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The Vietnam War in American Memory

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“You were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did,” wrote Michael Herr in his Vietnam memoir Dispatches. I’m not sure he was right, but in the early 1990s, I wanted to find out. I was working as a journalist in Boston and the Vietnam War still hung in the air. The POW-MIA flag flew over the local police station. Psychologists and journalists were writing at length about post-traumatic stress disorder and the veterans who had it. I never went to Vietnam — I was only four years old when President Johnson sent his first troops — but I had an inkling of what it had done to Americans’ image of themselves. I began to wonder if the country’s growing fascination with veterans and trauma reflected a loss of something cultural too, of the myths that up till then had organized our national identity. And if it did, I thought, then perhaps Americans were suffering from a species of collective trauma. Perhaps our civilian memories were as disordered in their way as those of our traumatized combat veterans. Perhaps those of us at home who glimpsed the war only here and there, in magazines and on TV, were as responsible as a culture for what we’d seen as our soldiers were for what we and our government had asked them to do.

The analogy strikes me as a little too easy now. But it led me into long conversations with combat veterans, into thinking about how the plots changed from the first Rambo movie to the last, about Ronald Reagan and his attempt to reclaim the mantle of John Wayne, even about the rituals of the men’s movement. I gathered these pieces into a long rumination, which was published as Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War In American Memory by Anchor Doubleday in 1996. Now, as soldiers come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, I see the same news stories about traumatized veterans that I used to see after Vietnam. It’s excruciating.