Interview with Peggy Cornett

One of my favorite interviews for demonstrating my preferred interview technique was conducted in 2005 with Peggy L. Cornett.*

That November I traveled to Washington DC to assist the Texas Tech University Vietnam Center and Archive as they collected oral histories with the men who had served and fought with the 1st Calvary Division at the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, in 1965, and their families.

This was the 40th anniversary of the battle, and many veterans and their families had come to Washington to pay their respects at the Vietnam Memorial wall on the National Mall, and to attend a gala banquet hosted by General Harold G. Moore and journalist Joseph L. Galloway.

Over a very intense weekend I conducted 18 interviews, most of them relatively short, running between 45 minutes and an hour.

In the course of those interviews I met and interviewed Peggy L. Cornett, whose brother 1st Lt. Donald Cornett had been killed in the fighting.

Peggy volunteered to be interviewed, because she felt she had a story to share about her brother and the aftermath of his death. She wanted to make sure that her — and his — experience was memorialized in the Texas Tech Vietnam archive. She came in the room knowing what she wanted to say.

What I like about this interview is the fact that the momentum develops naturally. After speaking a few introductory words, I let Peggy have the floor, to say what she needed to say. I did what I try to teach my undergraduate oral history students to do; that is to say, I placed my hands underneath me; I sat on them. I leaned forward in my chair, and I gave Peggy my full attention. I tried to focus on her eyes as I listened. I didn’t interrupt her or stop the flow of her words for at least 12 minutes. When I did so, it was only in order to request a clarification, and then I fell silent again, until she finished that segment of the interview.

Now, of course I don’t know for certain that my body posture and behavior played a significant role in the resulting narrative that Peggy shared. But what I can say is that what followed was  a very intense 12 – 14 minute story of her life.

She told of growing up with her brother, and why he was so important to her. She spoke of her deep family history and brought the story up to 1965. Then she described what happened when her family learned that Don had been killed. At that point, the narrative turned inward, as Peggy began to relate the impact of his death on her. She used a story of a dream she recalls having soon after he died as a way of illustrating its identity – shattering impact. The dream story itself illustrates powerfully symbolic themes in her life, with its emphasis on earth, water, burial and regrowth. And she spoke of how she and her mother began to come to grips with Don’s passing, and the way that grieving process influenced her life, long – term.

If you listen to the interview, you will hear that Peggy is a gifted storyteller. I have often compared this narrative to the kind of short story you might read in New Yorker magazine. I claim no credit for the power of her narrative, of course.

But, if you want to know how I interview, look at this video and watch me, effectively ‘disappear,’ as she makes clear what’s important to her.

This is my goal in interviewing.

I am not the most important person in the room — my interviewee is. I want their recollections to flow, relatively untrammeled by interruptions. I want access to the past, as the interviewee recalls it, in all of it’s color and emotional intensity.

I am not a journalist, seeking some specific bit of information; nor am I a therapist, trying to heal. I’m an oral historian functioning as a student, trying to “gather a little knowledge,” as one of Alessandro Portelli’s interviewees said to him.

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*Interview with Peggy L. Cornett,  11 November 2005, Peggy L. Cornett Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/virtualarchive/items.php?item=OH0481>.

Oral History and the Present

At bottom, oral history is about telling stories and thinking about their meaning. John Del Vecchio, author of The 13th Valley and other books about Vietnam and Vietnam veterans, once wrote that “The story we tell ourselves of ourselves, individually or culturally, creates our self-image. Behavior, individually and culturally, is consistent with self-image. Story determines behavior. As story changes, self-image changes; as self-image changes, behavior changes; as behavior changes, so too changes the results of behavior. That is, personal and cultural story have ramifications.”[1]

Del Vecchio is right. How we think about ourselves, and how we tell others about our past, has a direct and practical impact on the present. Oral history makes this clear.

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[1] John M. Del Vecchio, “The Importance of Story: Individual and Cultural Effects of Skewing the Realities of American Involvement in Southeast Asia for Social, Political and/or Economic Ends,”  (http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/vietnamcenter/events/1996_Symposium/96papers/story.htm) 6 June, 2004.

Review in ARMY Magazine

There is a nice review of Bringing It All Back Home in the April edition of ARMY, the magazine of the Association of the United States Army.

Assistant Managing Editor Jeremy Dow writes:

Bringing It All Back Home is more than just a collection of biographical sketches of veterans. Napoli writes about positive traits and experiences of Vietnam War veterans that need to be recognized. In doing so, however, he does more than just tell the reader about veterans of a conflict that ended several decades ago; he reminds us that their sacrifices deserve as much attention and appreciation as those of today’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Read the full review after the jump.

 

For the Confused

I have begun to get hate mail from people confused about my identity.

A news story from February 28, 2014 (here is one example) indicated that “Philip Napoli from Fordham University” participated in or contributed to a “Federal Communications Commission plan to have government contractors question journalists about editorial decisions and practices.”

I teach at Brooklyn College — not Fordham. I had no involvement with that study, and have no connection to Fordham.

I work on 20th Century US social and public history, not communications policy.

My most recent book is about New York City’s Vietnam veterans.

To see my CV, click here.

Review from H-War

H-Net is a set of academic list servs. A reviewer for one of them, H-War, has published a very nice review of Brining It All Back Home.

The reviewer, Joshua Akers, writes:

“Napoli clearly demonstrates how historians should employ the subjective nature of oral histories to break down stereotypes and interpretations that pigeonhole veterans into roles such as victim. Bringing It All Back Home forces us to reconsider one principle in our own historical research: the experiences of historical actors are subjective and unique, and the interpretations we derive from these sources are likewise limited and open to counternarrative and complication. As Napoli contends, we should eschew explanatory interpretations that pretend to use the experiences of a few veterans to describe those of many.” (Read the remainder here.)

I’m grateful that the reviewer took the time to think through the implications of what I tried to accomplish.

Mr. Akers says he would have liked to have a better sense of the questions I asked in the interviews. The word-count restrictions I had to work with at a commercial publisher made it impossible to include that material in the book, and given the fact that some interviews lasted 25 hours or more, a complete list of questions asked would not be possible to assemble.

But my interview guide is on this site, and can be found here. This will provide a general sense of how I conducted these interviews.

Alternate Ending

Bringing It All Back Home, my book about Vietnam veterans, went through many editors and was revised numerous times on its way to publication.

I have pasted below a few concluding paragraphs that I personally found meaningful, but were cut in the editorial process.

I’m prompted to post this because of a comment I received on my YouTube page, which has some clips from the interviews I did for the book.

A person clearly had watched my interview with Tony Wallace, in which he tells the story of being wounded on April 15, 1970. The individual wrote, “I met this gentleman while riding on the Q113 bus… I have the so much respect for Vietnam vets. We should all support them.”

***

Over the years that have elapsed since I began this project, Tony Wallace and I have grown close. We have made many trips together on Veterans Day. In 2008 we attended the ceremony at the Wall in DC. We spent the afternoon there, in the cold drizzle of a Washington November day, listening to various speakers tell us of their experiences, and about the meaning of the wall. The green of the Capital Mall lawn was covered with folding chairs and umbrellas, as the afternoon wound down. As we were leaving, Tony sought out a homeless veteran he had met at the Wall earlier in the year, and gave the man a new coat and a new pair of shoes that he had brought from New York just for that purpose. We chatted with him for a while and took photos as the night gathered.

After we got back to the hotel room we shared and prepared for sleep, from the other side of the room, Tony said, “I think it is time for you to see this.”

Already in his pajamas, he knelt down and peeled back the pajama top revealing the deep and ugly scars from the blast that had killed Wolf, Pepe and DiSantis. The blast had changed his life forever. There, on his knees, he exposed his back to me for several moments. It is very hard to describe what I saw. The skin had been torn; it was discolored. There were scars that had not healed properly and you could see the effects of several skin grafts that had been done to try to close the wound. Where the skin was not torn, it was peppered with scars where shrapnel had entered his body. Tony rose and re-buttoned his top.

“Now you know,” was all he said.

I don’t recall that I responded at all.

We went to sleep.

The next morning over breakfast, I said to him that what he had done was enormously powerful for me. He had shown me what only two other people had ever seen; his wife and his doctor. I said that I thought I understood the metaphorical and symbolic significance of showing me his wound on a weekend filled with both memory and celebration. I told him that seeing a black man on his knees in front of me was a humbling experience and a frightening one. The racial symbolism of that moment, so deeply fraught in American history, with its legacy of violence, exploitation, humiliation and fear left me deeply moved. As a result of his bravery, his willingness to share and be vulnerable had seemed to shift me into a subset of people, privileged enough to see first hand one version of how badly damaged a Vietnam veteran could be.

Tony’s response was;

“Yes, I knew that you would see that. But, he continued, I was also thinking of another thing. I was thinking of the way Christ washed the feet of the sinners.”

In Tony’s world, true knowledge and enlightenment can only come about by understanding the significance of the sacrifice Christ made on behalf of all of us. By reenacting, in a symbolic way, Christ’s humility, Tony was offering me a way of understanding both his Vietnam, and his life. He sees himself as a man whose life, in some respects, is not his own. The sacrifice he made on behalf of others is precisely what has made the memory, and the scars, of the Vietnam war bearable for him. He served as Christ served.

It doesn’t matter if we do or do not share Tony’s Christian belief system. What is relevant here is that Tony has developed a way of understanding his life; in academic terms, he has developed a narrative which gives meaning to the events of April 1970.

This book has been an effort to listen to the stories that Vietnam veterans tell about themselves. As they recounted their autobiographies, soldiers and their families incorporated the events of the Vietnam era in to the trajectory of their lives, creating a meaningful explanation of how they came to be the people that they are. Vietnam has profoundly shaped the men and women who served there. By asking them to narrate their entire lives can we begin to see the long term affect of military service.

For those of us that did not experience it, we have very little context for understanding how difficult it can be to revisit, emotionally and psychologically, the trauma they experienced.  There is a cost involved every time they speak out to share their experiences. On the other hand, I have seen that in the process of sharing the burdens can become lighter.

For these interviews, these veterans were willing to pay the price, not for their own glorification, but so that they could continue to educate us. Through them we learn about how this unique time in history created a perfect storm of circumstances that would alter the nation and our view of war forever. We learned how to separate the war and the warrior, and the importance of treating every soldier that we send into battle with respect and honor, regardless of personal opinion about the political merits of the war.

These veterans have never given up hope that they would be recognized for their service, but this does not seem to be what motivates them. This is their true legacy. They have taught us to persevere in the face of adversity, to fight for justice and self respect, to use experiences, no matter how unfair or traumatic, to serve a greater good and whenever possible enable each other to do so.

And to remember.