Video of the episode is posted here.
Video of the episode is posted here.
On this month’s show, we look at veterans and veteran’s services across the CUNY spectrum. The Office of Veterans Affairs offers many things to CUNY vets, and we look at the center as well as four veterans who have benefited from CUNY veterans services. Brooklyn College’s Philip F. Napoli wrote an oral history on the Vietnam War that disputes the stereotype of Vietnam war vets as debilitated, and we chat with him and two of the vets from the book, one of whom is a BC graduate as well. Jane Katz, a 50-year teaching ‘vet’ of CUNY and former US Olympic medal winner, talks about her new swim therapy program for vets, W.E.T.S. for Vets. Barry Mitchell visits with ex-Marine and now high school math teacher, Ana Mojocoa of Queens College. And we revisit the story of Garen and Anna Marshall – Garen defused bombs in the Iraq War and went on to graduate from Baruch College.
Chanel 75 on time Warner Cable in Manhattan.
Eventually, video will be available here.
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.
*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>.
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.”
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.
 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.
I will be speaking about my book Brining It All Back Home at the Springfield Free Public Library at 7:00pm, on April 10, 2014.
The library is located at 66 Mountain Rd., Springfield, NJ 07081.
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.
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.
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.