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Bringing It All Back Home An Oral History of New York City's Vietnam Veterans

Philip F. Napoli

Hill and Wang

0809073188

9780809073184

Hardcover

272 Pages

$27.00

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The Vietnam War was a defining event for a generation of Americans. But for years, misguided and sometimes demeaning clichés about its veterans have proliferated widely. Philip F. Napoli’s Bringing It All Back Home strips away the myths and reveals the complex individuals who served in Southeast Asia. Napoli was one of the chief researchers for Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, and in the spirit of that enterprise, his oral histories recast our understanding of a war and its legacy.

Napoli introduces a remarkable group of young New Yorkers who went abroad with high hopes only to find a bewildering conflict. We meet a nurse who staged a hunger strike to promote peace while working at a field hospital; a paratrooper whose experiences on the battlefield left him with emotional scars that led to violence and homelessness; a black soldier who achieved an unexpected camaraderie with his fellow servicemen in racially tense times; and a university administrator who helped to create New York City’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Some of Napoli’s soldiers became active opponents of the war; others did not. But all returned with a powerful urge to understand the death and destruction they had seen. Overcoming adversity, a great many would go on to lead ambitious lives of public service. Tracing their journeys from the streets of Brooklyn and Queens to the banks of the Mekong, and back to the most glamorous corporations and meanest homeless shelters of New York City, Napoli reveals the variety and surprising vibrancy of the ex-soldiers’ experiences.

“For almost everyone, the time in Vietnam was the most exciting and the most alive time of your life,” one veteran recalls. He adds: “I still have this little trick . . . When I lie down and go to sleep, if there’s something bothering me, I say, ‘You’re warm, you’re dry, and there is no one shooting at you.’”

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Praise for Bringing It All Back Home

"Historian Philip F. Napoli, founder of the Vietnam Oral History Project, interviews a small, representative sample of New York City Vietnam veterans in his new work Bringing It All Back Home: An Oral History of New York City’s Vietnam Veterans. His subjects were all residents of New York City and its boroughs during the conflict. But, most similarities end here. Napoli captures the diverse, cosmopolitan nature of New York City: recording the experiences of men and women, the working class, poor, and middle class, those who attended college or did not, draftees and volunteers, and people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Napoli carries the stories through the present and carefully illustrates how each person leads a productive, meaningful life despite the psychic and physical injuries of war. Through these various life narratives—which are sometimes contradictory—Napoli underscores the fact that 'historians are tempted to construct for themselves narratives with seeming explanatory power' about the Vietnam War (p. 239). He contends that both popular culture and historical interpretations are guilty of perpetuating common clichés about the war, one being that war privations left veterans scrambling to escape homelessness, drug abuse, divorce, and unemployment. However, Napoli’s endeavor exposes how any interpretation of the conflict does 'not reveal the whole truth,' but is rightfully subject to counternarrative (p. 239). Unlike the clichés, his interviewees wrestled with some of the above difficulties and eventually reckoned with their war experience, married, enjoyed parenthood, and found fulfilling employment. The war did not bar these men and women from finding happiness. Napoli divides Bringing It All Back Home into thematic chapters that focus on no more than three individual recollections of the war. In general, these chapters cover veterans’ remembrances of Vietnam, homecoming, and the long-term consequences of war service. Chapter 1, 'Making Soldiers,' examines how numerous interviewees found themselves in the military during the war. The following five chapters—centered on veterans Richard Eggers, Sue O’Neill, Joseph Giannini, Anthony Wallace, and Joan Furey—describe the brutal, mentally taxing nature of limited war in South Vietnam. The laments of soldiers’ family and friends pervade chapter 7, 'War and Loss.' Napoli shows how, when a soldier perished in the war, it devastated families and neighborhoods in New York City. A soldier’s death in Vietnam caused emotional ripples throughout his hometown community that, Napoli says, continue to exercise power over the lives of their descendants today. Interviews with former Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) members, famous journalist Bernard Edelman, and veteran Robert Ptachik (who lobbied for New York City’s Vietnam veteran’s memorial) all show the multiple ways that veterans drew on the legacy of Vietnam during their civilian lives. The final chapters examine the physical and psychological consequences of Vietnam, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange. These stories culminate in chapter 15, 'The Diversity of the Veteran Experience,' where men and women recall their battles with PTSD, and also complications such as cancer, diabetes, asthma, and infertility from exposure to Agent Orange . . . In a useful afterword, Napoli explains why he decided to employ the ‘life-story technique’ for transcribing interviews (p. 237). He asked veterans and family members to ‘explain how they became the people they are today.’ This allowed each veteran to produce ‘narrative reconstructions of their lives,’ where they selected ‘bits and pieces’ of memory to create a ‘meaningful’ story to share with Napoli and a wider audience (p. 237). Moreover, Napoli stayed far away from asking specific, leading questions, or focusing entirely on each person’s relationship to the war. This broad question allowed the author to describe a subject’s life from childhood through the present . . . In the editorial hands of Napoli, these oral histories are placed in the context of race, class, gender, and a number of other factors to help interpret why these experiences are often at odds. I must also add that, when available, Napoli marshals together diary entries and letters sent home by soldiers during the Vietnam War to complement (and corroborate) soldiers’ memories of their lives—all valuable source materials effectively used by previous journalists and historians in edited works like Letters from Vietnam (2003) and Dear America (2002) . . . I highly recommend Napoli’s work for use in undergraduate courses, informed readers, and even scholars of the Cold War and Vietnam War who may find some of these oral histories relevant . . . [The author pays] careful attention to the various factors shaping each individual’s experience of the Vietnam War, such as race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class. Instructors who assign oral history projects to their undergraduates might peruse Napoli’s work for templates that their students can model. On the whole, Napoli clearly demonstrates how historians should employ the subjective nature of oral histories to break down stereotypes and interpretations that pigeonhole veterans into roles such as victim. Bringing It All Back Home forces us to reconsider one principle in our own historical research: the experiences of historical actors are subjective and unique, and the interpretations we derive from these sources are likewise limited and open to counternarrative and complication. As Napoli contends, we should eschew explanatory interpretations that pretend to use the experiences of a few veterans to describe those of many."—Joshua Akers, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, H-War

Bringing It All Back Home is a book we should all read, for it takes us from city streets to Vietnam jungles and back again. It’s an important and instructive account of the pilgrimage of New York’s young men who went to war and came home to resume their city lives and share their experiences.”—Tom Brokaw, special correspondent for NBC News and author of The Greatest Generation

“Napoli is the perfect person to write this book. Having worked with the Vietnam veterans of New York City for many years, he has come to understand us. While focused on vets from NYC, these stories are very representative of all of those who served in Vietnam and what happened to them upon their return home. I want to thank Professor Napoli for telling the true story of Vietnam veterans, who have often been exploited in the media.”John Rowan, President, Vietnam Veterans of America

“Philip F. Napoli’s oral history of New York’s Vietnam veterans is a remarkable book. It gives us a powerful view of what it was like for American soldiers to fight in Vietnam, and perhaps most of all it shows us how they lived once they came home. An important book for anyone interested in the Vietnam War.”—Alan Brinkley, National Book Award–winning author of Voices of Protest and The Publisher

“Deftly weaving narrative with the authentic voices of veterans, Bringing It All Back Home vividly portrays its subjects’ experiences in Vietnam, the trials of reentry into civilian life, and the challenges of building lives marked by memories both haunting and inspiring. This brilliant and moving collection offers insights that are profoundly relevant to our times, given the enormous population of veterans returning from our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”—Edward T. O’Donnell, author of Ship Ablaze

Bringing It All Back Home is one of the most compelling oral history collections of the Vietnam War experience. The sum of that long, distant conflict’s impact on American life may be impossible to fully comprehend, but Philip F. Napoli’s book shows us how the nation’s biggest city experienced the war and its aftermath at the neighborhood and family levels.”—Michael S. Foley, author of Confronting the War Machine and coeditor of Home Fronts

“Philip F. Napoli’s moving collection of New York City’s veterans’ voices is as varied as the men and women with whom he spoke. For some, as for their nonveteran fellow countrymen, Vietnam is well and truly over. But for many, in the words of one of the veterans, ‘It’s always there. It doesn’t go away.’ At a time when the voices of those who fight America’s wars are more muted than ever before, Bringing It All Back Home is an important reminder of what wars can mean for those who fight them.”—Marilyn Young, author of The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1990

“A thoughtful, deeply personal approach to understanding the Vietnam War for the Americans who fought it.”Kirkus Reviews

“[A] readable chronicle that uses the personal histories of the soldiers (in the interviewees’ transcribed words) to tell the human story of the American war in Vietnam . . . include[es] rich accounts of the lives of the men before they went to war and after they returned home. While some of the combatants’ stories are New York City–specific, the bulk of them mirror the experiences of Vietnam vets from across the nation. The book is a welcome addition to the Vietnam War oral history literary canon.”Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads

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BOOK EXCERPTS

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1


MAKING SOLDIERS: THE BOYS WHO BECAME THE MEN



 

On December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized public opinion in favor of war. In June 1942, a “New York at War” parade up Fifth Avenue attracted about 500,000 participants and 2.5 million spectators. The parade was intended, according to The New York Times, to “visualize the magnitude and intensity of the city’s contribution to all phases of the war program.” The Times pointed out that the crowd was larger than in “any other single American city with the exception
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Philip F. Napoli

  • Philip F. Napoli is an assistant professor of history at Brooklyn College, where he also directs the Veterans Oral History Project. He was one of the chief researchers for Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and An Album of Memories. He lives in New York City.

  • Philip F. Napoli Gabriel Liendo
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