To Vietnam and back

August 8, 2013

Joe Allen, author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost, reviews a new collection of oral histories of Vietnam veterans.

NEW YORK City is the largest city in the United States. During the Vietnam War, its large working-class neighborhoods contributed their sons and daughters to the frontline troops that fought the war or nursed the injured and the dying.

New Yorkers suffered 1,741 combat deaths (out of 58,000) and many times that number in illness and permanent disabilities. But the effects of the war lingered long after U.S. ground troops were pulled out. New York's veterans struggled with high rates of suicide, divorce and substance abuse of many varieties.

By the mid-1970s, New York City had 330,000 Vietnam Veterans with 25,000 of them unemployed. Homeless veterans living on New York's streets became a political scandal in the early 1980s.

Brooklyn College historian Philip Napoli's Bringing It All Back Home: An Oral History of New York City's Vietnam Veterans is the first book that focuses on the New York City's Vietnam veterans.

Napoli, who was a researcher for Tom Brokaw's mega-bestselling The Greatest Generation, gives voice to a wide range of the city's Vietnam veterans--from those who came back from the war and joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) to those who are pro-war but went on to do great deeds for Vietnam veterans, and the veterans of subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. soldiers fighting in the war in Vietnam
U.S. soldiers fighting in the war in Vietnam

All of the personal stories are extremely compelling. I was especially moved by the stories of Neil Kenny whose struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse most mirrored those of my uncle--also a Vietnam veteran--and Anthony Wallace, a Black army veteran from Brooklyn whose meeting with the family of a deceased close friend from Vietnam is one of the most powerful stories I've ever read.

The stories of Vietnam War nurses Joan Furey and Sue O'Neill are very moving, and add an important dimension to understanding the trauma of combat on the medical staff that is too often overlooked. The short-lived television show China Beach captured some of this.

NAPOLI ALSO aims to cast a wider gaze on the impact of the war on the families of veterans. "The cost of the war cannot be calculated in dollars and cents alone. Losses have to reckoned with in personal terms, too," Napoli writes. "The sons, husbands, brothers, uncles and friends who died in Vietnam are one natural part of this calculus, but we must think too about the families they left behind. They are also casualties of the Vietnam War, even if they are not commonly recognized as such." I really agree with Napoli on this issue.

To understand the wider impact of combat deaths, he takes an approach that some World War I historians have used to estimate the "circle of mourning," determined by taking the death of one soldier and multiplying it by 20.

"By this calculation, 34,820 New Yorkers were directly affected by combat losses in Vietnam between 1964 and 1975," writes Napoli. "Since the population of New York City in 1975 was 7,895,563, these figures suggest that one person out of every 226 individuals" was directly impacted by a Vietnam combat death.

One of the smaller stories in Napoli's book makes this point in a very poignant way. Jose Sanchez, born in King's County Hospital in Brooklyn, was killed in combat in 1968 in Quang Tri Province. It wasn't until 2009 that his body was recovered and brought home.

His mother Virginia waited over 40 years to bury her son. After receiving the news that her son's body had been identified, she died five weeks later. Virginia's son Peter told the Daily News, "Finally she could rest."

The Vietnam War is still suffered on a personal level like this for many people in the United States.

This is not the first account or oral history of Vietnam Veterans, as Napoli acknowledges in his introduction. Wallace Terry's Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History, Richard Stacewicz's Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and Chris Appy's Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides are a few of the best and most notable.

David Zeiger's brilliant 2005 documentary Sir, No, Sir! is one of most important films ever made about Vietnam and the GI antiwar movement. Their titles, of course, reflect their focus.

Terry's account of Black soldiers in Vietnam was extremely popular and well reviewed. One of the stories in Bloods became the basis for the movie Dead Presidents. Stacewicz's book chronicled the personal stories of the most important GI antiwar movement in U.S. history, while Appy's was more expansive including many top policy makers, and, refreshingly, included the voices of the Vietnamese who fought the American destruction of their country, a rarity in U.S. histories of the Vietnam War.

Napoli recommends Appy and Terry for further reading but curiously omits Stacewicz's book and Zeiger's film.

Napoli's goal with Bringing It All Back Home is stated very clearly in his opening sentence:

This book explores the American experience in Vietnam by linking our soldiers' early years with their behavior on the battlefield and their progress after the war. It uses oral history to understand how veterans make sense of the most intense period of their lives in light of knowledge gained in later years.

HOW DOES Napoli evaluate the Vietnam Veteran experience? He extensively quotes Samuel Hynes from his 1997 book The Soldiers' Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War. Chapter 5 of Hynes' book, "What Happened in Nam," covers his survey of Vietnam War literature and memoirs. Napoli's summarizes Hynes views as follows:

The memoirs and novels that he studied suggested that the Vietnam conflict's particular "myths of war" included an emphasis on dead children, on killing, on bewildering directionless of the fighting, and on destruction as a deliberate military policy.

Why Hynes considers these "myths" is never explained. But, Hynes, a former World War Two fighter pilot and Princeton University literature professor, is concerned that the conclusions derived from many soldiers' accounts of the Vietnam War, according to Napoli, is "'the loss of faith' in the American ability to fight Good Wars."

There is allegedly a huge gap, for Hynes and Napoli, between the most popular literature on the U.S. war in Vietnam and the actual experience of most soldiers. Most Vietnam Veterans, according to a 1980 Veteran's Administration survey quoted by Hynes and Napoli, were proud of their service in Vietnam and would do it again. Napoli, again relying on Hynes, concludes from this:

The story of their war was, Hynes asserted, "as valid, as truth-telling, as valuable, as the worst accounts of slaughtered innocents and damaged lives. The soldiers' tale of Vietnam is all of the stories. We must not choose among them.

Since Napoli uncritically quotes Hynes throughout his introduction, I can only concluded that he considers Hynes' views to be his own. Hynes' critique of Vietnam War literature and memoirs has a definite political motivation.

Hynes believes, as he stated (in this case not quoted by Napoli) in The Soldiers' Tale, that its impact is the same as the "effect of the First World War on the British: it left them with a national postwar hangover. The hangover is not cured yet."

"Not cured yet"? Is that something we want to cure? Hynes made that comment in 1997 following over a decade and a half of efforts begun by the Reagan administration aided--and--abetted by many Hollywood films to rehabilitate the Vietnam War and denigrate the Vietnam antiwar movement. Does Napoli have the same motivation? That's not entirely clear but it certainly leans in that direction from his uncritical quoting of Samuel Hynes, and his own call for a "counter narrative."

"The only way to present a counter-narrative is to listen to a wider range of voices," Napoli declares. "I have sought to find a balance between those who saw Vietnam as a guilt-inducing series of mistake and atrocities and those who seem not to suffer from nightmares and disabling wounds. There are stories here of substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but also stories of redemption; stories of grief, but also of service, stories of pain, but also of transcendence."

I can understand such a motivation if it is to learn how someone came to cope or understand their lives--and the impact of Vietnam on it--on a personal level, but wars are fought for political goals. The military strategy derived from such political goals is a reflection of nature of the political conflict itself, and the experience of combat troops is in turn shaped by this.

IN THE case of Vietnam, the most powerful military force in the world using its vast array of destructive weapons ultimately failed in its effort to stop a six-decade struggle for national liberation. The civilian population was the enemy and the enemy had to be destroyed.

That was the root cause of U.S. atrocities during the war. Atrocities were not "unique" experiences as Nick Turse vividly documents in his Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

What about American soldiers' attitudes during the Vietnam War? Did they change after the war? Chris Appy, in his 1993 book Working-Class War, recognized that "like the rest of American society, U.S. troops were deeply divided over the question of whether or not the U.S. was right to go to war in Vietnam." He explains:

There were complicated variations of these attitudes throughout the war years, but a useful historical division can be made between those who fought before the Tet Offensive of 1968 and those who served in the years after Tet.

In the earlier years, the central thrust of disenchantment concerned the strategic aims of the war and the lack of convincing signs of progress. Among those who fought in the latter years, there was a widespread sense that the war was not worth fighting on any terms; there was a more profound sense of the war's pointlessness.

I would argue that 1980, rather than being an "early" survey of veterans' attitudes toward the war, as Hynes and Napoli suggest, is instead quite late. The "complicated variations" that Appy talks about during the war years were shaped by the strength of the Vietnamese resistance, the massive antiwar movement at home, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the emergence of a GI antiwar movement led by the VVAW. They were all but gone by 1980, to be replaced that year by the long Iranian hostage crisis--and the ensuing explosion of violent anti-Muslim chauvinism--and the election of Ronald Reagan on a rejuvenated platform of militant anti-communism.

The Vietnam War was re-embraced as a "noble cause" by the political establishment.

"I was born in 1960," Napoli describes himself on his website, "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."

I could have written the same thing about myself. I have a soft spot for anyone who teaches courses on the Vietnam War--they have virtually disappeared from many colleges and high schools--and takes an interest in telling the stories of surviving Vietnam veterans.

I applaud the hard work that he has done to bring these very important stories of New York's Vietnam Veterans together in one book, and encourage everyone to buy it. But, I am also extremely critical of the way Napoli tries to shape the discussion to ends that I think can lead to very reactionary conclusions.

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