How to Tell a True War Story

Photo Courtesy of David Flores Graham Shelby performing at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.

Photo Courtesy of David Flores
Graham Shelby performing at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.

Storyteller Graham Shelby’s birth father was a Vietnam War vet whom Shelby didn’t meet until he was 18. But at 12, Shelby saw his father, a Green Beret, on the “CBS Evening News” program, talking about his experiences. Shelby will perform his one-man show, “The Man on TV,” at the Frazier Museum on Tuesday, March 24 from 6 – 8 p.m. to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of that war.

“The heart of the story is a father and son trying to connect, to both understand and be understood by one another,” he says. “Their relationship is about more than just the war. At the same time, war is both the barrier to and the vehicle for the connection they need to make.”

This show marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Tell me how the war had an impact on you as an American child.

As a kid, I thought of Vietnam as the place where my parents’ America went to die. That’s how it seemed just from the way grown-ups talked about it – or didn’t talk about it. Vietnam was kind of like a black hole, a name people couldn’t hardly speak without getting this kind of hushed, funereal tone in their voices. I picked up on that, but didn’t really understand it. I always felt like Vietnam was one of those things that people, particularly those who lived through it, talked about as if everybody knew and understood what had happened there, when I think many Americans have a very limited understanding of what happened in those roughly 10 years. I include myself among them.

Do you deal with the war differently now as an adult, and as time has passed?

I see Vietnam as one of many important chapters in our history and evolution as a nation, and, frankly, a species. The passage of time and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also changed our perspective as a society about Vietnam. We now understand that PTSD is real and that it’s a serious issue for combat soldiers. The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder emerged in the late 1970s and ‘80s, a decade or more after my father was earning a crippling case of it in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1969.

In addition, I have to acknowledge that my father and mother met when he was in Special Forces training. He wouldn’t have gone into the Army without a war to fight. That’s just how he was. What that means is that if America hadn’t entered the war in Vietnam, I wouldn’t exist. I’m not sure how to feel about that, but it’s undeniably true.

GS 2Did your father talk to you about it? If so, how old were you?

He and I didn’t meet until I was 18, and even after that, it was a gradual process. I was always interested in his war stories, fascinated, really, though he held back some of the tougher stories for quite a while. One way I got him to tell me more was that I started bringing a tape recorder when I’d visit him … with the tape recorder, I could guide the conversation, and that’s how I found out a lot of some of his more intense and revealing stories.

I should say also that before he died, he told me it was okay for me to share these stories, even the ones that don’t make him look good. We agreed that we wanted these stories to be useful to other people.

What are some of your favorite other depictions of the Vietnam War, in any media?

I think the most important and beautiful depiction of that war – and maybe any war – is Tim O’ Brien’s (book) “The Things They Carried.” It’s an amazing work of art that tells stories about the war, but it’s really about people and also, to some degree, it’s about stories themselves, which are a big part of war.

In fact, that’s one of the things my research has led me to conclude about war – that it’s just as much a battle between competing narratives as nations. If you want people to volunteer to risk their own lives and kill strangers, you have to present them with an incredibly compelling story; otherwise, why would they do it?