Burns and Novick: Vagaries of Memory

I wrote yesterday that I remember seeing many of the tragic events of 1968 on TV: the MLK and Kennedy assassinations, among others. Friend and regular reader Bev reminded me that I was in Panama in 1968; she was in the Peace Corps in Ecuador at the same time. I didn’t have TV. Was I taking poetic license with the blog post, or was my memory playing tricks?

Memory is a complicated thing. Memory is constructed, not literal; older memories are layered over by newer ones, bits and pieces get deleted, and out of what remains our brains stitch together a coherent story. Of course Bev is right that I didn’t have TV, and I wasn’t taking poetic license when I wrote. I was remembering seeing those things, but it couldn’t have been in real time. It had to have been later, after I had returned in June of 1969. Certainly that iconic picture of Dr. King lying dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel was all over the media. So was the picture of RFK bleeding from his head wound in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.

What does that mean for what the VietNam vets remembered, and shared, all these years later? The story that our memory constructs is real, or at least based on real events. But the time and place and sequence and even our own involvement — vs. stories that others have told us that become really ours in our minds — are less grounded in fact. That’s why it’s important, as Burns and Novick did, to chronicle the memories of a lot of people from that era, not just one deemed to be “representative” of any group — be it vets, or prisoners of war, or military wives, or peace marchers, or politicians.

Friend and regular reader Phyllis observed that to her, Burns and Novick featured the voices of more white soldiers that men of color — even though men of color died in disproportionate numbers during the war. I think she’s right, Burns and Novick did. There were some black soldiers whose stories played a key role, but there were far more asked to be spokespersons who are white. Is that because the PBS audience is disproportionately white? I don’t know.

I’m grateful to Bev for the correction — which makes me think all the more deeply about memory and the convoluted role it plays. And thanks to Phyllis for her observation on the racial component of who got to speak.

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