Why Are We in Vietnam?

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Why Are We In Vietnam?
First edition
Author Norman Mailer
Country United States
Language English
Genre Bildungsroman
Publisher G. P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date
Media type Print Hardback
Preceded by An American Dream
Followed by Armies of the Night

Why Are We In Vietnam? is a 1967 novel by the American author Norman Mailer. The action focuses on a hunting trip to the Brooks Range in Alaska where a young man is brought by his father, a wealthy businessman who works for a company that makes cigarette filters and is obsessed with killing a grizzly bear. As the novel progresses, the protagonist is increasingly disillusioned that his father resorts to hunting tactics that seem dishonest and unmasculine, including the use of a helicopter, which the protagonist refers to as the "Cop Turd". At the end of the novel, the protagonist informs the reader that he is soon going to serve in the Vietnam War as a soldier.


Written while Norman Mailer was in Provincetown, Massachusetts in the Spring of 1966, Mailer initially intended to write a novel about a gang of bikers, hippies, and girls who lived in the sand dunes and thickets. To introduce Provincetown with “such literary horrors” would be a sin, he thought, and instead, Mailer chose to create a prelude about two Texas boys hunting in Alaska. His characters would come from his comrades in the 112th Cavalry out of San Antonio whom Mailer served with in World War II. After writing on the hunt in Alaska he planned to focus on Provincetown, but never did. By the time he finished writing on the Texas duo he realized he had finalized a novel and his two characters had nothing to do with Provincetown.[1]


Randy D.J. Jethroe— The narrator and protagonist of the story, he narrates the trip to Alaska while at a dinner for him in Dallas, TX the night before he is shipped off to Vietnam. Representing the Hipster in Norman Mailer’s essay, “The White Negro,” D.J. represents a non-conformist ideology who lives under the constant fear of nuclear annihilation by the American government’s choices. Therefore, the only rational way to live is by fulfilling bodily needs and in the present with the understanding that death could come at any moment.

Tex Hyde— D.J.’s best friend who represents the conservative Texan, he and D.J.’s interactions are hyper-masculine, crude, unrefined, but intimate and shows the depths of their friendship.

Rusty Hyde— Tex’s father and the CEO of a cigarette filter company. He organizes the hunting trip in order to ensure his dominance amongst other males. He is a metaphor for the conservative and conformist right of the United States.

M.A. Pete and Bill—“Medium Asses,” or yes men, Rusty brings them along to help with the hunt and illustrate his power.

Big Luke—The guide of the trip, he has a lot of knowledge in the Brooks Mountain Range and dictates when and what they hunt. He is also a conformist and capitalist conservative.

Plot Summary[edit]

Important to note, each of Mailer’s chapter starts with a prelude or a “beep,” in which D.J. describes the overall action taking present. Filled with crudeness and short statements that hardly come off as coherent, they represent the sporadic thoughts of D.J. due to the flood of media and electromagnetic waves to his brain. A fluster at first glance, but if read carefully, are insightful.

The book begins by introducing the families of D.J. and Tex before the hunt. Both families have deep Texas bloodlines and both characters possess gritty and dogged appearances and mannerisms. They are of southern build and ancestry. Soon they reach the Brooks Mountain Range, where they will hunt for several days, hunting for the trophy worthy grizzly bear. Using a massive assortment of guns, they bring down Dall rams, wolves, and caribou. They finally shoot a pair of bears, but the following day Rusty convinces his son, D.J., to go hunting on their own to ensure a higher chance of killing a bear. Filled with terror they follow a grizzly track and have intimate father-son conversations when suddenly a bear comes out of nowhere and nearly kills D.J. before they both shoot it and it darts off. Finally tracking the bear, Rusty steals his son’s kill of the grizzly. Returning to camp, he embarrassingly claims taking the final death shot and acquires the bear trophy. The following morning Tex and D.J. wake up before the rest of the group and go into the wilderness without any supplies, in order to have a different, more enthralling experience with nature. Without a compass, sleeping bag, or defense except their wit and hands, they hike through the mountain range, observing the wonders of nature and stalking wild packs of animals. Even encountering a bear, they feel as close as brothers and are brought to a primal existence many only dream to obtain. For the protagonist, D.J., he almost transcends the conformist and hostile American characteristics of his father and himself, but mistakes this final chance for divine intervention and interprets his sexual feelings towards Tex Hyde as a need to kill and overpower lesser beings with technology and brutality alongside his childhood friend. The novel ends, knowing the two would be sent to Vietnam the following morning.

Main Themes[edit]

The Hipster and Counterculture: The central figure of Why Are We in Vietnam? comes out of Norman Mailer’s perception of the “hipster,” which he analyzes in “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” which was published in Dissent Magazine in 1957. He focused on the social movement occurring after World War II in which white American became disenchanted with conformist culture and escaped such ennui by adopting black culture. Living under the “psychic havoc” of an apocalyptic world due to atomic bombing and concentration camps where death would become a meaningless end, it left individuals to follow a conformist pattern with the accepted reality of their constructed civilization and the contemptible strains of human nature. The hipster was the exception. The hipster acknowledged a sudden apocalyptic death or a slow conformist end, but overcame it by living as a psychopath “to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness,” and to “exist in the present.”[2] Mailer professed that in order to acquire a rational, if peculiar lifestyle the hipster must take after the Negro. The black man lived in the present because he was in constant danger and driven to humility under the structural oppressions of racism that the black man found in their daily activities. Jazz was rooted itself in the black experience and was the entrance of the hipster’s adoption of black culture. Thus comes the “White Negro” or a white individual who, instead of accepting an excruciating slow death by conformity or an instantaneous atomic one, chose a risky way of life that pushed for the bodily desires found to be more “obligatory” than pleasures of the mind.[3] Mailer expanded upon the hipster, deeming him a “philosophical psychopath” who is very fixated on his bodily needs, the schizophrenia of looming death, and how to operate within acceptable mores. Mailer expanded further on the future of the hipster, finding it hard to predict the future of the counterculture movement, but envisioning the Negro and the hipster as an established population. He even reached the conclusion they might seek rebellion and revolution in which the gears of mas conformity will fall, but that they would instead collapse under the liberals inability to fully commit themselves to the hipster’s perspective.

The protagonist, D.J., found its origins from the literary mind of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn and from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tex being Hyde, of course, and D.J. becoming Dr. Jekyll when interacting with Tex. Cut from the schizophrenic mold of the Negro, D.J. also “is a perverted embodiment of the ideal Huck and the ideal Jim,”[4] and wavered between the mind of an American boy and “that crippled Harlem genius which D.J. shoves up for a ambit as one possible embodiment for his remarkable brain."[5] As a young teenager growing into adulthood, D.J. shifted between the conscious of the White Negro and of the conservative right, but never completely to either.

Technology: Mailer sees technology as a means to create a world on the verge of apocalypse and a controlled world. Technology brought the atomic bomb, and the threat of countries using it places humans at a constant fear. Furthermore, Americans have seen a rise of technology in their everyday lives since the end of World War II, with advertisement on an upsurge, it has created a conformed type of American that is plagued and flooded with TV and radio waves, clogging the mind to becoming bland and null of questioning authority.

The entire fifth chapter concerns the aim of conquering the uncivilized landscape and its inhabitants, the wild game, through the overpowering of technology. Using the model, brand, flight path, scope, grain size, stopping power, hand or machine made cartridge, and type of damage on flesh, Mailer focused on each hunter’s assortment of rifles and handguns. The comparison of guns suggests a comparison of manhood amongst the hunters, and furthermore, how to use and access their manhood to the best of their ability. Again, Mailer goes back to the erotic restraint men must release through harm, this time using technology and American superiority as a parallel to penetrating the tissue of animals (the Vietnamese), causing great harm, and ultimately, death.[6] In the following chapters, Mailer describes each new kill of wolves, Dall rams, and caribou with the type of gun used to make the kill, the last minutes of the animal’s life, and the imagery of butchered marrow and meat from the often over powerful round. They even use a helicopter, referred to as “Cop Turd,” to track the dying animals and pick up the carcasses.[7] The emotions of the hunters as they slaughtered the animals were prideful and they felt that they were proving sexual superiority over each other each time they killed. In summary, technology provided an unequal and unfair war in the mind of Mailer and many Americans. It was an argument used by the war protestors and acknowledged by the conservative right, who seemed to have no disapproval of using it to exploit Vietnam.

The Conformed Right: Norman Mailer looks at how the conservative right developed and came to push for the Vietnam War. The ideology of the conservative American comes through the characters Rusty and Tex Hyde. Primarily through Rusty, who is a hyper-masculine male who uses the hunt to establish his dominance over other men. His characteristic fit into the allegory of America’s needs to kill and show superiority over other countries.

Literary significance and critical reaction[edit]

Mailer gives himself credit for Why Are We in Vietnam? in his book The Armies of the Night for reminding his audience that some considered it his “best” work, while others, like Dwight Macdonald, would publish critical reviews in The New Yorker. Mailer claimed to have carried his newly published novel on Vietnam around him in Washington over that weekend, but it is not certain whether that is true. Roger Sale in The Hudson Review claimed such:

“As an idea it is best described as marginal. But it is less an idea than the latest style of the lad who wanted to be sent to the Pacific because the great war novel would be written about it. Why Are We in Vietnam? participates in every American myth about America; every gesture asks that it become a staple in our textbooks because it fits in most of our more obvious conceptions of ourselves.”

Robert Langbaum in his 1968 review of the novel found the works filled with satire, particularly in the characters and how Mailer brought them to life. Keeping critical distance, he provides a thorough summary of the novel, but does not find it a prolific piece of American literature.[8]


  1. ^ Mailer, Norman (2000). Why Are We in Vietnam?: a novel. New York: Picador. pp. 1–4. 
  2. ^ Norman Mailer. “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” In Time of Our Time, 212. New York: Random House, Inc. 1998.
  3. ^ Norman Mailer. “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” In Time of Our Time, 214. New York: Random House, Inc. 1998.
  4. ^ Anna Banks. “Norman Mailer,” University of Pennsylvania. Accessed March 17, 2016. http://www.english.upenn.edu/~despey/mailer.htm
  5. ^ Norman Mailer. Why Are We in Vietnam?: A Novel. (New York: Picador, 2000), 57.
  6. ^ Norman Mailer. Why Are We in Vietnam?: A Novel. (New York: Picador, 2000), 77-90.
  7. ^ Norman Mailer. Why Are We in Vietnam?: A Novel. (New York: Picador, 2000), 97-107.
  8. ^ Richard Lee Fulgham. "The Wise Blood of Norman Mailer: an interpretation and defense of Why Are We in Vietnam?" The Mailer Review 2.1 (2008): 341. Academic OneFile. Web. 21 Mar. 2016 http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA200410167&v=2.1&u=tel_a_rhodes&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=7045c82fd8f006ffbd25eca2625ff5bc