Can you help me find a veteran to interview?
No, I’m sorry, I cannot. I recommend that you contact your local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America (http://www.vva.org/). Sometimes individual chapter members are willing to do interviews.
About Bringing It All Back Home
What is the book about?
- It’s about the experiences of the New Yorkers who served in Vietnam; their memories of the New York they came from, what they went through in Southeast Asia, and the New York they came home to as veterans.
- It is both a book of memory based on oral history, and a book about what Vietnam means now
Why a book about New York’s Vietnam veterans?
- Because of their numbers. There are roughly 80,000 Vietnam-era veterans living in New York City. If Vietnam-era veterans were an immigrant group in NYC, they be the 9th largest.
- Because while overwhelmingly working class in origin, these veterans represent a diverse slice of the city’s population. Among them there are Catholics and Jews, Irish, Italians, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Trinidadians, and more.
- Because a book about Vietnam veterans helps us begin to understand the history of the war in relation to one of the country’s largest cities – a subject as yet unexplored by historians. This is a story that takes us from the city streets, to the jungles of Vietnam, and back again.
What is different about your book?
I think my book represents a contribution to the conversation about the American War in Vietnam, and to the history of its veterans, in two ways.
First, this book is a refutation of some of the stereotypes of Vietnam veterans. Yes, some men and women who served in Vietnam suffer from PTSD and are afflicted with the illnesses that come from exposure to chemicals such as Agent Orange. Yes, many have had a hard time after leaving the service. But even those hardest hit by these things have, in my estimation, found ways to lead productive, full lives. This is not a generation of crippled men and women.
Second, by looking at the long-term implications for military personnel and placing military service into the life-arc of the veterans, this book suggests that we need to acknowledge a profound historical truth — wars don’t end when treaties are signed and peace is declared. As one veteran told me, “War never leaves you. It lives in your bones.” The life stories shared here make this point clearly.
So, yes, I would say that we do, indeed, need another look at the long-term impact of the war in Vietnam.
Okay, but why oral history? Why use that research technique?
Oral history, a technique for recording, perserving and interpreting history, allows for an investigation of the contemporary meanings of the information that memory provides. It allows us to talk and think about the “now” of the “then.” This book seeks insights and understanding into the ways veterans make sense of the most intense times of their life in the light of the knowledge gained in the intervening years.
In this way, we learn why Vietnam still matters. In an important sense, this war is not over, as these life histories demonstrate.
So, what do we learn about the war in Vietnam and Vietnam veterans from your book?
Bernie Edelman of Vietnam Veterans of America told me that, “If you put ten Vietnam veterans in to a room you will get the story of twenty Vietnams.“
Americans fought the conflict in Vietnam as a war without fronts, a fact that, as historian Samuel Hynes has pointed out, made the war an event without clear direction, without a sense of advance or retreat, a war in which the only meaningful time frame was now and the amount of time a soldier had remaining in-country made the calendar the real enemy.
Any meaning to be found in the fighting had to be derived from personal experiences and their intensity, thus fragmenting the story of the war into a series of sometimes painful, sometimes humorous vignettes, more like a series of film clips than it was like the story of war fought by their fathers and mothers. In the oral histories related in this book therefore, the war stories veterans tell are rendered something like a kaleidoscope of highs and lows, advances and retreats, moments of heroism and fear, accidents and personal triumph.
Nevertheless, forty plus years after the beginning of the American War in Indochina, veterans have had, by the very nature of human existence, to try to place the war years and their experiences of it into a much longer-range perspective. This is a group of men and women who have had to find a way to integrate those experiences into the fabric of their being.
In some cases it has shaped their lives in negative ways. In other cases, the war experience and what it taught have made possible enormous personal growth. Sometimes both things are true for the same individual. In all cases, Vietnam veterans in New York City continued to see Vietnam as a touchstone of their life experience. It made them what they became.
What did you do to verify the information in your book?
I did everything I could think of. In some cases, I made Freedom of Information Act requests to see a person’s publically-available military record; in others, I researched unit records in the National Archives in an effort to verify a man or woman’s assertions. In more than one instance, in doing my research I learned things about an individual that they did not know themselves.
While I went to great lengths to be certain that everything in the book is factually true and correct, there are instances in which material presented in the book escapes the public record and is therefore not verifiable in any traditional sense. Oral history, after all, investigates personal, subjective experience. The ‘authority’ for making truth claims about things like this rests on the believability of the speaker and the general coherence of the narrative.
Still, if I found an individual’s recounting of their past insufficiently factual or not credible, that person’s stories were excluded.
How did you get involved in this? Why did you decide to interview Vietnam veterans?
Oral histories were among my earliest research interests, even before beginning college. As a high school student I conducted my first interview, with a Holocaust survivor, in the 1970s. In the 1980s, deeply influenced by the flood of oral histories that emerged following the publication of Studs Terkel’s seminal works, I conducted interviews with military veterans of the Korean War.
During the 1990s, I had the privilege of working with Tom Brokaw on The Greatest Generation books. I got to interview Julia Child, Mark Hatfield, Caspar Weinberger and others. While I certainly do not want to oversell my role in shaping those volumes, the experience was profoundly influential for me. I learned much about interviewing and telling stories. After this work on WWII, the history of the Vietnam War was a natural step.
In 2004, an incredibly generous gift to Brooklyn College made these interviews possible.
How did you decide on whom to include in the volume?
I looked for the individuals who told the best and most important stories.
I wanted to write about the wide range of veteran’s experiences, in an effort to make the point that the popular image of Vietnam veterans, so prevalent in the American media, profoundly misrepresents the men and women who served there. The fact is that some veterans have done well after leaving Vietnam; others have had a harder time.
There is no one, single story of the American Vietnam veteran, and so this book explores the lives of men with post traumatic stress disorder, and those who have gone on to lead lives without that problem. It speaks of personal success and failure, resilience and struggle.
In this respect, at least, the veterans of the Vietnam War are no different from veterans of any other conflict.
How did you decide whom to interview?
All of my interviewees are self-selected. They volunteered to sit with me and record their memories. I generally found people through the method known as “snowballing,” by which one person refers another.
My first contacts were made at the Brooklyn chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, in 2004. Several very generous chapter members, including Luigi Masu, Danny Friedman, Henry Burke and others, agreed to interviews.
On the basis of that set of interviews, other doors opened.
Was there any kind of a “vetting” process? Did you simply believe that anyone who sat down with you was a veteran?
Because the majority of my interviewees were referrals from other veterans or were members of organizations such as Vietnam Veterans of America, I did not demand proof of service before sitting down to talk.
As a result, on at least a few occasions I met up with and recorded the stories of ‘wannabes’ — individuals who were plainly not in Vietnam.
It was only on reflection – after the interview process was complete — that I determined they had not indeed served abroad.
Will you provide contact information for your interviewees?
Interviewees have not given me permission to do that.
That said, contact information for some of the individuals profiled in the book can be found on the Internet.
Where are your full-length interviews? Can I listen to them?
The full-length interviews are in my possession. Their ultimate disposition — where they will go for archival preservation — will be decided in the future. They are not presently available for public listening, but will be eventually.
Will you interview me?
If you are interested in being interviewed, please feel free to contact me at:
philip [dot] napoli [@] gmail.com