Constructing the Imagination: A memory analysis of the Vietnam veteran

A crucial question to examine is the role of intellectuals as interpreters and perhaps even fabricators of the national imagination. ( David Schalle, War and the Ivory Tower)

The image and memory of the American Vietnam veteran has been publicly constructed, fabricated, manufactured, twisted and shaped by film producers, politicians scholars, doctors and journalists. In other words, our imagination and memory of history is shaped for the purposes of those who are doing the shaping. The Vietnam veteran has gone through various stages in the memory of the public since returning home from the Vietnam War: mad, neglected and heroic.

The Mad veteran:

The construction of the Vietnam veteran as silent, deranged, mad and psychotic seems to resonate with the people of America in the 1970s. Films, newspapers as well as images strewn across television sets seem to alienate veterans and confirm the idea that their story is not worth hearing and their violent behaviour is enough to fear them and not want anything to do with them. The 1976 film Taxi Driver captures the memory of the ‘mad’ veteran. Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) is a returned veteran who gets a job as a taxi driver and progressively his thoughts turn increasingly violent and he commits murder and attempts suicide. What does this image show us about how veterans were viewed when they arrived home and thus remembered?  This image of the psychotic veteran damaged their credibility. An article in the 1972 Journal states “any veteran in combat situations develops enormous reservoirs of rage that can lead to violence…and I have seen some tendencies like that among the men I’ve been in contact with…these men have learnt to use weapons and that could present serious consequences to society.” There was a reoccurring focus on this small minority of veterans that did act out however it was the only image presented and seemed to be readily accepted by the public as the image for all veterans and hence this fear of the veteran developed. Interestingly, research by Paul Starr suggests that there is no evidence to suggest that violence was common among veterans and was not any more common than amongst other men from working class backgrounds. The definition and research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder only helped politicians to discredit the anti-war veterans and justify their anti-war and anti-Government behaviour.

The Neglected and Spat Upon Veteran

In the 1980s there was a growing obsession with the idea that the USA did not give the veteran the welcome home they deserved. This was drilled into the minds of the public as they were told that the veterans were victimized and treated with hostility and were scorned and spat upon when returning. Jimmy Carter said in a speech, “My son Jack served in Vietnam…he came back unappreciated, sometimes scorned by his peer groups.”  In contrast, 77% of Vietnam veterans felt they received a very friendly reception from family and friends when they came home. So the question remains, why is the spat upon veteran the dominant image surrounding the memory of the veteran. What this image does is denies the fact that many veterans were members of the anti-war movement and thus were not been spat upon by them. Secondly, it helps to draw away from the fact that the mistreatment of the veterans was mainly by the US government who failed to provide returning veterans with adequate benefits and health care. This image is also used to justify why America lost a war to an under developed Asian nation. The American soldiers were beaten by the Vietnamese because of the battle they fought on the home front.

The Heroic Veteran

By the mid 1980s, the veteran became a symbol of heroism, bravery and courage in order to help bring the nation back together. The Vietnam War severed the nation of America in two: those for the war and those against. Therefore politicians cleverly used the idea of the veteran as the means to unite the nation once again and thus to support future interventions such as the Gulf War and to basically get the nation back on side with the government’s policies. In 1982 the veteran memorial was erected in Washington D.C and commemoration marches occurred throughout the country. Reagan helped to push this new hero. He states “we dishonour the memory of young Americans who died in the cause when we look back…and give way to feelings of guilt.” The character of Rambo in

Rambo: First Blood II

the 1985 film First Blood: Part II captures the memory of the veteran as a hero. He is a symbol of American Spirit and unity. His final line captures this, “I want what every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had wants! For our nation to love us as much as we love it!” This is the ultimate call for unity which echoed politicians. commemoration and memorials in the 1980s.


Memory is fluid and changeable and politicians, historians, film makers and journalists take advantage of this public memory to shape and reshape it to benefit their cause. This is seen in the case of the Vietnam veteran. The memory was transformed to discredit anti-war movements by focusing on the violence of veterans or by later focusing on the veteran as the means by which to unite the nation. The memory of the veteran has been shaped, twisted, fabricated and constructed to suit the purposes of those doing the constructing.


Dean, E.T. (1992) “The Myth of the Troubled and Scorned Vietnam Veteran”. Journal of American Studies, 26(1). 59-74.

Starr, P. (1973) The Discarded Army: Veterans after Vietnam. New York: Charterhouse.

Rambo:First Blood, II, 1985. George Cosmatos, Tri-Star.

Taxi Driver, 1976. Martin Scorsese, Columbia.


2 comments on “Constructing the Imagination: A memory analysis of the Vietnam veteran

  1. What an interesting topic! I feel like the references to popular culture and movies (of which I’ve seen) really gives me a connection to a time of which I otherwise wouldn’t understand… other than through recollections. You have split this up into three interesting sections which build on each other. Can I ask though, if memory does twist and fabricate then what should we believe or do with the past? Or should we just keep this truth in mind as we study the past?

    In the second section about the ‘neglected’ veteran memory – is it partly so prevalent because war veterans until recently have not received the help they need when they return from war? (If this is even true??) Does that build the memory and reaction? Or perhaps how intensely unpopular the Vietnam War was amongst the people and the documentation of much of the fighting?

    Really interesting stuff and you present it clearly and in an interesting manner. Thanks!

    • erikamitch says:

      Thanks for your comment. It is a good point. I really do think memory is constructed, so where does that leave us? What should we believe as historians? I think that as a historian when we look at any form of history we need to analyse who is writing the history and for what purpose? This is key to getting any facts right. So often people do not even question where they have gotten their facts.

      Secondly about the neglected veteran. I think it is a bit of both. But it was an interesting war because alot of the American people were not supportive of the war so maybe this is why they found it difficult to give them positive attention when they got home. Especially with image of the “Mai Lai massacre” that flooded onto television screens, it is no wonder they did not receive public support.

      Anyway, thank you for your comment!

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