Loyal Americans are still winning the battles but losing the war. Fifteen years ago, American troops were victorious in every major engagement in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but all their efforts came to nothing, because the Presidents who committed us to war (Kennedy and Johnson) never formulated a strategy for victory and be­ cause many of those who opposed the war-especially the press-were either uninformed or dishonest about our enemies. A decade later, a small army of scholars and authors – “Vietnam revisionists”- are overcoming the anti-American clichés of the late 60’s and early 70’s to produce a more accurate history of the conflict.

In the end, these interpretive exercises may founder on the same rock as the American war effort: an ideological and unrepentant press. It ·would be hard to imagine Mr. Rather saying his mea maxima culpa on the CBS Evening News. But the influence of the media is transitory and strikes only as deep as Tom, Dan, and Peter’s understanding of world affairs. The real history of Vietnam, that is the myth that gets engrained into the popular consciousness, will be written by novelists and playwrights. It is a bad sign that Coming to Terms, a recent anthology of plays about the Vietnam experi­ ence, was edited by James Reston Jr. of the New York Times. As Reston explained last spring in American Theatre, “the playwright is more important than the historian” in turning the war into “a digested event,” an event “folded into the sweep of  our  history and calmly acknowledged as the downside of American potentiality.” Emily Mann’s Still Life and Steven Metcalfe’s Strange Snow both show the Vietnam vet as a hardened, dehumanized psychotic. (The sister of a vet in Strange Snow speaks to him of “generosity and love, feelings you’ve forgotten.”) These plays, Reston ex­ plains, show “the social costs of fighting a war so adverse to the noble and radical principles on which this country was founded.” Reston also likes Tom Colin’s Medal of Honor, which ridicules Pentagon hypocrisy, and Terrence McNalley’s Botticelli, which depicts American officers in Vietnam as uneducated louts-potential Lieutenant Calleys.

Reston supports his version of Vietnam with a few references to “government studies,” but he is not really interested in facts. Instead, he asserts that theater is at its best not when it “attempts to reproduce history … but rather when it presents a concept of history.” In doing this the stage employs “tools… beyond those of the historian and the journalist” and so defines “the interior of things.” Once that interior is properly shaped, Reston is sure that neither the scholarship of “Vietnam revisionism” nor the polemics of Ronald Reagan will make any difference.

For a change, Reston is right about one thing: the power of the playwright to transcend history. Millions who have never read a page of Tudor historian Raphael Holinshed have accepted Shakespeare’s recreation of Holinshed as the real thing. Richard III still has his supporters, but to really make their case, the Yorkists need their own Shakespeare. So long as conservative American interpreters of Vietnam concentrate all of their energies on historiography and let the America­ haters create all the plays-and novels, poetry, movies, and paintings­ they will lose this round of the ongoing Kulturkampf. In Giradoux’s La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu, the Trojan poet is killed just before the outbreak of war with the Greeks. Too bad, someone observes: now a Greek poet will have to write the story. The Trojans had to wait a thousand years for a revisionist Roman to write a sympathetic account in the Aeneid. A thousand years is a long time to wait for the American Vergil.     cc