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Sixties Project
Syllabus Collection

General Sixties Courses | Literature Film & Popular Culture | Viet Nam War

Vietnam in Fact, Fiction, and Film

Professor: Major E. F. Palm, USMC
Institution: Glenville Community College
Listing: English HE360


  • Conrad, Joseph. HEART OF DARKNESS.
  • Greene, Graham. THE QUIET AMERICAN.
  • Heinemann, Larry. CLOSE QUARTERS.
  • Herr, Michael. DISPATCHES.
  • Mason, Bobbie Ann. IN COUNTRY.
  • Stone, Robert. DOG SOLDIERS.


You stand today poised on the threshold of a new frontier, about to join me in slogging through the rice paddies of the mind. Our approach will be interdisciplinary and ecumenical, admitting all points of view and seeking to establish the tenor of the times. This reflects my conviction that the war can be understood, and the literature fully appreciated, only within the larger context of American history and popular culture.

Our method will be lecture and discussion--featuring, I presume, much more of the latter than the former. Our principal focus will be on Vietnam as metaphor, tracing five themes in particular throughout the literature: (1) the influence of popular culture in shaping attitudes, creating expectations, and determining events; (2) the supposedly unique or aberrational character of the war; (3) the loss of national and personal innocence in Vietnam; (4) the existential morality of the war; and (5) the essential ambivalence of the experience of combat. In addition, we will attempt to define the literary rules of engagement--that is, the relationship between form and function in Vietnam literature--and to relate the literature to treatments of the war in other media, most notably film. We will also draw heavily on the popular music and sample some of the poetry of the period.

As it was in the beginning with the war, my ultimate objective is to win hearts and minds--but this time only to the cause of war literature. War easily ranks as the most inherently dramatic and serious of all human undertakings, yet war literature has generally lost in the competition for serious critical attention. The great liberal debate over whether war is an aberration or a perennial part of the human condition is finally irrelevant and immaterial to the critical evaluation of literature. As Hemingway long ago pointed out, the writer's principal interest in war is in its tendency to heighten and speed up the normal course of existence, ultimately subjecting human character to its most profound test. The great writer transcends the experience of combat, treating war both as a metaphor for the larger ills besetting a society and as simply another dramatic arena in which to explore all the great themes. We will measure selected Vietnam writers against this critical standard, establishing war literature as a profoundly human and humane branch of liberal study.


  • Three short essays of about four pages each.
  • Occasional unannounced quizzes (if required).
  • A final exam.

Course Policies:

1. Grades. The requirements will be weighted as follows:

Essays (20% each) 60%
Final Exam 30%
Participation 10%

2. Pride and Professionalism. The Academy, in its wisdom, has insisted that you buy a computer. I insist that you use it. Prepare all out-of-class assignments using your word processor. Proofread carefully, taking full advantage of WordPerfect's Spell-Check feature. Print your work double-spaced, with one-inch margins, left and right. Most importantly, keep a computer file on every paper you turn in, since age, Agent Orange, and posttraumatic distress are all three taking a heavy toll on me.

3. Plagiarism. I prosecute plagiarizers to the fullest extent of the law. You are expected to do your own work. You may not collaborate on out-of-class or in-class assignments. You must give credit where credit is due. Review the English Department's statement on plagiarism, and consult with me if you are in doubt regarding what must be documented.

Below is a tentative syllabus for the course. This syllabus will no doubt change as class needs and interests dictate. But until such changes are announced, plan to meet each assignment by the date next to which it appears. In particular, you are expected to do the reading, to view the films, and to come to class prepared to offer spirited participation.

Week I: "But This War Had Such promise!"

Th, 1/14 : Briefings: "The Rules of Engagement (ROE)" and "The Roots of Our Involvement." (Post-class assignment) Sheehan, pp. 1-33.

Week II: The Echoes of Falling Dominoes--History with Handles

T, 1/19: Briefing: "The Making of a Quagmire." PBS Series: "Tet, 1968" (video, in class) ; Sheehan, pp. 127- 199.

Th, 1/21: Briefing: "Vietnam and the American Way of War." PBS Series: "Tet, 1968" (video) Sheehan, pp. 617-722. Recommended: Sheehan, pp. 501-585.

Week III: The Only War We Had

T, 1/26: Briefing: "Vietnam and the New Journalism." Sheehan, pp. 37-125.

Th, 1/28 : Sheehan, pp. 203-265.

Week IV: "Who We Were or Pretended to Be"--Vietnam and the New Journalism

T, 2/2: Sheehan, pp. 269-305 (recommended 305-386), 389- 433.

Th, 2/4 : Sheehan, pp. 433-497, 767-790 (recommended: pp. 589-617, 722-767).

WEEK V: The Rock and Roll War--Vietnam and Popular Culture

T, 2/9: Herr, pp. 1-176.

Th, 2/11: Herr, pp. 177-278.

WEEK VI: The Search for a Usable Past--American Heart of Darkness

T, 2/16: Conrad, pp. 1-33. Film: Apocalypse Now (excerpts in class).

Th, 2/18 : Conrad, pp. 33-76. Film: Apocalypse Now (excerpts).

Week VII: Friendly Fire (X-Week)

T, 2/23: (Essay 1 due) Film: The Deer Hunter (in class). Handouts: Excerpt from John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity"; Pauline Kael, "After Innocence."

Th, 2/25 Film: The Deer Hunter. Handout: Excerpts from James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer.

WEEK VIII: The "Secret History" of the War

T, 3/2: Greene, pp. 1-135.

Th, 3/4: Greene, pp. 135-189. Film: Platoon (excerpts).

Week IX: R&R;

Week X: Realism Is as Realism Does

T, 3/16: Heinemann, pp. 3-171. Film: Platoon (excerpts).

Th, 3/18: Heinemann, pp. 172-335 . Film: Platoon (excerpts).

WEEK XI: On the Road to Paris--Vietnam as Metaphor and Metafiction

T, 3/23: O'Brien, Cacciato, pp. 1-125.

Th, 3/25: O'Brien, Cacciato, pp. 126-210.

WEEK XII: The Peace of Paris

T, 3/30: O'Brien, Cacciato, pp. 211-301.

Th, 4/1: O'Brien, The Things..., pp. 3-154.

Week XIII: Meanwhile, Back in "The World"

T, 4/6: O'Brien, The Things, pp. 157-273. Film: Dog Soldiers.

Th, 4/8: Stone, pp. 1-115. Film: Dog Soldiers.

Week XIV: Coming Home (X-Week)

T, 4/13: (Essay 2 due) Stone, pp. 116-232. Film: Coming Home.

Th, 4/15: Film: Coming Home.

Week XV: Lessons and Legacies

T, 4/20: Mason, pp. 1-185. Film: Hearts and Minds

(excerpts). Th, 4/22: Mason, pp. 185-352.

Week XVI: Peace with Honor

T, 4/27: Film: In Country.

Th, 4/29: Film: In Country. (RTD) Debriefing.

[W, 5/3 - Essay 3 due]

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