Long Journeys Home: American Veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam

Long Journeys Home: American Veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam

Long Journeys Home: American Veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam

Long Journeys Home: American Veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam


In the modern history of American veterans, it is sometimes difficult to separate myth from fact. The men and women who served in World War II are routinely praised as heroes; the "Greatest Generation," after all, triumphed over fascism and successfully reentered postwar society. Veterans of the Vietnam War, on the other hand, occupy a different thread in the postwar narrative, sometimes as a threat to society but usually as victims of it; these vets returned home to a combination of disdain, fear, and prolonged suffering. And until very recently, both the public and historians have largely overlooked veterans of the Korean War altogether; the hit television show M•A•S•H was set in Korea but was more about Vietnam.

Long Journeys Home explores the veteran experience of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. It examines and dissects the various myths that have grown up around each of these wars. Author Michael D. Gambone compares and contrasts the basic elements of each narrative, including the factors that influenced the decision to enlist, the impact of combat on life after the war, the struggles of postwar economic adjustment, and participation in (or withdrawal from) social and political activism.

Gambone does not treat these veterans monolithically but instead puts each era's veterans in historical context. He also explores the nuances of race, gender, and class. Despite many differences, some obvious and some not, Gambone nonetheless finds a great deal of continuity, and ultimately concludes that Korean and Vietnam veterans have much more in common with the Greatest Generation than was previously understood.


Coming home from a war can be a strange experience. It is a study in contrasts. Many of the clichés we apply to it are true. War is dirty, exhausting, and alternately filled with crushing boredom and periodic tension. Over time, the sights, sounds, and odors of war all combine into a kind of negative background noise on the periphery of a day-to-day contingency existence, tainting every moment of it. Back home, the atmosphere is abundantly more relaxed, clean, safe, convenient, and focused on the future, although most civilians seem unaware of it. Even the air seems to taste better.

My own homecoming happened in 2006, when I returned from Iraq after a tour as an army contractor. While there, I was part of a team charged with force protection at a forward operations base in Mosul. a few days after returning home, I decided to attend my university’s commencement ceremony. I was excited and apprehensive about being there. Watching students graduate is a time-honored ritual that seemed to offer the prospect of returning to the civilian fold with some ease. Looking back, I assumed that an old conventional practice might displace my more recent experience in Iraq.

It didn’t quite work out that way. As I carried my regalia through the crowds of faculty, I encountered many responses to my presence, surprise for the most part, and happiness. But I also saw flickers of apprehension on some of my colleagues’ faces. That surprised and unsettled me. As much as I wanted to return to the fold, it was fairly obvious that it wasn’t going to happen as I expected it. Like it or not, I brought the war home with me, and I could see it reflected in some of my friends’ eyes. I had new baggage. It was one thing to participate in campus forums about the “Global War on Terror” or join Historians against the War. It was another experience entirely to actually be the subject of the debate. At the time, I lacked a clear understanding of the distinction. All I knew was how awkward it felt.

Until another colleague approached me. Lou Rodriquez is a member of my department who teaches American history. He was also a Vietnam veteran, with service in the Mekong Delta. Lou saw far more . . .

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