The Reagan Years: 1981-1988
In 1980 Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency of the United States. Although the country could not yet know it, this was the year that the Gulf War really began, when Iraq invaded Iran. Because Iran held a group of Americans hostage, the United States initially favored Iraq in the conflict and provided arms to both Iraq and to Saudi Arabia. Throughout the decade, military concerns focused on the Middle East.
At this time, registration for the military draft was reinstated. Although there were some protests against registration, the protests did not come close to the scope of protest mounted against the draft and the Vietnam War in the previous two decades.
During the Reagan years, the president cast the Soviet Union as “The Evil Empire,” and urged Congress to pass funding for his Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly called “Star Wars.” Reagan wanted to defend the United States against a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union; however, there is no indication that his plan would have been effective.
In 1982, in a televised address, Ronald Reagan gave his narration of the Vietnam War. Scholars of the war have demonstrated that Reagan’s history was in error on several key points. It is important, however, to note that his address ushered in an era of Vietnam War narratives, narratives that often were ambiguous and contradictory.
By the end of the decade, the Soviet Union was no longer a threat. Indeed, shortly after the Reagan years, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a country. For all intents and purposes, the Cold War was over, marked by the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. The nation was left to puzzle over its legacies and the legacy of the Vietnam War.
Cultural Responses to the Vietnam War
By 1987, the year “How to Tell a True War Story” first appeared, Vietnam War veterans had been home for at least fourteen years. In the early years after their return, the veterans seemed almost invisible. It was as if the country, tired from years of protest and conflict, wanted to forget all about the Vietnam War and its soldiers. However, as the years passed, that attitude changed dramatically as the nation entered the 1980s.
During the 1980s, many of the emotional and physical problems endured by the veterans were finally diagnosed. For example, a number of veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) directly related to the terrible sights, sounds, and fear they had witnessed during the war. This disorder made it difficult for those suffering from it to sleep well, to hold steady employment, and to fit back into society. Other veterans suffered from the aftereffects of exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliation chemical that had been sprayed over the jungles of Vietnam to expose enemy hiding places. In 1984, a class action suit against the companies who manufactured Agent Orange was settled out of court and a victims’ fund was established.
As the problems of the Vietnam War veterans received increasing attention during the period, films and books about the war also began to appear. The 1980s saw an unprecedented cultural examination of the war. Many of the poets, novelists, memoirists, and playwrights of the period were Vietnam War veterans, mining their own experiences for subject matter. As a nation, it appeared that the United States was trying to find a narrative of the war that all could live with.
Films such as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, In Country, Hamburger Hill, The Killing Fields, and Good Morning, Vietnam examined the experiences of the veterans before and after the war. Other films such as the Rambo series and the Missing in Action series explored deeply held cultural beliefs that many American veterans had been abandoned in Vietnam by their government when the United States withdrew its troops in 1973.
Likewise, many television documentaries, books, poems, plays, memoirs, histories, and short stories appeared during the 1980s and into the 1990s. It was during this fertile period that Tim O’Brien wrote most of the stories collected in The Things They Carried, including “How to Tell a True War Story.”
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Tim O’Brien, Published by Gale, 2002.