When Memory Contradicts Academic History

(March 11, 201) Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all. —— Carlos Eire

In a recent post about Confederate statues I explained that twentieth and twenty-first century Southerners joined the military more readily than did residents in other parts of the country. At least some were inspired by the valor of their Confederate ancestors. That was evidenced by the informal display of the Confederate flag among selected units in every war from the Second World War to Iraqi Freedom. An entire page of documenting photos is at Pinterest. 

Thus, removing Confederate soldier memorials indirectly dishonors the GIs that were inspired by the Rebel’s courage. Politicians should consider that future Americans might condemn them for removing Confederate statues, much as we now grimace with shame for the treatment of returning Vietnam vets in the 1960s and 70s. Anyone old enough to remember can recall the general indifference, and even instances of mockery, that greeted them.

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Nonetheless, selected academics have been preparing study after study to try to show that our memories are fundamentally erroneous. They say the things we remember never happened. In reality, however, their research appears to be agenda-driven attempts to sanctify the nobility of the anti-war activists, particularly on college campuses.

While I never saw anyone spit on a returning Vietnam vet, outside of their family circles I recall the public’s general indifference toward them. The shame became all the more obvious twenty years later by contrast when Americans eagerly celebrated our victorious Gulf War vets. Even before the Gulf soldiers went into combat our leaders understood that Americans would not tolerate another protracted war like Vietnam partly caused by dubious strategic restraints.

American Tank in Vietnam

If you  are old enough to remember the era, trust your memory. You may have faulty recollections on some points, but it’s likely your overall impression is accurate. Here are some examples from the 1,000-plus letters received by a Salt Lake City newspaper columnist thirty years ago after he invited vets to write him.

One. In early February 1972, I was in the Honolulu airport on a refueling stop with 200 other GIs who were returning. I went for a newspaper. Two young guys with beards and long hair came into sight. One was leaning against the wall, the other half-kneeling, half-sitting on the floor.

My initial thought was, wow, “real people. . . my people.” It was great to be home. As I drew nearer, they began with some remarks and grins to each other, and then directed them toward me. Their remarks and tone escalated quickly from crude, to rude, to vulgar.

“My people” were angry. At me. It blew me away. It would be ludicrous to pretend to remember exactly what they said. But there is no forgetting the spitting.

Two. Most returning veterans were 18 to 22 years old. At that relatively young age it is almost impossible to express having your feelings hurt and hurt deeply, especially after trying to prove your “manhood” in Vietnam. In my opinion, most veterans were not even sure what they felt at the time. We returned to political turmoil, peace marches, anti-war and anti-veteran activities . . . and one giant lack of appreciation.

Three. Was I spit on at the airport? No. Was I able to find a job when a prospective employer found out I was a Nam vet? No. Was I able to get a date with a girl if she knew I was a Nam vet? No. . .  Were my parents able to tell people without accusations that their son had just returned from three years in Vietnam? No.

Four. When I came back from Vietnam in 1970, I was dumb enough to wear my dress uniform in the San Francisco Airport. A nicely dressed woman in her twenties blocked my path and hissed “(expletive) murderer” in my face.

If the above experiences are genuine, Americans were correct to reform their attitude toward the Vietnam vet. We should similarly stop abusing the Confederate veteran because: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”

1 thought on “When Memory Contradicts Academic History

  1. Pingback: Confronting Academic Historians With Reality | Civil War Chat

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