The Vietnam War and the Teaching and Writing of Oral History: The Reliability of the Narrator

By Prescott, Renate W. | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Vietnam War and the Teaching and Writing of Oral History: The Reliability of the Narrator


Prescott, Renate W., The Oral History Review


   I have little sense of place
   having grown up on the other side
   of the world and returned home
   to foreigners on foreign soil.
   Not once does the family ask questions--as
   if I'd gone off for the weekend
   to fish or hunt. My place at the table
   is the same, same chair, same silverware:
   But as I glance up from my meal
   I don't recognize the family portrait
   hanging on the wall--their faces unfamiliar,
   their eyes from another time or country,
   another race.(1)

--Dale Ritterbusch

Unlike previous wars, the participants and interpreters of the Vietnam War have yet to reach any kind of consensus, and it is unlikely they ever will. Claims to authenticity in oral history accounts and claims to authority in scholarly analyses hardly agree even to this day about what really happened to Americans, either collectively as a culture or individually as direct experience. The Vietnam War has been written, and then rewritten again in a burst of revisionist history, and depending on whose scholarship one studies, Americans either won the war, lost the war, or were neither winners nor losers.(2) One thing is sure: too many veterans of the Vietnam War have come home as strangers to their own families, and what they tell, how they tell it, and what they choose to keep to themselves, will always vary according to experience, memory, and sense-making. Those who write about the war add another layer to the narrative from yet another perspective, making the process always more complex.

To teach the Vietnam War one should certainly include various claims to authority; however, students are most receptive to the narratives of the soldier-writers who bear direct witness to their experience through oral history, autobiography, and imaginative works. This is especially so for students who have a Vietnam veteran in the family. They state that it is through the voices of soldier-writers who speak to them freely (unlike the often reticent family member) that they are able to build a connection between themselves (the inexperienced) and the family member (the experienced).

During my early days of teaching in the 1980s, it was not uncommon to have Vietnam veterans in the classroom, and their experience as either combat soldiers or REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers) informed the study of Vietnam War literature and was validated by soldier-writers who spoke from similar perspectives. Many times, veterans gave a sense of authenticity to the course, identifying with autobiographies such as Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, Lynda Van Devanter's Home Before Morning; and oral histories such as Wallace Terry's Bloods, Peter Goldman's Charlie Company, and Mark Baker's Nam. Conversely, nonveteran students who experienced the war's upheaval at home were receptive to scholarly analytical works such as Loren Baritz' Backfire, or Philip Beidler's American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. In this sense, each group invited discussion from different positions, each richly informing the other, whether scholarly or experiential.(3)

Younger traditional students of the 1990s, who are removed by a generation from the war, are presented with a different and perhaps an even greater challenge because of the wide array of revisionist history they have to sort through. Although there are literally thousands of books (fiction and nonfiction), oral histories, journal articles, poetry, and documentary films available about the Vietnam War from every imaginable historical, political, and cultural perspective, most of these younger students come into the classroom with very little background knowledge about a war in which their older friends or relatives were involved.(4) However, as I stated earlier, it is often through the connection of a relative or friend having been in the Vietnam War that students have signed up for the course. These disagreements of perspective and/or interpretation, either of a scholarly or experiential nature, do not weaken the course; on the contrary, they invite students to ask more complex questions about the very nature of war: who is narrating the event (either in nonfiction or imaginative works), and how reliable is the narrator who is making a claim to authority and/or experience? …

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