Clemis on Wood, 'Veteran Narratives and the Collective Memory of the Vietnam War'

John A. Wood
Martin Clemis

John A. Wood. Veteran Narratives and the Collective Memory of the Vietnam War. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016. 200 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8214-2223-6.

Reviewed by Martin Clemis (Temple University) Published on H-War (June, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

In Veteran Narratives and the Collective Memory of the Vietnam War, historian John A. Wood provides an in-depth analysis of fifty-eight prominent memoirs and oral histories produced by Vietnam veterans between 1967 and 2005. As a study of veteran memoirs, the book is meant to fill a gap in the literature and to address what the author considers a problematic use of veteran narratives within the scholarship. Wood asserts that historians have paid scant attention to the genre over the years. Moreover, they have used memoirs and oral histories primarily as “unimpeachable” primary sources and objective historical records rather than highly subjective recollections of a highly complex and controversial war. This, he maintains, is problematic for two reasons. First, it has bestowed veteran narratives with a certain cachet—a universal authenticity and legitimacy among scholars and the public at large that belies the microscopic and often prejudiced perspective of the individual soldier. Second, it ignores the fact that veteran memoirs are prone to the fallibilities and weaknesses of memory. In short, narratives are as limited in scope and as subject to distortion and inaccuracy as are individual recollections of past events. Wood believes this has had a profound effect on how many Americans remember the war in Indochina. Thus, the purpose of the book is to assess the impact of veteran narratives on the collective memory of the Vietnam war. To do this, Wood divides his work into seven thematic chapters that cover a wide range of topics.

Chapter 1 analyzes the backgrounds of fifty-one veteran-authors and highlights the demographic disparities between these men and the average combat soldier. Whereas veteran-authors were older (average age of twenty-seven), white, college-educated, and officers, the majority of those who saw combat in Vietnam were poor and working-class white and minority enlisted personnel who were under twenty years of age. Despite these differences, however, the wartime experiences of veteran-authors differed little from the men they commanded in Vietnam. Although, as Wood points out, most veteran-authors were not grunts in socioeconomic or educational background, most of them were grunts by measure of their wartime experiences. Chapter 2 explores the interrelated experience of combat and GI interactions with Vietnamese civilians. Veteran narratives overwhelmingly depict the American military effort in unflattering terms. For most veteran-authors, combat in the jungles and rice paddies of South Vietnam is described as chaotic, frustrating, and pointless. Vietnamese civilians, meanwhile, are portrayed in unflattering, often racist, one-dimensional tones. Most of the narratives report that GIs viewed the South Vietnamese as either “two-faced collaborators” or “greedy exploiters” who fleeced Americans. Wood admits that while veteran narratives provide valuable insights into the experience of American combat troops, the intimate (and thus inherently limited) perspective presented by these firsthand accounts represents a very narrow set of perspectives. Chapter 3 examines narratives produced by African American veterans. According to Wood, veterans of color produced memoirs that while similar in many respects to those produced by their white counterparts, were qualitatively different due to the fact that race played a central rather than peripheral role. Unlike white veteran-authors, whose accounts often ignored or marginalized race and racial differences in the ranks, black writers produced race-based recollections that center around two competing themes. One emphasizes racial cooperation and pride in the combat performance of their own racial or ethnic group. The other focuses on white racism, GI self-segregation, and the influences of the Black Power movement on African American troops.

Chapter 4 looks at soldier attitudes toward women and sexuality. According to Wood, most veteran narratives reveal that American soldiers adhered to the sexist and—in the case of Vietnamese women—racist attitudes of the Vietnam era. American nurses and “Donut Dollies” were subjects of GI attention solely due to sexual attraction. Vietnamese prostitutes and girlfriends, meanwhile, were merely vehicles to satisfy sexual appetites. Overall, Wood asserts, the misogyny exhibited by American GIs in veteran narratives reveals hostility towards women and the belief that soldiers at war deserved sex. Chapter 5 examines the homecomings and postwar lives of veteran-authors. According to Wood, veteran narratives frequently evoke the psychological trauma of the Vietnam War, and many discuss personal experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance abuse, and difficulties readjusting to civilian life. Moreover, a number of memoirs detail ill-treatment at the hands of antiwar protesters and even fellow citizens after they returned home. Although skeptical of these claims, along with the assertion made by some veteran-authors that their PTSD faded with time, Wood asserts that these narratives reveal the all-too-real readjustment difficulties many veterans faced after the war.

Chapter 6 explores the ambivalent, often contradictory, political attitudes that dominate veteran narratives. On one hand, most veteran-authors portray the war in an unflattering light. Many contain “unambiguous antiwar statements” (p. 8) and most express the widespread belief that the war was a mistake. Nonetheless, many veteran-authors convey a deep hatred of antiwar protesters and remain patriotic and proud of their service despite their criticisms of the war. The conflicted views reflected in these memoirs, Wood asserts, were held by most of the men and women who served in Vietnam. Chapter 7 compares Vietnam-era narratives to those produced by veterans of other American wars, including World War II, the First Gulf War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although there is a great deal of difference in the individual experiences of these conflicts, there are thematic continuities that bind Vietnam veterans to veterans of other wars, including hostilities toward civilians, combat-related psychological trauma, wartime atrocities, and a preoccupation with sex. As Wood’s analysis reveals, soldiering in a time of war has not changed in many respects from the 1940s to the twenty-first century.  

Overall, Wood’s dissection of these works provides an excellent analysis of both the common themes that unite veteran memoirs as well as the continuities in experience among those who served in Vietnam. In this function, Veteran Narratives is a groundbreaking and noteworthy addition to the historiography of the Vietnam War. However, as an assessment of the impact of veteran narratives on the collective memory of Vietnam War, the book leaves much to be desired. Although Wood claims these memoirs have “undoubtedly influenced America’s collective memory of the Vietnam conflict for decades,” he fails to validate this claim (p. 3). To begin, there is no serious discussion of collective memory as an analytical framework, the ongoing struggle over the meaning and significance of the past, or the “constructed” rather than “recorded” nature of history. Likewise, the deliberate fashioning of historical memory by diverse constituencies for social, political, and cultural purposes receives scant attention. Moreover, the book does not adequately explain or explore America’s collective memory of the war in Vietnam in any depth. Widespread beliefs that American GIs were “stabbed in the back” and denied victory in Vietnam by pusillanimous politicians and treacherous antiwar activists receive cursory attention, as does the common perception that many GIs returning home from Southeast Asia were spat upon by protesters and even fellow citizens. This inattention, while not fatal, undermines the book’s primary claim concerning the impact of veteran narratives on collective memory of the Vietnam War, and compromises what is an otherwise excellent analysis of this important but understudied genre.          




Citation: Martin Clemis. Review of Wood, John A., Veteran Narratives and the Collective Memory of the Vietnam War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2019. URL:

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