Teaching the Vietnam Era: A Course in History and Literature
To help students gain an understanding of the complexities of the Vietnam War, two professors created a course that challenged students' minds and moved their hearts and shared their experience in the fall 1994 issue of the College Board Review
On October 7, the United States will enter year 19 of its war in Afghanistan. It has eclipsed the Vietnam War—which lasted more than 17 years—as the longest conflict in American history, but in many ways Afghanistan feels shunted to the background while the ghost of Vietnam continues haunting the country. Books are still being written about battles—actual and cultural—waged in Southeast Asia and at home. Documentaries, like Ken Burns' authoritative 10-part, 18-hour The Vietnam War, are still being made. Policy is still afflicted by "Vietnam Syndrome," that confused sense of skittishness and shock-and-awe macho posturing, born out of how Vietnam ended, that has defined American military engagement from 1974 through the present day. How returning veterans are treated is measured against the experience of Vietnam vets. We're never far from images of Vietnam, but we're rarely confronted by the in-country experience of troops in Afghanistan and the realities they face when they come home (mental health crises, economic challenges, high incidences of suicide)—or even the simple fact that they are still fighting in Afghanistan. That in no small way reflects another post-Vietnam effect. The government granted generous access to the press at the start of the Vietnam War, allowing the media to present the unvarnished reality of the fighting and arguably turning public sentiment against the war. It was a mistake the government vowed to never make again.
In very real ways, we might be done with Vietnam but Vietnam isn't done with us. So it's strange to consider a time when the nation didn't want to confront the deep cultural, social, and emotional wound left by the war. But that's the environment two college professors were in when they were among the first to teach the Vietnam era, in the 1990s. Michael Gillen, a professor of U.S. and Asian history, and Robert DiYanni, professor of English, both at Pace University, collaborated to create and teach the interdisciplinary course The Vietnam Era: History and Literature, and in the Fall 1994 issue of the College Board Review shared what they learned—and how the class affected their students.
More than 25 years later, their insights feel as fresh and necessary as they must have in 1994, as the administration of President Bill Clinton (who was excoriated for dodging the draft) worked to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam and the nation grappled with the realities and horrors of Agent Orange. "The experience of Vietnam is forever burned into our national consciousness," the professors write. "We must continue to confront the history of America's involvement in Vietnam and to learn from that experience."
It's a sentiment very much relevant today, not only about the legacy of Vietnam but the lessons of the War on Terror. As children of the first wave of Afghanistan veterans reach enlistment age—and, indeed, follow their parents into the military to fight the same war—how we reckon with the nation's “forever war” and how we teach it (and the post-9/11 era in which it began) is a crucial, necessary conversation and challenge we must confront together.
A group of schoolchildren touch the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on April 29, 2005. The Wall's remarkable simplicity struck students. Constructed below ground level, it stands in stark contrast to the nearby Washington Monument.
Like the Revolutionary War and the Civil War in their respective centuries, the Vietnam War was a defining moment in American history. Like the earlier wars, in which Americans confronted issues of national identity and national unity, the Vietnam War forced us to confront issues and questions about who we are and what America's relation to the rest of the world should be. There continues to be great interest in the war among college students, many of whom were born near the end of the war or soon after. Students come to us with a barrage of questions: "How did it happen?" "Why did it happen?" "What actually occurred?" Some students come to us with a sense of urgency born of frustration, seeking answers and struggling to understand as best they can what it was like for the men and women—perhaps a father, mother, aunt, or uncle—who served in Vietnam.
As educators with a special interest in the subject, our challenge is to help students find answers to their questions. Toward that end, we developed a course on the history and literature of the Vietnam era aimed at giving students an understanding of the war—its roots, its complications, its lessons, and its legacy.
Part of the process involved asking ourselves some key questions: How can we best respond to our students' concerns, including the very different concerns of the young post-Vietnam generation and of those adults who lived through the Vietnam era as young people themselves? How can we best convey not only the whys, whats, and hows of the war but also the quintessential experiences of those who served and who were deeply affected by their experience in Vietnam? We also decided that one way to enhance the overall learning experience was to adopt an interdisciplinary approach.
The course we developed focused on the period from 1950 to 1975. In addition, we spent two weeks reviewing background material on early Vietnamese history and culture, including the Chinese influence on Vietnam. We gave lectures, for example, on Vietnamese geography and early history, Taoism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship. We also introduced some early Vietnamese poetry, to give students a better understanding of Vietnamese culture in the modern period.
Beyond our usual educational goals—to introduce students to important historical developments, offer competing perspectives, and provide opportunities to read, appreciate, analyze, and discuss provocative and moving works of literature—we wanted the course to be something more than the usual academic affair. We wanted to engage our students' hearts, as well as their minds, and to encourage an appreciation for American and Vietnamese perspectives and experiences.
We were convinced that this was possible since our own hearts and minds had been engaged by Vietnam—by its people, its history, its literature and language, and by its place in the American imagination. We also had a personal stake in Vietnam. One of us had been there on two occasions: once during the war while serving on an ammunition ship as a 21-year-old and then, more than two decades later, on a humanitarian mission to deliver medical supplies to hospitals and clinics from Hue to My Lai, and to encourage the process of national reconciliation and healing. The other had a different kind of Vietnam connection, having adopted a 10-month-old girl more than 20 years ago during a mission to send food and medical supplies to an orphanage in Saigon.
We told our stories to the students on the first day of class, letting them know right from the start that we had more than an academic investment in the course. Our lives had been profoundly affected by Vietnam, and we wished not only to share what we had learned and experienced but also to create opportunities for students to experience Vietnam in ways not normally associated with more traditional academic courses.
To that end we introduced into our course video clips from documentary and feature films, a series of made-for-television documentary films based on Stanley Karnow's history of Vietnam, a 60 Minutes segment on the women who served in Vietnam, Vietnamese music and folk sayings in the original language and in translation, poetry from A.D. 1000 to the present, American antiwar protest songs and poems, and more. We also visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorials in Washington, D.C., and held our final class meeting at a Vietnamese restaurant named Nha Trang, for the city from whence its owners hailed. Wanting to give others who had been touched by Vietnam the opportunity to contribute their special insights as well, we invited the veterans among our students to share their experiences of the war years in class discussion and formal presentations. We hoped, in particular, that our younger students would benefit from listening to the vets talk about their perceptions of the war and of the era.
The two primary historical works assigned were Marilyn B. Young's The Vietnam Wars 1945–1990, a study that links the French Indochinese presence with the American intervention that followed, and a collection of primary documents edited by Marvin Gettleman and others, Vietnam and America: A Documented History, which includes the Geneva Accords, Vietnam's Declaration of Independence (written by Ho Chi Minh), U.S. State Department memoranda, material from the Pentagon Papers, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam" speech, and much, much more. These two historical texts were read in tandem and provided the context for the films, literary works, and other materials used in the course.
The literary readings began with a packet of Vietnamese poetry we compiled. Poems were arranged chronologically, beginning with tenth-century Chinese works that had a significant influence on subsequent Vietnamese verse, and continuing up through the period of the American presence in, and departure from, Vietnam. Although the vast majority of poems were by Vietnamese, some were written by Americans, primarily combat veterans. Following the poems, students read fiction, beginning with Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955) from the period of the FrenchVietnamese war. The novel provides a European perspective on the then-clandestine American advisory presence and is prescient in predicting the quagmire that Vietnam would become for the American military.
The most extensive part of the syllabus comprised novels and memoirs written during and after the war by Americans. These included Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, Michael Herr's Dispatches, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country. We also screened the film version of In Country. To suggest something of the aftermath of the war and its legacy, we asked the students to read selected stories from Robert Olen Butler's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. These stories are in the form of first-person narratives by Vietnamese who reside in one of two parishes in southern Louisiana. Complementing these works were Le Ly Hayslip's chronicle of her life during the war, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, and Gloria Emerson's Winners & Losers, an examination of the complex legacies and lessons of the war revealed through a wide-ranging series of itinerant interviews she conducted in the mid-seventies.
The class also read passages from newly released volumes such as Peter Arnett's war correspondence, as well as older books, such as Michael J. Arlen's Living-Room War and Lynda Van Devanter's Home Before Morning, a memoir written by a nurse stationed in Da Nang during a particularly bloody period of the war. Beyond books and excerpts, we found ourselves bringing to nearly every class some article or report that had appeared in a national magazine or newspaper. During the term, for example, The New York Times ran numerous articles on Vietnam—on the lifting of the trade embargo, the nurses who served during the war, the American soldiers who returned there to live, and many other aspects of the country's development during this transitional period. On many occasions, our student brought in newspaper and magazine articles on Vietnam by Malcolm Browne and others, demonstrating their involvement by sharing their discoveries with the class.
In addition to their extensive reading, students were required to write three papers on aspects of the literature and history they were studying. Their options included a research paper exploring a legal, moral, or ethical issue related to the war (a number of students wrote on My Lai); an analysis of and response to one of the memoirs (more than one student wrote on Caputo's and Herr's books); an interview and analysis; a reading journal; an account of a personal experience; and a paper discussing the experience of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorials (another popular choice).
Our goal was to require students to use the writing assignments to sort out their feelings and clarify their thinking about what they had read, heard, seen, and experienced concerning the war. We wanted to make the written assignments both challenging and meaningful, hoping once again to engage our students' hearts and minds. We knew we had achieved this goal by the papers we received. They were thoughtful, perceptive, insightful, and passionate.
Eleven students participated in the class. Eight took the course for credit and were equally divided between young students and adult learners.
Eleven students, including three auditors, participated in the class. Two of the auditors were women who worked for the university. One had taken some college courses and was working toward a degree. The other had earned both a BA and an MA Her husband, the third auditor, was a businessman and Vietnam veteran who, near the end of the course, went on a business trip to southeast Asia that included Vietnam.
The eight students who took the course for credit were evenly divided between young students—two men and two women—and adult learners who were returning to school after a long hiatus. Three of these men were veterans who added a personal dimension to our course that otherwise would have been lacking.
The balance between younger and older students was a valuable one, occasioning debates that crossed the generation gap. The participation of women students contributed a critical consciousness to some of the assumptions the men made about the production of war. Equally valuable was the participation of the veterans, one of whom, an African American, offered a perspective on military life that the white students in the class had not previously considered.
Excerpts from students' journals and papers are reprinted here to provide a sense of their engagement and response. The first writing samples are by a young woman who describes her response to Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country and a young man who connects his experience with that described by Philip Caputo in A Rumor of War.
Like Sam [Samantha, the 18-year-old narrator of In Country] I learned about Vietnam as history that touched an older generation. Like her, I knew nothing. I was in a fog about the war, but I saw others—friends' fathers and uncles who had fought in Vietnam. Compared with Sam, however, I am lucky since my uncle was not traumatized by the war nor my father killed in it.
Also unlike Sam, I received answers to my questions about the war, whereas the people around Sam keep Vietnam a secret from her. Nonetheless, she tries to draw them out, especially her uncle, who finally tells her some things about the war she is not prepared to hear. Sam grapples with her fears about Agent Orange, which she thinks her uncle Emmett has been affected by. She struggles to learn about her father, who died when she was too young to know him. Mostly she is persistent and tenacious, partly afraid of what she will discover but pushing, nonetheless, forward with her relentless questions anyway. She is a symbol of what much of America went through as it wrestled with the war, struggling to come to terms with it, even when being kept in the dark about much of it.
I was deeply struck by Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War. His reasons for enlisting were essentially the same as mine. Films, books, comics, and politics mixed with the monotony of suburban life are a potent mixture that make it easy for many young men to join up without really understanding what can happen to them. No matter how accurate or realistic a film may be, it is impossible to transplant the fear and danger of the battlefield to a movie theater or living room. Perhaps with more live action video footage of combat, young people might acquire a more realistic sense of what combat is really like. They might realize that combat is less about bravery and heroism than about fear and survival.
If nothing else, the Vietnam War showed the world what America is capable of at her worst. And though I was not around for the protests or battles, the riots or the massacres, I still managed to fall under the same spell as many of those who fought in the war. Had the Vietnam War not been at the forefront of America's memory in recent years, and had I not found so many ties linking me to the war in Vietnam, my life would be very different now. However, I have been more fortunate than Philip Caputo and his generation in that I was trying to fight a war of the past, while their war was all too real and all too present.
The next samples are by two older students, both noncombat veterans, who describe their visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Clark Josephs had never been to the memorial and Ron Gulliver had visited the wall on previous occasions.
I was convinced that this sacred place was not about to receive me since I had been critical of our government's policy and of those who had forged it. And since I did not know personally anyone killed in the war, I wondered whether I deserved to stand beside someone whose grief was born of just such a loss.
I was struck by the remarkable simplicity of the layout of the Memorial: straight lines, carefully cut names, and the way the memorial blended into the park surroundings simply and beautifully. It was constructed below ground level, in stark contrast to the Lincoln and Washington Memorials nearby.
I followed the workings of a park ranger, a small woman with an armful of directories and special paper used to stencil the name(s) of loved ones lost. A constant source of information, she was gentle and respectful toward all who approached her. I was moved by her and by the people she assisted. I was also moved by the small mementos—flags, brassards, medals, and flowers—left along the foot of the Wall. And I realized that we have here in Washington, D.C., our own Wailing Wall, which is also a healing wall. For the healing process that I began to feel within myself is one that touches all who visit this site.
We stayed for close to two hours, my son and I. I told him about my time in the service and the friends I made and lost and forgot while I was there. I explained as best I could why I went in and why I felt I had to get out when my enlistment was up. We walked from the apex of the Wall to the end and from the other end back to the middle again. We walked and we talked. Finally, I walked him over to the reflecting pool and showed him where I had stood and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr. when I had marched with my father in 1963. I told my son about the dreams I had then.
The Wall gave me that moment with my son. He saw me cry for the first time, and I wasn't embarrassed or ashamed to let him see my tears.
Four years later I took my nephew to Washington for a day. His parents had recently been divorced and his mother, my sister, wanted me to do the positive Black role model thing with him. I didn't tell him all the things I told my son, but I did share with him the thoughts I had about the futility and profound sense of loss I felt standing before all those black marble slabs.
If I'm really lucky, one day I'll have a grandson to take to the Wall, to see his last name—Gulliver—carved in marble. Maybe then I'll have an answer as to why John Joseph Gulliver is carved there and not my name. I won't go again until that happens. How often does a grown man have to cry?
A woman makes an etching of a name on the Wall during a Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial November 11, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Visiting the Wall
In many ways the culmination of the course was our trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorials. We began by visiting the most recent of the memorials—dedicated to the women who served in the war. This was important for our group, not only because it contained women but also because we focused on the contribution of women to the war (on both sides) at strategic points in the course. More than one student was struck by the tenderness of the three figures shown in this bronze sculpture representing the psychological and medical support that women offered to those who fought in Vietnam.
From there we made our way to the memorial dedicated to the soldiers. It depicts three combat troops, battle-weary comrades of different races who lean on and support one another. Similar to the women's memorial in its realism, this second memorial reflects still another facet of the war: its power to wear down the spirit and grind down the self. It is not a pretty work (though it is beautifully executed), and it seemed to most of our students less uplifting than the women's memorial.
It is the Wall, however, that most powerfully commands one's attention and engages one's emotions. Only a few of our students had been to the Wall before, but most had never gone with veterans who had lost friends in the fighting. It was a moving experience for the young students who had come for the first time, especially when they watched the reactions of the older veterans.
We spent some time looking for names of those we knew personally or others about whom we had heard or read. And before leaving we gathered to reflect on what the Wall meant to us and to share our feelings and thoughts at the moment. This kind of reflection brought to a fitting conclusion, we thought, the kind of response the course invited with each of the events, works, films, songs, articles, and other materials we considered.
During our visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorials one of us overheard a young girl ask her mother as they stood gazing at the names on the wall, "Mommy, where is Vietnam?" The mother, involved in her own memories and feelings, turned and said simply, "It's far away, dear, halfway around the world." And yet it is as close and as present as memory and study allow.
The questions come early, and this, we believe, is a good sign. Those of us who teach about the war think it is important, first, to remember it. For those too young to remember, it is necessary for the sake of learning from that long and tragic experience, and for our national as well as personal benefit, to ask questions about it, all kinds of questions—political, social, cultural, legal, moral, and more.
Vietnam War veteran Bill Daley touches the place on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where his friend Joseph Chatburn's name is etched on Veterans Day November 11, 2013. The authors found the Wall most powerfully commanded students' emotions.
What did we expect from this course—for our students and for ourselves? Pretty much what we experienced: a heightened awareness of what happened in Vietnam from 1945 to 1975, with a deeper understanding of how and why it occurred; a respect for the Vietnamese people, who fought foreign domination successfully for more than a thousand years; an appreciation for the beauty of the country and a corresponding shame at the destruction made by U.S. bombs.
We also believe that the students who took The Vietnam Era: History and Literature are wiser about the political process, especially about the deceptions governments practice on their peoples. We think our students came away with an understanding of the significant literary accomplishments of a wide range of writers, some of whom were experimenting with a hybrid genre that combines fact and fiction, autobiography and imaginative writing. Most important, we believe our students were engaged by what they experienced and that some were changed by what happened in our course. We know from watching them and working closely with them that our students came away with their minds challenged and their hearts moved. And that, we believe, is what education is fundamentally about.
The experience of Vietnam is forever burned into our national consciousness. We must continue to confront the history of America's involvement in Vietnam and to learn from that experience. In doing so we need to find ways to answer the tough questions we know our students will inevitably bring to our classroom in the years to come.
As professors of history and literature, we quite naturally emphasize our discipline when discussing texts with students. We found repeatedly that the historical context illuminated literary texts, such as The Quiet American or The Things They Carried, enriching their significance. And we found that considering the literary qualities of such memoirs as Dispatches and A Rumor of War, and of such historical documents as Vietnam's Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech against the war, brought them to life and provided our students with an opportunity to experience those works as more than dry-as-dust historical records. Each of us learned from the other, and what we learned was filtered through the perspectives of our students, who shared their learning with one another and with us. Perhaps more than anything else, our course became more than simply another graduation requirement for our students to take and for us to teach. Instead, it quickly became and remains even now a shared experience of community, which took us beyond seeing Vietnam as only a highly problematic war and toward seeing Vietnam as a world, a place, a people whom, only now in the mid-1990s, we are beginning to better understand and appreciate. Teaching our Vietnam course, in short, was one of the best experiences of our academic lives.