WHEN GLORIA EMERSON’S Winners & Losers, a sprawling portrait of the United States in the wake of the Vietnam War, was first published in 1976,it was hailed as a classic and won the National Book Award. But it also inspired some strikingly hostile reviews, even from liberal publications such as the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. This vastly polarized response would suggest that one of Emerson’s major arguments—she insisted, in despair and disgust, that the Vietnam War had made no significant impact on America or Americans—might itself be wrong.
I grew up with the antiwar movement, and I loved Winners & Losers when it first appeared; almost four decades later, I still think that Emerson’s analysis of the war as an American crime rather than an American mistake—a crucial distinction—is one that bears repeating for future generations. Yet rereading this book, which Norton is reissuing this summer, is an odd and disturbing experience; I now find Emerson to be an unreliable narrator, and some of what she writes strikes me as simplistic, even repellent. Still, Winners & Losers is a fascinating document. It embodies the impressive moral strengths and equally tremendous political failures of the antiwar movement itself and, by extension, of the Left in America. Much can be learned from it, though the lessons are not always happy ones.
EMERSON FIRST visited Vietnam as a freelance journalist in 1956, when Saigon was “a soft, plump, clean place of greens and yellows. . . . I thought it the most beautiful country I had ever seen.” She returned in 1970 as a reporter for the New York Times to cover “the great unhappiness” of the war; the corruption, the violence, the sheer cruelty infuriated and grieved her. In Winners & Losers, she writes again of the tortured and the dead, of the child prisoners and child pimps, of the burning of the land and the “making” of the internal refugees—of the degradation and destruction of a culture, a people, a way of life. Describing a conversation with a survivor of the infamous tiger cages, she writes: “Once I was a tailor, Anh Ba said. So many Vietnamese spoke of themselves this way. Once I was, they said.”
But Winners & Losers is not about the beautiful country of Vietnam; it is about the ugly country of America. Emerson opens the book—and announces her task—by recalling her meeting with a South Vietnamese Communist in Paris during the peace talks that concluded in 1973. This gentleman, a seasoned revolutionary, analyzes the fault line of the antiwar movement in the United States. He notes that antiwar protesters now carried North Vietnamese flags, encouraged a Communist victory, and yearned to work in Vietnamese rice fields. Rather than appreciating these shows of international solidarity, he seems to regard them as stupid errors. “Love your country as we love ours,” he advises Emerson. “If you do not, you cannot change it.”
And so Emerson travels through postwar America, trying her best to follow his advice. She speaks, especially, to veterans—the unemployed, the blind, the paraplegic, the proud and the shamed; to widows, parents, former prisoners of war, antiwar activists, draft-board officials, deserters. But this is no Whitmanesque celebration of America’s multiplicity. Aside from those who actively opposed the war—a minority, for sure—she mostly hates who and what she finds.
Emerson divides the majority of Americans into two general groups. There are the moral vacants: those who were, at least seemingly, untouched by the war. She meets the secretary of a draft board in Gordonsville, Tennessee, who considers it “marvelous” that the town’s soldiers who died in Vietnam were volunteers, not draftees. She introduces us to the travel-magazine executive who “saw a bright future” for Vietnam because of its beautiful beaches: “Watch the Holiday Inn move in,” he predicts. Emerson writes of a “pillowy” young woman named Brenda Kaye Davis in Carthage, Tennessee: “Yes, the United States won, but the war did not interest her very much. Her mother thought maybe the antiwar people wanted to be on television.”The problem is not that this numbing litany of thoughtlessness is false, or imagined, or manufactured. It is that Emerson seems incapable of penetrating its surface to find anything else; by her own account she is, almost literally, deaf to those who remained outside “the war-against-the-war.” Speaking with a pro-war vet nicknamed Weasel, she writes: “What you hear is language you cannot understand, as if it were baby talk in Polish or Cantonese.” Because the war was a crime, she regards anyone outside the antiwar movement as a criminal. There is a logic here, but it’s a politically catastrophic one.
Worse than the blanks are the moral cretins, such as the World War II vet—the only one Emerson presents in full—pseudonymously named Max Wilson. He had “a good time” looting his way through Italy at the end of the war—“all I wanted was jewelry”—and he enthusiastically recounts how, while stationed in France, he refused the plea of “some refugee, a Jewish refugee” for a second slice of bread. (Wilson himself is Jewish.) Unsurprisingly, he is hawkish on Vietnam. Why does Emerson punish us with seven pages of quotes from this repugnant man? She offers no clue as to who or what he represents other than his own peculiar ethical deviance.
EMERSON IS A DIFFERENT WRITER—a different person—when describing those she admires and respects. Vietnamese peasants, antiwar activists, and the “defiant yet dispirited” grunts in the field whose necessary ambivalence she understood so well: “A medic . . . wrote a little piece about the end of the war. ‘It was there in the blue-black floors of the jungle that I learned to root for the Viet Cong,’ he said. But soldiers who felt as he did, the veteran wrote, did not stop pursuing and killing the Vietnamese on the other side, who, after all, were trying to kill them too.” Some of her finest writing here—utterly devoid of the smugness that mars too much of this book—is to be found in her account of a 1971 Vietnam Veterans Against the War demonstration in Washington, DC. “They started to come on a Friday, an eccentric, a strange-looking army, wearing fatigues and field jackets,” Emerson recalls.
There were a few men who did not have two legs, a few who could not rise from wheelchairs, but they were in good spirits and among their own. . . .
Fifty veterans wanted to be arrested as war criminals, but no one would oblige them. . . .
“Son, I don’t think what you’re doing is good for the troops,” one elderly woman said to a man handing out leaflets.
“Lady, we are the troops,” he said.
As for the Vietnamese: Emerson evinces a genuine, and utterly apt, respect for their culture and their struggle and a genuine loathing for the sufferings we inflicted. Yet Winners & Losers is also marked by a sycophantic lack of political judgment—a kind of reverse Orientalism. Emerson wrote, or at least finished, this book after the fall of the South in 1975: after the “reeducation camps,” the mass executions, and the creation of still more internal refugees. At least some of this was known at the time: Reporting for the Chicago Tribune in April 1975, Philip Caputo described the terrified South Vietnamese fleeing their Northern brethren as “one of the great tragedies of modern times . . . an exodus of humanity of staggering magnitude.” Given this, it is hard to understand how Emerson could let romantic generalizations about the peace-loving Vietnamese pass without comment. She quotes John Young, a former POW who became a North Vietnamese propagandist while in captivity, to whom she devotes many admiring pages: “I don’t think Americans really know what love is. . . . The Vietnamese in the north do.”
Emerson seems to have never learned the lesson that Burma taught George Orwell:“I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself,” he wrote. Like Emerson’s subsequent book on Gaza, which presented a reductively Manichaean worldview of noble, pacific Palestinians struggling against gleefully sadistic Israelis, Winners & Losers clarifies the difference between the journalist-as-moralist—which Emerson epitomized—and the truly political reporter, which she was not. The opposite of the Manichaean outlook is not, however, moral relativism, which I think Emerson feared, perhaps for good reason. It is, rather, the ability to grapple, clear-eyed and unafraid, with political complexity—even, or especially, when supporting the movements of “the oppressed.”
GLORIA EMERSON’S fury was a form of illumination, a battle against forgetting, a fight against impunity. But fury can also blind. In rereading Winners & Losers, I was reminded of a poem Brecht wrote while on the run from the Nazis: “And yet we know: / Hatred, even of meanness / Contorts the features. / Anger, even against injustice / Makes the voice hoarse.”
Emerson’s face is contorted, and her voice grows hoarse; she fails to realize that it is useless to speak to, much less shout at, people whom you scorn. (Why should they listen?) Of course, it is hard to love your country when it does hateful things—in Vietnam, or Chile, or Nicaragua, or Iraq. (The flip side of American self-hatred is the abandonment of internationalist concern toward countries where the United States is no longer intervening. How many leftists care about the current carnage in Iraq?) Still, democracy demands that we convince others of our ideas, not just hector them into agreeing with us and revile them when they don’t. Emerson positions herself as a prophet in the wilderness, addressing her fellow Americans as miscreants and criminals rather than as citizens. The Vietnamese revolutionary who advised her on patriotic love would surely have been disappointed, although it is not clear that she ever knew this.
Susie Linfield is the author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2010), which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. She teaches journalism at New York University.