On Tuesday of this week I was invited by Prof. Stephanie Levin to speak about the process of creating CALLED TO SERVE for her class entitled WARRIORS AND RESISTERS. In particular Prof. Levin wanted me to address the experience of being an interviewer, since her students are about to do a project involving interviewing veterans going back to World War II and up through the Iraq War. What follows is the talk I gave. Afterwards I was asked numerous provocative and thoughtful questions by many of the 25 students taking this most stimulating and timely course. Also in attendance was Rob Wilson, head of the Veterans Education Project, which provides speakers to share their war experiences with high school and college students. He was there to make connections between the students and some of the veterans he knows in the VEP. After Prof. Levin’s introduction of the book and me I had this to say:
The truth of the matter is I get “interviewed” by friends and acquaintances not infrequently about why I chose to write a book about the Vietnam War era draft 34 years after it ended and 36 years after I was drafted. I think it’s a fine question and one that I want to answer to begin my conversation with you. Yes, I would like this to be a conversation – or perhaps even an interview in which I will tell you some of the background of the book and then open up the discussion so I can respond to your questions.
I wrote the book because it has been one of the two books I have wanted to write for over 30 years. The other book, which I still hope some day to get to, will be about white allies of people of color through American history – men and women who have fought racism because they refused to accept injustice regardless of the consequences. I believe both white folks and people of color need to read such books because they can both educate us about what people have always done to undue racism and because they can inspire others to do similar acts. Quite incredibly, many of those who would be included in the book continue to go unrecognized despite their contributions and dedication to their cause.
The book about which we will be talking today I have wanted to write for related reasons: because the stories I have had the privilege of receiving are worthy of being shared since they invariably include much personal challenge and soul-searching; because these oral histories touch on so many aspects of our culture – family relationships, politics, moral values, music, drug use, religion, just to name a few; because the men and women whose stories are contained in these pages were your age and faced an enormously difficult and life-affecting decision at a time in their lives when they were not necessarily prepared or equipped to make it; because I heard stories like these back in the ‘70’s and was struck then by their variety and by their profoundly moving qualities; because my fellow draftees and friends are now in our late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, so if the stories aren’t shared now they will, as so many stories are, be lost; and because the stories are rich in what makes for good stories – drama, conflict, pain, humor – believe it or not – and catharsis. On the catharsis level, two of the last few interviews I conducted serve to express the answer to the question of why I undertook this project quite compellingly. One was from a man who left the country for Canada. After almost 2 hours of interviewing, I asked him what he felt when he reflected on his experience and he said, “I realize in the telling, that the decision to leave the country is the decision I am most proud of in my life”. Within a few weeks I had the privilege of interviewing his ex-wife who lived in Canada with him for several years before returning to this country after unconditional amnesty was offered in 1977 by the Carter administration. At the end of her interview I asked her if she had any regrets about anything that happened and she said that she regretted never having told her ex-husband how much she admired his stand and his wherewithal to withstand what happened to him. She told me that she had decided over the course of re-living the experience in the interview, that she would write him a letter and let him know what she felt – 36 years after the events had transpired.
There is one more reason and it became a much more central reason with the candidacy of John Kerry in 2004. He represented a rare opportunity with regard to Vietnam since he had been both a soldier and an anti-war activist. His candidacy provided the chance for those who served and those who chose other ways to respond to the war to reconcile their differences. For a whole host of reasons that didn’t happen. By including the range of experiences in my project, I, too, am hoping to contribute to the healing that still needs to take place among those who were affected by the war in this country. Towards that end I have created a website and blog entitled, A CALL TO READ AND WRITE STORIES whose purpose is to provide a place to access some of the stories from the book – a few under each category of experience – and to have those who so choose tell their Vietnam story as well as to discover a variety of posts including quite a few that compare and contrast the War in Iraq with the Vietnam War. One of the books mentioned in the list of Vietnam resources on the blog is IRAQ AND VIETNAM: HOW NOT TO LEARN THE LESSONS OF THE PAST. It is a series of essays comparing and contrasting the two wars and its thesis is that the only way we have a prayer of avoiding such way beyond costly mistakes as these two horrific wars represent is to pay great attention to history and to the lessons that are there for the learning.
Another question I will ask myself on your behalf before I open this up to your questions is how did the project evolve once it began 4 years ago. The answer to that allows me to begin to get into what I want very much to pass on to you and that is my experience with being an interviewer for these 57 interviews. This project evolved from my original conception of a book about the draft lottery. I had always felt that the lottery, which first took place in 1969 and included all men between the ages of 18 and 25, was a very important event in the course of the war since it intended to level the playing field as well as provide more soldiers for the war effort. Despite these hopes, I became aware that, even without college deferments, those of us with economic advantages could still play the system and increase the likelihood of getting a deferment. But as I began to seek out men with lottery stories, I became aware that there were many others who were affected by the draft whose stories, once I became open to hearing them, were at least as compelling – a man who enlisted because he was told that he would never end up in Vietnam where the draftees were sent, but ended up serving there for 2 years and coming home addicted to heroin; a man whose mother hid the letter he received ordering him to report for a physical because she had already watched 4 sons be drafted; a medic who experienced so many horrors that he escaped into alcoholism for 16 years before poetry saved him and he joined the group of Vietnamese and American poets and writers whose fellowship has advanced the cause of reconciliation and healing. And there were those who resisted and those who left, each a chapter in the book and presenting extraordinary stories of conflicts with family and society as well as exhibiting much courage and bravery. So over time the project morphed into the book you see today and I highly recommend that whenever you conduct your interview you are open to its possibilities and don’t preconceive of either its direction or its content.
Finally, before hearing your questions, I would like to say a few words about being an interviewer. As I have written on a couple of occasions in the book, this has been one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences of my life. In many ways, although it is terrific to finish this project, I didn’t want it to end because being the person who was witness to these stories along with the revelations, the tears and the memories that they jogged was a great honor and privilege. I definitely evolved as an interviewer through the process. At the outset I would show up with my preconceived questions, which over time I came to realize had the effect of limiting what was shared. Not only that, but I also was more intrusive in earlier interviews and even though I, of course, edited out my responses and questions, it wasn’t until I began to realize that what I was doing was curtailing spontaneity that I started getting out of the way. What this meant was that I would simply set the stage for the interview by stating what I wanted my subject to do with words like these: “Please start where you believe the story needs to start about your experience of the war and the draft. Include as many details as you can including names and dates of people and places. I am looking for the ways in which this affected you emotionally, physically and psychologically. If there is something you tell that I feel needs clarifying or elaborating I will ask, but this is your story and I want you to tell it the way it feels most real and satisfying.” When something came up that I felt would be very compelling to hear more about given my growing awareness of the range of stories and their emotionality I would definitely pursue it, but more and more I asked less and less.