Defining Vietnam


Roland Ph.D. '74 is a history professor at Duke. This is adapted from an essay he wrote for Duke University Libraries (Spring 2005)

Roland Ph.D. '74 is a history professor at Duke. This is adapted from an essay he wrote for Duke University Libraries
(Spring 2005)


It don't mean nothin'." So said countless American soldiers in the Vietnam War, slouching across rice paddies and down jungle paths, devoid of sentiment or opinion about the wisdom of the war, intent only on surviving with all their body parts intact. But the double negative carried a significance that transcended niceties of grammar. Of course it meant something--to them, to their comrades, to their families and friends, to the enemy they hunted and were hunted by, and to the Vietnamese people all around them. The dismissive fillip meant, grammatically and fundamentally, that the war meant something. But what?

I teach a course called "The Meaning of Vietnam." The idea behind the course is that no war has a fixed and inherent meaning. Rather wars take on the meaning that people ascribe to them, in what historians these days call "public memory." The challenge to my students is to decide what Vietnam means, or should mean, to them.

The accounts written by people who experienced the Vietnam War reveal some of the scars that the struggle inflicted on the American psyche. More recent works by younger scholars who did not live through the period are openly revisionist and refreshingly candid in their assessments. But the historiography is still conflicted and difficult to sort out.

Many of my students want to know what Vietnam means to me. I tell them only that I served in Vietnam from June 1967 through June 1968, one of the three Marine officers in the Navy medical battalion that supported the Third Marine Division in the northern provinces of South Vietnam. I was reasonably safe, endlessly fascinated, and no doubt fundamentally transformed by Vietnam. But I have little sense of what I would have been like without the experience. It helped me choose military history as a career, because I wanted to understand how the American military had become the confused and inept organization I perceived in Vietnam. Years of study have convinced me that most military organizations perform about as imperfectly as the one I witnessed in Vietnam; that recognition appears to have resolved any personal disquiet I brought home from the war.

I try not to bias my students' thinking by telling them the meaning of Vietnam for me. But I find that the students are drawn to an author who also speaks to me--not a historian but a novelist. Tim O'Brien writes about Vietnam over and over again, perhaps most poignantly in his two memoirs, If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried, and in his fictional masterpiece, Going after Cacciato. In these extended ruminations on guilt, shame, duty, honor, patriotism, social pressure, fear, and camaraderie, O'Brien mixes his experience of war with a relentless and remorseless self-scrutiny in search of those most elusive qualities: motivation and legitimacy. Why, he wants to know, did he go to Vietnam? And did he, in Spike Lee's memorable statement, "do the right thing"?

O'Brien confesses in The Things They Carried that he dreaded the war and considered fleeing to Canada. In the end, however, he conformed to the expectations of his family and community. Like me, he was "dull of mind, blunt of spirit, numb of history, and struck with wonder" that he would follow orders in which he had so little confidence. This frank introspection climaxes in Going after Cacciato, an imaginative tour de force that might be likened to Alice in Wonderland meets The Red Badge of Courage. The "hero," Paul Berlin (reminiscent of Paul Bäumer in All Quiet on the Western Front), juxtaposes the real war he was experiencing in Vietnam with a dream of escape to Paris and peace. In his reverie, Berlin's Vietnamese companion, Sarkin Aun Wang, urges him: "March proudly into your own dream.... Just as happiness is more than the absence of sadness," she says, "so is peace infinitely more than the absence of war. Even the refugee must do more than flee. He must arrive."

Berlin tries but is restrained by what he calls "obligation," a "personal sense of indebtedness" to his tribe. "What dominates," he says, "is the dread of abandoning all that I hold dear." In the end, he cannot bridge the chasm between himself and Sarkin Aun Wang, between American culture and Vietnamese culture, between war and peace, between reality and the dream. At last, he says, "there is no true negotiation. There is only the statement of positions."

So it is still, I think, with the Vietnam literature, with American memory of the Vietnam War. Many people saw the war in black and white, and they remain comfortable with their memories, their positions. But I remain, with Tim O'Brien, profoundly ambiguous about the war. It is, in fact, O'Brien's sense of ambiguity, of contingency, that most recommends him to me.

I expect that my generation will carry our memories of Vietnam to the grave; they were too deeply ingrained to be much moved by evidence or persuasion. We are set in our positions. But the younger generation will likely invent a memory of the war that does justice to both the facts and the dreams. Because "it don't mean nuthin'" to them, they will be freer than members of my generation to decide what they want it to mean.

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