From Historical Narratives to Trauma Narratives: Universal Reactions to Surviving the Vietnam War

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Buchanan, Evan
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Middle Tennessee State University
Regardless of nationality, culture, spirituality, ideology, or gender, survivors (including combatants and noncombatants) of war express the symptoms of combat trauma in undeniably similar ways. Veterans' Administration (VA) psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay has noted the most destructive of these symptoms in the factual accounts of his Vietnam veteran patients. This thesis argues, though, that the same symptomatic manifestations recognized by Shay also appear with regularity in the fictional record of the Vietnam War. Foremost among these are a tendency to remain combat-ready; a reliance on misdirection and misrepresentation; and a dependency on drugs and alcohol.
More specifically, veterans may remain combat-ready by using combat survival skills, by seeing danger in their surrounding environment, and by viewing civilian life as a combat mission. Furthermore, survivors of war commonly use the tactics of misdirection and self-misrepresentation as a way to test--and keep at a distance--others. Additionally, survivors of the Vietnam War in the literature often abuse alcohol, use prescription and illicit drugs, or perform other more innocuous behaviors compulsively in order to escape from and/or provoke distressing memories of war.
Finally, this thesis argues that the common use of postmodern literary techniques among veteran and refugee authors can be best understood as yet another manifestation of combat trauma. Much of the literature of the Vietnam War is decisively postmodern in that it is distrustful of metanarrative and resists singular conceptions of identity. Furthermore, authors are often distrustful of the modern war narrative form and gravitate towards a more fractured approach to writing.