Portrays Vietnam in Fiction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The principal characters of Robert Stone’s award-winning novel epitomized many Americans’feelings about the abandonment or confusion of traditional moral values during the Vietnam War era.

Summary of Event

Winner of the prestigious National Book Award for 1974, Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers appeared as a terse, crisply written depiction of characters morally adrift. It is a work reflective of the questioning and confusion of values specifically identified with national ambiguities that arose over the American imbroglio in Vietnam. At other levels of artistic analysis, the novel also recapitulates the author’s personal vision and chronicle of disturbing strains eroding what had been perceived as traditionally dominant cultural values. Protest activities often produced positive, generally beneficial results: greater tolerance of different races and genders, greater understanding or acceptance of disparities in personal conduct and language, a broadening of the range of artistic communication, and revisions in the mission of higher educational institutions to address new clienteles with new needs and agendas. Stone, however, concerns himself with almost totally negative characters—by definition, “dog soldiers” are renegades—representing stark caricatures, if not complete perversions, of conventional values. Vietnam War (1959-1975);novels Vietnam War (1959-1975);novels Stone, Robert

Published the year prior to American military withdrawal from Vietnam, but presaging full recognition of the futility of U.S. involvement, Dog Soldiers in a superficial sense was successful because it was timely. More important, the novel added its own artistic perspectives on what many observers would have agreed was a palpable deterioration of the nation’s will and a notable decay of its moral fiber during the Vietnam era. On both grounds, Stone’s work was instantly acclaimed, however repugnant or banal its characters variously appeared to readers and critics. Several literary authorities pronounced it as the most significant novel of 1974, and nearly all major reviewers praised the distinctiveness and integrity of Stone’s prose.

Born in Brooklyn and reared in Manhattan, Stone worked variously as a newspaper copyboy, an ad writer, a Navy journalist, and a freelance writer. While holding menial jobs, he became a self-described participant in the countercultures of New Orleans and San Francisco, from which he gleaned much of the ambience, language, and characterizations embodied in his work. He likewise had firsthand experience in Vietnam during 1971, contributing materials on the war to both The Atlantic Monthly and The Guardian.

Stone’s promise as a writer had won him serious literary recognition by 1970. By then, he already had been awarded a Houghton Mifflin Fellowship and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for a variety of publications, most notably for A Hall of Mirrors (1968), Hall of Mirrors, A (Stone) which the distinguished novelist Wallace Stegner, among others, proclaimed to be one of the two finest first novels he had ever read. In both A Hall of Mirrors and Dog Soldiers, Stone’s central characters are marginal personalities morally adrift. To paraphrase The New Republic’s J. J. Hall, they are members of a counterculture gone sour. Almost passively, they allow themselves to be victimized by circumstance. Whatever vestigial decency they retain as they drift in and out of drugs and navigate the fringes of sober reality only further condemns them. Although the major characters are from middle-class backgrounds, they lack a commitment to or a mastery of anything. Even their drug smuggling proves less an exercise in plausible paranoia than in ineptitude. They are bunglers and losers, while both their acquaintances and their enemies are hustlers, sleazy dilettantes, and assorted riffraff. In Stone’s idiom, his players have discerned Satan but are bound indifferently for hell or whatever dimly conceived limbo awaits them.

Stone’s Dog Soldiers was one of the earliest serious literary efforts to depict the degenerate side of the counterculture of the Vietnam era. Although its opening chapters are set in Saigon and there are flashes of war and violence through the eyes of its chief protagonist, the novel is less a conventional war story than it is a morality play about the perversion of individual values, the denigration of responsibilities, and the demoralization of individuals. To Stone, the American adventure in Vietnam stands as both a cause and an effect of protagonist John Converse’s confusion, derationalization, and demoralization.

Although his depiction of his feckless characters is unsentimental and grippingly real, Stone nevertheless has been defined by most critics as a stringent political novelist, a point further substantiated by his two subsequent novels, A Flag for Sunrise (1981) Flag for Sunrise, A (Stone) and Children of Light (1986). Children of Light (Stone) In each of his books, his vision of American life and values is etched accurately in the degeneracies, the passivity, and the soullessness of his protagonists and their decadent associates.

As a missionary to the strung out, Stone has carved an important literary niche for himself. Since writing Dog Soldiers, he has been nominated for additional National Book Awards as well as for an American Book Award, has held the Wallace Stegner Fellowship (among others), has taught as a member of Amherst’s English Department, and has been a writer-in-residence at Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford universities.

Robert Stone.

It is normal for novelists to function as critical commentators on the failures or idiocies of their times and societies. What distinguishes Stone’s work as it matured in Dog Soldiers is not only his compelling prose (critics have compared him in this regard with Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, and William Faulkner, among others) but also his exploration of the underbelly of American countercultures in juxtaposition to his vision of a general erosion of traditional morality.

Significance

Stone’s novels continued winning literary as well as popular acclaim into the 1990’s, with such works as Outerbridge Reach (1992), Outerbridge Reach (Stone) Damascus Gate (1998), Damascus Gate (Stone) and with his foray into short stories with Bear and His Daughter (1997), Bear and His Daughter (Stone) and into the early twenty-first century with Bay of Souls (2003). Bay of Souls (Stone) Because his work focuses on illuminating the collapsing moral infrastructure of the United States, notably by concentrating on aspects of the drug cultures and, within them, on the moral drift of characters in a soulless environment, there appears scant likelihood that Stone’s novels will rapidly become dated or that their subject matter will be dismissed. The national malaise that marked the Vietnam era persisted in preoccupying public attention in the decades following 1975.

When Dog Soldiers appeared, the United States already had confronted a decade of protests. Protests arose from racial discrimination and its accompanying injustice, particularly in regard to African Americans, although collective grievances were also more insistently being voiced by Latino Americans and other minorities. Reactions to these movements were punctuated by murders and assassinations, bombings, and maimings directed against those involved. Renascent feminism and related issues of free choice in regard to abortion, to job access, to equal pay, and to respectful treatment in the workplace represented another class of protest, as did attacks on the credibility of official war reporting, on the exposed deceptions of wartime administrations, and against what were construed as problems of congenital poverty.

Still other class protests were mounted by college and university students as well as by faculty against outmoded, nonrelevant, or discriminatory curricula and campus regulations. In addition, a multitude of urban problems, unsatisfactorily addressed, led to devastating riots in many of the country’s major cities. All these uprisings in some measure were linked to and stimulated by increasingly widespread antiwar sentiments that cut across all social strata. Overarching all else were the ominous twists of the Cold War, seemingly deranged national priorities, and the public’s immanent fears of nuclear holocaust.

Individual moral and behavioral protests reflected a widespread suspicion of or antipathy toward nearly every type of legal authority, from parental and marital to the broadly political and philosophical. It was fashionable to be antiestablishment. Although many people simply were confused or confounded by these tendencies, a significant number of others abandoned the regimes of traditional institutions—parents, spouses, churches, the corporate world, and governments—in favor of self-determined lifestyles, whether communal, hippie, yippie, or as runaways and street people. Manifestations of this were marked by individuals flaunting traditional mores by what were perceived as their perverse mannerisms, language, and dress. An almost invariable component of such individual protests, or at least a generally negative feature of them, was the epidemic use of drugs as an integral part of everyday life, not only for relaxation and recreation but also purportedly as unique vehicles of self-exploration.

Conservative critics tend to view Stone’s characters as doomed-again losers, as people who enjoyed advantages in life but who abnegated responsibilities, who are indifferent to the disciplines of conventional morality, who succumb to personal greed and vice and throw off their lines to normal society. Such deviants are not the peculiarities of the Vietnam era; such people always have existed. The whole society thus cannot be indicted legitimately for its choice of drift and disaster. His characters may attract attention and even sympathy, conservatives agree, but fundamentally they get what they deserve.

More liberal critics—and certainly Stone—imply that these deviant characters, symbolically, are in fact the flotsam one might expect from the dominant cynicism, venality, violence, and disorder endemic to the deficient structure of American culture. What the culture as a whole lacks—namely, a sense of purpose and direction, a mastery over drift—cannot be remedied by its individual parts. Accordingly, individuals fall prey to forces that they cannot comprehend and events that lie substantially beyond their manipulation.

Whether his setting is Saigon or Los Angeles during the Vietnam years, Hollywood’s film industry, or a fictitious Central American country wracked by guerrilla warfare, Stone, sometimes with some humor, traces the self-immolation of his victimized characters, characters made more repugnant by varying addictions to hard drugs, about which Stone has nothing good to say. Neither the political themes introduced by his novels nor the attitudes of his well-drawn characters are likely to lose relevance. Widespread sentiments—and not even mainly among amoral people—that American political and legal institutions are unresponsive, soulless, and out of control have existed for decades. Stone’s novels speak to those long-lived sentiments. Simultaneously, drug use and addiction, tragically, have become integrated into wide swaths of American life, as a reaction to the culture’s deficiencies and to disenchantment with the validity of its old dreams. Vietnam War (1959-1975);novels

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fiedler, Leslie A. “Adolescence and Maturity in the American Novel.” In Visions and Revisions in Modern American Literary Criticism, edited by Bernard S. Oldsey and Arthur O. Lewis, Jr. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962. Without mentioning Stone, literary critic Fiedler places Stone’s work in the context of post-1940 disenchantment among writers and critics coping with the question of how writers, unsustained by tradition in atomized society, can reflect the consciousness of their age. No notes, bibliography, or index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Joan J. Review of Dog Soldiers. The New Republic, January 4, 1975, 29. A balanced, critical assessment of the novel in terms of its intrinsic merits as well as the literary context into which it fits. This review is representative of Stone’s popular reception.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matusow, Allen J. The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960’s. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. A fine scholarly interpretation of the historical environment in which Stone and other dissident novelists were maturing as their liberal traditions seemed to decay. Fascinating reading, complete with extensive endnotes and a detailed index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pritchard, William. “Stone’s Dog Soldiers.” Hudson Review 28 (Spring, 1975): 55-67. A serious analysis, easily read, that places Stone’s work in a setting with other 1960’s and 1970’s political, dissident, and antiwar writings. Astute and interesting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sale, Roger. “Bringing the News.” New York Review of Books 22 (April 3, 1975): 9-10. An extensive and insightful review of Dog Soldiers that maintains good critical balance both of the novel’s literary merits and of the political message conveyed by its characters. Sale depicts Stone as a nineteenth century moralist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephenson, Gregory. Understanding Robert Stone. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. A guide to Stone’s fiction that provides close readings of his novels and short stories.

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