Barry M. Kroll, Teaching Hearts and Minds: College Students Reflect on the Vietnam War in Literature
(Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press) 1992. 200 pages
Reviewed by John Bradley, DeKalb, IL
This response to Barry Kroll's course, "Vietnam War Literature," apparently typical of the evaluations students made of their experience in his class, indicates that Kroll did much more than merely conduct an examination of some of the literature on the Vietnam war. As another student describes the course, "it has made life a little difficult." (154)
As a teacher who has offered a course on the Vietnam war several times to college freshmen, I find myself greatly admiring Kroll's ability to make their lives "a little difficult," that is, to involve students' hearts and minds, what he calls "connected inquiry," in the process of exploring not only the literature of the war, but difficult critical and ethical issues as well. Rich in comments from his students--Kroll required extensive journal writing of his students during the cours--Teaching Hearts and Minds is an invaluable resource for anyone who is teaching or will be teaching a course not only on the Vietnam war, but on other topics of complexity and depth, such as the Holocaust and nuclear issues. What makes this book so valuable for teachers and educators is not only Kroll's ability to bring together head and heart, analytic and emotive responses, but his ability to directly involve and challenge students. "The literature was excellent," states one student, "but I especially like the way I was called on to think..." (151)
Kroll's use of conflicting reports on the battle of Ap Bac, which occurred on January 2, 1963, one of the first major clashes between the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and the Viet Cong, provides a glimpse at how he so successfully engaged his students. Presenting them with two contradictory accounts of the battle of Ap Bac, each fully documented, one presenting the ARVN as victors and the other presenting the VC forces as victors, he asks his students to analyze the two drastically different accounts and state what they believe really happened. For many students this was the first time they had ever confronted the possibility that a written text told only one version of an event.
Unfortunately, very few students are encouraged to do so. And we wonder why so many students find history "dry and boring."
Kroll uses this same technique of providing conflicting versions of the "truth" with the question of whether a massacre occurred in the city of Hué during Tet 1968, when the Viet Cong captured the city. Teachers of courses on the Vietnam war will welcome his list of readings for the Hué debate and his two versions of the Battle of Ap Bac, as well as how he steered his students through frustration at not knowing how to respond to such difficult questions. To a student who writes in her journal that "I'm sure that with the guidance of Professor Kroll everything will become clear" (97), he responds in the margin, "Don't count on him too much. He's still confused a lot too. Basically, I hope you can accept 'intelligent confusion' as healthier than 'ignorant certainty.'" (98) I can't help but wish we had more teachers like Professor Kroll.
Kroll's not content with critical inquiry, however. He realizes that the teaching of literature must also encompass ethical inquiry. One of the ways he did this was to have his students confront the issue of what is killing and what is murder during a war. "The Rifleman's Dilemma," presented in full in the appendix, poses this scenario: Should a soldier, positioned on a hill, entrusted with the duty of protecting his squad, shoot a woman he sees on the trail just ahead of his squad, a woman who bent over the trail and then began to dash for cover in the nearby jungle? Did she set a mine or booby trap? Is she an innocent peasant who dropped something while taking cover out of fear of the soldiers? This is what the students must decide in their papers.
For students who believed that any behavior is justified in a war ("No, actions of war cannot be subject to moral assessment," writes one student. "Those men were paid to kill and if it meant killing innocent people that is what they did." ), Kroll, a Vietnam veteran, again makes their lives "a little difficult" by reading an excerpt from Mark Baker's Nam. This account of rape, murder, and dismemberment apparently caused some students to reexamine their beliefs and come to agree with William Broyles, another Vietnam veteran, who Kroll quotes from Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace (unfortunately now out of print): "Even though the line between killing and murder is not always easy to define, any soldier knows the difference. Murder is different from killing." (131)
What's troublesome about "The Rifleman's Dilemma," though, as noted by reviewer Mary Louise Buley-Meissner in the February 1993 College English, is the lack of source material from the Vietnamese perspective, which might have enabled Kroll's students to see an even more complex picture--why the Vietnamese woman might have been frightened of the U.S. soldier, frightened enough to run, even if innocent. For this Kroll might draw on excerpts from Le Ly Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. Hayslip, as a South Vietnamese youth, shows fear of both sides. Though I suspect the students would still find their sympathies located with the U.S. soldier, they need to confront the full complexity of the "dilemma." Such an exercise, while it can be, and needs to be strengthened, still demonstrates the kind of inquiry and learning that went on in Kroll's class.
The ample journal entries make this clear. But with so much personal disclosure given of the students' reactions to the readings and to the course, I'm left wanting some personal disclosure from the teacher. For example, what was his reaction when nearly three quarters of his students decided that the soldier in "The Rifleman's Dilemma" should shoot the peasant woman? While he does provide one of his written responses from a student's journal, it would be fascinating to have excerpts from a journal Kroll himself kept while teaching these courses. This is a minor concern, however, and in no way detracts from the importance of this book.
Anyone who is interested in or involved with how the Vietnam war is and will be conveyed to future generations will certainly want to read and discuss this book. With Teaching Hearts and Minds, Kroll has made a significant contribution to the teaching of this particular topic. However, educators in other disciplines should take note of this book as well. For Kroll, with his integration of heart and mind, proposes a simple yet radical approach to learning, one that teachers and students both will greatly benefit from, if the comments of Kroll's students are any indication: "I will never forget the class--I think it was the best and most significant course I ever took," writes one student two-and-a-half years after the course. (166) I sincerely hope that Southern Illinois University Press will bring this book out in paperback, so it will be more affordable and reach the audiences it deserves.
If part of the legacy of a war is, in the words of Chris Taylor in Platoon, "an obligation to build again, to teach others what we know," then Barry Kroll is admirably and effectively fulfilling that responsibility. And we can all learn from him.
John Bradley teaches at Northern Illinois University and is editing an anthology of poems on the Nuclear Age.