Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | June 29, 2010

Complicating History

I’ve been reading Chris Appy’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides. It’s on my reading list for comps, but I’ve also been trying to keep in mind that next semester I’ll be leading discussion sections on the book (and the history behind it). This is a daunting prospect for me, because the war in Vietnam continues to evoke very real emotional responses in people, even people of our generation. The discussion might be a minefield.

But right at this moment, the book is enthralling. Appy does something really unique. He provides only a thin backbone of analysis and authorial commentary; this makes up maybe 5% of the book. The rest of it, all of the rest of it, is oral testimony from the people who lived through the war. He conducted more than 350 interviews, with generals, grunts, and civilians from both sides. He presents these interviews as short vignettes, some only a few hundred words, few more than a half-dozen pages. It’s kind of breathtaking, the diversity of voices and perspectives he manages to squeeze into this one book.

I think the really interesting point about Appy’s book is the way it complicates the one or two (but rarely more) narratives of the Vietnam War we’ve received as students and children of the people for whom the conflict was a defining moment. As a reader, it’s hard to cleave to a preconceived interpretation of this history when there are so many disparate understandings of the war, all jammed together. It’s disorienting (what should I believe about the war?) but also liberating.

-Morgan

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