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Paula Joan Caplan's Authors Guild Blog

Points of View, Politics, and Ongoing Pain from the War in Vietnam

I hope that thoughtful people will read this essay and consider how different experiences and different perspectives bear on the sequence of events I shall describe.

 

I am not a military veteran, but my late father was, and I have spent more than a dozen years listening to veterans from all eras, advocating for them and their families, making films about them, and making a Public Service Announcement series called "Listen to a Veteran!" These experiences have taught me much about the too-frequent chasms between veterans and nonveterans, and it means a great deal to me to try to bridge those chasms. You can only begin to imagine, I suspect, how troubled -- no, devastated -- I was by a series of recent events involving veterans from America's war in Vietnam, a war whose legacy has been tremendous conflict among Americans, confusion, pain, and moral anguish. 

 

The events about which this essay is written began when I read an article in Smithsonian Magazine and wrote a letter to its editor in response. The article was called "The Ghosts of My Lai" and included the statement that Vietnam veterans were called baby killers. First I shall tell you the content of my letter to the editor as it was published in the March 2018 hard copy edition of the magazine. It was:

 

Contrary to your suggestion, Vietnam veterans returning from the war were not called "baby killers," according to scholars who have reviewed news media reports and other sources from that time. In fact, government officials, trying to garner support and shift the public focus away from the war's realities, promoted the myth that antiwar protestors aimed that epithet at veterans. It was LBJ who was called a baby killer.  The letter was signed Paula J. Caplan, founder, Listen to a Veteran, Rockville, Maryland.

 

After my letter was published, about a dozen veterans wrote to me, I replied to each one individually and privately, and then on March 13, 2018, I wrote this letter to them collectively:

 

Hello,

 

This letter is going (Bcc'd) to the veterans who contacted me to express concern about the extremely shortened version of my letter that Smithsonian Magazine's editors chose to publish.

 

I am grateful to each of you for taking the time and trouble to write to me and to describe what were painful experiences you had that contradicted what seemed to appear in my letter. Being an advocate for veterans from all eras for more than a decade, the last thing I ever want to do is cause further suffering to any veteran.

I am currently dealing with major medical problems in a close family member -- and am deeply touched by the very kind, compassionate responses that two of you sent to that statement -- so have limited time, but I have been in communication with the magazine's editor about how to rectify the consequences of their restricting my letter to 50 words while publishing three other letters, two of which were 2 1/2 times longer than that. Especially with regard to a matter as complex as what I was wanting to convey, this was unforgivable, and the combination of their singular restriction placed on me with the wording I ultimately chose has seemingly led to their Managing Editor's acknowledgement of their wrong.

 

The editor refuses to publish a longer letter from me in the hard copy of the magazine, which is what I requested, and only agreed to (1)remove the current letter from their online version and (2)publish a longer letter from ... but only online... once I have the time and space to write it. However, it is unfortunate that -- though the editor says she has no idea how many people read the magazine in hard copy vs. how many read the online version -- she admits that it is likely that far fewer people look at it online than in hard copy.

 

Nevertheless, I will be writing that longer letter for the online version.

 

In the meantime, I wanted to send you this link to an essay I wrote some time ago on the website I have for my work with veterans, in case you'd like to have a look at the alarm I have felt about the invisibility of veterans' suffering. I realize this may seem ironic to you, in light of the reason you contacted me, but I hope you might have a look at it.

 

https://whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com/blog [the link took them to my essay called "The Naked Emperor and the Vanishing Veteran," which is also published on this Authors Guild website on the blog page]

 

I will be in touch when I have written the longer letter for the magazine's website.

 

Warm wishes,

 

Paula
Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.
Founder and Director, Listen to a Veteran! listentoaveteran.org
"Is Anybody Listening?" film isanybodylisteningmovie.org
"Is Anybody Listening?" song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztJ5c0URQ6E

 

Subsequently, I received a few letters from more veterans. I then wrote as follows on March 23 to all of the veterans who had contacted me:

 

Hello,

 

This message is going to you wonderful veterans who wrote to me about my extremely brief letter in the hard copy of Smithsonian Magazine.

 

It took me awhile to write a more extensive letter, because there was a lot I wanted to say, and I was so grateful for what each of you wrote to me and wanted time to mull over the various pieces of the matter, but the longer letter was published online today at
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/magazine/mar18_discussion-180968085/?no-cache

 

I hope you will see right away my report of your messages to me and my belief in what you told me, as well as my gratitude for how gracious you were.

 

I hope you will also understand more of why I wanted to respond to that initial statement in the My Lai article. And of course, if you would like to write anything to me about the new letter, I would be very interested to hear from you.

 

Warmest wishes,

 

Paula
Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.
Associate, Hutchins Center, Harvard University
paulajcaplan.net
&
Founder and Director, Listen to a Veteran! listentoaveteran.org
Producer, "Is Anybody Listening?" film isanybodylisteningmovie.org
"Is Anybody Listening?" song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztJ5c0URQ6E
Producer, "Isaac Pope: The Spirit of an American Century" (film scheduled for completion in the next couple of months) isaacpopefilm.com

 

I hope that readers of this essay will be sure to read my longer letter in Smithsonian Magazine online at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/magazine/mar18_discussion-180968085/?no-cache and send me your thoughts if you wish.

 

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