Reconstruction 9.1 (2009)

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Methodological Approaches to Studying the Social Monad: A Consideration of In Interdisciplinary Sociological Research / Christina D. Weber


Abstract: In this paper, I explore the methodological considerations involved in conducting research on a historically traumatic event. By focusing on the rich set of social discourses at work within my case study of the Vietnam War, the research emphasized the generational impact of this historically traumatic event through interdisciplinary approach to sociological research. My research included a two-pronged data collection and analysis process. The first consisted of interviews I conducted with children of (male) Vietnam Veterans. The second consisted of textual analyses of film, television, and literature of the Vietnam War and Vietnam Veteran. In this paper I discuss the importance of approaching a traumatic event through these multiple data sources. In addition, I explore not only how this interdisciplinary approach enabled me to address a traumatic event's dense social discourse shapes social subjects, but also how it impacted me as the researcher. Lastly, I delve into some of the challenges and advantages involved in conducting interdisciplinary research for a sociologist.




<1> In this article, I explore the methodological issues involved in conducting research on the case study of the Vietnam War (1959-1975). Holding a firm grip on the American imagination, the Vietnam war is marred by memories of divisiveness and loss. The war's impact on the United States can be felt in a variety of social settings that range from foreign policy and popular culture to highly affective interpersonal relationships. In this research, I draw on both the public and private memories of the war to better understand the Vietnam war's strong presence in American society. By focusing on the rich set of social discourses at work within my case study, I emphasize the generational impact of the Vietnam war by following an interdisciplinary approach in sociological research. My research includes a two-pronged data collection and analysis process. The first consists of interviews I conducted with children of (male) Vietnam veterans. [1] The second consists of textual analyses of film, television, and literature of the Vietnam war with a particular focus on representations of the Vietnam veteran. These two methodological components ground my analysis of the historical event of the Vietnam war, which emphasizes the way in which a historical event is remembered and how it impacts individuals as they relate to the event as family members of Vietnam veterans. An interdisciplinary approach to this research issue enabled me to analyse this traumatic event's dense social discourse through a variety of data sources, taking me on a journey through the event by way of the social subjects who lived through and live with it.

<2> For children of Vietnam veterans, memories extend beyond public history and into their personal memories and interactions with their fathers. Their experiences with their fathers give them a unique perspective of the after effects of the war. As a daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I struggle with this project because I felt (and still do feel) like I am both researcher and subject. Not only must I build my case study as a sociologist, I also struggle to build a cohesive understanding of how the Vietnam war is intimately a part of my life even though I never personally participated in the war. This is important methodologically, because it is a constant reminder that subjects are never simply subjects, as they continue to experience the social world in which sociologists study.

<3> Because I am working with a traumatic event, the foundation of my research relies on the work done in trauma and memory studies. These rapidly growing fields are interdisciplinary in nature, so my work draws on both the social sciences and the humanities. Rather than remaining within a single disciplinary boundary, I draw on a diverse set of scholars that range from sociologists Avery Gordon (Ghostly Matters) and Jeffrey Olick ("Collective Memory: The Two Cultures") to historians such as Dominick LaCapra (History in Transit) to literary theorists Cathy Caruth (Trauma and Unclaimed Experience) and Shoshona Felman (Juridical Unconscious). Much of my conceptual work, though, begins with Walter Benjamin and his notion of the monad. A concept Benjamin explores in "Theses on the Philosophy of History," the monad is essentially the crystallization of a traumatic event. "Where thinking stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad" (262, my emphasis). The social monad is a discursive pressure point that contains a dynamic network of social interaction. A traumatic event is something that can be dated (the Vietnam war) and that is "situated in the past" (LaCapra 55). In order to think of the traumatic event as a social thing, I develop a version of the social monad that serves as the backbone of this research on the generational impact of war on family relationships. The social monad helps expand our understanding of a historical event by including individual experiences within the framework of the event.

<4> As an object filled with silence, gaps, unfinished stories, and difficult to articulate emotions, the social monad is a confusing array of personal stories and public histories that disrupt traditional ways of knowing the social world. This necessitates an interdisciplinary research approach. Rather than emphasizing the term traumatic event, I focus on the social monad in order to draw attention to the discursive structure of a historical event such as the Vietnam war. This enables me to analyze the Vietnam war as a social site that moves through space and time as social subjects work within the discursive structures defining this event. This emphasis reveals how the Vietnam war comes to be embodied by the individuals who lived through the event first-hand: in this case, Vietnam veterans. In the remainder of this article, I draw out the methodology used, emphasizing the processes through which I analyze the different sets of narratives.


Understanding the Social Monad through the Case Study 

"A case study is both a process of inquiry and the product of that case"(Stake 121).

<5> A case study is not only a part of the process of inquiry, but is also the process of demarcating and understanding the object of inquiry. A case study can consist of a range of subject matter. It can be a single person, a group of people, or an event (Stake 120). Identifying the Vietnam war as the case study in my research, I simultaneously define the perimeters of the social monad as I untangle the complicated interactions at work within it. Robert Stake comments that "Case study is not a methodological choice but a choice of what is to be studied" (119). For this reason, the methods involved in conducting a case study can be diverse. This sets the stage for an interdisciplinary approach that is fluid and potentially innovative. By focusing on the case study, I am less concerned with generalizing and more concerned with breaking open the ways in which an event such as the Vietnam war is defined socially. As Stake explains, "Damage occurs when the commitment to generalize or to theorize runs so strong that the researcher's attention is drawn away from features important for understanding the case itself" (125). Although I may be guilty of strongly theorizing as I go on to develop the concept of the social monad through the analysis of the Vietnam war, I do so in order to develop a more complex understanding of it. The case study of the Vietnam war enables an analysis that extends beyond the perimeters of its chronological specificity and inserts itself into the intersubjective relationship between father and child.

<6> Like the bundle of nerves that meets at the end of the body's spine, the network of stories and relationships found in a social monad is a source of intense feeling and activity. This is linked to the methodological tension within a case study, because it holds a variety of data sources through which the researcher explores the case. The social monad generates meaning from which the social body interprets and negotiates a historically traumatic event such as the Vietnam war. The fragmented stories and relationships challenge the researcher to develop a methodological approach that pulls together the seemingly scattered cultural artifacts that constitute the social monad.

<7> On the surface, the social monad is a carapace protectively defining and shaping the perimeters of social understanding of the Vietnam war. Invoking Walter Benjamin, the (social) monad is the crystallized residue of a traumatic event. The event temporally passed but its effects, bound in the social monad, continue to haunt present life because the event has been passed on as a dense site of social activity. By delving into the interactions between father and child, one can begin to unravel the process of passing on meanings of the Vietnam war.

<8> This dense site reveals a far more complex system of social enterprise than the hardened carapace implies. The inner workings of the social monad---to look at it from the inside out---reveal a complicated tangle of personal memories and intersubjective relationships that are at once attached to the crystallized social frame, yet have distinct lives of their own. Relying on the social subject of the Vietnam veteran, interviewees plug into this carapace to contextualize that moment within their own relationships with their fathers. At the same time, the discourses weaving through the selected cultural artifacts, such as film, television, and literature, express the way the social monad travels through time. Both the interviewees and cultural artifacts enliven the complex underbelly of the social monad, actively reminding us of the presence of the Vietnam war in our society. Ultimately, the case study of the Vietnam war is an instructive example of the social monad. The social monad provides a mechanism through which to understand the boundaries of a historical event---boundaries shaped less by the chronological ordering of time than by generational interactions and cultural narratives that traverse a variety of socio-historical contexts.

 <9> The case study relied on two rounds of interviews: October 2001 to April 2002 and August 2002 to May 2003. The first round of interviews was generated from my contact with a Vietnam Veteran Organization (which I call VVO in order to maintain confidentiality) in western New York. The second round of interviews developed out of my contacts at VVO and snowballed into a variety of different contacts with community and university organizations. The two rounds garnered 25 interviewees. I analyzed the narratives of my interviewees in conjunction with an analysis of the Vietnam war in order to address the intersection between social discourse and individual narratives. This ultimately enabled me to capture how the social monad moves through space and time. What follows is a demonstration of how I integrated these data sources, drawing out how the Vietnam war serves as a mediator of social relations.


Locating the Enunciative Site of the Social Monad: Tangled Methods 


"Memory creates a chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation.... It starts the web which all stories together form in the end. One ties on to the next…as the great storytellers have shown." (Benjamin 98)

"For the growing-up children of many [Vietnam] vets, the war’s remoteness was all but impossible to gauge because it had happened pre-you, before you had come to grasp the sheer accident of your own placement in time, before you recognized your reality—-your bedroom, your toys and comic books—-had nothing to do with the reality of your father." (Bissell 567)

<10> Memory creates a chain of tradition from which individuals develop their own stories, which then feeds back into the dense site that is the social monad. This network of stories moves from generation to generation, not as a cohesive nugget the second generation is forced to carry, but as a complex set of fragments that members of the second generation as they traverse in order to shape their subjectivities. According to Susan Chase, contemporary narrative analysis integrates a wide range of diverse approaches and methods, "all revolving around an interest in biographical particulars as narrated by the one who lives them" (58). Utilizing a diverse set of data, the desire is to shift the focal point away from telling the story of the Vietnam war as an isolated historical event that happened at a particular moment and place. Instead, the effort is to tell the story of the Vietnam war through sets of personal stories emphasizing the personal trauma of war or growing up with a father who was a war veteran. The use of narrative is to unravel the way in which war shocks aspects of culture and society, rendering it an ongoing presence in the lives of individuals.

<11> As a researcher struggling to convey the way in which memories seep through space and time, it became clear that I had to piece together these stories much in the way Denzin and Lincoln identify the qualitative researcher as a bricoleur. "The interpretive bricoleur produces a bricolage---that is, a pieced-together set of representations that is fitted to the specifics of a complex situation" (Denzin and Lincoln 5). I pieced together narratives and representations from not only the Vietnam veterans, but also their children and cultural representations of the Vietnam war in order to address the complex nexus of experiences within the social monad. A bricoleur employs a variety of data sources and methods in order to delve into the variegated data available (see Denzin and Lincoln and Kincheloe) As such, the route to understanding the social monad of the Vietnam war is one that takes us through interviews, published texts, and popular culture images.


The Vietnam Veteran Narrative in American Culture 


<12> Contrasting children of Vietnam veterans' (henceforth referred as COVV) narratives to the layers of the Vietnam veteran narrative deepens our insight into the process of engaging with the social monad. Trauma moves into the next generation through a series of intersubjective shifts that depart from the original moment of trauma. Instead of reading the traumatic event, the gaze shifts to the traumatized subject. As a bricoleur, I must piece together the social discourses within the social monad of the Vietnam war, not as a linear series of experiences, but as a series of dynamic interrelationships moving the event through time with varying degrees of momentum and with shifting intensities of meaning. "In texts based on metaphors of montage, quilt making, and jazz improvisation, many different things are going on at the same time---different voices, different perspectives, points of views, angles of vision" (Denzin and Lincoln 7).

<13> The traffic in memories and their chaotic movement in the stories of our lives make it difficult to develop clear categories and typologies through which to understand the processes at work within the social monad. One thing that became clear over the course of my research was the way in which both my interviewees and the published memoirs worked with and against the discursive structure of what I will simply term the Vietnam Veteran Narrative (henceforth referred as VVN). I utilize this discursive structure, not to reinforce the stereotype of the Vietnam veteran, but to understand the way in which representations of the Vietnam veteran are deployed in society and how individuals fill out and tell the story of their own experiences and understandings of the Vietnam veteran and Vietnam war. The VVN underscores the centrality of the Vietnam veteran in our confrontation with traumatic event of the Vietnam war. This discursive structure is built out of both the published memoirs and autobiographies of Vietnam veterans, as well as the cultural representation of the Vietnam veteran found in film and television (see Lewis, Loeb, and Weber).

<14> The tension between the crystallized social narrative I identify as the VVN and the myriad individual Vietnam veteran narratives breathes life into the bones of the plot, producing a complex and layered story of the social monad of the Vietnam war that cannot be simply told as a social story or an individual story. My analysis moves between these levels and at times tells the story as a complex matrix of personal and social experiences, aspects of which cannot be entirely extracted from one another. This generates a complicated starting point for my analysis of the narratives of children of Vietnam veterans. At the same time, it exemplifies Jeffrey Olick's argument for integrating individual and collective memory. For Olick, trauma is a fruitful example of how memory defies the purely individual or collective through the ways they are externalized and objectified in family relationships.

While we might speak of the residue of individual traumas, insofar as parents or grandparents imparted to their offspring stories of their experiences, psychological traumas cannot be passed down through generations like bad genes. In the first place, the fact that the memory of personally traumatic experiences is externalized and objectified as narrative means it is no longer a purely individual psychological matter. And in the second place, discussing the ongoing nature of trauma in terms of such transmitted personal narratives does not capture what we really mean-—that is, an unassimilable breach in the collective narrative (Olick 345, my emphasis).
The expressions of personal narratives do capture what we mean-but not alone. As we move deeper into this exploration of the social monad though the juxtaposition of COVV's narratives with cultural narratives of the Vietnam veteran and the Vietnam war, the ruptures and gaps in the web of stories surrounding masculine subjectivity are exposed and propelled into discourses surrounding the event and a variety of social identities. Traumatic events are more than the sum of personal traumatic experiences; yet it is those experiences, which externalize and objectify traumatic experiences and their memories, that provide a means of social recognition.

<15> COVV's narratives do not develop around how the combat experience and the Vietnam war fractured the survivor's belief in the dominant fiction; their narratives develop around the aftereffects. As such, the narrative(s) of the carapace of the Vietnam war encases imbricated levels of social experience that include the most intimate and fluid intersubjective relationships along with the most deeply inscribed social forms reified in the social world such as the media. This is expressed in COVV's negotiation of their relationship with their fathers and the negative social images of the Vietnam veteran.

<16> Another facet of this discursive structure within the social monad of the Vietnam war is the way in which cultural forms reify particular aspects of the Vietnam veteran in American culture. My interviewees engage with the social monad of the Vietnam war through their continual negotiation of the negative images of the Vietnam veteran. Specifically, they focus on how poorly Vietnam veterans were treated when they came home and how they were dealt with in the United States media. These images cast shadows over children of Vietnam veterans' ability to understand their fathers and the Vietnam war. For example,Ted [2] tries to separate his father from the image of the stereotyped Vietnam veteran throughout our interview, explaining "There was that stigma that everybody over there [in Vietnam] got attached with. And even, you'd see those reports in the media, ‘former Vietnam veteran opens fire at a McDonalds restaurant' or whatever, then it brings back that stigma that's so prevalent." Similarly, Samantha, another interviewee, made the comment that when Vietnam veterans were finally acknowledged by society in the media they were portrayed as men who had a lot of problems, leading people to assume "that half the street bums on the corner are probably old Vietnam veterans." In Ted and Samantha's narratives, these types of assumptions generate the negative undertones constituting the image of the Vietnam veteran. This is not a benign image; rather, it is one that actively interjects into their personal relationships.

<17> D. Michael Shafer emphasizes how "Since the war, we have ignored Vietnam veterans or treated them with a hostility reflecting the common view that they are a ‘bunch of whining vets,' or losers, druggies, and, possibly, psychopaths" (80). Representations such as these still emerge from popular culture. Regardless of whether or not the news media tries to be sensitive to the struggles Vietnam veterans faced in their transition back into civilian life, the public representation of the Vietnam veteran as a traumatized subject dominates its public image. Coupled with the violent and deviant images of the Vietnam veteran in Hollywood films, the crystallization of the image of the Vietnam veteran as a socially troubled masculine subject has continued to plague the American memory of the Vietnam war (e.g. see Shafer, O'Brien "The Violent Vet," and Appy) Shafer speaks of the way that this problematic image is a reflection of American society's inability to face the "human legacy" of the Vietnam war (80-1). Even now, America has trouble facing this human legacy. The troubled image of the Vietnam veteran continues to persist in current representations of him, demonstrating the way America still struggles to make sense of Vietnam war's impact on society. My interviewees must manage these public images as they discuss their relationship with their fathers, reflecting how the Vietnam war continues to affect children of Vietnam veterans in intimate ways (whether or not they are explicitly aware of it). The way the interviewees generate their narratives around their fathers and the war reveals the depth of this image's impact, regardless of how accurate or wrong they may find it to be. The social construction of the Vietnam veteran leaves my interviewees working to integrate deep-rooted social narratives---pieces of the dominant fiction of America---into their personal narrations of their fathers and the Vietnam war, which often stand in contradiction to (or with far greater complexity than) these public representations.

<18> For example, when I asked Samantha to tell me what first came to mind when the topic of Vietnam was brought up, she immediately said the film, Born on the Fourth of July. Based on Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic's book of the same title, the film retells his experiences of serving in Vietnam and returning home paralyzed from the waist down. Viewers follow his emotional journey home, which includes his downward spiral into depression and alcohol abuse and his eventual recovery and rebirth as a spokesperson for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But it was not just the content of the film that was important; it was the memory of her father making her and her family see the film together, along with his subsequent response to the film, that stuck in her mind. She told me,

we all went to the theater to see [Born on the Fourth of July]. My father thought it would be good for us to go see it. And he hated it. He was furious afterward. He thought it made all Vietnam veterans look like total, you know, [in a whispered tone] fuck-ups. He was---he was upset. He thought it made them all look like they had problems.
She went on to talk about media images of the Vietnam veteran as crazy and screwed up and the problems her father had with those images.

 <19> Much in the way films such as Born on the Fourth of July and The Deerhunter provide cultural representations of the Vietnam veteran, recent episodes of Without a Trace[3] and Cold Cases [4] build on images of the Vietnam veteran in the present. All of these representations contribute to the social monad of the Vietnam war. In particular, each show (with variable degrees of complexity) explores the way that the Vietnam veteran as masculine subject still struggles to be integrated functionally into American society. Cold Case provides an atypically nuanced portrayal of the masculine subject struggling with the trauma of the Vietnam war; Without a Trace presents a more typical image of the Vietnam veteran and damaged masculine subject. In both shows, the Vietnam veteran---Brian McCormick in Cold Case and John Carver in Without a Trace---is visited by a dark past that he has spent the last thirty years putting behind him. The dead return in these episodes as a haunting reminder to not only the Vietnam veteran, but also to American society, that the past is far from resolved and that the social monad of the Vietnam war is still a dense presence in the American imaginary. When the dead speak, it is not only to tell us about the irresolution of their own deaths, but how their deaths are part of the American memory of the Vietnam war. The dead's presence reflects how the Vietnam veteran still carries the social effects of the Vietnam war. In particular, the struggles of war are expressed, not through the conflict with the enemy, but through and within the American Vietnam veteran. The Vietnam veteran provides us with a comfortable distance from the trauma of the Vietnam war, but he must be read as a stark reminder that the war still weighs on our social consciousness.

<20> Ultimately, these popular images (versus the interviewees' negotiation of those images) "obscure our understanding of both the Vietnam war and its human legacy. No less important, [we understand the way] they blind us to how badly we as a nation have dealt with the war... (Shafer 81). One point that I cannot over-stress is that the Vietnam war, as a social monad, is expressed through the subject of the Vietnam veteran. It is a configuration pregnant with tensions. This is a point that Tim O'Brien expressed about 10 years after his return from Vietnam.

The nation seems too comfortable with---even dependent on---the image of a suffering and deeply troubled veteran. Rather than face our own culpabilities, we shove them off onto ex-GIs and let them suffer for us. Rather than relive old tragedies, rather than confront our own frustrations and puzzlements about the war, we take comfort in the image of the bleary-eyed veteran carrying all that emotional baggage for us ("The Violent Vet." 100).

 The emotional baggage the Vietnam veteran carries consists of the historical tensions generated from the trauma of the Vietnam war. This social narrative, though, is not a comforting story to my interviewees; in fact, it is the social narrative of the troubled Vietnam veteran that produces a great deal of anxiety in their personal narratives, creating an intense urgency to repudiate the negative images of the Vietnam veteran.


Locating Children of Vietnam Veterans' Narratives

<21> Tom Bissell addresses the presence of the social monad in his article, "War Wounds: A Father and Son Return to Vietnam," providing insight into the texture of the Vietnam war's ongoing presence in his relationship with his father. The title of his article implies, perhaps unintentionally, that he must return to the site of trauma---Vietnam---in order to better understand his father and himself. Yet the son was never in the Vietnam war--at least not physically. Instead, the site is one in which his father experienced war trauma, ultimately bringing that trauma home with him, exposing Bissell to the experience through his interactions with his father. Vietnam became part of the daily lives of Vietnam veterans, which then became part of the lives of their families, loved ones, and children. It became part of America but in ways that stammer and fumble for expression in a world where war often is viewed--by those uninitiated to its darker realities---as a distant visage without a referent. Bissell tells us that "Despite it's remoteness, the war's aftereffects were inescapably intimate. At every meal Vietnam sat down, invisibly, with our families" (57). Trauma is lived out and through the life his father lives---and the life Bissell has lived with him. The Vietnam war, as a social monad, has a peculiar weight and density in the lives of children of Vietnam veterans.

<22> Bissell grew up with a web of stories his father told him of the war, but the stories were filled with gaps that seeped into his own memories in ways that are in tension with his father's memories of war--the memories of war having a different utility for son than for father. The chain of tradition is tainted by numerous glitches in our ability to communicate and translate lived experience into social narratives. As Bissell remembers, "Sometimes it feels as though Vietnam is all my father and I have ever talked about; sometimes it feels as though we have never really talked about it" (57). In those myriad stories that seamlessly entered his memories of his father, the event, that is, the social monad, emerges as something even more intangible, discrete, and incomprehensible than his father's stories of his experiences in Vietnam.

When I was a boy, I would dread the evenings my father had too much to drink, stole into my bedroom, woke me up, and for an hour at a time would try to explain to me, his ten-year-old son, why the decisions he made---decisions, he would mercilessly remind himself, that got his best friend killed--were the only decisions he could have made (Bissell 57).

But what becomes of such information in the mind of a ten-year-old? It is through exchanges such as these that we can locate the Vietnam veteran as the site of the enunciation of trauma. It is through remembering these stories that Bissell understands how his own life has been structured around the event of the Vietnam war. It is because of these stories that Bissell decided to go with his father to Vietnam. He wanted to find his father---the man he was before Vietnam. "I believed I could find him in Vietnam, where he had been made and unmade, killed and resurrected" (Bissell 58). What he found, though, was that the trauma of the war is indelibly linked to his father. They could not be disconnected---his father is the man resurrected in Vietnam. While he deeply desires to separate his father from Vietnam, he cannot. Bissell discovers that the stories of his father rest upon the stories of his father's service in Vietnam. They are part of the man who is Bissell's father.

<23> If the Vietnam war is the epicenter of the social monad, COVV's narratives constitute one of the ripple effects radiating out of the initial shock of this historically traumatic event. The social monad emerges as part of the social reality that the second generation has always known. Why is this a problem? Well, it is not so much a problem in the sense that it undermines the lives of the second generation. Rather, it is a problem because the trauma with which the second generation must contend opens the door to a set of historical tensions that comprise the social world that, at least initially, had nothing to do with their subject position. It is unsettling for the second generation to see how they are simultaneously connected to the social monad of the Vietnam war and yet remote and distanced from its original shock. To live in moments when networks of social interactions come to life before your eyes poses a productive problem, a problem that, painful or not, initiates alternative questions about the role of trauma and memory on subjectivity.

<24> In this regard, COVV interact with the social monad, not through direct memories of experiences during the Vietnam war, but through their fathers and the VVN. This is a fundamental distinction from the expression of trauma for the first generation. Rather than discussing the event and experience itself, COVV focus on their father and the subject position of the Vietnam veteran. As Sandy, one of my interviewees, explained, "If someone brings up the Vietnam war, I immediately think of my dad." In their narratives COVV clearly express that the Vietnam war is something that their fathers embody and carry with them. Most of my interviewees could not disentangle the crystallized event of the Vietnam war from their fathers' status as a Vietnam veteran. COVV tap into the carapace of the Vietnam war through their father and their relationship with him. Yet, rather than emphasizing the shock of the original event of the Vietnam war, they articulate the event through their interactions with their father. This is very different from the VVN, which focuses on describing the original event of trauma and the break it caused in Vietnam veteran's masculine subjectivity.

<25> COVV articulate trauma through their fathers. Ultimately, these men and women recognize their fathers as the embodiment of the Vietnam war. By centering their narratives on their fathers, rather than the event, these men and women develop their own stories, enlivening the carapace of the Vietnam war in the language of affective intersubjective relations that go beyond trauma and memory as it folds into a particular social presence. COVV's correlation of the war with their fathers uncovers a distinctive connection between the past and the present that is reinforced by COVV's intersubjective relationship to the father. Because their process of remembering and articulating the trauma of the Vietnam war hinges on their father, COVV demonstrate the way the past becomes a shared experience.

<26> When I asked Danny what came to mind when the topic of Vietnam was brought up, he said to me, "My father. It's a very individual thing." With few exceptions, this was the response given by my interviewees. While some of them simply stated, "My father," others started to make more complex connections between the war and their father. Regardless of the depth of their initial response, the war was never just about the event; their articulation of the war always relied on linking the war with their father. As Tammy told me, "I think of my dad. The tragedy he's seen and the friends he's seen get killed." It is on this deeply tangled relationship between their father and the event of the Vietnam war that my interviewees build their narratives. The level of their awareness of their fathers' service, along with their formal knowledge of the war, demonstrate how they navigate the articulation of trauma through a complex weaving of personal and social knowledge. As Stan explained to me, "Just knowing what I know about my dad and, you know, his service. Just---I mean it was an unpopular war and just, you know, the way things shook out for him." He cannot disentangle the war's social memory from his memories and awareness of his father's struggle with the trauma of war. Greg makes similar connections, going further to include his own discomfort with the topic. "It's kinda an uncomfortable feeling. Because I was born in the ‘70s, it's, uhm, well, it's this thing that happened before I was born and I know my father went through this and I know it is something that tore the country apart." The interviewees are sensitive to the negative images of the war as they draw the line of connection between their fathers and the war. They are keenly aware of the pain and suffering experienced by their fathers and have a heightened awareness of the war's negative impact on their country.

<27> Greg's response to my question draws out another important point. He makes it very clear that the war was not something that he personally experienced. Being born in the early 1970s, when the war was almost at an end, he continuously doubted his understanding of the war, in part because he could never experience that moment the way his father did. It is a distant and ambiguous part of the past, even though he believes it deeply impacted his father and the country---and is still a part of his father's present. This was a common source of struggle. COVV are deeply aware of the presence of the war and personal struggles it caused, which does not allow them to categorize it as a distant and remote part of history. At the same time, they did not have as intimate of a relationship to that moment as their fathers did and, therefore, never feel they can fully understand the event. Stacey exemplified this as she described a time in middle school when she had to write a war journal for history class. She asked her father for help, rather than seeking out the information on her own, because she knew he had experienced the war first-hand. She remembered this incident because "my history teacher accused me of plagiarizing it. Like taking it out of a book. But then I told her that my dad helped me and she said I had to put his name on there." Knowledge of the Vietnam war always felt out of reach for Stacey precisely because she was aware that formal knowledge of the war would never enable her to understand it as intimately as her father. She does try (and want) to learn, though; the journal demonstrates a moment of shared knowledge between her and her father. The journal's co-authorship is a literal testament that the memories are not purely hers, nor any longer purely her father's. History, trauma and subjectivity are tangled up with one another.

<28> Anna Vidali's research on the transmission of trauma of the Greek Civil war reinforces this point. In her analysis of interviews she conducted with a woman who lived through the war and her daughter, who was born after the war, Vidali found the daughter, not trusting her own knowledge and opinion of the war and politics in Greece, relies on her mother's assessments instead (38). This, I argue, has to do with the narrative transition from a focus on the traumatic event (in the narrative of the person who experienced the traumatic event first-hand) to the traumatic subject. Stacey's knowledge of the war and her attempts to articulate its trauma rely on her intersubjective relationship with her father. As she told me, "I know more about the war from [my father] than from, like, school or from any history book." She trusts her father's knowledge of war and feels it provides her with greater depth of understanding than formal knowledge because of his first-hand experiences in Vietnam. She deferred her own knowledge and opinions of the war to what she perceived as a more realistic account of the event.


But is it About Finding Truth?

"We do not triangulate; we crystallize." (Richardson and St. Pierre 478)

<29> Walter Benjamin, via Shoshona Felman's analysis, invites us to ponder the residue of a traumatic history:
What Benjamin attempts, in other words, is to transmit the story that cannot be told and to become himself the storyteller that cannot be one but that is one---the last narrator or the post-narrator. The trauma---or the breakdown of the story and of memory, the fragmentation of remembrance and the rupture of the chain or of the "web of stories"---is itself passed on to the next generation as a testament, a final gift. (Felman 46--my emphases)

The ruptures emerging from the breakdown of articulation is what makes trauma visible; the pieces being the gift handed to the next generation. For children of Vietnam veterans, piecing together the fragments of remembrance is fraught with uncertainty; yet, it is the process of piecing together these fragments that transforms trauma into a space of insight, creating meaning in the crevices between what is known and unknown. This process is happening on several different levels. Not only is it a matter of my interviewees' fathers, like Benjamin, trying to tell the story that cannot be told. It is also my interviewees working to piece together a meaningful narrative around their relationship with their fathers and the Vietnam war. I, too, as researcher, bricoleur, and COVV struggled (and still do) to pull together these pieces from these multiple narrative sites.

<30> Similarly, this is demonstrated by Montana, one of my interviewees:

I think there has been a lot more that I've had to piece together about my life on my own than maybe some of my friends growing up that didn't have a father, veteran for a father. There's been a lot of silence. There's been a lot of---I don't know how else to describe it except holes that are just these gaps in my experience that no one explains. That no one is willing to explain. And I've been trying to do the tying together myself. There haven't been stories. When there have been stories, they haven't been happy, there's just...[sigh]. Absence is the only way I know how to describe it. Just these gaps that I've had to fill in for myself.

Tim O'Brien's daughter is also left to piece things together:
When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked if I had ever killed anyone. She knew about the war; she knew I'd been a soldier. "You keep writing these war stories," she said, "so I guess you must've killed somebody." It was a difficult moment, but I did what seemed right, which was to say, "Of course not," and then to take her on my lap and hold her for awhile. Someday, I hope, she'll ask again. But here I want to pretend she's grown up. I want to tell her exactly what happened, or what I remember happening, and then, I want to say to her that as a little girl she was absolutely right. This is why I keep writing war stories (O'Brien The Things They Carried 131).

O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried, evocatively captures the ambiguous way in which the social monad continues to move and shift over time. Written in 1990, over 20 years since his return from Vietnam, he demonstrates how the dialogue between father and daughter occur one way as a child, but potentially changes over time. The Vietnam war does not just fade into the distance. O'Brien's book consists of numerous short stories that are disjointed and meandering. At times, he lies to us so he can tell us the truth. For O'Brien, there is a distinction to be made between happening-truth and story-truth. He is, using Shoshona Felman's words, a post-narrator who wants to reestablish the transmissability of his experience, and to transmit the happening that cannot be told. Story-truth enables O'Brien to do this. But the story is not whole. Its presence is defined by holes, gaps, silences--absence. As Kathleen observes her father's struggle with his memories of the war through the books and stories he writes, she ponders the truth, making a naïve (yet astute) observation that opens up very difficult questions about the war and participating in it. O'Brien answers her with a simple truth that in his mind is not the whole truth--can never be the whole truth. The silence following her father's response becomes another piece of an extraordinarily complicated puzzle. Like Montana, Kathleen is left to fill in the gaps and unsettled spaces between what she knows and what she comprehends. She has to try to understand how the stories fit into what she knows (and can never know) about her father and the war. Sometimes the stories do not even seem like stories. They can be abbreviated comments or sarcastic jokes as well as defensive silences and ambiguous gestures.

<31> When Renee, another one of my interviewees, asked her father if he killed anybody in Vietnam, she explained that "there was this glazed look, and it was, like, don't go there." She continues: "There was just this blankness that came over his face. And, you know, he never answered me. He never responded." When I reiterated what she said to me, she corrected herself by saying, "It was very evasive." She explained to me that he said, "'You don't know what they did to us over there. [...] I watched friends be killed by, you know, 5 year olds and 6 year olds.' And so it wasn't ‘yes I did' nor ‘no I didn't'" (my emphasis). How can a father help his child feel what he felt in that moment of trauma? And would he really want to do that in light of the pain those feelings conjure? The gift, moving between father and child, is never a simple handing down of history like a baton in a relay race. There is an incredible amount of emotional life traffic moving between the traumatized subject and the second generation.

<32> Traumatic memories move intersubjectively between father and child, extending beyond the language of the stories that my interviewees hear and into the way they interpret those stories in light of the interactions they have with their fathers. "[R]emembering occurs not in the individual, but intersubjectively through the social environment the individual is embedded" (Prager 97). That is,

by emphasizing the relation between the individual and others, intersubjectivity offers an alternative to a conception of memory in which the present is understood exclusively in relation to a determinative past. The process of remembering is now appreciated for its relation to the social world in which it occurs, and making its own independent contribution to what is remembered, distinctive from past events or experiences (Prager 97).
The truth of the event of trauma becomes part of the person experiencing it. It logically follows that the event, for the next generation, can only be known through the interactions with that person, the subject of trauma. In Renee's narrative, it is expressed through a Vietnam veteran's relationship with his daughter. This is also true for O'Brien. Time and again, his stories reflect back on his daughter's questions and demonstrate his struggle to mediate his past as a soldier with his present as a father. He writes in the short piece, "Good Form,"

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth. Here is happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star shaped hole. I killed him (O'Brien The Things They Carried 180).

By explicitly juxtaposing happening-truth with story-truth, he asks us to reconsider our quest for truth. At the end of the story, he returns to the question his daughter asked, writing "‘Daddy, tell the truth,' Kathleen can say, ‘did you ever kill anybody?' And I can say, honestly, ‘Of course not.' Or I can say, honestly, ‘Yes'" (O'Brien The Things They Carried 180). He could say yes or he could say no. Both possibilities are true. When placed together, these responses tell us something about narrating trauma and the complexities of the truth of traumatic experience. This does not mean that there is no truth to the war or the war experience; what it does mean is that truths are often found in the process of piecing together, shaping a narrative that is unfinished, in-formation.

<33> The facets of the crystal reveal alternative ways of seeing and know the event, which are grounded in one's personal interactions and experiences. Thus, there is an ongoing attempt to retrieve the irretrievable, articulate the inarticulable, as children of Vietnam veterans receive the gift of the Vietnam war. O'Brien hands Kathleen (and us) pieces. Just as Renee is left to contemplate the meaning of her father's response, Kathleen must do the same. I wonder, as she sat on her father's lap, just what was tacitly exchanged between them. The truth Kathleen, Renee, and I are looking for may involve more than the truth of our fathers' acts; our search may be for the men who were/are our fathers and the gift of history they are starting to recognize themselves within.

<34> The Things They Carried focuses on one of the greatest hurdles in the process of remembering: putting traumatic memories to words. The quagmire of a lost past full of contradictory emotions, and the irresolution it carries, can (and often does) leave one paralyzed into silence. O'Brien counters that silence through his disjointed stories that attempt to make sense of the things he carries. The book opens with a laundry list of things Lieutenant Cross and his men carried on their combat missions. As we read the list of items, it soon grows apparent that there is a complex mixture of tangibles and intangibles. With the guns, malaria tablets, and P-38 can openers, "They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing---these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight" (O'Brien 21). Thus, while language is necessary to express memories of the past, the stories of the past carry weight that goes beyond words. Included in the stories O'Brien tells us are the interactions he has with his daughter. Kathleen has more than words to make sense of; she carries the weight of her own memories with her father. Enmeshed in those memories are the love and turmoil found in their relationship. Language provides a skeleton, but the meaning, the flesh filling out the structure within it, comes from something beyond the words themselves.

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness. (O'Brien The Things They Carried 230)

<35> The stories O'Brien writes can provide comfort to other Vietnam veterans, who cannot find words for their experiences. But through my own experiences of reading O'Brien's work, the stories help children of Vietnam veterans (well, at least one---me) find answers to questions that are as impossible to ask as they are to answer. And the stories may hold even more intimate meanings for Kathleen. We dream along with O'Brien but the spirits that come to life in our heads are different for each of us. The process of remembering is affected by our relationships in the world; it carries weight, because how we remember is interconnected with who we are and how we know one another. The process of remembering relies on a variety of spirits and fantasies that stem from the official and cultural documentation of the past, as well as our own affectual relationships. The second generation of a war is handed a gift. This gift is the social monad, an in-formation presence that leaves the second generation navigating an unresolved past; they struggle to secure meaning in this past by working between solidified social forms and fluid, embryonic, forms of affective lived experience that disrupts preconceived notions of social life. From this ruptured gift emerges the concern for opening an oppressed past, which is part of Walter Benjamin's theory of history as trauma. Felman explains that this concern implies "a correlative theory of the historical conversion of trauma into insight" (Felman 33---my emphasis).

<36> Montana cannot navigate the relationship between her father and his service in Vietnam in terms of black and white. She was not able to see her father as strong and heroic; nor was she willing to conclude he was a failure. Although she discussed how her father was an alcoholic and died because of complications from his damaged liver, she could not pass judgment on him as a failure. Instead, she identified him as a traumatized subject who had been deeply affected by his experiences in Vietnam, and so made the connection between Vietnam and her father in order to explain why her father was not the father (or man) he could have been.

<37> On Montana's last visit to her father's home before he died, she makes the connection between the deterioration that frustrated her so deeply and the trauma of the war, providing greater insight into the complexities involved in surviving and articulating trauma. She explained to me,

But the last summer that I visited before he died, he, uhm, he handed me a binder that he kept his mental health records in. He was an immaculate record keeper and he had every, like, psych report that had ever been done. He was in and out of the VA hospital in [Alabama]. This---he spent quite a bit of time in the psychiatric ward there. So, you know, he handed me this binder full of psych reports and just wanted me to read. He wouldn't talk about it. He wanted me to read it. And he also handed me a government report of some type. He had to go to Washington and go through some sort of files, uhm, to obtain, like a report [sighing] of a bombing that had happened where he was and it was part of his claim that he submitted to the VA--for compensation. And he had me read that. And I tried to ask him a question about it, uhm, and I guess I asked too deep or something. He wouldn't answer. He said I, I'm, I can't answer that--or something like that. But he, he, he wanted. He said something like you need to know. [Begins crying] He says you need to know what happened to your father or you need to know me. That's what he said, you need to know this about your father. [Words broken up by crying] That I can really remember. That was the only time that he was very direct. 


I quote at length to provide the intimacy she felt between the two of them, even though her father could not speak to her directly about the reports. Her own memories of that time are filled with tremendous pain and emotion. The importance of the act of him sharing that binder, sharing that part of himself, however limited his words and their relationship were, shaped her way of speaking of her last visit. She never communicated to me directly what those reports articulated to her about the war, but the facts that are often found in bureaucratic documentation are tempered by the visceral, emotional impact of him trusting her ability to understand what was within them. Even more so, her memory of him telling her that she needed to know this about her father stuck in her mind. In a sense, the facts become less important than the exchange itself and the emotional impact it had on her memory. She seeks an explanation to her father's absence in her life, but she can never completely solidify it through her father's experiences in Vietnam. Truth, then, is in fragments. The fragments constituting the social monad of the Vietnam war manifest in myriad ways.

<38> Because of my relationship to the Vietnam war and being a daughter of a Vietnam veteran, this research is intensely personal. Throughout the research process, I often at times felt myself moving in and out of my interviewees' narratives. This complicates the sociologist's search for truth, or at least the process of establishing conclusions validated through processes such as triangulation (see Denzin). Drawing on several data sources to reinforce and strengthen the presence of the social monad of the Vietnam war, I soon realized capturing the social monad is a slippery process. Although the social monad of the Vietnam war appears as a fixed object of inquiry, it is fluid and dynamic, which requires alternative ways of establishing interpretive rigor. Richardson and St. Pierre provide an alternative to triangulation through their discussion of creative analytical processes (CAP). As Richardson explains in her segment of the article,

I propose that the central imaginary for "validity" for postmodernist texts is not the triangle---a rigid, fixed, two-dimensional object. Rather, the central imaginary is the crystal, which combines symmetry and substance with an infinite variety of shapes, substances, transmutations, multidimensionalities, and angles of approach (Richardson and St. Pierre 478).

What is important here, then, is the vantage point from which one analyzes the case study. My father and I, or Tim O'Brien and Bissell, experience the social monad of the Vietnam war but we refract different "professional eyes, gender, sensibilities, biographies, spiritual and emotional longings" as we come into contact with it (Richardson and St. Pierre 478-9). As such, validity is a complicated process of discovery. This is particularly true about an event such as the Vietnam war, which carries so much meaning socially and individually. So, how do I access a rigorous and compelling story of the social monad of the Vietnam war? Or, better yet, have I been able to provide a rigorous and compelling story in the preceding interpretation of my interviewees' narratives?




<39> Conducting research on a case study such as the Vietnam war requires the weaving together of multiple narratives in everyday life, in text and filmic media. This is particularly true when working through the fragments at work within the social monad. In this context, the point of narrative analysis is not to produce the truth surrounding the event of the Vietnam war, but to understand how the individual and social group construct meaning from personal experiences. COVV fumble for a way of speaking about how trauma is made manifest in their daily lives. But how can one be sure that what she is seeing and hearing is fact, fiction, or the presence of story-truth told to them in the face of her father's attempt to articulate trauma? Trauma's presence can be difficult to discern amidst the myriad experiences daily life generates. Part of the difficulty in analyzing the social monad of the Vietnam war is finding a way to clarify trauma's stammered echoes in order to understand how the past is part of the present. Articulating presence is hard enough, but how does one speak of a presence intruded upon by experiences that are beyond normal human experiences&mdash-;when the present must address the presence of an imperfect (traumatic) past? The translucent and shadowy parts of social life demand our attention. The demands are often innocuous, other times they suffocate with their all-consuming presence. Trauma---or more precisely, its articulation---is slippery and frequently eludes our linguistic conventions. This is why we rely on images of the past in its most tangible forms. Within the historically traumatic event of the Vietnam war, trauma can be seen and heard in the image of the Vietnam veteran. He is the enunciative site of trauma. He is the symbol of a history that America struggles to reconcile. He is the one we look to when we need to speak about the effects of trauma and its lingering presence and where we encounter uncertainty and doubt as well as clarity and assurance.

<40> Although I do not claim children of Vietnam veterans hold a privileged perspective of this contentious historical event, I do assert that they help provide insight into how a social monad such as the Vietnam war informs the way we know and understand the social world. In particular, the juxtaposition of COVV's narratives with social narratives of the Vietnam war and Vietnam veteran reveal much about how history is at once distant and intimate in our articulations of who we are and what gives our lives meaning. Because the Vietnam war is a moment crystallized within the American imaginary, it reflects different stories and insights into how we make sense of an event such as the Vietnam war. The stories of the Vietnam war are found in histories of strategies and policies, as well as literary works such as O'Brien's, and films such as Platoon. But they are also found in the stories a father tells his son or daughter, in the psychological records a father hands his daughter to read and the late night tales a father tells to his son. They all matter to history. The trauma of war does not end when the troops come home, nor does it end with cathartic memoirs or therapy. The person carries the trauma home with (and in) them and children---young and old---feel its weight. So, attention needs to be given to how this gift filters into the daily life of individuals. O'Brien tells us that the thing about remembering is that you don't forget. Thus, my research, as an attempt to articulate the social monad of the Vietnam war, is about the way history gets under our skin and how we carry it into our daily lives; that is, how we don't forget. 


Works Cited


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Author. Historical Trauma: The Case of Children of Vietnam Veterans. Diss. Buffalo, SUNY--University at Buffalo, 2005.

Bissell, Tom. "War Wounds: A Father and Son Return to Vietnam." Harpers Magazine December (2004): 57-65.

Caruth, Cathy. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1996.

Chase, Susan. "Narrative Inquiry: Multiple Lenses, Approaches, Voices." Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials. Eds. Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2008. 57-94.

Denzin, Norman. The Research Act. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.

Denzin, Norman and Yvonna Lincoln. "Introduction: The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research." Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials. Eds. Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2008. 1-43.

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Felman, Shoshana. The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

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Holm, Jeanne. Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993.

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[1] Because of the dramatic differences in the experiences of men and women Vietnam veterans, I limited my interviewees to those with fathers who were Vietnam veterans. This was determined before interviews were done and was based on literature supporting the highly distinct experiences of men and women who served in Vietnam (see Holm, Norman, Skaine, and Walker). This by no means diminishes the experiences of women Vietnam veterans. [^]

[2] All the names of my interviewees and identifiable personal information have been changed in order to maintain the privacy of those individuals. [^]

[3] Without a Trace is a crime series about a group of FBI agents who are part of the missing persons unit. Each episode revolves around their search for a missing person, leading them through the person's life and the various dramatic interactions they have with others. The episode referenced is "Kam Li," which first aired on March 13, 2003. [^]

[4] Cold Case revolves around a group of detectives in Philadelphia who revisit old murder cases that have not been solved--cold cases. The show weaves together the past and the present in a visually dynamic fashion by reconstructing the traumatic moment---the murder (and the era in which it took place)---as it looks in the present lives of those involved in the victim's life. The show literally flashes between the image of the person in his/her past incarnation and his/her present bodily form. Going through the necessary drama of pointing to different suspects, the detectives uncover a variety of aspects of the victim's personal life, along with those of the other people involved in the murder case. The episode referenced is "Revolution," which aired February 20, 2005.[^]


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