Gary Kulik wants to tell the truth about Vietnam, as best he can discern it. His recent book, War Stories, is his attempt to separate the facts from the fiction in pervasive stories of the Vietnam War. With unflinching honesty and a serious scholar's scrupulous attention to fact-checking, he examines certain Vietnam War nurses' sometimes lurid published accounts of their service; widely circulated tales of spit-upon returning veterans; the more recent controversy of Swift Boat Veterans vs. John Kerry; the so-called Winter Soldier Investigation of 1970s and other cases of atrocity. Kulik, who served as a medic with Conscientious Objector status, places his personal Vietnam experiences in the balance alongside these and other stories that he and the American public have been hearing about and from Vietnam veterans for years - stories he feels are overdue for square and sober vetting.
An American history scholar, Kulik has no stake in pleasing one set or another of political sensibilities. His book probably won't satisfy agenda-bound readers of any ideological stripe, given that many people irreversibly made up their minds about Vietnam long ago, he says. But it's still the book he had to write.
"I've been reading Vietnam memoirs since I returned. I have a huge collection: no American war produced as much memoir-writing as Vietnam," he explains. His war experiences helped him see that while many articles of faith for the political left concerning the Vietnamese Communists or Vietnam/U.S. politics (views he largely identified with when he went over) often were entirely untrue, other things that he and others believed all along did prove credible, then and now.
"The moral heart of this book is about Vietnam's false atrocity stories. What got me going was reading accounts that I knew with moral certainty were false, just couldn't have happened based on my experience and some common sense," he says. "So the book navigates this very narrow ledge. I mean, atrocities did happen, too frequently, and they were war crimes, but on the other side of this, Vietnam was the first war I know of when some small number of men came back to confess crimes they didn't commit and that were otherwise implausible."
What got me going was reading accounts that I knew with moral certanty were false, just couldn't have happened based on my experience and some common sense.
Kulik grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, his father a son of Polish immigrants and a veteran of both the Marine Corps and Army Air Corps. "My family wore its Catholicism faithfully, but lightly," he writes in the book. His father stayed in the Reserves long enough to be a recruiter for the Air Force Academy by the Vietnam era. One of his father's brothers was an Naval Academy graduate and Navy submarine commander, while another was a 1958 West Point graduate and Vietnam Army veteran.
As a first-year Brown University graduate student in 1970, he decided to assert Conscientious Objector (CO) status to show he opposed the war, while still serving his country as a medic: "I had brooded over this application (for CO status) for many months, invested in the intense moralism of those years. I had also acted on that moralism. I had spent parts of two summers in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, inspired by the moral grandeur of the Civil Rights movement, teaching English to promising black high school students under the auspices of Saint Michael's."
Kulik's Elizabeth City experience, and that of many other 1960s St. Mike's students, was largely an initiative of Rev. Moses Anderson, SSE '54, now auxiliary bishop of Detroit. Kulik served there for a month during the summers of 1965 and 1966. "I wanted to be part of the big Civil Rights movement at that time in some way. This was the opportunity that Saint Michael's offered and it was very important," he says. "There was never a deep political culture at Saint Michael's among students then that I remember, so in some ways the college missed some of what you saw at other campuses across the U.S. in the 60s." Still, excellent students who were serious thinkers about the day's social issues were readily findable, Kulik said, and he sought them out.
Kulik's Elizabeth City civil rights activism through Saint Michael's led him to sign up after graduation with VISTA ("the domestic Peace Corps") as a community organizer in East Nashville, Tennessee. But it didn't take him long to realize it wasn't something he was particularly good at, he says now, and before long he was following his deepest interests, starting graduate school in American Studies at Brown, where his most respected Saint Michael's mentor Ed Pfeiffer also studied.
Matters of conscience moved quickly from the theoretical to dramatic reality when, while a Brown grad student in 1970, he found himself standing before his hometown draft board in Springfield, MA, asserting "CO" status on religious grounds, though many of the draft board members, Catholic World War II veterans, were more than a little skeptical, he writes. "I drew on resources both from the Church and outside of it while trying to figure out, 'what do I have to do as a moral person with respect to this war?'" he says. "That you could be a Catholic and a CO was something I learned at Saint Michael's." This awareness was passed onto him by his best friend in college, Michael Nunno '67, who had heard about it from an Edmundite. By that time he'd invested a lot of his time and self into his decision, and with the support of friends like Nunno, he stuck to his decision. (Nunno, now a researcher and Senior Extension Associate at Cornell University, accompanied Kulik to their recent Class of '67 reunion, just as he accompanied him to his draft board hearing in 1970.)
I accepted my orders, whatever their origins. That acceptance a form of redemption for acting basely on my fears and anxieties the previous summer.
In War Stories, Kulik writes that he just never could have allowed himself to fake the physical as some men did, and though he admired those who chose to go to jail, "I wasn't going to Canada, Sweden or jail, so I raised my right hand that June day, though not before penning some words on my induction form indicating that I knew the difference between legal and illegal orders."
Kulik shares with frank humility and directness in War Stories about the too-frequent times when his actions in retrospect don't look very good to himself or others. "Fear, anxiety and self-pity overwhelmed me that sweltering summer and broke my moral resolve," he writes of the period after his induction. For instance, during medic training, with shipment to Vietnam looking surprisingly and alarmingly imminent to him, he used a family Congressional connection to get duty as a military historian for a time in Washington. While there, he also wrote anti-war letters and joined other actions against the war. I ...believed that my 'indiscretions' reflected my guilt for using influence to avoid Vietnam," he writes, observing that this superiors likely knew of some, but not all, of his activity. In any event, orders came soon after for him to go to Vietnam. "I accepted my orders, whatever their origins - that acceptance a form of redemption for acting based on my fears and anxieties the previous summer."
The medic training Kulik had in the Army never prepared him much for the actual experience of being in a jungle war doing helicopter evacuations. His units did medical evacuation out of Laos in spring of 1971 although, because he'd failed an eye test when he tried to get flight status, he was not mostly at risk. He spent the end of his military career in Vietnam as a clerk to the battalion adjutant.
After his service as a medic in the Fourth Infantry Division and in the 61st Medical Battalion, Kulik completed his doctorate and made his professional mark as a historian and museum administrator in prestigious venues: He was a department head and an assistant director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and the editor of American Quarterly, before serving as deputy director of the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware where he now lives. His first youthful marriage to a fellow VISTA volunteer right after Saint Michael's didn't work out. He is now married to a Lutheran minister, and is a practicing Lutheran. ("Whither thou goest..." he says.)
There were a lot of younger kids who might have thought in 1965 that this was going to be glorious in some way, and of course it turned out, as all wars do, to be the opposite.
Kulik observes that his experience heading into Vietnam differed from many men younger than he was at induction who didn't have the chance for such careful consideration of what it all meant. "You have to understand, I was a 24-year-old college graduate with a year of graduate school, and I had a political position - a well-developed moral position that there were things I wasn't going to do. I was opposed to the war, so there was nothing disillusioning to me about Vietnam and my experiences there. But there were a lot of younger kids who might have thought in1965 that this was going to be glorious in some way. Of course it turned out, as all wars do, to be the opposite."
One personal vignette from the book starkly humanizes his enduring impulses for opposing the war, even as he continues to feel abiding kinship with fellow veterans. He writes in his book's opening acknowledgements about a close childhood friend from his Springfield neighborhood named Teddy with whom he played hockey and basketball, an immensely strong, athletic and fine young man. Kulik says he lost track of Teddy after heading off to college, unsure whether his old pal had done the same.
As that section of the book ends, Kulik recounts solving the mystery in 1970 shortly before his own orders to Vietnam came. His mom sent him a newspaper clipping with news about his friend, which he describes in the book this way: "Lieutenant Theodore S. Sas, a strong young man, a platoon leader in the 9th Infantry Division, died in Kien Hoa, in the Mekong Delta, from an enemy mine, on February 15, 1970. He had turned 24 just eight days earlier."
Of that time and experience, Kulik writes in War Stories, "I remember my deep-voiced first sergeant at Walter Reed that spring... who blustered that in Vietnam only the strong survived. I thought then, and continue to believe, that he was a fool."