On Veterans Day, remember that civilians serve too

On Veterans Day, the nation thanks those who have served honorably in the United States armed forces in both peacetime and wartime. It should also be a time to remember that not all of the veterans of America’s foreign wars wear uniforms.

Civilians serve too.

Modern warfare, especially the counterinsurgency and nation-building missions that the armed forces have been called upon to perform in recent years, requires a range of civilian expertise.  This can involve base management or intelligence analysis.  It has also meant going outside the wire to be part of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which work to bolster the performance of local governments as part of ongoing nation-building missions. This work is vital to the military’s exit strategy, and hence getting the troops home.

As I show in my book To Build as well as Destroy: The American Experience of Nation-Building in South Vietnam, civilians have been deploying to war zones for a long time.  In fact, the practice reached its postwar height in the Vietnam War.  This is something it is easy to miss if we rely on the standard history books and movies to gain our understanding of the war.

As well as a brutal guerrilla war, Vietnam was also a war of nation-building. The issue over which the war was fought was the governance of South Vietnam. Would it be united with Communist North Vietnam, or would it develop an independent, non-Communist government?  The latter was the U.S. preference, and over the course of the war over ten thousand civilians deployed to Southeast Asia to try to shape the development of South Vietnam’s government to enable it to defend itself from the Communist challenge.

They came from a variety of backgrounds and agencies – the State Department, the CIA, the Agency for International Development, even the Peace Corps. In the early years, some hitchhiked from postings elsewhere in Asia to join the nation-building mission.  Many were inspired by the ideals of development with an almost missionary zeal – they wanted to save the people of South Vietnam from the corruption, mismanagement and brutality of their own government. They often served deep in the countryside, where no American had ever gone before.

As American involvement in the Vietnam War expanded in the late 1960s, this nation-building apparatus grew in size as well.  In 1967, the Johnson administration created the Office of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) to expand the nation-building mission. CORDS was headed by a civilian, and throughout its ranks thousands of military and civilian personnel worked side by side on the same mission, being exposed to the same dangers and writing each other’s efficiency reports.  Its “sandwich” structure meant that civilians gave orders to military personnel and vice-versa.

It was an experiment without precedent in American history and has not been repeated on such a scale since.

Civilians who have served in war zones have faced some unique burdens, both during the Vietnam War and today. They are all volunteers who usually must be granted permission by their host agencies to go overseas. Often these agencies see such deployments as a distraction from the “real” jobs their employees are supposed to be doing at home, and so serving can be harmful to careers.  As a result, the military has often struggled to attract enough volunteers. As of July 2018, 70% of the necessary positions for civilians in Afghanistan were unfilled.

So, this Veterans Day, spare a thought for these “expeditionary civilians”. They often serve in the shadows, and some pay the ultimate price.  They deserve to be honored, too.

to build as well


 

About the author of this blog post: Dr. Andrew J. Gawthorpe is Lecturer in History and International Studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands.  He has written for publications including Stars and Stripes, Foreign Affairs, and more.

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On Veterans Day, remember that civilians serve too

Amplifying the unsung voices of South Vietnam

Soon after I joined Cornell University Press, I met with Sarah Grossman, Managing Editor of SEAP Publications, for a cup of coffee. She happened to mention a book that the Press published in 2015 – Voices from the Second Republic of South Vietnam (1967-1975), edited by K. W. Taylor. As Sarah explained, the book—a collection of essays by Vietnamese individuals who worked to build a democracy in Vietnam during the war—took on a life of its own after it came out. Mostly through word of mouth, news of its existence spread widely throughout various Vietnamese American communities, sparking conversation and remembrances, and serving as a much-needed locus for the kinds of stories about the war that are often shamefully overlooked.

voicesLearning about this book’s reception energized me instantly. As someone who works in publicity, I love the fact that the book reached the readers to whom it mattered the most. It also reminded me of why university presses are so important—we are publishing scholarship that has real impact on people around the world, both inside and out of the academy.

I was fortunate enough to be able to connect with one of the contributors, Tam Phan, to further illuminate the story behind this book, and why it has mattered so much to so many people. Our interview is below.

 

  1. This book developed from a symposium on the Second Republic of South Vietnam held at Cornell in 2012. You played an integral part in the volume’s development by providing the initial inspiration for it and contributing an essay. Why did you think it was important to publish these stories for a wider audience?

I share the feeling of the majority of the South Vietnamese community that the plight to build a free and democratic country in South Vietnam was misunderstood during the war. It was further clouded by a propaganda war that the South Vietnamese simply lost. The voices of South Vietnam have largely been absent from U.S. publications and scholarship on the war, and it felt important to have a platform for sharing another, crucial dimension of that time for the wider public. The 2012 symposium “Voices from the South” [Vietnam], organized by Professor Keith Taylor and coordinated by my son John Phan (who by that time was a PhD student at Cornell), provided us a golden opportunity to tell our stories. Professor Taylor went further and put together a volume that captured the main testimonies of eleven former South Vietnamese officials who served during the second republic. The South Vietnamese community has welcomed the book with appreciation and gratitude.

The interest in the book to this point, according to my understanding, remains chiefly among the first generation of Vietnamese Americans, as well as a very limited American public. We hope that the stories of the South Vietnamese and of their many American friends who helped them build their country be known to the younger Vietnamese American generation and the larger American public as well.

  1. The book’s publication attracted much attention within American Vietnamese communities. Why do you think it garnered such interest?

Since the publication of the book in 2015, we have made a consistent effort to protect its integrity by avoiding any attempt to “politicize” it. Despite the clear absence of large-scale publicity events, I am happy to see that the book has spread widely across Vietnamese communities in the U.S. and to some extent in France and Vietnam. I believe that this interest among Vietnamese communities stems from its healing effect. One reader—a former South Vietnamese military officer—told me during a social gathering in St. Paul, Minnesota that he found great comfort after reading the book, and I believe that this comfort stems from a feeling that a broader range of South Vietnamese experiences and perspectives have finally been represented in a publication.

  1. You decided to translate the book into Vietnamese. What motivated you to personally undertake this project? How can people get ahold of this edition?

The book has generated great interest among the first generation of Vietnamese-Americans, especially the older generation—many of whom are not proficient in English. I received several requests from a number of Vietnamese-American communities, as well as some Vietnamese-American media groups, for a Vietnamese edition of the book. I consulted Professor Taylor and Sarah Grossman and received permission to produce a translation. I contracted with a professional translator and did the editing, along with seven of the other original contributors (two of the contributors have passed away in 2017). The whole process was completed by April 2018, and under the suggestion of some of my colleagues, I had released it on April 30, 2018 in commemoration of the end of the Vietnam war. We quickly discovered a number of minor technical issues following the initial release, which were promptly corrected, and the final edition of the translation (titled Tiếng Nói từ Đệ Nhị Cộng Hòa Nam Việt Nam 1967-1975) has been available via Amazon since May of this year.


 

About the author of this blog post: Cheryl Quimba is the Publicity Manager at Cornell University Press. She truly believes that books can and do change the world (and she’ll rattle off a whole laundry list of world-changing books if you ask her!).

Amplifying the unsung voices of South Vietnam

November is “And the Sparrow Fell” Month with Three Book Talks Planned in Ithaca by Author Robert Mrazek

Five-term congressman, film director, and bestselling author Robert J. Mrazek will be presenting three book talks this month to discuss his coming-of-age-tale set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, And the Sparrow Fell.  Mrazek, a Cornell alum and Ithaca resident, will discuss his new novel, a vivid and urgent story in which many of the characters and events are informed by his own personal experiences, particularly his time at Cornell University. Ithaca landmarks such as the State Theater, Fall Creek, and the Chapter House are featured throughout the book.

Please take advantage of this unique opportunity to hear Robert Mrazek speak locally in Ithaca. He will be discussing his new book at the following times and locations:

We do hope you can attend one of these events. Continue reading “November is “And the Sparrow Fell” Month with Three Book Talks Planned in Ithaca by Author Robert Mrazek”

November is “And the Sparrow Fell” Month with Three Book Talks Planned in Ithaca by Author Robert Mrazek