There Is No Truth about Vietnam

Only stories. Some stories are better than others, I'd argue. But on what grounds do you judge the stories? The historical events & ideological fixations that led to the American War in Vietnam are available in thousands of books & hundreds of hours of film & video tape, but the best we can do is choose a story that fits the facts as we understand them. My two criteria for evaluating stories are: 1) How does the story track with the available (though always incomplete) evidence? 2) How does the story stand up to what I would call the moral imagination? The function of literature is to stimulate the moral imagination. What we call literature at any particular time also shifts around. (I'm inclined to want to like graphic novels, but haven't found many that really work as literature in the sense that I'm using the word.) As stories go, though, Jason Aaron's & Cameron Stewart's graphic novel The Other Side breaks open the hardening scabs of myth & requires the reader to take a new look at an old story. The story of the American War in Vietnam. I recommend it. Note: Unfortunately, the phrase moral imagination has a history I was unaware of when I wrote the paragraph above. I may have had a dim undergraduate memory of Edmund Burke's use of the term, but I didn't know that arch-conservative Russell Kirk had taken the phrase and turned it into a weapon to use against liberalism & that the American Right has made a fetish of the phrase. In fact, what I was after in my usage was the idea that one human being has the capacity to form an image of the suffering of another. Or the joy. But literature is mostly about suffering.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

2 thoughts on “There Is No Truth about Vietnam”

  1. I’ve most often heard the term imaginative sympathy to express the idea you’re trying to get at with moral imagination, and it does not, to my knowledge bear the stain of Russell Kirk.

  2. That’s a good substitute, Andru. I’m working on an essay on Empathy & Poetry, so it may very well come in handy.

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