Enlisted at 17

Jerry Lembcke:

The power of the war in Vietnam to shape American discourse a half-century later holds endless fascination for students of political culture and collective memory, but its power to rewrite its own antecedents is no less remarkable. A Lexis-Nexis search of news stories from 1977 (as far back as Lexis-Nexis went) to 1993 returned only thirteen entries for “enlisted at 17.” For the nine years, 1993 to 2002 there were fifty-two such claims. From 2002 through 2010 there one hundred ten. The quantum leaps in those returns came after the first Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The miniscule number of claims—13 in 16 years—prior to the Gulf War means that “enlisted at 17” was simply not resonant with the way Americans processed their World War II, Korean War, or even early post-Vietnam War experience. And yet, the epigraphs above, drawn from the news coverage of the early June 2019 anniversary of the 1944 Normandy Landing attest to the utility of the “17” trope for historical revisionism.

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