[NOTE: For a number of years, I edited the History Department newsletter at my school. Each issue opened with an editorial. Below is one from March 2000, about ten years after I had begun delivering annually my “Growing Up With Vietnam” lecture (see previous posts–Parts 1, 2, 3, 4), reflecting on teaching–and remembering–the Vietnam War.]
Teaching American history in the spring is a real challenge when the teacher’s autobiography bumps up against the chronology of the Postwar era. For me, the spring’s biggest stumbling block has always been Vietnam. I have only been able to teach about our involvement there for the last decade or so, and anger remains just below the surface during every class period I devote to the topic. The war and its aftermath continue to gnaw at me and keep me from achieving much in the way of objectivity when I approach them anew each year.
Over the years, I have to some extent transformed the period since the end of World War II into the “Age of Lamplugh,” because it coincides with my time on earth. No longer are my only points of reference the facts and interpretations gleaned from courses, texts, and monographs. Instead, my understanding of recent decades must also take into account my personal memories of events and people.
[Recently, my wife and I went to a local history museum] for the opening of a new exhibit called “Requiem,” in memory of photographers who died while covering the war in Vietnam. The day’s events started with a panel discussion by several media types who had reported the war and survived to tell the tale. One of the panelists asked people in the audience who had served in Vietnam to stand, and perhaps 20% of those in the auditorium rose. As I looked at the standees, I was struck by how old they seemed. I couldn’t shake the image of Memorial Day parades in which I had marched as an ROTC cadet in college, when the “old guys” in attendance were veterans of World War II. And I thought, “Could Vietnam have been that long ago?”
During the question and answer session following the panel discussion, I was stunned when one of the veterans in the room, whom I had known for years only as a prominent physician, choked up when asking a simple question about events nearly thirty years ago. Then, as we toured the photographic exhibit, I couldn’t get over how many of those moving from picture to picture were too young to have participated in the war or, in some cases, to have any real memories of it. And I wondered, “Are these powerful photographs any more real to them than, say, the artifacts at the recent George Washington exhibit or scenes from the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’?”
Sometimes, I guess, it’s hard to “tell the story” when the story you must tell is your own. But we have to try. Peace.