- Historic Sites
‘What Did You Do In The War, Professor?’
Historians have failed to help Americans understand what the war was all about. So charges this scholar, author, and Vietnam veteran.
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
Although at least two of the respondents proclaimed that those of their “generation” were “all Vietnam veterans,” only 26 of the 236 professors who responded to the survey—that is, 11 percent—indicated that they were “veterans of the Vietnam conflict.” A check with the Project on the Vietnam Generation, however, revealed that the 26 respondents really meant that they had served in the armed forces “during the Vietnam Era” (defined as 1964 to 1973). Since only about one-fourth of the people who served during this period actually spent any time in Vietnam, the figure for professors who served there is probably around 3 percent, rather than the already low figure of 11 percent. If we further subtract the respondents who are professional military officers teaching history at the service academies, we arrive at a still lower figure.
Of course I do not mean to suggest that personal experience is an indispensable prerequisite to successful writing or teaching in history. In my own field of military history, for example, Barbara Tuchman had no need to fight in World War I before writing The Guns of August . Garrett Mattingly did not sail with the Spanish Armada and John Keegan was not present at the Battle of Agincourt. Nevertheless there is something a little disconcerting about the spectacle of a hundred or more academics teaching a course about a recent historical event, experienced firsthand by hundreds of thousands of their contemporaries, fellow countrymen, and students, but not by them.
This situation has been noted with some unease by both the professoriat and the Vietnam veterans. John Wheeler III, a leading spokesman for Vietnam veterans, worried in his book Touched with Fire: The Future of the Vietnam Generation whether academics were “teaching the whole story.… Is he discussing his personal sentiments? Looking squarely at the war years as a disciplined and objective scholar must be extraordinarily difficult.…” Wheeler’s solution is to call on the veterans: “As the VVLP [Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program] shows, there are very able Vietnam veterans all over the country who will volunteer to aid teachers with courses on the sixties and the American future.”
A case probably can be made for the idea that a veteran who experienced the war in Southeast Asia may understand it better than a professor who experienced it mainly on television, but Wheeler’s solution wouldn’t really solve the problem. The veteran’s perspective must necessarily also be a limited one. In most cases it is confined to a single year, a single geographical area, and a single service. Few spoke the local language or knew anything about the country in which they found themselves. (Most of the Marines I served with did not seem to clearly distinguish between the people of Okinawa, from which our unit had deployed, and the people of South Vietnam. They were not only “gooks,” they were the same gooks.) Like Oliver Wendell Holmes’s soldier of the Civil War, the Vietnam combatant was involved “in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.” This may make him a transcendently noble figure, as Holmes believed, or a tragic victim of senseless mass murder, but few would arsue that it makes him a historian.
What have those hundred-odd academics teaching Vietnam courses done to dispel our confusion? Not much.
I would like to suggest that the problem with the present-day crop of history courses about Vietnam is not so much attitudes or experiences as lack of knowledge. John Keegan and Barbara Tuchman could write and lecture brilliantly about World War I because there is a solid body of international scholarship concerning that conflict, scholarship developed over fifty years and based on access to and extensive research in the primary records. The situation in regard to the Vietnam War is more than a little different. Ten years after the end of the war, our knowledge of the Vietnam conflict is still incomplete and profoundly confused. “The Vietnam War,” as Douglas Pike, an acknowledged expert on the subject, recently observed, “was marked by an outstanding range of interpretations of unfolding events and explanations of what each side was doing and why it was doing it.”
Take as an example the relatively straightforward question of whether the Communists or the Americans and their allies had the upper hand in the bloody battles that raged during 1966, 1967, and 1968. An examination of the answers to this question in recent publications by Gabriel Kolko and by Douglas Pike affords a graphic illustration of the obstacles to gaining an accurate and reliable picture of Vietnam events. Douglas Pike’s book Viet Cong has been translated into more than twenty languages. Professor Kolko is a leading historian of the left who has recently published a comprehensive history of the Vietnam conflict entitled Anatomy of a War.