When History Talks Back:
Using Combat Narratives and Vietnam Veteran
Speakers to Teach the Vietnam War

Kali Tal. All rights reserved.

Presented in January, 1989, at the Association of Asian Studies Regional Southeast Conference, Washington, DC, and later published in The Vietnam War, ed. Marc Jason Gilbert (Stamford, CT: Greenwood Press) 1991.

The Vietnam Memorial Wall — the result of a massive effort by veterans to memorialize themselves — acted as a focal point for renewed public discussion and deliberation on the meaning of the Vietnam War. The dedication of the memorial in 1982 brought national attention to veterans' claims that they had been forgotten by their countrymen. "Welcome home" parades and the dedication of monuments honoring Vietnam veterans became common events across the country. This attention spurred an interest in the writings of veterans, and a number of publishers began to issue and reissue Vietnam War narratives; Avon had begun reissuing Vietnam novels in 1978 and maintained its rate through 1982; Ballantine began to publish a new category of books labelled Vietnam/Nonfiction; Bantam started focusing on Vietnam in its War/Nonfiction series; and, most recently, the Vintage Contemporaries have begun featuring reissues of earlier Vietnam novels. Hollywood has also taken a new look at Vietnam, and audiences have flocked to see Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Off Limits, and Good Morning Vietnam. The New York Times, on August 4, 1987, claimed that the Vietnam War "has catapulted to the forefront of American culture"[1]. In the same article, Philip Caputo called the phenomenon "Vietnam chic."

The chic extends beyond popular literature and film, and reaches into the classroom. Since 1982 the number of colleges and universities offering courses on various aspects of the Vietnam War and the 1960s decade has exceeded 300. Walter Capp's course on the Vietnam War is the most popular class offered at UC San Diego, turning away almost 1200 students every year, because only 1100 can fit in the largest campus auditorium. T.R. Kennedy's course on the war at SUNY-Stony Brook is now in its third year, and is also the largest and most popular course on campus. These courses, and many others, incorporate talks, lectures, and readings by Vietnam veterans into their syllabi. It is the thesis of this paper that these testimonials, if not properly contextualized, can be an impediment, rather than an aid, to teaching.

I realize that this is an unpopular stand. Along with a revived American interest in the history of the Vietnam War is a new sympathy for the Vietnam veteran. The desperate nature of the veterans' plight — sent off to fight in a hopeless war, and then abandoned by the people who sent him — has been conveyed through film and literature. These days "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" is practically a household word. The failure of the government to provide decent services and benefits for veterans, the publicity surrounding the Agent Orange issue, and the natural tendency of the American public to make heros out of soldiers combine to create a sympathetic atmosphere for veterans who step forward to "tell it like it was".

The crucial question before us is this: Of what use is the testimony of a veteran about the traumatic events which lie some twenty years in the past?

This, of course, is one of those questions without an answer. Or a question whose answer is so context dependent that the absence of qualifiers makes a response impossible. Which is exactly my point. I intend to sketch out a framework for incorporating veterans' testimony into college and university courses.

The very thing that makes veterans' testimony so attractive to us — the authenticity of it — makes that testimony suspect as history. The Vietnam veteran has a tremendous personal investment in his version of the story. Retelling the war is his way of rebuilding personal and national myths that have been shattered by the wartime experience. Vietnam veterans, in this respect, are no different than their Civil War, World War 1, World War 2, or Korean War veteran predecessors. To help us understand the complexity of veterans' testimony it is useful to turn to the work of two men who have already begun to make progress in this direction: Eric Leed and Gerald Linderman.

Leed's No Man's Land: Combat and Identity in World War 1 (1979) suggested a new subject for interdisciplinary study — "the transformation of personality in war" — and provided scholars with a new methodological approach. Stating first that his book was neither military history, literary analysis, nor psychohistory, Leed proposed a theory of transformation which incorporated both psychological examination of human response in wartime, and the examination of the effect of cultural myth upon human reaction to war. To construct his theory he borrowed concepts from psychiatry, anthropology, history and literary criticism, and began to discuss the First World War as a "modernizing experience":

[The First World War] fundamentally altered traditional sources of identity, age-old images of war and men of war. The Great War was a nodal point in the history of industrial civilization because it brought together material realities and "traditional" mentalities in an unexpectedly disillusioning way. ... [T]he disillusioning realization of the inherent similitude of industrial societies and the wars they wage ... eviscerated, drained, and confounded the logic upon which the moral significance of war and the figure of the warrior had been based[2].

Leed makes good use of an anthropological theory which was articulated by Arnold Van Gennep. "Van Gennep divided rites of passage into three phases: rites of separation, which removed an individual or group of individuals from his or their accustomed place; liminal rites, which symbolically fix the character of the "passenger" as one who is between states, places, or conditions; and finally rites of incorporation (postliminal rites), which welcome the individual back into the group"[3]. Leed claimed that liminality was the condition of the front soldier in World War 1, and that, rather than passing into the postliminal phase upon his return, the war veteran continued to be a "liminal type": "He derives all of his features from the fact that he has crossed the boundaries of disjunctive social worlds, from peace to war, and back. He has been reshaped by his voyage along the margins of civilization, a voyage in which he has been presented with wonders, curiosities, and monsters — things that can only be guessed at by those who remained at home"[4]. The theory of liminality describes a process of symbolic production based on the traumatic experiences of those entering the transition, or liminal, state. But the symbols generated by liminality are readable only to those familiar with the `alphabet' of trauma; what they represent is not common knowledge and, in fact, symbols which commonly represent a particular idea may be drastically transformed within the mind of the liminal type. (For example, the symbolism inherent in the Holocaust survivor poet's description of a bakery's bread oven is entirely different than the same invocation by a non-survivor.)

In Leed's estimation, the normal difficulties experienced by the veteran on his return to peacetime society were intensified by the front soldiers' perception that those on the home front had benefited monetarily from his suffering — that capitalists had made profits on the war, and that civilians had suffered little or no privations. To support his argument, he points to the organization of veterans' groups around issues of restitution, benefits, and bonuses[5]. The "comradeship" of which veterans spoke was a comradeship of victims, an emotional tie which became the focus of fond memory when the soldier returned to peacetime society and found himself unable to identify with what he found there: "Many ex-soldiers ritualized their liminal status, their position between the front and the home.... These men "worked" their war experiences to maintain themselves on the peripheries of society"[6].

Calling World War 1 "the first holocaust," Leed asserts that it was destined to lead to the Second World War: "Those who had internalized the war, its peculiar relationship between victims and victimizers, the liminality that it imposed upon combatants, were destined to play a significant part in this repetition. For many could not resolve the ambiguities that defined their identities in war and resume their place in civilian society without acknowledging their status as victims"[7]. World War 1 provided a crushing blow to the "fictions" by which they lived their lives.

Gerald Linderman advances a similar argument in his study Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (1987), emphasizing the internal changes undergone by the men who experience combat. He puts an interesting twist on the study by only rarely distinguishing between Union and Confederate soldiers, insisting that the psychological and sociological effects of combat were roughly equivalent in both groups. Linderman divides his book into two sections, the first of which — "Courage's War" — describes the expectations and ideals of the men who joined the Union and Confederate armies. The second section — "A Perilous Education" — deals with the increasing disillusionment and anger of these soldiers when they found the war as it was not at all like the war they had imagined. Though he does not use the same terminology as Leed does, his characterization of veterans' liminality is quite similar.

After the Civil War, combat veterans returned to a society that still held those notions about war which soldiers knew, from hard experience, to be outdated (if, indeed, they had ever had any validity). But the new truths which soldiers had discovered were out of place at home: "Killing once again became homicide; foraging was again theft, and incendiarism arson. Even language was a problem: Camp talk had to be cleaned up"[8]. In order to cope with the demands and difficulties of everyday life, soldiers had to rewrite their war experiences; smoothing over the difficult parts, revising the unpleasantness:

While forgetfulness worked to efface painful experience, soldiers construed bad memories in a way that smoothed their departure. When they were able to discuss the problem among themselves, soldiers ordinarily did so under a rubric — "Time heals all wounds" — revelatory of their assumptions. ... Disturbing memories were to be kept to oneself, not to be aired publicly to relieve the sufferer and certainly not to correct public misapprehension of the nature of combat"[9].

Like Leed, Linderman believes that the soldier who remembered correctly would have been forced to acknowledge his role as a victim. Linderman and Leed also agree that the veteran had a strong role in supporting and encouraging American involvement in a subsequent war. Participating gratefully in commemoration efforts, Civil War veterans benefited from and supported the revival of American interest in martial matters. "Although they remained `men set apart', their separation had been granted public recognition and their estrangement elevated to civic virtue"[10]. Even veterans who had earlier been antiwar and alienated began to take part, and encourage, this martial spirit. This revision was so complete that by 1898 the nation enthusiastically applauded the start of the Spanish-American War. The old values were reestablished: "Civil War veterans had become symbols of changelessness — but only by obliterating or amending an experience of combat so convulsive of their values that it had for a time cut the cord of experience"[11].

These two important studies point us in a new direction, and urge us toward an understanding of the personal revision process, and its interaction with history. We must, as teachers, find a way to cope with the fact that the Vietnam War, as depicted by the veterans whom we invite to our classrooms, may not be the same Vietnam War which we have uncovered through our research, or even which the soldier himself survived some fifteen years earlier. Toward this end, I would like to offer some practical suggestions about inviting Vietnam veteran speakers.

The most important task of the teacher is to "de-mythify" the soldier. War movies, novels, popular music and stories have given most of your students their ideas about what fighting in a war is all about. Most of the pop culture items focus on the war as personal growth experience for the soldier, rites of passage, becoming a man. It is extremely important to introduce your students to some of the psychological literature on combat and on military socialization[12]. Combat has deep psychological effects, and it is crucial that your students understand some of them. Only then can they listen to the words of the veteran in context, as other than a naively trusting audience.

Students should also be firmly grounded in some of the broader histories of the war[13]. Let students absorb enough information so that they feel confident of their understanding of the war before inviting veterans in to speak to the class. In this way, you can create a situation where students can think critically, where they can analyze a veteran's words and decide whether or not they agree with them.

Exposing your students to literature by different Vietnam veterans can also broaden the context in which they can understand the veteran who comes to speak. A student who has read Kovic, and Webb, and Heinemann is a student who realizes that each veteran can interpret the war in a different, and not necessarily definitive, manner.

If you fail to de-mythify the veteran, if you fail to provide the student with a context in which to place the veteran speaker, you run the risk of undermining your authority as a teacher when you invite the veteran to speak. Rather than having helped your students build a knowledge structure within which the speech of the veteran can be contained, you will be in the position of desperately trying to reclaim critical ground with your students, who will assume that the veteran is the voice of authority, because he was there. (This may be even more important if you, the teacher, are a Vietnam veteran yourself. If you do not make it clear that being in Vietnam, and understanding the war, are two different things, you may find yourself in the position of pressing your students to accept your version of the war because you were there. As any Civil War historian will tell you, this is not a particularly compelling scholarly argument.)

Passions still run high about the war... at least among those old enough to remember it—a category which includes most high school and college professors, and everyone else born before 1960. But students often seem, to us, oddly apathetic; for them the war is merely interesting history, like World War 2 or Korea when we were kids. This lack of passion, lack of moral involvement in the issues of the war, means that their real fascination is usually with the soldiers who fought, rather than the causes they fought for. This fascination can work for you, or against you, depending upon your approach. I would like to close with an anecdote about one particularly successful Vietnam War literature course which I taught as a seminar at Yale University.

"The Vietnam Experience: Personal Narratives by Combat Veterans," was taught in Fall of 1987. The course was a seminar, with sixteen students, and had 9 assigned texts—narratives which included books by Hasford, Herr, Kovic, Webb, Heinemann, Ketwig, and others. I also suggested that each student purchase a general history of the war which they could use as a reference when they were reading the literature. In addition to the texts, students had the opportunity to watch two Vietnam War films (documentary and fictional) a week. We met once a week, for two hours, to discuss the texts, and students had the option to attend the screenings and discuss the films on one other night each week. In addition, we took advantage of a program of lectures at Columbia University and attended a panel on black soldiers in Vietnam, and one on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

We began by discussing Michael Herr's Dispatches, which for most students was brand new and both shocking and fascinating. Dispatches is useful for introducing students to the war because of its tightly written prose and extremely graphic images. Because, for most students, this was their first experience with Vietnam war literature, they approached in naively, accepting that Herr was "telling it like it was." Our initial discussion of the book consisted of students sharing their feelings about the book (which provoked strong emotions in many of them), and then progressed to an exploration of the kind of war which Herr wanted his readers to imagine. We explored his focus, choice of characters, and language. The most provocative question was: Who does Michael Herr want you to think he is? That first week, our film showing was a double feature: Sands of Iwo Jima (essential viewing for any Vietnam literature class) and The Green Berets. The following questions were asked: What is the difference between Michael Herr's vision of war, and the vision of war in Wayne's movies? What does Michael Herr think of John Wayne? Can you generate a dialogue between the two?

Each new author we read, and each new film we viewed, was considered as a voice in an ongoing dialogue about the nature of war in general, the Vietnam War in particular, manhood, duty and culture. Crucial to the students' understanding was the realization that each text (film or printed) had a voice behind it—a voice with a particular interest in being heard in a certain way. They became very astute at putting together a picture of the author's agenda. And at each discussion session I would introduce some new piece of "documentary evidence" about the war. One week I brought a six-foot aerial navigation map of Indochina, so that they could locate the places they had been reading about on a map. "Vietnam is so tiny," they exclaimed. Because each veteran's story had seemed to indicate that the war stretched on forever, in distance and duration. One week I brought a letter from a veteran friend in Arizona who explained why he had gone to war. Another time I brought some of the psychiatric literature on post-traumatic stress disorder, copied from medical journals, so that they could understand that discussion of Vietnam veterans could take place in a completely different context. Yet another time, I read from government hearings on incarcerated veterans.

When I finally decided they were ready to meet and speak to Vietnam veterans about the war, it was arranged through the local veterans' readjustment center, where I was currently teaching a writing workshop. The veterans in one of the rap groups agreed to speak to my students, in groups of four at a time, during their regular session hours. The first meeting between students and veterans was one I will never forget. Four 18 to 20 year old men, students at elite Yale University, walked into a room of twelve 38-45 year-old Vietnam combat veterans (working class, a third of them black, many of them out of work, and several battling drug and alcohol addiction), and took their seats at the round table. The vets were a little hostile. The kids were a little scared. The young men at the table reminded the vets of their eighteen-year-old selves, but they also reminded them of the college students who stayed home from the war. The students were having a hard time fitting the sight of a dozen middle aged men into their images of nineteen-year old soldiers. "Why are you here?" grated one of the vets. "Do you want to check us out, and see what kind of freaks we are?" "No," protested one of my students earnestly, "We really want to hear anything you have to say to us." And the tension was broken as questions and answers rolled back and forth; both groups curious about what the other thought. Two hours rushed by, and the session was reluctantly terminated.

I was extremely proud of the way my students had conducted themselves, and each successive group did just as well. I am convinced that the ability of these students to ask and answer difficult questions was based in a firm grounding in the literature of the war, and that they would have had a much more difficult time (the vets would have made sure of that) had they not been so well informed. I also believe that certain important observations (such as, "Hey. Some of these guys don't really seem to know a whole lot about the history or politics of the Vietnam War") could never have been made. There is just no substitute for context. I also believe that the experience was made more positive for the participating veterans because these students were educated beyond the superficial questions which can irritate and offend (such as "What is it like to kill somebody?"—a question none of my students would have dreamed of asking). Most veteran speakers, I believe, prefer to be regarded as complex human beings rather than as object for show and tell.

The key word here is context. If you can provide your students with a sturdy frame of reference for understanding the Vietnam War, the visits of Vietnam veteran speakers will greatly enrich your history or literature course on the war. If, however, you fail to provide that context, you may undermine your own authority as a teacher, and privilege unreasonably the views of veterans. As a teacher, you are doing battle with the glib and frequently false images which popular culture throws up for children and teenagers (and even many adults) to absorb. In order to hold your ground, you, and your students, must have a place to stand.


1. "Four Writers Try to Make Sense of the Vietnam-Book Boom". The New York Times (4 August 1987): A14.

2. Leed, Eric J. No Man's Land: Combat and Identity in World War 1 (New York: Cambridge University Press) 1979: 193-194.

3.Ibid.: 14.

4. Ibid.: 194.

5. Ibid.: 208.

6. Ibid.: 212.

7. Ibid.: 213.

8. Linderman, Eric. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: Free Press) 1987: 267.

9. Ibid.: 268.

10. Ibid.: 280.

11. Ibid.: 297.

12. See, among others, Boulanger, G., et al., Legacies of Vietnam, Vol. IV: Long Term Stress Reactions (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office) 1981; Kolko, Gabriel, et al., Crimes of War (New York: Random House) 1971; Fischer, V., et al., Myths and Realities: A Study of Attitudes Toward Vietnam Era Veterans (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office) 1980; Karsten, P., Law, Soldiers, and Combat (Westport, CT: Greenwood) 1978; Figley, Charles, Trauma and Its Wake (Brunner/Mazel) 1985; Leventman, S and Figley, C, Strangers at Home (New York: Praeger) 1980; Frey-Wouters, E and Laufer, R, Legacy of a War: The American Soldier in Vietnam (New York: ME Sharpe) 1986.

13. See , among others, Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin) 1983; Kolko, Gabriel, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: Pantheon) 1985.