The tough lessons of Gloria Emerson's Vietnam reportage
Winners & Losers:
Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses, and Ruins from the Vietnam War (reissue)
by Gloria Emerson
W. W. Norton & Company
$17.95 List Price
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