How America's myths shaped US perceptions of Vietnam war

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American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam, by John Hellman. New York: Columbia University Press. 241 pp. $24.95 In ``American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam,'' John Hellman's focus is on the mythical aspects of the war, which, in the American experience, are a good deal stronger than you might suppose.

Some of the myths come from the distant past, some from Hollywood, and a good number from newspaper and television reporters, the people supposedly gathering the facts. The writers, photographers, and commentators may have been searching for accuracy, but all too often they accepted what they wanted to believe: the metaphors, the personifications, and, sometimes, the sheer nonsense.

This book is probably the first critical look at the power of mythology, ancient and current -- mythology, as Mr. Hellman says, ``. . . compelling a people to defy rational limits and change facts.'' Anyone who lived through this period must know that the American people on both sides of the raging Vietnam debate did this with frustrating alacrity. To an extent, the Vietnam war was a result of believing our own most treasured myths -- about our position as the most powerful military force on earth, for example. The end of the war cast doubt on some other myths, about our invincibility, and the ability of America to change history simply by applying plenty of American determination and money.

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Mr. Hellman's objectivity is commendable. He places all the mythmakers in the spotlight, reaching from James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo to Tim O'Brien's Cacciato, from General Custer to ``Apocalypse Now.'' Most notable is his facility in placing the details of literature and film, things we all remember, in position as the factors that contribute, softly, subtly, but inexorably, to the prosecution of a war. It is good scholarship, and a better warning, since these myths are still alive and stalking the land, some crying for peace, some crying for blood.

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