Forever Etched in American Memory

A Review of Echoes of Combat
by Fred Turner

Author Biography

Fred Turner wrote Echoes of Combat in five years. The idea for the book surfaced when he worked a job where he encountered many Vietnam veterans. He has been a freelance writer and critic since the 1980s. He has also taught at John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego.

“And I prayed, ‘God forgive me for doing that,’ because I knew that I was losing my mind.”1 An 18-year-old soldier reflecting upon his time in Vietnam recounts the feeling of moral loss and savagery that consumed all Americans in Vietnam. Fred Turner in his book, Echoes of Combat, reveals the chaos, confusion, and ultimate failure of Americans in Vietnam. There was the failure of the American troops that were viewed as blood-thirsty frenzied monsters, who traipsed the jungle in a spectacular violent rampage. Then there was the failure of Americans to live up to what had been promised to the GI’s at the end of the war. Turner draws comparisons and analyzes American’s obsession with the War, and why the nation continues to remember and return to the war in so many different ways. Things as well known and far-fetched from Vietnam such as the plots of many movies in American cinema to Turner, represent American attitude about Vietnam. Examples and analysis like this make the book very interesting in its commentary. To Turner we struggle to remember what went wrong, what must be learned, and where we will succeed in the future, so as not to make the same mistakes.

The book starts with a flashback to May 24, 1992, the day before Memorial Day. In Washington D.C., a flood of Vietnam veterans are rushing through the city on motorcycles. They are there to pay their respects to their fallen comrades of the Vietnam War. This first section of the book introduces the reader to the Vietnam veteran of the 1990s. Time has passed, but memories resurface in their lives. Many, for long periods of time after the war, did not openly admit they had been a part of the war. Others started families and have since moved on, even though fragmented memories of the war stick to them like shrapnel, continually reminding them of what they have been through. This is the portion of the book in which the real question Turner attempts to answer is presented, “By commemorating the war, by talking about it in novels and movies and memoirs and poems, what exactly are Americans remembering?”2 The book then presents the soldiers in two views. The first view is that American soldiers were “in the business” of killing and “defending and attacking.”3 The second view is that American soldiers were a representation of the country that sent them to battle. And it took until 1980 for the Veteran’s Memorial to be built in honor of the “50,000 young Americans who died in that case,”4 stated Ronald Reagan. Still, the question posed by Turner has to be answered, if we are building a Memorial for remembrance, “what is it exactly that Americans are remembering?”

The book then rushes straight into the mid- 1960s, amidst the humid, booby-trap laden jungles of Vietnam, and the initial feelings of the soldiers who served there. Turner restates the initial feelings of confusion that was originally present at the beginning of the War: “Stewardesses with polished legs and miniskirts” were flight attendants on “fancy commercial jets”5 that carried soldiers from the United States to Vietnam. The feelings of hostility and bewilderment were apparent when Americans, used to a high standard of living and comfort, witnessed the Vietnamese way of life, in all its unhygienic glory. These were men groomed by images of their fathers in WWII as saviors in Europe; they were unready for the reality of Southeast Asia and its people. The book presents a fact about combat in Vietnam as well: “one in every ten combat soldiers committed an act of abusive violence.”6 Americans had come to know a world “without God.” This Godless land, where anyone was a murderer, created a state of mind where it was simply an exhilarating, enthralling act to kill someone in the line of combat. Great shadows of shame such as the My Lai massacre, in which hundreds of innocent women and children were slaughtered, raped, and mutilated, presented a self-image crisis to all Americans. Near the end of the war, America had “entered into a collective numbness.”7 The bombings, massacres, and personal losses had taken its toll on the nation, which now appeared like an “alien world” to soldiers returning from combat and chaos.

The book then dedicates a large portion of itself to the rebuilding of American image, the emotional rescue of America in Vietnam, and the loss, or betrayal, of the “father figure” in Vietnam. After Vietnam, America began to obsess itself with movies and books on Vietnam, chronicling the violence and humiliation of the war. “Pulp fiction” novels began to assault American male readers who took it all in with an almost sexual satisfaction as they lived vicariously through fictional warriors in the books that detailed fictional events in Vietnam. Turner acknowledges that the general tone of these books was very “pornographic” and sexual. Scenes of graphic violence erupted onto pages like a vulgar, “pornographic description of sex.” One of the book’s best comparisons is when it links American desire to the first Star Wars movie, a beloved American Sci-Fi classic. The rescues and defeat of evil in these was extremely well-received, and the story played out almost like a Vietnam in space. In this section of the book, Turner also discusses how after Vietnam, scholars began to interpret American action in Southeast Asia during Vietnam similar to that of German action in Europe during World War II. But among these points that darkened American image, other views brewed. War films of the later decades after war conjured up new feelings for Vietnam-“therapeutic,” images. These films, such as Platoon, exposed the conflicting attitudes that separated Americans during the war. The two spirits of the American soldiers, the reckless warrior that delighted in slaughter and the peaceful saint that wanted a peaceful end to conflict, were both recorded in the movie in the characters of Sergeants. The conflict and restless nature of these two attitudes create intense moments of hopelessness during the movie; however, the audience finally understands the nature of Vietnam through the main character’s epiphanies. These realizations suggested that “America can overcome the fragmentation brought about by war.”8 The nation now needed to struggle with the two attitudes that were presented, and find that Vietnam was really a war in which, “the enemy was ourselves.”

The book then moves into the territory of the personal regret of men involved in Vietnam. The feelings of betrayal, formed by the fresh legacy of failure in Vietnam, led men to question their earlier faith in the government that had provided them with, as Ron Kovic puts in his memoirs, “a road map to manhood.”9 The sport of paintball was invented, and its aim was to provide a vehicle for men who had missed Vietnam and its exercise in manhood to fight a fake war in a fake battlefield. The book takes a look at the abandonment of war responsibility by Robert McNamara as a “chilling admission of error,”10 and its consequences led to feelings of rage, and hostile betrayal among the men of Vietnam, whose “father,” or the United States government, had simply abandoned and not acknowledged them. The book then brings itself to praise the Veteran’s Memorial in D.C. as a way of finally acknowledging the sacrifice of American soldiers in the line of duty. A visitor to the wall can experience a “journey from violence to serenity.”11 The book finally explains the experience of remembering Vietnam and its echoes in today’s society. America must never forget its mistakes and always learn from them by “running our fingers along the scars,”12 that represent the Vietnam War, and its impression into America.

To fully understand the driving point of the book, one must return to the author’s thesis, which is that the nation must remember Vietnam so as not to make mistakes in the future by neglecting previous failures. The author means this because one can look at many conflicts since Vietnam as “mini” Vietnams. The current Iraq war could be looked at as a guerilla war much like Vietnam, but in a different regional setting. It should be America’s top priority to not let the mistakes that led to denial, humiliation, and disturbing social trends affect American wars in the future. Thus we continually reflect on Vietnam through many outlets of our social conscious so as not to forget what happened in Vietnam, and what mistakes must never be made. Despite how the “memorial encourages us to mourn our dead soldiers and to gloss over the nature of the conflict,”13 America must continually remember Vietnam as an example.

The author writes this book under the assumption that most people have some basic knowledge of the Vietnam conflict and America. He assumes that most people are familiar with the sixties and the changing social climate and political atmosphere, as he does not dive into many details outside of the war. He writes the book from the point of view of someone who has observed a lot of the war through the stories of veterans. Most of his analysis of the war and its aftermath are constructed with the opinions, testimony, and thoughts of veterans and others affected by the war, and how America’s “rescue failed.”14 The book also assumes that the reader is also somewhat familiar with popular culture of the last 30 to 35 years. Many references in the book are movies, books, and television shows of the last three to four decades. Turner is able to write the book convincingly enough from the perspective of an American who has critically observed all the trends of Vietnam in entertainment and media.

One criticism of the book from Publisher’s Weekly describes parts of the book as being “too many a stretch,” especially the “national father longing” and Robert McNamara. Another review from Library Journal criticizes the book for its narrow audience; the book mainly appears “to be of value to scholars.” However, the book is more than a scholarly stretch with overly analyzed points. The book instead offers a view of something different. As opposed to garrulously rambling about the grotesque details of a bloody battle or POW camp, or rolling along about less interesting governmental figures and the politics of Vietnam, the book takes one straight to the American psyche. It allows for an ardent look at the war through the entire conscious of America. The neglected veterans, the envious would-be warriors, even the curious society that embraced abundant Vietnam movies, books, and television shows. The only criticism this book deserves is that it wasn’t able to divulge more about specific tensions on the home front during the war; the book seems to tiptoe around race and other social issues such as class and education.

Vietnam was a changing point in America. The idea of Americans as an innocent—almost legendary—force of good in the world, changed forever. No longer were American soldiers looked at as brave, pure-hearted protectors of freedom. Instead they became viewed almost “as atrocity makers, even Nazis.”15 Americans had invaded a country that had posed no immediate threat of warfare to themselves. They had killed millions of innocent peasants and suspected Viet Cong, but in the end, the great superpower of America lay defeated by an army of rebels living in the jungle. These fighters had fought Americans just as Americans had fought the British for independence. A watershed was formed in American history at this point. In American history, never once had America actually looked at itself during warfare as anything else but good. The improbable odds of winning, the dwindling support of Americans at homes, and the general tone of the war forced the nation to reconsider itself. Did the nation that had stood so long as the justice-protecting beacon of the free world really endorse the soldiers that were responsible for countless, horrific, grotesque acts of violence?

The main impact seen from the Vietnam War that is still present in America today is the self-image of America. When America fought in wars, America won wars. America had never fought a war like Vietnam. The protests against the Vietnam War have inspired more and more protest, pro-peace, and pacifist movements in America, which can still be witnessed today amongst the many protesters that oppose the war in Iraq. Another impact of the Vietnam War on America is that America quite simply, lost the Vietnam War. It produced an ego-debilitating blow to America, which in its whole history had not once ever “lost” a war. This new perspective changed the American way of thinking, the previous notion that America was an invincible nation, is something that today, is not acknowledged. Another impact acknowledged by the author that has carried on to this day is the themes presented in movies of the era about the war that persist in today’s movies. The original Star Wars, and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, all had elements of the goals of the Vietnam War within their plots. The themes of rescue, return, and savior were all prevalent amongst the films. The tremendous explosion of the Death Star and Luke Skywalker’s victory, as well as the courageous rescue of Indiana Jones’ father expressed failed American hopes for Vietnam.

Fred Turner in his complete analysis of the Vietnam War, Echoes of Combat, powerfully showcases the legend of Vietnam, its impact on the American culture, and the remaining scars that have left such a deep impression in the collective minds of a nation. Vietnam is expressed through cultural remnants left from that era. Movies that chronicled the struggle of America’s failed rescue mission, television shows that portrayed veterans as hardened combat experts, and books and magazines that exposed chaos and terror of the war as a psychological experience have been popular for decades. Despite the criticism the book has endured for its light commentary on battle and detailing strategies, it is able to accurately display all the points relative to Vietnam in America today.

review by Ryan Kadevari

  1. Turner, Fred. Echoes of Combat. New York, 1994, 127.
  2. Turner, Fred, 11.
  3. Turner, Fred, 11.
  4. Turner, Fred, 69.
  5. Turner, Fred, 22.
  6. Turner, Fred, 25.
  7. Turner, Fred, 44.
  8. Turner, Fred, 86.
  9. Turner, Fred, 127.
  10. Turner, Fred, 144.
  11. Turner, Fred, 165.
  12. Turner, Fred, 177.
  13. Turner, Fred, 195.
  14. Turner, Fred, 191.
  15. Turner, Fred, 126.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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