Time Marches On: Vietnam

In preparation for the semester, I am reading A Rumor of War, by Philip Caputo (this is our assigned text for the Vietnam war). It is a memoir written by a marine officer who served in Vietnam and first published in 1977. So far it has proven an interesting and relatively straightforward read that should provide a lot of material for the students to discuss. So far my notes include everything from various slang terms and phrases, to technical issues like the Uniform Code of Military Justice, to broad thematic elements about military service and war, to pop-culture references.

After jotting down “Forrest Gump” in the margins of the text, it struck me that it is possible that my cultural awareness of this movie might possibly date me a little bit, but more than that, that pop-culture awareness of the Vietnam war (let alone World War 2, though there have been some relatively recent war movies that cover that war1), particularly in visual culture, seems to be waning.2 I am looking forward to asking my students if they have seen “Forrest Gump” now and may show clips in class. What sparked this thought is that there is a commercial for a retirement service for former military servicemen and women that shows a young man in Vietnam, carrying his weapon through Vietnam, followed by a shot of him as an old man with his family. Although he is shown with a gun in Vietnam, the scene is relatively idyllic, the man uninjured, and certainly no images of a naked girl running down a road. There are also no images of a soldier failing to readjust to life at home, or soldiers being ill-treated for fighting. It works as an advertisement, but it is radically different from any previous depictions of the Vietnam War.

Even the newest version of Iron Man removes the episodes of Tony Stark from the original setting in Vietnam, putting them in the most current conflict. Society moves on.

I suspect that these images and the hollow ritual of praising men and women of the armed forces stem from two causes: the passage of time and the extent to which war has been separated from everyday life. The passage of time means that fewer people know Vietnam veterans, fewer people who had their draft number called, and fewer people who protested the war. Vietnam hit home more so than most people, particularly young people (many of whom were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall),3 can possibly understand, while even the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (measured against GDP) is not enough to significantly impact any single tax-payer (it is a strain on the federal budget, but that is another issue). One of my goals for this semester is to try to help my students understand the Vietnam War, but, more so, the extent to which the world has changed in a way that most of them are fundamentally incapable of truly understanding what it would have been like. Understanding how American society has changed since then, I think, is the first step to be able to grapple with Vietnam–and history at large.

1 It surprised me when doing a search for AP English book lists that Catch 22 was not on the first several I checked.
2 The cultural memory has not disappeared entirely, but it seems to be in the decline. Admittedly, this is partly based on just what I have seen.
3 Myself included, though I was born before the end of the Cold War. There is not much time between 1986 and 1991, but I honestly feel that I sit on the edge of a generational gap and have much more in common with people born five years before me than I do with people born three or four years after me.

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