Years ago, a Vietnam veteran I knew was asked how long he served in Vietnam. Instead of estimating in weeks or months, he rattled off the precise number of days. I was struck by the intensity of his response—as if the experience remained close to his thoughts—and it inspired me to learn more about the Vietnam War and its veterans.
Fortunately, a number of Vietnam veterans have shared their stories in fiction, memoirs and oral histories.
One of the best works of fiction on ANY subject is The Things They Carried, a novel-in-stories by Pulitzer Prize winner Tim O’Brien. It explores courage, death, guilt, love and loneliness in the muddy fields of Vietnam and in the war’s complicated aftermath.
O'Brien's not-so-secret weapon? The memorable men of Alpha Company, among them Henry Dobbins, who ties the pantyhose of his girlfriend around his neck for good luck, and Norman Bowker, who has seven medals but no one to talk to after the war. There’s also a writer (also named Tim O’Brien) who believes that “stories can save lives.” A quick read, this One Book, One Chicago selection is both Literature with a capital L and a page-turner.
Ron Kovic’s 1976 memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, inspired at least one Bruce Springsteen song and an Oliver Stone film, but it was initially one man’s awakening to the hard truths of war, as opposed to “the myth we had grown up believing in.” Paralyzed from the waist down in Vietnam, Kovic writes movingly of his evolution from idealistic teenage Marine to angry young man to purposeful anti-war activist.
While covering the Vietnam War for Time Magazine, Wallace Terry learned of the youngest American casualty in Vietnam: a 16-year-old black Marine who lied about his age so he could enlist to help support his mother. Determined to tell the stories of African Americans who served, Terry wrote Bloods, An Oral History of the Vietnam War, which features 20 black veterans—from impoverished draftees to career military men—telling their stories in the first person.
And then there are those who can’t share their stories—the 58,307 U.S. military personnel who died in Vietnam. To honor them, four veteran artists in conjunction with the National Veterans Art Museum created Above and Beyond, an installation on display at Harold Washington Library Center. Located on the third floor, it features 58,307 replica dog tags suspended from the ceiling, each stamped with the name, date of death and military branch of a veteran. It’s a shimmering, stunning work of art, and a powerful reminder of the war's tragic legacy.