|Download PDF of this full issue: v34n1.pdf (11.3 MB)|
This History's Bunk
By Kurt Hilgendorf (Reviewer)
Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement
By Gerald Nicosia
Perhaps I could cut Gerald Nicosia some slack.
One would expect that a book of nearly seven hundred pages might have a mistake or two. And it is logical to assume that any author has an underlying motivation and agenda for undertaking a volume of such length. These seem to be reasonable allowances, right?
Well, maybe, if the book did not have a reputation as the final word on Vietnam veterans and their struggle after returning home.
"Home to War" is a narrative labeled as a history of the Vietnam veterans' movement. But, as in any narrative, the story is primary. Nicosia's historical inaccuracy, his liberal critique of radicals' tactics (those of VVAW in particular), and his focus on individual stars make for interesting and occasionally exasperating reading, but the approach does no justice to the history of the veterans' movement. History is, at its core, a method of argumentation and interpretation, and Nicosia is entitled to his own views and conclusions. But after reading "Home to War," I am convinced that a history of the movement would have been better handled by a trained historian than by someone whose major work to date is a biography of Jack Kerouac.
Nicosia's historical inaccuracies in "Home to War" have been publicly addressed in print before. For instance, Michael Uhl notes several examples of the book's incorrect factual evidence in his July 9, 2001 review in the Nation — specifically, Nicosia's mischaracterization of war crimes hearings and his erroneous description of Uhl's assignment in Vietnam. Uhl was not the only victim of Nicosia's mishandling of historical fact. VVAW national coordinator Barry Romo was said to be in Washington, D.C. at a time when he was in fact three thousand miles away in southern California.
Nicosia's characterization of vets' roles in the anti-war movement, and of VVAW's legacy in particular, is perhaps a more egregious shortcoming than his historical inaccuracy. To his credit, he is evenhanded in describing VVAW's formation and early work, explaining in great detail the organization's growing pains and changes and the struggle of trying to end an unjust war while simultaneously supporting just treatment for that war's veterans. Nicosia also allocates ample space to VVAW's participation in the war moratoria and Operation RAW. His discussion of the Winter Soldier hearings is vivid and lively. In terms of chronology, then, Nicosia's story is sound through 1970.
It is in his version of Dewey Canyon III where Nicosia begins showing his hand. Subtly, yet presaging things to come, Nicosia splits VVAW into two camps: the respectable liberals on one hand, led by John Kerry, and the shifty radicals who, in Nicosia's opinion, present a threat to the uniquely respectable perspective veterans brought to the country's political discourse on the war. DC-III's unplanned events, like the march to the Supreme Court, are written off as thoughtless extremism rather than legitimate statements of anger and outrage. In what is a recurring pattern of highlighting the seemingly-unimportant, Nicosia dedicates nearly equal time to the logistics leading to Kerry's speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as he does to the medal return ceremony and its impact on public opinion.
Nicosia's accounts of the 1972 Republican National Convention and the Gainesville Eight trial signify the end for VVAW, at least in his eyes. For Nicosia, VVAW had become too radical by this point to be considered a legitimate organization; all of the organization's decisions were driven by dogmatic ideology rather than by considerations for the movement's success. A case in point happened during a confrontation outside the Fontainebleau Hotel during the 1972 convention. Richard Boyle, a journalist and friend of Ron Kovic, was convinced that the government's offer of allowing several vets in wheelchairs inside in exchange for ending a street blockage would ensure a meeting with President Nixon where they would physically force him to end the war. Boyle (who had no history as a political organizer) is treated as an authority on effective political protest. At the same time, Nicosia chastises VVAW leadership for deciding to stay with the original plan and avoid bowing to a government ploy, because he feels any decision could not possibly have been motivated by anything but communist dictates. Nicosia paints this group-approved decision as a horrible mistake. In Nicosia's analysis, the maverick activities of a few individuals always trump organized political action.
In his coverage of the Gainesville Eight trial, Nicosia essentially makes the case a soap opera; storylines are preferred over historical analysis. Scott Camil, the only person connected with the organization at that time who receives any sympathetic treatment, figures heavily in the action, as do government agents involved in the Gainesville setup and those tied to the Watergate break-in (which Nicosia argues is the real backdrop for the conspiracy trial). On the other hand, little time is dedicated to the organization's work to support the defendants or the long-term effects the trial had on the organization's sustainability. And as soon as he closes this chapter, Nicosia basically writes VVAW out of the history altogether. Any references to the organization are isolated and tangential to the story he is covering at the time; when references are made, they are usually one-offs directed at how he thinks radical political analysis and progressive multi-issue organizing only harmed the veterans' movement.
Even if Nicosia had done a credible job covering VVAW, "Home to War" would still have serious deficiencies as a history of a movement. Movements are not characterized solely by the most visible individuals engaging in work on behalf of a group of people. Movements are made and sustained by those at the bottom doing the day-to-day struggles required to effect change. Yet to read Nicosia's book, one would be led to believe movements are only created and sustained by individuals who have special training or intellect, or by individuals, driven by overwhelming pain and anguish, who lash out in a disorganized and desperate fashion at the first target they can find. Nicosia writes that the Vietnam veterans' movement was really by and for regular people who survived a most brutal war. I agree with his sentiment, but his approach belies his conclusions.
Nicosia's chapter on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the first case in point. Vets' rap groups were spearheaded by the VVAW chapter in New York and aided by Dr. Chaim Shatan. After the technique's initial successes, more chapters around the country began holding rap groups. From a movement perspective, then, rap groups should have been the focus — regular vets coming together for counseling in a supportive environment. Yet Nicosia spends almost all his energy on the evolution of PTSD as a psychological concept, the discussions and arguments between doctors, and who was at what professional conference when. As a result, a struggle to get a definition into a book appears as the main issue when the real issue was providing treatment for thousands of vets. Logically, if the movement was by and for regular people, why not spend time and space discussing their work?
A second case of privileging individuals over the movement is Nicosia's discussion of the American Veterans' Movement (AVM), a brainchild of Ron Kovic. AVM's vision was to have a second Bonus March on July 4th weekend, 1974; thousands of people would follow Kovic and company to Washington, D.C. to demand better treatment for Vietnam vets. Despite the grandiosity and unlikely success of such an unplanned and disorganized event, Nicosia latches on and gives it ample treatment and light criticism, likely because of its liberal tone and Kovic's involvement. (Nicosia covers just about every Kovic-related action of the 1970s.) AVM barely existed as an organization, yet Nicosia treats it as the great vets' hope for change. That only one small group of people made it to the Bonus March is of little consequence. In contrast, he paints VVAW's action, organized and actually executed, as disastrous. Not only did he get the figure wrong (2000 as opposed to 4000 in attendance), but he also criticizes the event's demands as "political and partisan" and impugns the event's legitimacy because "there had been no preparatory congressional lobbying and no eloquent, dignified John Kerry spellbinding the entire Foreign Relations Committee." Evidently, only apolitical, Nicosia-approved actions are reasonable methods of influencing public policy.
For the purposes of this review, the final instance of Nicosia's emphasizing of individuals over the movement occurs in his account of the Agent Orange settlement. VVAW, especially the Milwaukee and Madison chapters, was at the forefront of the movement to get treatment and financial compensation for Agent Orange-related disorders. But Nicosia eschews an account of actual organizing in favor of a legal drama in which individual players are made into larger-than-life figures. People around the country were organizing, raising money, and protesting both the VA and chemical manufacturers. But in Nicosia's account, all of the attention is focused on the lawsuit. Victor Yannaconne, the plaintiff's lead attorney, is the central character. Nicosia spends more time on Yannaconne's ego and his battles with other attorneys than on Maude DeVictor, the Chicago VA nurse responsible for making public the effects of Agent Orange. And while his discussion of the enormous threat to liability law the case posed is indeed fascinating, it has little to do with the Vietnam veterans' movement.
Writers of history are given a special free pass of legitimacy when it comes to injecting their perspectives into issues —perhaps deservedly so, as writing a book is a serious undertaking. But writing "Home to War" does not automatically make Nicosia an authority on the intricacies of social change. Throughout the text, he positions himself as the voice of reason in opposition to the frequently chaotic and conflicted voices of the nation's Vietnam veterans; his tone often paternalistic, Nicosia writes from the position of an "enlightened observer" who is smarter than those he details. He concludes: "The whole Vietnam veterans' movement was a kind of high bluffing in the face of history. And it proved, once and for all, that history is made by individuals who can convince the world they have more power than they actually do."
But, as a close read of the book reveals, the enlightened observer could learn from his subjects. Vietnam veterans did not earn their victories through a mythical, illusory power. Their victories were not accidental. Their power was real. It is still real. It's the reason George W. Bush has to defend his fake Vietnam-era service. Vietnam veterans have power because they experienced firsthand the implications of pointless atrocities. They have power because they spoke out against those atrocities and for the cause of justice. And they have power because their legitimacy results from these real experiences, not just a book contract.
Kurt Hilgendorf, a university honors graduate from the College of Communications at the University of Illinois, is currently a teacher education student in the history department at Illinois State University. He is a member of the Champaign-Urbana chapter of VVAW.