Books exploit, but don't explain, Vietnam

Healing from the War: Trauma and Transformation after Vietnam, by Dr. Arthur Egendorf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 324 pp. $15.95. Word of Honor, by Nelson DeMille. New York: Warner Books Inc. 518 pp. $17.50. These two books are evidence of the lingering inability or unwillingness of the publishing world to put forward an authoritative treatment of the Vietnam veteran's problems.

The nonfiction ``Healing from the War,'' a sort of self-help book for veterans, attempts to quantify the problems and offer solutions. Through fiction, ``Word of Honor'' pictures a veteran who has adjusted to the years after the war but now faces charges of having ordered a massacre 17 years ago.

Observers of Vietnamania, or veterans looking for precise answers to problems or specific treatments for lingering combat stress, will be disappointed by Dr. Egendorf's book. The text is smoothly composed and based on enough case studies to make interesting reading. But the proposals on what to do to ``heal'' vary between the jabber of a Psychology Today article and the inexplicable jargon of academic psychology.

Mr. DeMille's novel, on the other hand, reads like a movie treatment, which is not to say it reads badly. The central problem is whether or not the Army can recall a man to duty years after a war so it can try him for crimes that took place while he was in command. Even though this is a pretty shaky possibility, it could be made to seem plausible on the screen. If one can suspend disbelief for the duration of a movie or the book, it can be entertaining.

But the notable thing about these books is that they are two more examples in the ongoing, fitful exploitation of Vietnam by all forms of the media, the news media included, with little more than a tangential consideration of the facts. Books, movies, and TV have defined the American experience in terms of pop psychology and ethnocentrism. The attempt now is to find new angles to relate the war to current times. Dr. Egendorf exploits the new sympathy for the vet, and Mr. DeMille exploits the durable con cept of the war as an unending nightmare.

It is almost shameful, and probably harmful, to clothe the experience of war in such bathos, but it does prove the American media's genius for turning disasters into salable entertainment products. From the moment director Michael Cimino got away with his foolish but highly entertaining treatment of the war in ``The Deer Hunter,'' the Vietnam war has become not a period of history, but a swamp of emotional reaction.

The first casualty in war is, without doubt, the truth. But we are now 10 years from the fall of Saigon, and the truth has yet to be resurrected. In its place, new exploitative nonsense is pushed forward every day. (A real commercial danger for the producers and publishers of this world is that if the truth of the Vietnam war were ever known, it might turn out to be so squalid and predictable that no one would pay to hear or read about it.)

After reading enough of this stuff, a veteran who did not find his experience unbearable and psychologically destructive might well wonder if he were flawed or insensitive. The percentage of veterans who suffer disabling nightmares or are drug and alcohol dependent as a result of their war experiences seems suspiciously inflated by those who stand to sell books and movie tickets about such suffering. Such presentations denigrate the problems faced by those who truly cannot bear the memory of their war e xperiences.

Certainly, the problems of many veterans are adopted ones, founded on a version of the war presented to them by the entertainment industry. And these problems can cause as much suffering and disorientation as if they were real. Vietnam is constantly portrayed as a unique war in American history. The facts, however, show it to be pretty much like any other war, unique only in its afterlife.

Nevertheless, Mr. DeMille is a good storyteller, and his book is a page-turner. Perhaps that's all he wants it to be. Dr. Egendorf's book suffers from a pretension to soaring empathy, and his scholarship pops around like a high school student in a college library.

These books may be about Vietnam, but they should not be taken too seriously. They are pretty much products designed for a market, an emotional market, and are not to be confused with the few accurate books, fictional and otherwise, on the war and its veterans.

Monitor cartoonist Jeff Danziger was an intelligence officer in Vietnam.

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