the war. Finally, Bao Ninh’s novel focuses on the pain and suffering of war, but most importantly, the inescapability of it. Destiny, as understood by Kien in the novel, is unavoidable and unchangeable. Ninh focuses on the struggle to accept destiny as what is, as well as how to accept the sharp difference between destiny and hope or expectations. By examining the way these three authors have been shaped by their cultural backgrounds and expectations, there arises a deeper meaning and fluidity in the texts themselves; one can look at them through the lens of the author and understand the contextual purpose and message. Herr, because he chose to go, felt compelled to write about those who were forced to be in Vietnam. Red Eagle, because it is part of his spiritual journey to healing and acceptance, wrote his novel to remember his pain and then to let it go, and Bao Ninh wrote about the war because it was his personal destiny and public duty to those who were killed. Constructing a clearer philosophical identity and purpose for the author better enables readers to understand the context of the text, and the theme of fate. By reading these novels and critically observing how each author answers the question “why me?” perhaps one can get a better understanding of how to answer that question for oneself.

 

 

 

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