With the Vietnam War as its focal point, the era of the 1960s was a constellation of chaotic and violent political, social and cultural events with reverberations still felt more than 30 years later.
That’s the contention of University of Southern Mississippi English professor Dr. Maureen Ryan, whose new book “The Other Side of Grief: The Home Front and the Aftermath in American Narratives of the Vietnam War” explores how cultural narratives capture the lingering influence of the Vietnam War and the late 1960s.
Much has been written about the war itself – the battles, the strategy and the actions of the political and military decision makers. Ryan’s work adds to that collection by drawing from a variety of sources that include films, novels and memoirs in its examination of that era through the prism of the women, veterans, POWs and Vietnamese refugees it affected.
“I argue that fully now, about 40 years after this experience – and now two-three wars later – the Vietnam War and all of the social turmoil and the advances of that time, with the war as the central event, still affects us,” she said.
Ryan said the Vietnam era impacted male and female, veterans and pacifists, hawks and doves, young and old and rich and poor. It bore down on our psyche with its assassinations of political leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as the resignation of a president over a scandal that cemented for many their distrust of government.
In one chapter, the thoughts and words of the women Ryan examines in her new book could not be more diverse than the weather – from the radical working as an insurgent through the anti-war movement to the housewife who only wanted her husband to make it back alive. Other chapters include the work and reflections of returning veterans, including John McCain, POWs, antiwar activists and Vietnamese refugees.
“You can’t talk about the aftermath of the war without acknowledging the unpopularity and failure of the war, the advances and turmoil of the civil rights movement, the changes on college campuses and the open attitudes about sexuality, along with a new distrust of the American government. All of those things transformed our society.”
But that era also had many success stories, Ryan said, including civil rights legislation that likely allowed an African-American to become president and an anti-war movement that while considered democratic, spawned the women’s movement in the mid-1970s as a result of the rejection of the male dominance of the former.
“If not for that (formation of the women’s rights movement), I might not have gone to college or graduate school and written this book,” Ryan said.
Themes of the war era were especially evident in the recent presidential election, Ryan said, which pitted arguably the most famous Vietnam prisoner of war in Sen. John McCain against then senator and now President Barack Obama, who talked of moving beyond the cultural divisiveness of the 1960s.
A former dean of the Southern Miss Honors College, Ryan joined the university’s faculty in 1983. She has also served as director of undergraduate and graduate studies for the Southern Miss Department of English, as assistant dean of the former Southern Miss College of Liberal Arts, now the College of Arts and Letters, and as associate provost.
In 2004, she was named the Charles W. Moorman Distinguished Alumni Professor in the Humanities, one of the university’s highest faculty honors.
— David Tisdale
University of Southern Mississippi Marketing and Public Relations
The Other Side of Grief: The Home Front and the Aftermath in Amercan Narratives of the Vietnam War.
by Dr. Maureen Ryan
(University of Massachusetts Press)
Hardcover — $98.00