In a matter of eleven days, I became an old guy.” These are the words of Mike Smith, who in 1969 was a 21-year-old draftee infantryman in the Battle of Hamburger Hill in South Vietnam. His remarks were recorded in 2017 during a reunion of survivors of that battle. This interview and hundreds more are now accessible through the West Point Center for Oral History (www.westpointcoh.org). Smith’s account and others by combat veterans are intense and revealing and are the raw data of military history. This collection, however, reaches beyond well-curated war stories to include broad ranging reflections from many perspectives. In his recorded interview, military ethicist Michael Walzer—who as a young professor opposed the Vietnam War—observes, for example, “Wars are political military engagements, and public opinion, local public opinion, hearts and minds, domestic public opinion, and global public opinion . . . [affect] whether you win or lose these wars.”
While researching my recent book, Vietnamization, I discovered this treasure trove for scholars working on the military history of the American war in Vietnam. It is a relatively new enterprise started in 2007 by the Department of History at the United States Military Academy. Its working website began in 2015. Its index of interviews as of January 2020—arranged by conflict, location, and theme—anticipates an ambitious scope because its topics begin chronologically with World War I and go through still current conflicts. Lieutenant Colonel David R. Siry, the director of the center, reports that there are now 620 interviews online, and the center has been averaging approximately 150 new interviews a year since 2015. Full story.