Sunday, May 31, 2020

An Encore Read

With the library shut down due to the pandemic I am forced to rely on my own personal book collection for reading material which means I am re-reading books that I thought were worth saving during recent years’ culling. My first selection was Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation by Myra McPherson. The book grew out of a series of Washington Post articles McPherson wrote about Vietnam veterans in the late 70 and early 80s. It examines the war’s impact on not only the soldiers who served but also the impact on all who were forced to make difficult decisions about an unpopular war. Soldiers, draft-dodgers, exiles, women and minorities all tell their stories and illustrate just how all-encompassing the Vietnam war was for the generation that came of age during the war years. A best-seller when published in 1984, Long Time Passing was the first major work to recognize and explore the impact of post traumatic stress on returning veterans and their re-entry into civilian life.

I read the book when it came out and thought it spoke accurately of my own experience and understanding of the war. It’s remained a fixture in my bookcase along with other Vietnam literature. Reading it a second time after 36 years I’m struck by how little detail I remember. The only image that has remained clear in my mind is the draft resister who chopped off a finger to avoid military service. The rest is almost as if I was reading for the first time. My perspective has changed with the added years but my original judgment stands. Long Time Passing remains an important record of America’s difficulty in reconciling itself to its war in Vietnam.

Long Time Passing is encyclopedic in its scope with extensive interviews to provide detail. The interviews, along with McPherson’s research and commentary highlight the differences and conflicts within the Vietnam generation—the changing context of patriotism, how the war pervaded all aspects of life for the (mostly) men and (many) women of that generation—and the varied backgrounds and experiences that led individuals to make choices about military service, resistance and flat out avoidance. Early on, McPherson admits that she came to the task largely ignorant of the war and its impact. She described herself as too old to be among the generation at risk, too young to have military age children and consequently, not directly affected by the war. As the war and its controversies spilled into Americans’ consciousness, McPherson realized that she had no personal contact with anyone affected by the war.  Long Time Passing shows that she made those contacts and developed an intimate understanding of the war’s the enormous impact on the men and women who came of age in the mid-1960s and early 70s.

McPherson is a good listener and conduit for the multitude of stories she presents, stories that come from all sides of the war’s many controversies and illustrate the widely varied experiences of the many who were affected by the war. Her subjects are not archetypes meant to represent an entire group but rather they illustrate the thoughts and feelings of the people as they weighed options and made choices. She doesn’t rely on single sources but usually offers multiple examples and background research to present a broad overview. McPherson presents all of the perspectives without judgment. That’s not to say she is uncritical—she often follows up with questions and examines how the individual experiences compare and contrast with others. She never simply dismisses the stories out of hand but draws her own conclusions.

Not surprisingly, much of the focus is on the draft, military service and resistance which served as a crucible of fire for military age males, their parents, wives and girlfriends. One section includes chapters on the draft and the many ways men found to avoid service. Another section focuses on the soldiers who served, including discussion of post-traumatic effects. Other sections examine military resistance and the role of women in the war and resistance. Throughout, McPherson seems favorably inclined toward veterans but not slavishly so and not at the expense of non-veterans.

My initial reaction to Long Time Passing after 36 years was that it seemed like a period piece with its intense focus on the controversies surrounding the war and its veterans. These days it all sounds like ancient history even though the war’s consequences continue to reverberate into our present. At the time, however, the Vietnam war and its myriad wounds were still quite raw and McPherson was among the first to explore the issues in such detail and scope. Veterans in particular felt wronged by the entire experience, whether it was disgust at America’s failure to fully prosecute the war, serving in a war they opposed or the wholesale characterization of veterans as dangerously on edge. McPherson doesn’t challenge or question that veterans were often ill-treated after returning from Vietnam but she correctly identifies the alienation that many felt.

Perhaps the the most important service of Long Time Passing is the clear demonstration that much variation exists within the Vietnam generation, simple stereotypes mask the nearly infinite versions of peoples’ experience with the Vietnam war and the draft. McPherson comprehensively shows that “hero versus coward” and “baby killer versus principled objector” tropes often used to reduce the complexity of individuals weighing values and beliefs as they faced life-threatening choices are essentially meaningless. In 1984 McPherson’s words were revolutionary; in the years since they have become, if not common knowledge, at least recognized by historians and analysts.

Long Time Passing is 620 pages which makes for a long read. Like any work that attempts to deal broadly with America’s war in Vietnam, it goes in many directions and sometimes feels as endless as the war itself. On the other hand, the interviews are compelling and honest, even when McPherson suspects they might be a bit iffy. The interviews and background research illuminate the passions, conflicts and aftermath of a very ugly war.

The one aspect that stood out to me personally was veterans talking about indifference and sometimes hostility from (both anti- and pro-war) civilians and and institutions, especially veterans' organizations like Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion. Many veterans who attended college following military service said they felt alienated by the antiwar movement; even antiwar veterans expressed little affinity for their non-veteran fellow students who opposed the war. Veterans  who did not attend college also dismissed opposition to the war by civilians who lacked war experience. And virtually all of the veterans interviewed noted how different they felt from their civilian counterparts. I can relate to the alienation. I’ve felt different ever since returning from Vietnam. I never experienced any ill treatment or hostility, just indifference. While I was in service I was always uneasy wearing a uniform in civilian society, largely because I felt guilty about serving in the war. No one ever hassled me about it, though, and some people were actually kind.

When Long Time Passing was published In 1984 America was still trying to come to terms with defeat in Vietnam. Recriminations, blame and anger still dominated the discussion. Who did what? Who was a coward? Who, if anyone, was a hero? The war left America with doubts and uncertainty that ran counter to our national belief in our good intentions and reliance on common sense and practicality. All those wounds werestill quite raw and controversial then. McPherson was among the first to examine the many threads of that uncertainty; her signature contribution was to give voice to the motivations and beliefs of the many paths people chose in making decisions about the war. Long Time Passing did not put an end to the bickering and blaming about the war in Vietnam but it offered thoughtful and nuanced insight into the full range of dilemmas confronting the Vietnam generation and how their choices affected their lives and America's collective memory in the years following the war. 

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