A Shadow on Our Hearts

Soldier-Poetry, Morality, and the American War in Vietnam

The American war in Vietnam was one of the most morally contentious events of the twentieth century, and it produced an extraordinary outpouring of poetry. Yet the complex ethical terrain of the conflict is remarkably underexplored, and the prodigious poetic voice of its American participants remains largely unheard. In A Shadow on Our Hearts, I rectify these oversights by utilizing the vast body of soldier-poetry to examine the war’s core moral issues.

The soldier-poets provide important insights into the ethical dimensions of their physical and psychological surroundings before, during, and after the war. They also offer profound perspectives on the relationships between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people. From firsthand experiences, they reflect on what it meant to be witnesses, victims, and perpetrators of the war’s violence. And they advance an uncompromising vision of moral responsibility that indicts a range of culprits for the harms caused by the conflict. I explore the powerful and perceptive work of these soldier-poets through the lens of morality and present a radically alternative, deeply personal, and ethically penetrating account of the American war in Vietnam.


“This is the real deal—the big book on soldier-poetry of the Vietnam War that we have waited a half a century to get written.”—Philip Beidler, author of American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam and Re-writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation

A Shadow on Our Hearts is an exceedingly well researched and well written book that has been needed for decades: a thorough investigation into the morality of the war as seen and experienced and expressed by American combat participants.”—Vince Gotera, author of Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans

“I loved this book and think others will too… I highly recommend A Shadow on Our Hearts to all who have a serious interest in learning more about the Vietnam War and about the people who went off to that war.”—David Willson, The VVA Veteran

“groundbreaking new study of the soldier’s experience of Vietnam.”—Anne Yvonne Brinton, Journal of Veterans Studies

“Gilbert has mapped out the panorama of soldier poetry in a book full of stimuli for cultural historians and literary critics, and rich in information for the general reader.”—Stefania Ciocia, Journal of American Studies

“Gilbert uses the poets’ voices to capture the horrors of war with such clarity and honesty that the effect is sobering. We feel the war in ways that standard historical narratives cannot quite capture, while still receiving thoughtful historical analysis from Gilbert… this book will prove useful to scholars of the Vietnam conflict and of American history but also to those in other humanities disciplines such as literature, philosophy, and psychology.”—Lynn M. Lansdown, Journal of American Culture

“the many poets and poems that he reads…illuminate intersecting moral and historical questions. For Gilbert, this body of poetry is an overlooked reservoir of knowledge bearing witness to the experience of US soldiers in Vietnam.”—Michael S. Begnal, American Literary History

“Gilbert reads the poems he has selected in order to show how the American war in Vietnam was not only a defeat for the United States but ‘a moral failure.’”—Stephen Cushman, American Literature

Adam Gilbert, A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality, and the American War in Vietnam is available at:

Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Book Depository | University of Massachusetts Press