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We can learn from Vietnam vets

Posted: February 9, 2018 at 1:54 a.m.

I began interviewing combat veterans in the late 1990s. I focused first on the World War II generation. Veterans visited my classes, discussed their experiences over lunch, and sometimes sat for public interviews. My last personal connection to World War II died about two years ago.

These days I focus on the Vietnam generation. This has been harder, and that tells us something about our country's recent history. Some Vietnam veterans are willing to share their stories, sometimes in private conversation, sometimes in front of 200 people. Others refuse to say anything.

There is often a paradox at work. Many Vietnam veterans are angered at how their war has been and is discussed in the media and schools. But by declining to tell their own stories, they leave the matter to others.

When compared with the experience of the World War II generation, it isn't difficult to understand Vietnam veterans' reluctance. The earlier war was awful but simple. The Nazi regime and Japanese military were brutal and had to be defeated--period. The liberation of France, Belgium, and the Philippines (and many other countries) were true liberations. And during the war, our country was remarkably united.

The case of Vietnam is obviously different. Where WWII presented clarity, Vietnam presented complexity. Where the governments of Britain and Canada made for good allies, the government of South Vietnam often didn't. In the place of national unity was sharp division--the roots of our current polarization. The Second World War ended in clear victory. Some veterans say the war in Vietnam could have been won; others say victory was never possible.

It's understandable why some Vietnam veterans are reluctant to share their experiences. But I ask them to reconsider. Many of them are skeptical of journalists and academics, but silence doesn't correct the record. Some Vietnam veterans are scarred by the disgraceful apathy or protest they faced on returning home. But times have changed. The country knows now to distinguish between policymakers and combatants.

Some veterans think that no one cares about their stories, but they are very much mistaken. Some are concerned that people may twist what they say, and, yes, that can happen, but that hardly justifies silence. Teachers and preachers face this challenge every day.

Vietnam veterans sometimes say the war was a waste. Sharing their stories with others is a way to infuse meaning into the experience because individuals and audiences learn not just about a particular war, but about the human condition, courage, leadership, spiritual life under strain and many other things. If Vietnam veterans are proud of their service, we want to know why. If they are bitter, we want to know why. If the war changed them, we want to know how.

Vietnam veterans: Tell us the good and the bad. Help us to learn by telling us what you learned. Untold stories taken to the grave do no one any good.

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Preston Jones teaches history at John Brown University.

Editorial on 02/09/2018