Julie Buckner Armstrong, Ph.D.
How does a returning veteran cope with the consequences of their experiences in a war they were drafted to fight? How do they face a society that sees that war only in statistics, only in the clips seen on the nightly news across the dinner table, only from what seems like another world? How do they explain how it felt to watch his friends get shot down with a sudden pop or step on a grenade and explode in the sky? How do they explain how it felt to kill someone, to take the life of a stranger because they would take theirs if they had the chance? Perhaps the turn to substance abuse. Perhaps they drink in the hopes of forgetting his traumas in the temporary highs. Perhaps they let it consume them. Perhaps they become restless and re-enlist in the military and fights other wars. Or, perhaps, they turn to literature. Perhaps a story can save their soul.
This paper will examine the following selected works of Vietnam War literature: Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, Chickenhawk, by Robert Mason, and The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. This selection represents one component of Vietnam War literature: that of the white male soldier. Of these three men, one was drafted and two volunteered. One served as a Marine, two with the United States Army. Each represents a different genre, a different approach to trauma through literature. Marlantes employs realist fiction; Mason, memoir; O’Brien, a blending of reality and fiction described here as “metafiction” and “verisimilitude.” They all, however, saw firsthand combat on the ground in Vietnam. Each man saw friends die, fought to save his own life, and decided to write it down.
This thesis examines these three works through the lens of trauma studies and war literature. It examines the varying genres, techniques, and themes employed by each author in his
respective work. It examines their own, individual responses to the Vietnam War. It examines their use of writing and literature as a means of catharsis and healing from the traumatic experiences of the war of which he is a veteran. It will also consider techniques that overlap in the works and will discuss them individually, analyzing the efficacy of such techniques in writing for communicating, recreating, and distancing oneself from the source of trauma. Each author approaches the same topic of personal trauma from service in a highly traumatic war, with distinctive and overlapping characteristics, each creating a powerful work that both educates the reader and provides catharsis for the writer.
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Marks, Gina P. E., "“But in a story, I can steal [its] soul”: Vietnam War Veterans and the Literature of Catharsis" (2019). USFSP Honors Program Theses (Undergraduate). 251.