Aftermath: War, Memory and History

Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam

As delivered.

President Dat, Rector Sen, students, faculty, distinguished guests — thank you for your very warm welcome and your generous hospitality.

For more than three decades before I became president of Harvard, I worked as a scholar and teacher of history. For that reason it gives me special pleasure to be here at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, one of Vietnam’s pre-eminent centers for historical study. It also means a great deal to me to be here in your country, for important parts of our national histories have been intertwined in ways that have affected all of us. What you know as the War of National Salvation Against the Americans — what we call “Vietnam” — indelibly shaped those of us coming of age in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Even though I never came within 8,000 miles of your country during those years, its names and places have reverberated in my mind for decades: names like Khe Sanh, Pleiku, Ap Bac, Dien Bien Phu, Gulf of Tonkin, Da Nang, Hue, Saigon, Hanoi. I have long wanted to make at least some of those names more than words. You have a slogan directed at tourists: “Vietnam: A Country, Not a War.” Like so many other Americans who have travelled here, I have wanted to make Vietnam into a place in my mind — not the name of a conflict that overtook my generation of young Americans, but a society and nation with all its complexity, its beauty, its history, its vibrancy, and its promise.

And somehow seeing your country has come to seem for me necessary to understanding my own. American men of my generation confronted the military draft, which cast many into a struggle of conscience about whether they would comply with laws that required them to serve in a war they believed unwise and unjust. For young women, like me, the dilemma was less immediately personal, but it propelled us to ask unsettling questions about our nation, our democracy, and our very humanity. Michael Herr, a journalist from the United States who covered the war, once wrote that Vietnam was, and I quote him, “what we had instead of happy childhoods.”

Each May at Harvard, hundreds of former students return to campus to mark the 50th anniversary of their graduation. This is an important annual ritual, and this spring, a special event will take place within the customary set of observances. Members of the class of 1967 — both men and women — will devote a segment of their time together to remembering the way the war defined their College years and to discussing how what they call “Vietnam” has affected them for over half a century. As one class member who served in the Marines writes, “Many in my ... generation made choices about Vietnam that ... have haunted us, in dreams and awake, for the rest of our lives.”

The war was not fought on American soil; 3 million tons of bombs and 11 million gallons of defoliant were not dropped on my country; 58,220 American soldiers died, compared to more than an estimated 3 million Vietnamese military and civilian deaths during the Second Indochina War. But both our societies live with ghosts, with memories, and with legacies. With the aftermath. 

I was not a member of the Harvard class that will have its reunion this spring, but I am close to their age, and like them, I was shaped by the war in ways I still am not sure I fully understand. But one influence I can clearly identify has been upon my work as a historian. Coming of age in the 1960s produced in me an enduring fascination with war, with the way its terrible demands can define individuals and societies, with war’s inevitable refraction of ideas and ideals, with the extremity of its pressures. War often proves to be a quintessential “moment of truth,” both for individuals and their societies. 

Within the history of the American experience of war, the conflict that rests at the core of national identity is the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. Both because of its ferocity and because the very meaning and survival of the nation were at stake, the Civil War continues to loom large in our national consciousness, and it has been the focus of my historical research and writing. Many of the war’s critical debates — about justice, equality, citizenship, democracy, and about the locus of national power — these debates continue to shape our politics a century and a half after the war’s end. And we continue to struggle over the war’s meaning for the nation’s abiding racial divisions. Americans still battle over the use of the Confederate flag, the emblem of the would-be white southern nation that fought to preserve black slavery, a symbol that today is seen by most Americans as an affront and an obstacle to racial justice.

Customarily, war’s victor writes its history. But by the end of the 19th century, the triumphant North had come to embrace a version of the war that sought to reconcile sectional divisions in a narrative of common sacrifice, common suffering shared by white Americans North and South. As the price of reunion, the nation abandoned the Union’s emancipationist commitment to a “new birth of freedom” and all but deserted the 4 million former slaves who with their descendants were consigned to segregation and discrimination for more than a century to come. The legal foundations of slavery were ended, but the vision of true freedom for African-Americans was set aside in order to enable North and South to reunite in their common sense of mourning and loss.

The Civil War had indeed demanded great sacrifice. An estimated 750,000 had died — more than in every other American war combined up through the war in Vietnam. Losses claimed 2½ percent of the population. A similar rate of death in the United States today would mean nearly 7 million fatalities.

This was a war for which Americans were ill-prepared. Both sides thought it would likely end after a single battle if indeed any blood would be shed at all. With some few exceptions, it was a war of organized encounters, not guerrillas or irregulars. But the scale of the conflict — nearly 3 million men served in the course of the war — that scale far exceeded anything the military had previously experienced and as a result, it challenged the logistical imagination and capacities of both armies.

The war’s unexpected scale had many implications, but one that has particularly captured my attention was the meaning and impact of mass death. Death — its threat, its proximity, its actuality — became the most widely shared of the war’s experiences. How did the nation cope with this loss? I have sought to ask that question on every level, from the logistical — what did they do with the bodies? — to the psychological, the political, and the spiritual.

Neither northern nor southern armies had regular burial details, graves registration units, identity badges like dog tags, or official next-of-kin notification. Burial was an act of improvisation. After a battle, the victor who held the ground became responsible for the bodies left upon it. This often resulted in anonymous mass trench burials, especially of enemy dead. Coffins were rare, except for officers.

Soldiers and civilians alike were shocked by the inhumanity represented by such treatment of the dead. Nineteenth-century Americans shared deeply felt attitudes about what constituted a “good death” and how that could determine one’s fate into eternity. Emerging battlefield practices seemed to upend almost every hope and expectation for proper treatment of the slain. Men were being interred, one soldier observed, as if they were nothing better than “dead chickens.” In the face of circumstances that undermined fundamental assumptions of human dignity and identity, civilians and soldiers alike worked to sustain some semblance of the beliefs and customs that had defined them. Soldiers struggled to identify comrades, dig and mark individual graves, or bury the unknown with some sort of a marker — perhaps a name on a piece of paper inside a bottle — that might later be found. Voluntary societies were formed to undertake the work governments did not — mapping locations of graves and recording the names of the slain. Comrades offered makeshift funeral ceremonies, seeking to maintain some semblance of reverence and meaning even under trying and dramatically changed new conditions. It was my great privilege yesterday to visit a military cemetery at Ap Bac. Created a century after our American Civil War and half a world away, this graveyard represents the same human urgency to honor the dead and their sacrifice.

Despite such efforts, in the American Civil War, hundreds of thousands of men — more than 40 percent of deceased Yankees and a far greater proportion of Confederates — perished without names, identified only as “Unknown.” To modern Americans this seems unimaginable. To your country it is all too real, for the actual number of missing and unidentified in our Civil War — an estimated 300,000 — is probably quite close to the total number of Vietnamese unaccounted for in the Second Indochina War. Today the United States expends more than $100 million annually in the effort to find and identify individuals still missing from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. I am certain you in this country are well acquainted with the vehemence of the American MIA movement after 1975. But the assumption that the American nation is obliged to account for and return — either dead or alive — every soldier in its service is of recent origin. Only with the Korean War did the United States establish a policy of identifying and repatriating every dead soldier. Only with World War I did combatants begin to wear official badges of identity — what we call dog tags. But this revolution in both consciousness and practice began with the Civil War. That war’s last days saw the origins of grave registration systems in the military, and, by the end of the conflict, the United States government had begun to establish a national cemetery system, a powerful acknowledgement of the obligation of the state to those who have died in its defense. 

In the years between 1866 and 1871, after the end of military hostilities, Union soldiers were detailed to scour the war-torn countryside in search of their dead comrades. Ultimately, they located and reburied more than 300,000 individuals in 74 new national cemeteries and they succeeded in identifying more than half of those they found. The very scale of this effort would have been unimaginable before the war, when the national government was very limited in its powers and programs. The project of reburying the dead defined a different sort of nation-state, a government newly dedicated to the dignity of each human being in death as well as in life, a government — as Abraham Lincoln put it — of the people, by the people, and for the people who had risen in its defense.

But these unprecedented federal initiatives were far from sufficient to relieve the sense of loss and mourning that permeated the nation. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were left with what one bereaved survivor called a “dread void of uncertainty” about loved ones whose fate remained unknown. Families wondered for the rest of their lives about lost husbands, fathers, or sons. One grieving woman described how, and I quote her, “It was years before I gave up the hope that he would someday appear. I got it into my head that he had been taken prisoner and carried off but that he would make his way back one day.” The absence of identifiable bodies left the bereaved with abiding uncertainty and fantastical hopes, with illusions to make the world more endurable.

Aftermath. The enduring challenge of how to live with the residuum of war. Ambrose Bierce, a writer who served in the Union army, wrote of being permanently haunted by, as he put it, “visions of the dead and dying,” and he felt himself, as he said, “sentenced to life” and to making sense of how Civil War death had redefined what life might be. Sidney Lanier, a Confederate poet who had been both a combatant and a prisoner of war, commented in 1875 that for most of his “generation in the South since the War,” he said, “pretty much the whole of life has been not-dying.” A kind of survivors’ guilt. A version of post-traumatic stress that seizes not just individuals but societies. 

The aftermath of war is devastation — humans wounded and disfigured, children who have become orphans, property and sources of livelihood destroyed, economies shattered, populations divided. Yet the aftermath rests not just in the body, but in the soul, even in the souls of those born long after the guns have gone silent. That is why the American Civil War and its enormous cost continue to influence our national debates today. That is why members of the Harvard College Class of 1967, men and women now in their 70s, feel an urgency to confront experiences more than five decades old, memories of a time when “Vietnam” asked them to define themselves and their nation. That is why I am so glad to be in your country at last, for I too am of their generation.

The character Kien in Bao Ninh’s acclaimed novel The Sorrow of War asks, “Why choose war? Why must he write of the war?” Even as Kien struggles to find another subject, he “cannot stop writing war stories.” Like him, we write and we talk and we remember because we struggle to understand how war has made us. Vietnam and the United States fought against one another in a long and devastating war. Now, both separately and together, we face its aftermath.

History is indispensable in that effort. It helps us confront the ghosts and the demons that the tragedies of the past leave as their legacy to the present. It illuminates the blindnesses and cruelties that enable war. It equips us to imagine and to strive for peace.

Thank you, very much.