Autobiography, Oral History and Vietnam

I came to this Vietnam oral history project from at least two directions.

I was born in 1960, at the very end of the baby boom. In a sense, I grew up with the Vietnam War. There was always, or so it seemed to me, war on TV. Like Ron Kovic, whose book Born on the Fourth of July has proved to be so influential and important, I played soldier in the backyard, always on the American side, and using surplus World War Two Army gear as part of our “uniform.” Still, I can’t say that I recall being raised with explicitly patriotic values. My mother is a lifelong Democrat, and my father was a Republican, and as a result, political conversations at the dinner table could become quite heated. So I don’t think politics, and most especially the politics of the Vietnam war, were often debated in my presence. And I graduated from high school in 1978, at which point the draft had ended, and the military was not necessarily seen as a career of choice for a kid who had tested into one of the only elite public schools in my home city of Cincinnati, Ohio.

I was raised by parents who were children and teenagers during the Second World War. My mother, coming from a family whose lineages goes deep into American history, grew up in central Illinois and by her senior year in high school was living in the New York area. My father was born and raised in Naples, Italy. Though he passed away some years ago, on reflection it strikes me as very likely that he suffered from some form of post traumatic stress disorder. While he did not often speak of the war, upon occasion he would tell stories about running to the rooftop of his apartment building in Naples to watch the bombs fall on the port. His brother served with the Italian army during the invasion of France. He remembered the poverty and hunger of wartime Italy, and celebrating the arrival of the Americans.

I believe this has given me enormous empathy for the men and women who volunteered to speak to me. In many cases, their stories have struck me deep in the heart, as I identify myself with the struggles of these veterans.

Still, as I grew older, I came to know a good number of Vietnam veterans and the wives of men who died in Vietnam. My mother, as a college professor, frequently had veterans in her classes, and veterans were not strangers in my life. When I got to graduate school my mentor for many years was professor James Patrick Shenton. Shenton had been part of a medical unit in Patton’s Third Army during the Second World War, and he spoke about it often and at great length with me. At one point I persuaded him to record several hours of his recollections. I will never forget the night before Christmas, 1995 when Jim, as we called him was getting ready for surgery on a cancerous lesion on his back. Sitting there in Jim’s hospital room, after all his family had gone home for the night Jim recounted, for the first time in more than 50 years, a story of Christmas Eve during the Battle of the Bulge, 1944. As he recalled the story, he and fifteen other medics were told to go up the hill and retrieve a number of casualties. Sixteen men went up that hill, and eight came down. As powerful as that story was and remains for me, it also seemed to be something of a signal that listening to the stories of soldiers could be good medicine for both me and them. So when the professional opportunities to deal with veterans presented themselves, I was quite comfortable in taking this on.

One of the great benefits of this book for me personally has been to develop very good friendships among some of my interviewees. I know that they will be looking closely at what I write about them. But I hope and believe that they will understand that just as I listened to them with all my heart and soul, I very much want you, my readers, to feel some of what I felt, understand something of what I came to understand about the Vietnam war and about the lives of the men and women who served in that country so many years ago. If you come away from this book with even an inkling of what these people’s lives have been like, I will feel as though I, and we, have succeeded.

On a professional level before this project began I had been engaged in conducting oral histories for several years. I was first impressed by oral history when reading Bloods, a book by Wallace Terry about African-American Vietnam veterans. The book came out in 1984 when I was working at the Doubleday Military Book Club. It was so powerful that I worked to get it adopted as a secondary selection for the Literary Guild, Doubleday’s major book club, and it was. Much to my chagrin, years later I have come to discover that a number of the stories related in the book were fabricated by the people Terry interviewed. Nevertheless I was hooked on oral history. In that very same year time Studs Turkel’s book “The Good War” appeared. Many people miss the irony of the title. Turkel was not arguing that the war was in particular “good.” But rather he was making a claim that it is perceived as such by many Americans, and at the same time the war was certainly not good for some. Japanese Americans, Italian Americans, African Americans all had to face many struggles during the war. So, convinced of the value of the method I began my own work on an oral history of the Korean war. I quickly learned out how difficult and expensive this procedure is.

Naturally, I had to research a good deal about the Korean war if I was to write about it. I began to read. In the early 1980s, Korea was still “the forgotten war.” There were not as many useful books as there are now. Nevertheless, I pressed on, sending out letters and placing advertisements in veteran’s magazines for soldiers to come forward and speak with me about their experiences. I was fortunate enough to have several men donate their time to me and try to teach me something about service in Korea. Ultimately, however I put this project aside and elected to go to graduate school in 1986.

During the long process of graduate education I had the opportunity in 1995 to conduct a series of interviews with most of the major players on the American side who arranged for the release of the hostages from Iran in 1981. This included everyone from bankers to lawyers and members of the administration. At that time, two individuals elected not to speak with me; President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of state Cyrus Vance. I was probably fortunate in that. I’m not sure I was ready.

Having completed my doctorate in 1998 I was looking for work. The world of the network anchor is relatively small, and my dissertation sponsor and good friend Alan Brinkley, now the provost of Columbia University received an inquiry from Tom Brokaw about Brokaw’s need for a research assistant. One of his assistants was leaving in the middle of the summer to go to law school. Brinkley recommended me to Brokaw, partly on the strength of the Iranian hostage crisis work I had done several years earlier.

So, that summer of 1998 was one of the most interesting and fun summers I can recall. I was lifted out of my ordinary life and placed into a position where Secretary of State George Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and other luminaries actually returned my calls. This was enormous fun, and something of a shock. This period also generated some of my best oral history disaster stories. I frequently tell my students the story of my interview with Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Professor Schlesinger is the winner of two Pulitzers prizes, was an adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and remains an enormously influential public intellectual. For me this was an absolute delight. I got to walk into the professor’s office, sit down with him and subjects both he and I knew very well. It turns out that I done archival research in one of the institutions he had worked for during the Second World War. We hit it off, talking for a solid hour an a half.

As soon as the interview ended and I got outside, I checked my recording. I could only stand there in stunned silence. There was absolutely nothing on the tape. Nothing. I had forgotten to turn on the microphone. You can well imagine my mortification. And then I had the enormous ‘pleasure’ of going back to Mr. Brokaw and reporting that I had failed, completely, totally, utterly. I learned a valuable lesson that day. I now record with two devices always. If one fails, as relatively frequently happens, the other one is likely to continue to function. Live and learn.

The result of this work was, as many people know, The Greatest Generation. That book quickly became a bestseller and the phrase “the greatest generation” has entered into the national lexicon as a shorthand means to describe the World War II generation. Two additional books followed from Mr. Brokaw. I did not participate in the second book, The Greatest Generations Speaks, but did take a central role in the final volume of the trilogy entitled to An Album Of Memories. Here I had the rare opportunity to go through all of the 10,000 letters sent to Mr. Brokaw in response to the first two books and assemble from them something like a narrative of the war based on the memory of members of this greatest generation.

In 2001 I was offered the position of assistant professor of U.S. social and public history at Brooklyn College. Part of my job was to collect oral histories from a variety of figures in Brooklyn. As oral history is an enormously time consuming and expensive undertaking, I began to search for funding to pay for the kind of work that I wanted to do. Fortunately for me, my beautiful and super – smart wife is also fairly well connected. She was able to find for me a donor willing to give me the money necessary to begin this book. With dollars in hand I set out to collect the oral histories of Vietnam veterans from New York City.

The process was much more difficult than I had imagined. It took me quite a long time to integrate myself into the veterans’ community to the extent and degree that these men, who had very often been cast aside by society and deemed social outcasts, would agree to be interviewed by me. There was a fair amount of suspicion on their part about me and my motives. I well understood it at that time, and understand it still. Many people continue to believe that Vietnam veterans are murderers and misfits. Much of this sentiment is fed by media stereotyping which began during the 1960s. The first of the “Vietnam veteran as a crazy man” films is Born Loser, released in 1967. The next year, a Medal of Honor winner from Detroit committed a vicious murder in a liquor store. And the image of the damaged Vietnam veteran was well on its way to being sent in to cultural stone. New York’s veterans had no interest in participating in a project that would replicate that kind of belief system.

And neither do I. I believed as I began this project, as I believe now, that Vietnam veterans are a complicated and diverse as any other group of people. Some have become enormously successful business executives. Others work in middle management positions. Still others worked a full career as sanitation men or electrical workers or computer technicians. And many are now retired. We need to keep in mind, one clinical social worker said to me, that Vietnam veterans now constitute a geriatric population. Some, though probably a lower number than originally estimated, still suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. Others have voluntarily left the work force as they have reached the end of their working days and mandatory retirements force them out.

To see Vietnam veterans either as all misfits or all heroes is unquestionably false. Of the 2.9 million men who served in theater during the Vietnam War, some, even perhaps an unhappily large number, committed crimes and did things they look back upon now with shame. But the vast majority served with honor and pride. This is one finding that has come through clearly in my interviews.

While I have absolutely no doubt that wartime experiences scarred almost everyone who served in Vietnam, none of that should have put these men and women beyond the pale of society, or beyond forgiveness. These are ordinary men and women, placed in extraordinary circumstances, forced to make life and death decisions. Very often these circumstances created for them moral crises, the consequences of which they still live with today.

The stunning thing for me has been to find that so many of these men and women, despite whatever trouble they might have had earlier in their lives, perhaps immediately after returning from Vietnam or in the medium term of the following ten to 30 years, they have found ways to construct for themselves, in the language of psychologist Erik Erikson, generative lives. They have struggled through their pain and healed those scars, and done things with their lives. That can mean anything from serving as the coach of a local baseball team to working with returned veterans from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Afghani Freedom. In whatever way they have elected to do so, these Vietnam veterans have constructed for themselves positive lives.

I am very wary of substituting one myth for another; the myth of the crazy Vietnam veteran for the myth of the veteran redeemed. Still, it is impossible to ignore the evidence I have collected. The veterans tell stories of living ordinary lives; marriages that fail and marriage is that succeed; children who grow up to become exceptionally well educated, despite parents who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism; fathers who loose daughters in accidents at summer camp, and yet nevertheless are able to maintain their faith in Christ, and their position within the community. These are not small achievements. But they are the achievements of a generation we once looked down upon. It is my sincere hope that this book forces people to re-think their views on Vietnam veterans. As is plainly obvious, we have a new generation of men and women headed home now. We as a society can’t afford to do to these young people what was done to the Vietnam veteran 40 years ago.