by John S. Baky, Curator
If research is, as some scientists have suggested, an organized method for keeping you reasonably dissatisfied with what you have, then this overview seeks to mediate the dissatisfaction that has lately been expressed by researchers in the fields of Vietnam war "literature." Framing the word "literature" in quotation marks is meant to suggest that yoking such a word with any of a number of Vietnam war studies represents at least half of the definitional problems that plague this burgeoning field of cross-discipline research--the problem of scholarly legitimacy. That is to say, what sort of writing qualifies as "literature."The Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam War Collection at La Salle, compared to the Colorado State University Vietnam War Collection
John Newman and Julie Wessling adumbrate certain facets of this same definitional dilemma in their essay entitled "Vietnam War Literature: A guide to resources at Colorado State University" (War, Literature, and the Arts. Vol. 1, #2, 1989-90, pp.73-76. Note as well that the latest edition of the bibliography itself is: Vietnam War Literature: An Annotated Bibliography of Imaginative Works About Americans Fighting in Vietnam. Lanham, MD.& London:The Scarecrow Press, 1996) Indeed, it was exactly John Newman's dissatisfaction with the state of resources concerning Viet Nam war literature that drove him to design a remedy. Mr. Newman is too modest when he describes the Colorado Sate University Vietnam Literature Collection as ". . . a pioneer effort to broaden information resources for scholars." (WL&A, p. 73.) I say too modest because not only was Newman's assessment correct about the scholarly vacuum that was fast expanding outward from the concept of Viet Nam war studies back in 1975, but his foresight in addressing that fact required a degree of intellectual courage and bibliographical acumen not much tolerated in the academic research environment of today--an environment overcast with the clucking threats of "politically correct" caution; not to mention current budgetary restraints that go a lot farther in gutting research initiatives than any political in-fighting ever has.
Out of whole cloth, John Newman created a resource that allowed the serious conduct of research not only in the nascent world of Viet Nam war studies, but more significantly, he created a resource that stands to this day as an example of how fundamental to cross-curricular scholarship are library-based bibliographical resources. These resources are characterized more than anything else by their unapologetic grounding in the media of popular or mass culture. John Newman's scholarly instincts as a professional librarian have made his contributions to the national community of scholars at least as important as the actual body of material he has so cleverly ferreted out and assembled in the Colorado State University (CSU) Vietnam War Literature Collection. If, as I said at the outset, research is a method for keeping one reasonably dissatisfied with what one has, then it is time to build on John Newman's original dissatisfaction with resources by describing what is today available to the scholarly community. CSU's unique Viet Nam war literature collection prepared the way for similar research collections that now exceed even Newman's expectations.
Newman and Julie Wessling in their article do more than gesture at some of the original research difficulties when they predict the future utility of just such a "literature" collection as they have so far built. They say of their expectations that "This unique collection of Vietnam War literature has the potential to address the research interests of scholars in a number of disciplines. There have been important and influential changes in the public view of those involved in the Vietnam War. It is still too soon, perhaps, to chart these changes or to describe them objectively, but access to the words of those who served is important if understanding is to evolve."(WL&A, p.75) All that they say here has come to pass; and it has come to pass so rapidly that one of their closing statements about the state of Viet Nam war literature collections is now largely unrealistic simply because, ironically enough, Newman did his original work with such clarity of purpose. Using such a focused design, he virtually insured that his original research collection must be superceded by research collections that came after his. Still, superceded as Newman's collection shortly will be, the advances depended upon his original curatorial instincts to light the way for those who had the resources and complementary motives to construct the next logical research collection implicit in Newman's original plan. When I say "unrealistic" I do so advisedly, since it is for lack of a better word, and because "unrealistic" is not sui generis negative or critical (after all, creations like Citizen Kane or Picasso's image of women are both, properly speaking, unrealistic, but their informing truths determine their lasting value.) All this is simply an elaborate and respectful way to inform scholars and researchers that they must now consider at least two distinctly different (though often marvelously complementary) research collections when their research interests are intended to examine and compare public representations of the Viet Nam war.
Now, when a prospective researcher reads Mr. Newman's hope that the CSU Vietnam War Literature Collection will eventually "be the single comprehensive national resource for all imaginative literature of the Vietnam War." (p.76) that researcher must be circumspect before choosing to travel there. It is vital for researchers to understand that Newman's hope for a "comprehensive national resource for all imaginative literature of the Vietnam War" is already swiftly approaching attainment elsewhere. The later and dramatically expanded scholarly resource to which I refer has achieved a dominance in the field of Viet Nam war studies far sooner than its 1986 birth date would have predicted. Immediately notable, however, is that this newer comprehensive collection of imaginative representations of the Viet Nam war resides some 2000 miles east of CSU at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
Continuing to pursue the assumption that research, if it is effective, produces dissatisfaction with existing resources, my purpose now shifts to informing scholars, researchers, students, and writers that the two most extensive collections in the world concerning imaginative representations of the Viet Nam war are distinctly different. Before launching comparisons, it is well to remember that the two mature scholarly resources described here are in no way competitive for potential users or funding, though they are in some specific ways indeed mutually exclusive of certain kinds of research. In fact, La Salle University's Imaginative Representations of the Viet Nam War Collection and Colorado State's Vietnam War Literature Collection are limited much more according to their strengths than their lacunae. And, of course, as alluded to above, the La Salle University and Colorado State Collections are intrinsically complementary in some areas of research--specific areas of inquiry being limited only by kind or degree of narrative point of view.
Since the Colorado State collection is older than the La Salle University collection, I direct the potential user of the Colorado State collection to the already published descriptions that abound in library and research directories. Note particularly the article cited above, and the earlier delineation offered in the Preface of Newman"s seminal annotated bibliography entitled Vietnam War Literature: An Annotated Bibliography of Imaginative Works About Americans Fighting in Vietnam. The Preface to this 1988 Second Edition says, in part:
Like the first edition in 1982, this annotated bibliography is based primarily on the Vietnam War Literature Collection at Colorado Sate University. This bibliography includes novels, short stories, poetry collections, plays and such miscellaneous works as humor, sketchbooks and anthologies published in English. There is no nonfiction material. Some personal narratives, diaries and so-called 'nonfiction novels' have much to say about the war, but they are not in this guide to purely creative works. The locale is Vietnam, but there are other settings during the war including Laos, Cambodia and imaginary countries clearly meant to represent Viet Nam. There is nothing here that focuses only on the French in Indochina, nor are there any of the fantastic postwar adventures to rescue POWs or destroy the Southeast Asian drug trade. Much of the war protest literature refers to Viet Nam, but it is included only if it is set there. Comic books and audio-visual media are excluded as a practical matter. The Vietnam veteran is a popular character in modern American fiction, and many books about veterans have preliminary chapters or flashbacks set in Vietnam. The practice here is to include novels in which the Vietnam segment is substantial enough to tell its own story and is also important to the main plot. The essential goal has been to present works that describe the Viet Nam war as it was experienced firsthand by relatively few people and watched on television by a great many more.
As useful as these descriptive qualifiers might be in drawing potential users, the researcher should remember that they are quoted from Newman's published bibliography--not from a published description per se of the CSU Vietnam War Literature Collection itself. Equally important to the researcher should be the knowledge that not everything that actually exists in the Colorado State Collection is necessarily described in the 1988 Newman bibliography (e.g. unpublished manuscripts, personal narratives, some ephemera). In pointing out that important difference, it would be presumptuous of me to interpret either John Newman's intentions for his collection or that collection's capacities so, briefly, here is what he says of it in his own words:
The Vietnam War Literature Collection at Colorado State University Libraries was established in 1975 as a pioneer effort to broaden information resources for scholars. The Colorado State collection contains fiction, plays, poetry, sketches, cartoons and miscellaneous works of imagination. Excluded are historical, political and autobiographical reports of the war as well as protest literature set outside of Vietnam. In recent years, Vietnam literature has been studied in the academic environment, and the resultant theses and dissertations are also included. . . . Motion pictures and television are outside the scope of the Colorado State collection, and the printed scripts of many plays are not always available through known bibliographic channels. Students of American literature can use it as a basis of thematic, narrative, characterization and stylistic studies. Historians and political scientists will find representations of changing political views of Vietnam veterans and others that were affected by the war. Cultural historians can observe relationships between factual and fictional treatment of veterans, as well as the causes and effects of shifting popular attitudes about U.S. servicemen. Health and medical professionals will learn something about the minds and psyches of those who know war firsthand. The collection of Vietnam war literature at Colorado State allows one to step beyond factual descriptions of the war. While it would be unfair to evaluate these imaginative works as history, they contain unique elements, including the ability to bring an experience to life powerfully. **
The essential difference that distinguishes the La Salle University Imaginative Representations of the Viet Nam War Collection from the Colorado Sate collection is one of both intent and scope. The intent of the La Salle collection is to provide a resource that allows the researcher to discover in a vast literature precisely where certain persistent images, recurring ideological conceptions, and factual distortions originate. The idea is that, once the origin of a certain concept is located it is possible for the scholar to understand how that original image or concept has grown into the elaborate monstrosities of imagination that eventually recur in commercial film, TV, printed fiction, music, and graphic art.
For instance, why does the Rambo figure possess the cultural power and ideological durability that it clearly does; or by what cultural transference does the elaborate and varied iconography of the "Green Beret" replace and revision that of John Wayne. Teasing apart the complexities of these two mythopoeic transformations alone has produced at least three score doctoral dissertations and published essays in anthologies targeting academic audiences. The natural evolution of many of these imaginative representations of the war are capable of mutating into logical absurdities of grotesque aspect and, as likely as not, end up by being the most vivid after-image left imprinted on the movie-watching, novel-reading public. It is by now a truism that the public understands "history" according to what it already believes (or wants to believe) about it, rather than relying on sober authorities analyzing reported events through a lens illuminated by the harsh light of data and carefully exfoliated narratives.
The intent of the La Salle University Imaginative Representations of the Vietnam War Collection is to make it possible for those willing to look, to see just how it is that the public "knows" something about an historical event without that very same public ever having interrogated the source of such revealed "knowledge." Perhaps a perfect example of this phenomenon is the periodic deluge of heartbreaking nonsense pumped out, sometimes on a daily basis, by the nation's tabloids. This "reporting" is then dignified with analysis by a surprising number of reputable newspapers that ought, by now, to know better. Newspapers of Record trumpet the utterly preposterous reports of sober Senate committees listening to tales of vast underground prison compounds constructed near--of all places--Ho Chi Minh's tomb (Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 5, 1992, p.A3); straight-faced tales of renegade Green Beret officers alive still in the far beaten jungles of Laos and Cambodia who, nourished by clandestine infusions of CIA money and influence, continue to selflessly interdict the heroin-choked Asian supply lines into the West. or labor heroically against evil Asian conspiracies to weaken noble western democracies.
Just how virulent these logical absurdities have become is attested to by the fact that no fewer than nineteen commercially released films have as their theme or plot just some variety of the above scenario. Like it or not, it is these deformed versions of truth that are seen in far greater numbers by children, and by the uninformed public, than will ever be the case for documentary efforts at describing reality. Well, the research strategy inherent in a collection of material such as exists at La Salle makes it possible to travel unerringly to the early source of such distortions and, by isolating, dissecting, and pinning down for inspection such distortions as they first occur, defuse their power to distort further. Metaphorically, it's not unlike sweeping for mines, so that a decade or two hence, these distortions will explode under foot amongst an unsuspecting electorate just as the MIA/POW mythology is doing right at this writing.
The scope of the La Salle Collection is at least as wide as its intent. A sense of how the multi-media scope illuminates the intent is perhaps best described in the official description of the Imaginative Representations of the Viet Nam War Collection that is sent to prospective scholars wishing to examine the Collection.Research Areas
The Collection is directly supportive of, but by no means limited to research in the following areas of Viet Nam war studies:
Using the Collection
The Collection is housed in its own quarters in the Special Collection Department of the University Library. A visitor can use the material in privacy within that department. Scholars or professional researchers are invited to use the Collections for unlimited periods of time with the proviso that all research be conducted on the premises. Scholars need present only identification attesting to their academic status from their parent institutions. Graduate students, journalists, and commercial writers, though certainly welcome, must present a letter of introduction from a sponsoring institution.
For pedagogical purposes, the Imaginative Representations of the Viet Nam War provides hundreds of texts that would reveal to a student how--via comparative readings--a "non-fiction" narrative becomes eventually fictive (and vice versa) as the narrator refracts the recalled "event" through the lens of his imagination and his chimerical memory. A researcher using this collection could choose from among thousands of novels, short stories, poems, films, or graphic art that are thinly disguised autobiography presented as fiction. Students who have been thus exposed are left with the distinct suspicion that, disclaimers to the contrary, a narrator's ability to reconstruct objective reality (even truth, perhaps) out of emotion-charged data is ultimately doomed to unreliability. This comparative approach does not contend that the texts in question are lies or deceptions themselves. They are not. They do, however, demonstrate that "truth" is wondrously protean. What humanities course at the college level could not make productive use of that lesson?
In short, this use of the La Salle Collection teaches that narrative certitude via fictive texts is by necessity never the pure and simple truth that the Southern Agrarians used to seek as it were the very Grail itself. Moreover, worth noting is the fact that the multi-media character of this comparative approach dramatically emphasizes the ubiquity of popular culture texts (i.e. video, novels, music, etc.) in everyday Western existence.
Another analytical use that exploits the popular culture nature of La Salle's Viet Nam material is the opportunity it affords a scholar to witness the aesthetic transformations that occur when a text evolves through several interposed media. Taking the well-known novel In-Country as only one simple example: a researcher may begin by viewing an uncorrected galley proof; then track author/editor emendations as they are incorporated into the first hardbound edition; next, analyze how the pictorial marketing treatment (i.e. cover artwork) of the first paperback edition adds to the original image and subtly alters the far drabber original edition; then examine the changes that occur as the prose form of the novel is transmitted into the screenplay mode; and finally, literally watch that screenplay through its own revisions into an actual produced feature film. Even then, there is not an end to the comparative possibilities inherent in the La Salle Collection. The same researcher could then examine the video version of In-Country while listening to the audio tape version of the novel, and finally, since La Salle also acquires all known translations of a work, follow the whole progression into French, German, and Spanish translations of the original 1985 English language print versions. This spectacular capacity to monitor the transformation of texts through various evolving narrative modes is one of the true and unique strengths of a research collection constructed of mass culture artifacts.
Now, having displayed the profile of what is contained in the CSU Vietnam War Literature Collection, and following that description with the above profile of La Salle's Imaginative Representations of the Viet Nam War Collection, it should be clearer to the prospective researcher which one is most likely to meet certain research needs. Simply put, if one wishes to examine about 600 examples of fictive prose depicting Americans fighting in Viet Nam and its environs, about an equal number of short stories anthologized or alone, about 100 books or anthologies of poetry, and about 40 examples of dramatic productions, then one should travel to the CSU Collection. It is important to remember that the CSU Collection is meant by design to be very narrow in its focus. It should be noted as well that the CSU Collection is very rich in unpublished manuscripts that have been deposited with John Newman. This material is largely uncatalogued and access to the unpublished material is subject to tight restrictions imposed either by the authors or Newman or both.
What the prospective researcher will not find in the CSU Collection is secondary resources that analyze or contextualize the fictive works held there; nor will be found titles of poetry, novels, or drama that clearly evidence the place the Viet Nam war has come to occupy in the evolving socio-historical settings of contemporary American culture best represented in film, music, and graphic media. For those perspectives on the Viet Nam war one must travel to La Salle's Collection. If one is interested in seeing how a novel written by a veteran during the war years has been transmuted into an eventual film version via a trail of ever-changing rewrites, paperback issues, screenplay versions, and so on than, one must come to La Salle. If one wishes to see how contemporary writers are "imagining" the consequences of the war on contemporary American society, or to study the treatment of the Viet Nam war as a long-term cultural determinant as presented in, say, 127 doctoral dissertations than--again--one must come to La Salle.
As a rule of thumb, the researcher should keep in mind that nearly all of the titles available in the CSU Collection are also held in the La Salle Collection, however, three-quarters of the 7,000 catalogued items in the La Salle Collection are not available in the CSU Collection. Note particularly should be taken that La Salle Collection encompasses the dimensions of cinema and graphic art through its ownership of 600 films and plays as well as through its 300 pieces of graphic art.Other Collections
The scholar contemplating serious inquiry into what has become known as "Viet Nam War Studies" should be aware that there are three additional collections of resources to be taken into account. Beside the two great collections of the fictive or imaginative representation of the war described above, there are three resources that offer voluminous documentary or factual material. The three collections of documents and various primary source materials are
- The History of the Vietnam War on Microfiche
- The John M. Echols Collection--Selections on the Vietnam War
- 30,000 cubic feet of records created in the Republic of Viet Nam by army commands and made available through the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Numbers 1 and 2 are both compilations being marketed by University Microfilms, Incorporated. The descriptions below are cobbled together from various advertising copies appearing since 1990 and from review media.History of the Vietnam War on Microfiche
Edited by Douglas Pike, this collection when completed will contain 365,000 pages of historical detail and retrospective literature, including documents, newspapers, periodicals, photographs monographs, maps, and graphs. It includes accounts of military strategies, guerilla warfare, the Viet Cong, the massacres at Hue and MY Lai, the Tet Offensive, Cambodia, Laos, the HO Chi Minh Trail, United Nations dialogue, Paris Talks, pacification programs, and defoliation. Interviews with POWs and defector, Gallup and Roper public opinion polls, and propaganda leaflets and posters are included as well. This collection may grow to 1,000,000 items available on microfilm.
Douglas Pike, Director of the Indochina Archives at the University of California, Berkeley, has collected materials from not only the U.S., but Saigon, Hanoi, Peking, Moscow, Tokyo, Australia, and Western Europe. [as of 1990] The following units are now available: Unit 1--Grand Strategy and General Assessment of the War; Unit 2--General History of the Vietnam War; and Unit 3--Topical History of the Vietnam War, with section on anti-war activity, literature, POW/MIAs, public opinion, statistical data, technology, veterans, and war atrocities. Detailed information on this collection is available from the publisher UMI.The John M. Echols Collection
This collection at Cornell University is the second of its kind on the Viet Nam War released by UMI. It offers more than 30,000 volumes of primary resources including monographs published in North and South Viet Nam and Laos (both government and private sector.) Government documents such as internal reports, statistics, press releases, speeches, propaganda, and research reports provide information on the views of the U.S., Chinese, Soviet, Australian, British, Korean, and Philippine governments. In addition, the collection encompasses publications from non-governmental organizations such as anti-war groups, left-wing organizations, pro-war factions, the "loyal opposition" in the U.S. and allied nations, and religious groups. All material was selected from the vast holding of the John M. Echols Collection at Cornell University. Included are over 7,000 volumes of English-language material, approximately 2,000 volumes of French material that focus on the French colonial period, and nearly 20,000 volumes of Vietnamese language material. The English-language materials are being released first, followed by French, then Vietnamese materials.
According to William K. Ach, a professional reviewer of microform collections, "The John M. Echols Collection Selections on the Vietnam War is a welcome addition and companion piece to Douglas Pike's History of the Vietnam WAR... Both are highly recommended for undergraduate and graduate history studies in contemporary history and political science graduate studies, as well as for special programs in international studies. A hallmark feature of this collection is its emphasis on primary rather than secondary source material. This feature is enhanced by the exclusion form the collection of readily available sources found in other libraries, whether published or nonpublished/ especially excluded from the Echols collection is commercially published material." [Microform Review. Vol.19, no.2, Spring 1990. p. 106.] 3.)National Archives
An archivist for the National Archives, Charles A. Shaughnessy says the following about the Viet Nam records now being processed there:
On April 28, 1987, the National Archives accessioned from the Department of the Army approximately 30,000 cubic feet of records. . . Since then, about half of these records have been processed by the National Archives and about 6000 feet opened to researchers. The records currently available to the public include those of divisions, separate brigades, support commands, and combat and support battalions and smaller units. An estimated 5000 cubic feet of processed records remain closed due to their security classifications. These records include those of the Headquarters, MACV; HQ,USARV; I and II Field Forces Vietnam; XXIV Corps; Military Assistance Advisory Group Cambodia; and MAAGV. In addition, the staff is currently processing the records of U.S. advisory elements to Vietnamese military commands and provinces and records of the Civil Operionas and Rural Developments Support program. For those of you who have realized that there are still several thousand feet of records unaccounted for in the above brief analysis, I will add that we have done no work at all on the records of the Defense AttachÈís Office, Saigon, and several other minor hqs. Some records will not be retained. For example, we will be returning to the army several hundred feet of payrolls of Vietnamese employees.
It is important that the prospective researcher understand that the five major collections of resource material in the world concerning American involvement in the Viet Nam war are all in the continental United States. These five collections are divided into two distinct groups:
- Fictive and imaginative representations of the war
- Vietnam War Literature Collection housed at Colorado State University - Ft. Collins; formed and curated by John Newman. Intended only to depict Americans fighting in Viet Nam, this collection includes novels, short stories, poetry anthologies, drama productions, and a small number of miscellaneous cartoon and art books.
- Imaginative Representations of the Viet Nam War Collection housed at La Salle University--Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; formed and curated by John S. Baky. Intended to show how the Viet Nam war has become a profound cultural influence on American society since 1975 using as evidence 600 films, 300 graphic art productions, novels, short stories, poetry, music, photography, pornography and extensive ephemera (e.g. board games, software strategy games, trading cards, comic books, memorabilia from The Wall, etc.) Unlike the CSU collection La Salle's Collection includes extensive secondary sources with which to analyze the primary images (i.e. doctoral dissertations, books of essays, original research, videotaped writers' seminars, slide programs.) Neither of these two research concentrations collect historical documents or analyses, political science treatments, military history, or documentary material.
- Historical/Documentary Collections
- The History of the Vietnam War in microfiche. Formed and organized Douglas Pike, and marketed by UMI
- The John M. Echols Collection Selections on the Vietnam War in microfiche. Formed and organized by Cornell University, and marketed by UMI as each section is completed. Researchers may also travel to The Echols Collection at Cornell
- National Archives. Vietnam Records section, Washington, D.C