The Dehumanizing Effect: The Vietnam War Comes Into the House
The Vietnam War is arguably one of the most controversial and debated wars in American history. The protests against it sparked a new age of anti-government feelings in the U.S. and contributed to the hippie, peace movement it’s time is known for. The Vietnam War also showed some of the worst cases of PTSD and other changes in the soldiers who returned home than had been seen up until this point. In Vietnam, A History, Stanley Karnow attempts to discern what made the Vietnam War so different from others and what caused the effects it had on its soldiers. He quotes John Kerry as saying, “the country didn’t give a shit about the guys coming back – or what they had gone through.” (27). But whether they cared or not, the government and the country began to feel the same effects of the war that these veterans felt – a shift in American culture caused by Vietnam War. In his short story, “Greasy Lake”, T. C. Boyle illustrates the dehumanizing effect of the Vietnam War on American soldiers through the use of a war motif, a nature motif, and a car motif.
Boyle uses the motif of war to show that his characters have gone through a negative transformative experience and to create a parallel between their transformation and the transformation of American soldiers in Vietnam. In the opening paragraph of the story, Boyle states that the characters are nineteen (687) which is the same as what Karnow says was the average age of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. This was a remarkably low average age compared to past wars. The unnamed protagonist of the story describes one of his actions as, “a tactical error, as damaging and irreversible in its way as Westmoreland’s decision to dig in at Khe Sanh.” (689). This is a very plausible comparison. The protagonist’s action of dropping his keys led to a chain of events that would change him forever, leaving him bruised and battered both in body and in spirit, just as the actions that caused the Vietnam War led to these same consequences for the American soldiers. Towards the end of the story, the protagonist describes him and his friends as, “like zombies, like war veterans,”. (694). A study conducted in 1990 found that about 30.9% (about 1 in 3) of Vietnam veterans returned home with some form of PTSD, which in many cases was in the form of severe depression and inability to connect to live back home. The term “zombies”, while slightly crude, would accurately describe both many war veterans and the protagonist and his friends. Boyle furthers his position that the Vietnam War had dehumanizing effects on soldiers with a motif of nature.
Boyle uses the motif of nature to show that the characters’ experience is reflective of the Dark Romanticism idea that one goes into nature and discovers the animalistic nature of humankind. In the beginning of the story, the protagonist describes the party scene at Greasy Lake and a typical night for him and his friends. He states, “This was nature.” (688). Towards the end of the story, the protagonist describes the sun rising in the morning over the wreck of his mother’s car and the stillness of the world around them. He says again, “This was nature.” (693). This repetition shows that the characters’ meaning of nature has changed after their experiences at Greasy Lake in this story. During the characters’ attempted rape of the woman, the protagonist describes them as, “like animals.” (690). This same woman earlier calls them “Animals!” after seeing what they have done to Bobbie. Boyle uses this term to show that the characters have regressed to an animalistic nature, similar to the one reached by American soldiers in Vietnam. Karnow states that their “only measure of success was bodycount”, the pile of enemies slaughtered. Boyle next uses a motif of a Bel-Air to show how the characters changed in the story.
Boyle uses the motif of the car to mirror the characters physical and emotional state as they go through a dramatic transformation, and chooses the motif of the Bel-Air to tap into its cultural significance. In the opening paragraph of the story, the protagonist says, “when we wheeled our parents’ whining station wagons out into the street, we left a patch of rubber half a block long.” (687). This description exemplifies the protagonist’s description of himself and his friends as trying their hardest to be “bad”. (687). They view their ability to “manage a Ford with lousy shocks,” (688) as an admirable one. The image of the protagonist’s mom’s Bel-Air is of a car that is old and slightly worn, but still perfectly driveable and useful. The Bel-Air doesn’t end up in such great shape; the protagonist says, “there was no windshield, the headlights were staved in, and the body looked as if it had been sledgehammered for a quarter a shot at the country fair,”. (693). He then states, “the car was driveable.” This is meant to parallel the characters themselves: they are bruised and battered but still alive. Similarly, soldiers who made it back from Vietnam came back bruised and battered — but still alive. The characters start out as young and cocky, thinking they can do anything. As a result of the events that occur in this story, they become beaten down and worn. This transition could also describe American culture as a whole, with the events taking place in the story as the Vietnam War.
Boyle’s use of these motifs allows him to tell the story of American soldiers in the Vietnam War and the changes in them that took place while disguising it in a classic coming-of-age story about an experience that transforms characters from foolish boys to battered men. His use of the war motif shows the ways in which the events that the characters experienced are similar to things experienced by soldiers, especially in the Vietnam War. The motif of nature displays the ways in which humans in general can recess back to their animalistic, primitive states, as is true of both the protagonist and his friends and the American soldiers. The physical descriptions of the car effectively mirror that stages of transformation gone through by the Boyle’s character and both America’s culture and its soldiers.
Boyle, T. C. Greasy Lake & Other Stories. New York: Viking, 1985. Print.
Guillory, Daniel L. “Bel Air: The Automobile As Art Object.” The Automobile and American Culture. Eds. David L. Lewis and Laurence Goldstein. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983. 280,289. Print.
Cromie, William J. “Mental Casualties of Vietnam War Persist.” Mental Casualties of Vietnam War Persist. Harvard University Gazette, 17 Aug. 2006. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.