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The story behind the story

Professor Tobey Herzog gave the Wabash community the story behind the story of this year’s honorary degree recipients — two liberal arts graduates from different generations whose own writings nevertheless seem to agree on the tragedy of the Vietnam War. Hear the complete Podcast.

General Earl “Punk” Johnson ’38 spent nearly a lifetime in the Air Force, serving first in World War II, where he helped train the crews that dropped the first atomic bomb. Recalled to service in Korea he later commanded bombing raids in Vietnam .

“He began his military career in what was called the ‘good’ war,” Herzog said.

Unlike this year’s other Honorary Degree recipient, award-winning writer Tim O’Brien.

“Tim O’Brien was a reluctant warrior,” said Herzog, whose scholarly career has often focused on O’Brien’s work. Hismost recent book, Writing Vietnam, Writing Life, includes an intimate personal interview with the writer, along with three other acclaimed authors who have written about the Vietnam War.

Herzog read excerpts from O’Brien’s work detailing the Macalester College graduate’s opposition to the war and chronicling the damage the war did to the lives of those who served in it.

That’s where the writer and General’s views begin to converge, Herzog said. He read excerpts from Johnson’s writing on Vietnam—a now-familiar perspective insisting that the country should only go to war when the war can be won, and that the way the U.S. waged the war in Vietnam damaged not only the lives of the men who fought there, but “the spirit of the country.”

Herzog’s talk gave students and faculty plenty to think about when these two men share the platform to receive their degrees on this year’s Commencement Day.

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