Q&A: ROBERT STONE

Reverberations of Vietnam

December 17 1984
Q&A: ROBERT STONE

Reverberations of Vietnam

December 17 1984

Reverberations of Vietnam

Q&A: ROBERT STONE

The American novelist Robert Stone, 47, used his experience covering the Vietnam War for a British magazine in his novel Dog Soldiers, about the drug traffic between Vietnam and California. His novel won the prestigious U.S. National Book Award in 1975 and became the Hollywood film Who’ll Stop the Rain? A previous novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), which dealt with the extreme rightwing political underground in New Orleans, was adapted into a film, WUSA, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. His most recent novel is A Flag for Sunrise (1981), which deals with political unrest in a fictitious Central American country that resembles Costa Rica. Stone now lives far from any battle zone, dividing his time between a house in Connecticut and a fiat in London, England. Maclean’s correspondent Doug Fetherling interviewed Stone during a recent visit to Toronto.

Maclean’s: How thoroughly has the memory of the Vietnam War worked its way into everyday American life? Stone: It is very hard to say. For people my age, I think it will be the great informing historical event in our lives. I hope so—in that I hope something worse does not happen. But we now have 20year-olds who were 10 years old when the war ended. Your college-age American has really a distant recollection of the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson had a couple of choices back then. One was to mobilize the country and involve people in the war. The other was to try to do it on the side, so to speak, and to carry on his social welfare programs domestically at the same time. Although the war was on the minds of thinking people, there was a sense in which it was going on somewhere offstage, while what was going on really was the drugs, the music, the 1960s. Finally, though, the war did invade the national consciousness. Maclean’s: What conclusions have you reached about the war?

Stone: It is obvious that the United States got into the war to check the power of China—the same tactics used in the Balkan war against the Greeks, the Russians and the Turks. I now also think that what the United States sought to do was to compel [North Vietnam President] Ho Chi Minh to make a deal. Ho Chi Minh was a very unusual person, also ruthless, and he was prepared to accept a casualty rate among his troops considered unacceptable by the Japanese in the Second World War, contrary to Johnson’s bet that he would

not accept such a rate. Ho knew that the Americans would finally demand an end to the war, just as the French had demanded an end to their war. So I do not think that there was any real attempt by America to win the war militarily. That is why you ended up with horrendous ideas like the body count. One reason that some American veterans were so damaged was that they did not have the infantryman’s basic satisfaction of occupying the enemy’s turf; just going out and counting the number of soldiers killed was repellent and repulsive to the men who were doing it. They were happy if they could fight over a swimming hole. What is more, the average American fighting in Vietnam was eight years younger than the average American in the Second World War. You had the odd sense when you were there of all these kids dressed up as soldiers.

Maclean’s: Does the memory of the war still cause divisions within the United States?

Stone: It is hard to say because the United States is so compartmentalized. Certainly, President Reagan seems to be manipulating the recollection of Vietnam as much as he can, with disgusting phrases like “standing tall” which make me, as an American, cringe.

Maclean’s: The key novels of the First World War did not appear until the midand late 1920s and even well into the

1930s. Do you think the important Vietnam books are still to come?

Stone: One cannot be sure. Someone may come along with the definitive novel, but I think that a lot of the work has been done. I think [Tim O’Brien’s] Going After Cacciato is very fine and, outside of fiction, [Michael Herr’s] Dispatches is the book of record. If one raises the question of what it was like, the answer is in Dispatches. He captures it in words as well as anybody could. There may be somebody working away on a great book, but my feeling is that from the literary standpoint the returns are in. Maclean’s: Do you foresee U.S. involvement in Central America on anything remotely like the Vietnam scale?

Stone: Public opinion is so uniformly opposed that I can hardly picture it as politically feasible. It is a temptation for certain elements in the country because an intervention, in El Salvador especially, has a very good chance of being successful in the short run. It is a small country, self-contained, and the rebels have obviously failed to communicate with the majority of the people. So the dangerous thing is that it might succeed, that people see that and see a chance for yet another victory and on a scale larger than Grenada. I think every attempt to soften up public opinion on this has to be opposed. It is obviously necessary for the United States to come to terms with social change in Central America. That’s the point, for there is very little American investment anywhere in Central America.

Maclean’s: How do you perceive President Ronald Reagan ’s performance now, on the eve of his second inauguration? Stone: Well, Reagan is perceived differently in the United States than he is in the rest of the world. In the States he is rather reassuringly bland. He is the political equivalent of Muzak. So what he says tends to be dismissed by the media as the usual kind of rhetoric. He annoys the Russians, particularly, because he has a habit of using Marxist phrases back at them, such as “the garbage heap of history.” I do not want to be goofily optimistic, but I do not think that in terms of policy he is much different from plenty of other American politicians. In any case, people do tend to dismiss the content of his statements and respond to his manner. But I think that he has the brains to realize that he should not start a Third World War. He is living the good life, living the life of a rich Californian, so why should he want to terminate it? And I don’t think the Russians should take his rhetoric so seriously. It is important that we understand each other, the Russians and the United States, and I wonder whether they are as angry as they appear. So, generally, I think that things may not be as bad as they seem.lt;£gt;