An argument for rethinking the stereotypes of Vietnam veterans in light of oral histories of ex-servicemen and women from New York City.
Napoli (History/Brooklyn Coll.), who founded the Vietnam Oral History Project and conducted interviews for Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation (1998), is well aware of the apparent differences between these two generations of warriors in the public’s eye: The elders, perceived as victors on their return, were celebrated as heroes and became the pillars of their communities and the postwar American economy. The Vietnam vets, who lost their war, so the stereotype goes, came home scorned and spat upon, suffering PTSD and often falling through the cracks. Most of Napoli’s subjects did indeed endure psychic and physical wounds in battle. Some fell prey to various addictions and underwent spells of homelessness. But all of his subjects are now productive citizens. Most are Brooklyn-born descendants of Irish immigrants, though Jews, Italians, African-Americans and Latinos are also well-represented. Most are from working-class homes, with a few coming from the projects and a smattering from well-heeled suburbs. Each, however, is unique, and their stories are never dull. All illuminate the horror of war and the devastation it wreaks on the individuals who experience it. Some standouts: Joseph Giannini, a Long Island criminal defense attorney who used his experience in combat to acquit a client accused of killing a cop; Herbert Sweat, an infantryman originally from Bedford-Stuyvesant who spent years in and out of prisons and shelters before finding a path up via Black Veterans for Social Justice; and Neil Kenny, a colorfully expressive native of the Lower East Side whose PTSD cost him several jobs until he found purpose working with Iraq and Afghanistan vets.
A thoughtful, deeply personal approach to understanding the Vietnam War for the Americans who fought it.