Jane Austen and the War in Vietnam

To most people the American war in Vietnam comes off as a huge mess.

It was ‘my’ war since I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s. In my sophomore year in college I was drafted. I spent a month of sleepless nights and panicky days until I failed the medical exam and was set aside.

To the surprise of my teachers I was soon back in the classroom, among the diminishing stock of males still in school. And so I became part of the culture of protests, counter-protests, and social chaos that seemed to envelope the home front. But I kept in touch with friends who passed the medical and wound up in the jungles and rice paddies of ’Nam, envying my luck.

Later the novels of Tim O’Brien captured the sense of futility and fear, pain and loss of those who fought, something I experienced primarily through my friends who managed to return alive, sometimes wounded in their bodies, but all wounded in their souls. It seems, since then, the whole anguished era has been allowed to slip mercifully from our primary memory into the obscure past.

But now our unofficial national historian, Ken Burns, has made it possible to revisit the whole heartbreaking mess through a ten-part documentary. “The Vietnam War: An Intimate History” is accompanied by a mammoth coffee-table book written by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward. I dreaded opening the thing, but, of course, curiosity won out. With the first black and white news photo of helmeted, sweating soldiers I was once again back in that zone of weirdness and dread.

One of the early quotations in the book is from Lieutenant Michael Heaney, a platoon leader who attempts to summarize the whole of ’Nam in three heartbreaking sentences: “Maybe we have learned a lesson that we, as a country...need to learn, that we can’t just impose our will on others. So my men didn’t die in vain. They died to teach us something valuable.” If the book hadn’t been so heavy, at that point I would have thrown it across the room. But then he adds this: “Unfortunately, I don’t really know that we have learned that lesson. But that’s the way I felt then.”


It seems a significant coincidence to me that I am re-reading “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen at the same time. I re-read it every few years as a theological discipline, reminding me about what’s important in life.

After my awakening to the reality of God through the history of Jesus, and the powerful themes of salvation and redemption that I encountered in the Bible, I returned to books, hungry for stories, factual or fictional, with clear redemption themes. They filled a powerful need somewhere deep inside me to focus on things, opportunities, and people lost and then found again. To me, one of the best is “Pride and Prejudice”. The story of the Bennet sisters and their romantic adventures in the 1700s might not seem like devotional reading, but at the heart of the story is a kind of redemption: how love peels back stubbornness that refused to yield. Redemption is the regaining of something of value by purchase. It is the buying back of something that was lost. At its most dramatic it is the rescue of something tossed away as seemingly worthless which is, in fact, priceless. It is knowing that it costs someone something big to retrieve it, but that its retrieval is the great priority.

In the Bible, the thing of value is us. It is ‘God's people’. The dramatic redemptive act of the Old Testament is the reclaiming of the Jews from Egyptian slavery and certain annihilation, and then rescue again from Babylonian captivity, centuries later. In the New Testament, it is the reclamation of all people and nations from eternal separation from the God - the very God who created them for community with himself. It is redemption from a life lived in eternal emptiness to a life lived in joy with God. The cost must be determined by a holy God who sits in righteous judgment. The price is death. And then the Judge who passes the sentence submits his own son’s life in substitution to pay the judgment completely.

It is the key idea, theologically, of being saved from lostness. It is the essential and intensely dramatic repeated act of a loving and forgiving God who is also perfectly righteous.

Even before I loved Jesus, I loved stories that had a redemptive theme. I can’t get enough of them. I’ve met others who feel the same way. Much of literature, movies, even personal stories have redemptive themes, and we love to hear and see them. But I suggest that "Pride and Prejudice" is one of the best of these, which is why I keep re-reading it. This time was different, though, because I was reading it alongside the Ken Burns book on Vietnam which was opening a long-festering wound from a warped piece of my own history—and the comparison helped bring that warpedness into perspective.

I am not a person who is easily grateful, so reminders of redemption are especially needed for the constant revitalizing of my soul. I need booster shots. I need spiritual resuscitation. I experience that redemption vicariously, as I hope every reader does, and that fragile light of two fictional people in an old story illuminates my grief over lost friends and a scarred nation. It shows me that redemption crops up in curious places, and that God is never absent. It shows me that love can peel back the darkness, and that love will one day peel it back forever.    

On Easter we read the famous twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John and experienced the wonderful realization of the empty tomb, Jesus’ resurrection, and our spiritual redemption—no longer vicarious, but very personal—and millions of Suns burst into light. Redemption is coming. What is warped will be made straight.

I try to read Scripture every day. It teaches me about the character of God. I try to learn daily about who and where I am. And I use novels and biographies, alongside my Bible, to keep the theme of redemption alive in my soul and imagination.

Thanks be to the God of fragile lights and floodlights that He illuminates my soul with two books that wound up on my lap recently and simultaneously for comparison and encouragement.