TELLING WAR STORIES

In hindsight: The stories we tell about wars, like the wars themselves, are products of human actions. We should pay attention to how people tell their stories — and not solely what they have to say.
Larry Schwab, Captain US Army, behind an SLR camera at 7th Surgical Hospital compound, Base Camp, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, near Xuan Loc, Vietnam, December 1967. Larry Schwab Collection (AFC/2001/001/23979), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

by Paul Steege

Do wars produce stories or silence them?

The new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, suggests that when U.S. soldiers returned to the United States, they could not tell their stories. Karl Marlantes, a U.S. Marine veteran, asserts in the film, “For years nobody talked about Vietnam. […] The whole country was like that.” Only recently, he says, have “baby boomers” been willing to speak and ask, “What happened?”

The documentary uses a literary framework to answer that question: Vietnam was a tragedy. As the narrator explains in his opening sketch of the war’s trajectory, U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a product of “tragic decisions” made by people with good intentions.

For many professional historians, that argument falls flat. It lacks the necessary critical perspective. These historians reject Burns and Novick’s declaration that the filmmakers aimed to tell a “good story” in order to “get [a] courageous conversation going.” Andrew Bacevich declares the documentary “not history, but rather story-telling and remembrance.” According to Bob Buzzanco, the filmmakers seek to convey the “tragedy of the war through ‘good storytelling.’ [….] And if their documentary was titled ‘Stories of People Who Were in Vietnam During the War’ — which would have been compelling and important — there would be little to complain about.” These complaints are worth considering not in an effort to defend historians’ authority but rather as an opportunity to consider the complicated relationship between history, memory, and the stories people tell about their experiences.

In the short story “How to Tell a True War Story,” the author and Vietnam War veteran, Tim O’Brien, points to an almost inevitable gap between the experience of war and any attempt to relate it. “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way.”

The incident at the heart of O’Brien’s story comes when one of the troops in the narrator’s unit steps on a booby-trapped artillery shell. This incident simultaneously interrupts and launches stories in which the characters find themselves and which the narrator struggles to tell. As O’Brien’s narrator recognized when he cycled back and forth between his recollections and those of his buddies, their earlier experiences, and their subsequent absences, war stories are not solely a retrospective phenomenon. War stories also help explain how people wind up in wars — and what they are doing there.

Promotional image for Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War.” Source: PBS.
Historians reject Burns and Novick’s declaration that the filmmakers aimed to tell a “good story” in order to “get [a] courageous conversation going.”

Oxford Historian Nicholas Stargardt has written on the German experience of war between 1939–1945. Drawing on a wide range of primary sources, especially wartime letters, he discovers that most Germans remained more committed to the war they were fighting than to the Nazi regime. This realization provoked a central question: “How did it affect Germans to gradually realize that they were fighting a genocidal war?”

At the time, the stories Germans told about their war did not exclude that violence. Whether in street corner discussions reported to state authorities or in private correspondence between soldiers and their families, there were plenty of accounts about “the deportation of the Jews and what happened to them in the east.” Only retrospectively did Germans reframe their stories. They elided their tumultuous encounters with genocidal violence, embedding them in narratives that may have acknowledged mass murder but only as part of a cataclysmic wave that swept over Europe and had left the continent in ruins.

In that sort of war story, war became a force of nature, a disaster from which they needed to recover. After 1945, whether they were building democracy or socialism or a market economy, German war stories served as a necessary starting point for new beginnings, built up out the ruins of war.

The narrator in Tim O’Brien’s short story would be suspicious about that sort of purposive redeployment of war stories: “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.”

More than two decades ago, the German social historian Hans Ulrich Wehler expressed skepticism about a new mode of historical investigation, the history of everyday life, worrying that it represented nothing more than “stories of the everyday” (Geschichten aus dem Alltag). Absent any theoretical framing, he warned, merely collecting stories could never produce a coherent history.

Aerial view of ruined residential and commercial buildings in the Eilbek district of Hamburg, Germany, destroyed by Allied bombing, July 1943. Source: Imperial War Museum, © IWM (CL 3400).
After 1945, whether they were building democracy or socialism or a market economy, German war stories served as a necessary starting point for new beginnings, built up out the ruins of war.

In the decades since Wehler’s warning, historians might wonder whether the pursuit of any singular, coherent history reflects its own kind of hubris. Like O’Brien’s narrator, historians also confront the fact that between their sources and the events and experiences they seek to reconstruct, there is always a gap. In looking back at the Vietnam War, or any war for that matter, the danger lies in presuming that we can bridge the gap between stories of the past and a conversation in the present.

War can never be a tragedy, because a war is not a literary drama whose protagonists are doomed to an inevitable outcome. The stories we tell about wars, like the wars themselves, are products of human actions. History, too, is a product of human actions — people in the present wrestling with stories of people in the past. As we navigate back and forth between the past and the present, we should pay attention to how people tell their stories — and not solely what they have to say. Adopting that sort of a critical perspective on the past will also help us to be less certain about the stories we tell ourselves.

Paul Steege is the inaugural faculty director of the Lepage Center and an associate professor of History at Villanova University.