More Is at Issue than Just Joe Ellis's Honesty





Mr. Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA and the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.

A colleague passed along the clipping about Joseph J. Ellis, the Mount Holyoke College history professor who lied about having served in Vietnam. Knowing that I've written about men who tell war stories, he asked me why I thought someone would do something like that.

On one level, the answer seems quite obvious. Military experience is a rite of passage for men and to have been in uniform during a war, as Ellis was during Vietnam, there is an urge to associate oneself as closely as possible with combat, the"real thing" of war. Ellis's embellishments went beyond Vietnam to include his role in the civil rights movement and other events of the 1960s which is understandable in the same way. Today,"the sixties" have a larger-than-life image that other people of Ellis' age, 57, feel the same need to identify with. For a college professor teaching about the 1960s, it is sometimes hard to resist the invocation of one's own experience--I was there (and therefore I know)--as a means to make a point.

The inquiry into Ellis's personal character and Mount Holyoke's defense of him, on the same grounds--college president, Joanne V. Creighton, used the words respected and honest to describe him--misses too much, however. For one thing, veterans' war stories are as much about the listeners as the tellers. The recognition that men feel inadequate if they have not been in combat is a reflection of the expectations that society puts on them. In my research files I have an interview with a Vietnam veteran done in 1974 in which he says:

"I started tellin' war stories, things that didn't happen to me, that I said happened to me, that were very exciting. But then the kids who were just really excited about it kept asking me to repeat it. And every time I had to repeat it, I knew it was a lie. So then I'd feel really strange cuz I'd tell it again and I knew I'd just told this lie again, and I didn't necessarily want to tell a lie."

For many men, military service is the high point of their lives and, whether they"saw action" or not, it produced formative experiences that they like to tell about. The problem is that, in a culture sated with Rambo-like images of war, no one wants to listen to what a cook or payroll clerk did; and, in a war like Vietnam, where 85% of the men did not see combat, that means that the audience for stories about Vietnam as it was actually experienced by most GIs is pretty small. The dominant culture, in other words, leaves many veterans choosing between reticence and revisionism.

The narrow focus on Ellis's personal qualities misses another element in his war story, one that puts it in odd company and provides further clues that America remains troubled about the war in Vietnam. According to students, Ellis claimed that his unit conducted operations in the My Lai area a few days before the massacre of 400 civilians there. Ellis's attempt to create a positive personal identity by vaguely associating himself with something as ignominious as the My Lai massacre has its precedents. A few years ago, John Plumer claimed he ordered a napalm attack on Trang Bang, Vietnam in 1972. Kim Phuc, then 9 years old, was badly disfigured in that bombing, her agony captured in a Pulitzer-winning photograph. When Kim and Plummer met at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, she forgave the former soldier. He was featured on ABC's"Nightline." But the story wasn't true. Plummer had been a junior officer with no authority to order air strikes. How did it happen that American men seek an identity by associating themselves with atrocities in Vietnam?

In place of the positive images usually derived from military success, American culture evolved a new veteran identity associated with victimization. Our Vietnam heros are not men who won but men who suffered; they are men who endured the terror of war and were so unnerved by it that they committed unspeakable acts of horror against helpless others. The greater the terror felt, the greater the horror perpetrated and, years after the war, the more traumatized the veteran remains. Read in reverse, the more"impacted" the veterans seems to be by his war-time experience--as we discern that from the stories he tells--the more certain we can be that he participated in something really unmentionable--like My Lai--which he did, presumably, because the terror of war had striped him of his very humanity.

In the twisted ways we have come to know the war, then, the taint of dishonor becomes the mark of authenticity, even heroism. Far from disgusted, the twenty-year-old listening to Joseph Ellis's brush with My Lai, is"impressed." This is the phenomenon we need to understand and this is what we will never understand if inquiries into this case get hung up on the personal.

Joseph Ellis's misrepresentations of his military record in the classroom and elsewhere is serious and his institution's efforts to keep the critics at bay is unhelpful. But the attacks on his personal character and professional integrity are also off the mark. The nightmare that Ellis has created for himself has illuminated a deep and enduring dimension of Vietnam's legacy. If we are willing to look at what his case says about the militarization of our culture and the distortion of American masculinity that has resulted, something more than his personal tragedy and a huge loss to the history profession might come of it.

Ellis has helped his own cause by fessing up but the real issues are not about him. By creating what educators call"a teaching moment," Ellis has the opportunity of a life time, a chance to step up and use his own case as a study in the power of culture to determine and even destroy the lives of good and strong people like himself. Taking advantage of the opportunity he has created might be the only chance he has to save his career. If he does it right, we may yet see the full mettle of Joseph Ellis.



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Herbert Barger - 1/9/2007

The author is very informative about Prof. Joseph Ellis. HOWEVER, most of the public is not aware that Joe Ellis is guilty of also distorting the findings of the Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study in the Nature Journal article, his later books and articles and media interviews. The man knows NOTHING of the DNA study from first hand expereience. I and Dr. Foster do.

I assisted Dr. E.A. Foster with the DNA Study and nothing proves Thomas Jefferson guilty of fathering slave children. Prof. Ellis (see www.angelfire.com.va/TJTruth) for more details, told me by phone that he didn't even know of the existance of a younger Thomas Jefferson brother, Randolph,.....what kind of historian is this? I told him it was my opinion that the Jefferson/Hemiungs DNA originated with Rsndolph......his remark......WHY hasn't someone said anything of this before? Why hasn't he researched it before??

I recommend www.angelfire.com/va/TJTruth and www.tjheritage.org for full details of this controversy. The Scholars Commission Report can be accessed from these pages. Thirteen top scholars found no proof that Thomas Jefferson was guilty. Professor Joseph Ellis had a MAJOR influence upon the public's image of Thomas Jefferson and it should be exposed to the public. Why is thiis man still teaching our children at Holyoke College?

Herb Barger
Jefferson Family Historian
301-292-2739


Herbert Barger - 1/9/2007

The author is very informative about Prof. Joseph Ellis. HOWEVER, most of the public is not aware that Joe Ellis is guilty of also distorting the findings of the Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study in the Nature Journal article, his later books and articles and media interviews. The man knows NOTHING of the DNA study from first hand expereience. I and Dr. Foster do.

I assisted Dr. E.A. Foster with the DNA Study and nothing proves Thomas Jefferson guilty of fathering slave children. Prof. Ellis (see www.angelfire.com.va/TJTruth) for more details, told me by phone that he didn't even know of the existance of a younger Thomas Jefferson brother, Randolph,.....what kind of historian is this? I told him it was my opinion that the Jefferson/Hemiungs DNA originated with Rsndolph......his remark......WHY hasn't someone said anything of this before? Why hasn't he researched it before??

I recommend www.angelfire.com/va/TJTruth and www.tjheritage.org for full details of this controversy. The Scholars Commission Report can be accessed from these pages. Thirteen top scholars found no proof that Thomas Jefferson was guilty. Professor Joseph Ellis had a MAJOR influence upon the public's image of Thomas Jefferson and it should be exposed to the public. Why is thiis man still teaching our children at Holyoke College?

Herb Barger
Jefferson Family Historian
301-292-2739

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