Teaching the Viet Nam War, Part I
Peter Katopes, Adelphi University
Just when it seems that the Viet Nam war is finally going to be put on the back burner of American popular interest, something--or someone--comes along to rekindle the flame. Currently it is the election of Bill Clinton which has put some zing back into the discussion of the Viet Nam war. He is, of course, the first baby-boomer President, and the first major office holder to not attempt to hide or apologize for his refusal to serve in the armed forces during the Viet Nam era. Because the election has already resulted in controversy, the teaching of the Viet Nam war may well become even more controversial than before.
There are now, by some estimates, more than four hundred college courses around the country which teach about the war in one manner or another. The settings for these courses range from crammed amphitheaters at places like the University of California and other large research centers, to Adelphi University, where each spring about twenty students, curious and enthusiastic, attend my own class on the Viet Nam war.
Books and movies using the war as either a main text or a subtext have proliferated over the years. We now have, in addition to self-consciously "serious" works like Platoon and Full-Metal Jacket, "B" and "C" grade films ranging from the Rambo canon to Bat-21, Distant Thunder, and The Iron Triangle.
The Viet Nam war has, until recently, again been a TV war, brought into our living rooms anew by such small-screen attempts at recreating reality as Tour of Duty and China Beach. PBS specials about the Viet Nam war have become regular fare for both the intelligentsia and the masses alike. And as if this weren't enough, our war now has, as do the more popular Civil War and World War II, its own glossy magazine--appropriately titled Vietnam.
And finally, in response to Ronald H. Spector's challenge in American Heritage a few years ago, serious academic research on the Viet Nam era continues to appear steadily. There are, for instance, Eric Bergerud's The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province (1991), a military history of the war; Marilyn B. Young's The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990 (1991), a history of the two nations from the perspective of one who was opposed to America's involvement; David L. Di Leo's George Ball, Vietnam, and the Rethinking of Containment (1991); John M. Newman's JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power (1992); and Peter Macdonald's biography, Giap: The Victor in Vietnam (1992).
While some observers may view this activity favorably, others tread warily because this explosion of interest in the Viet Nam war at all levels continues to stir up old passions and controversies (consider the New York Times piece on President Clinton's college friend, Frank Aller, who allegedly committed suicide over his opposition to the war), and has even caused some of the focus to shift from the examination of the causes and conduct of the conflict to the way in which the "experience" is to be interpreted and taught and to who should, in fact, interpret and teach it. Indeed the immediate critical acclaim for We Were Soldiers Once--and Young, by Hal Moore and journalist Joe Galloway, suggests that the most honest and poignant analysis of the war will come essentially from those who experienced it. This book also raises the issue, of course, of the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity in the study and interpretation of historical events.
Five years ago, at the George Mason University Indochina Institute's "Conference on Teaching Vietnam," there were representatives not only from the academic community, but from the government and the military, the Center for the Study of the Vietnam Generation, the Rand Corporation, the U.S.--Indochina Reconciliation Project, the Vietnam Veterans of America, Disabled American Vets, Veterans for Peace, and a number of other general and special interest groups, each with an armload of suggestions about what should be included in the Viet Nam war curriculum.
In addition, there is a growing push from the noncommunist Vietnamese, who now, almost twenty years after being exiled from their homeland, are assuming positions of prominence in academia and government and are exerting a great deal of pressure for a major reexamination of the many complex questions and issues surrounding the war. In fact, the "Conference on Teaching Vietnam," the first major conference on this subject, was organized and coordinated by some of those same Vietnamese--who also run the Mason Indochina Institute.
And, not surprisingly, as was further brought home during the many presentations and papers offered, there is a line of thinking which suggests that the teaching of the Viet Nam war neither is nor ought to be reserved for university history departments. Teachers of sociology, political science, literature, film, military history, as well as various veterans groups, continue to vie with one another for the chance to teach the war. And passions seem to be running as deep now as when the war raged.
So perhaps a new limited war has started: the war over how Vietnam shall be taught. As a matter of fact, this was the subject of "What Should Schools Teach About Vietnam?"--a feature article which ran in The New York Times not so long ago and addressed the questions of how the Viet Nam war should be taught in the schools and who should teach it.
There are those who argue that the "truth" about the war might only be articulated by those who fought it. Others, especially more traditional academics, eschew this idea, asserting, with some justice, that "anecdote is not history."
The issue is a sticky one and, although I have taught a course called "The Vietnam Experience" for several years and compiled a text, The Vietnam Reader, for use in the course, I am still working out for myself the best way to teach it.
Although, or perhaps because, I am a veteran of the Viet Nam war, a writer, and a professor of literature by training, I resisted teaching the Viet Nam war for a long time, not least because I was uncertain about whether or not I should. Now I am not only sure that I should, but have in fact lectured on teaching the war and the literature of the war at institutions ranging from New York's Nassau Community College to Oxford College of Emory University, and written on the subject as well. I have found that as the years pass and my distance from the event increases, that I am more ready, willing and able to discuss it--and that I am able to be more objective about my own involvement in the war than I would have thought possible even ten years ago.
Actually, teaching the Viet Nam war has alerted me to the great difficulty inherent in communicating the so-called "truth" about this subject precisely because the phenomenon requires grabbing so many tigers by so many tails. For instance, the Viet Nam war is valuable as a subject of study not just because it allows us to examine the pathology of America's defeat, but also because it compels the student to focus on certain larger issues--the so-called "legacies of the war"--which are not restricted to questions of national morality but bear on personal morality and conduct as well.
I determined initially to focus on the literature and film of the war, not only because my training is in literature, but also because much of what the postwar generation understands about the Viet Nam war--or thinks it understands--has been derived from popular literature and from visual media. After all, Viet Nam was not just the first television war, but it has also been exploited and mythologized in film and photograph more than any other American conflict except, of course, World War II.
However, and not surprisingly, I discovered early on that this focus by itself would not suffice, considering the tremendous knowledge gaps in the education of many American undergraduates and the elusiveness of the subject matter itself. Another important consideration is that the typical student who takes the "Vietnam Experience" will most likely never again take another course on the Viet Nam war. Therefore, a course on the war must attempt to be comprehensive without being overwhelming. I have discovered over the years, however, that this latter requirement is somewhat difficult to satisfy because of the often substantial lack of knowledge about the era that most students bring to the classroom.
Those attempting to teach the Viet Nam war may find themselves confronted with a mixed-bag of students: a given class may be comprised of adult learners who actually served in Viet Nam or had friends or relatives who served; or adult learners who were on the other side of the barricades, and were part of the protest movement; and of younger students who came of age during the Viet Nam era or who were not yet born when the war ended. Consequently, the experience and knowledge of some of these students of an American watershed will be original while for others it will be merely derivative.
Teachers must therefore be sensitive not only to the cultural and historical gaps in the experience of some of these students, but also to the built-in assumptions that others bring with them and so design their courses in such a way as to make the "experience" as concrete as possible while giving students the opportunity to reevaluate the fictions, myths, stereotypes and truths which have informed the debate over the Viet Nam war for almost thirty years. Also, instructors may have to grapple with their own ambivalent or ambiguous responses to the complex and sometimes convoluted issues concerning the teaching of the war.
It is therefore vital that we understand which issues may arise when teaching the Viet Nam war as well as some of the methods and strategies which may prove helpful in addressing them. I believe that the best approach to teaching the war is one which embraces both thematic and cross-disciplinary elements rather than strictly chronological and dogmatic approaches.
It is, of course, helpful to those who teach the war to consider why a student might take a course on the subject. Students are likely to take a course on the Viet Nam war for a variety of reasons beyond mere generalized curiosity, although it is undeniable that the mystique of battle possesses a palpable fascination for some of these students--especially those younger males who comprise the "Rambo generation."
Those who actually served in Viet Nam may perceive of the course as an opportunity to "work out" some of their own questions about and confusion over the "meaning" of the experience. As one veteran recently remarked to me: "I've been thinking about Viet Nam for twenty-five years and it's still not clear in my mind. Maybe this course will help me sort things out."
Those who did not themselves serve but know people who did frequently have a need to understand what their friends and relatives went through, often because these same friends and relatives, for varied and complex reasons, have been reluctant to discuss their experiences. One young woman informed me that her older brother, who had served in Viet Nam and had resisted talking to her about it, began to open up and volunteer information because he believed that her participation in the course had created at last some common ground for understanding. Consequently, a course on the war becomes a vehicle which may provide the material for a more personal and immediate understanding of the "Experience" for those who are destined to remained outside of it.
Those who did not serve but were involved in some way with various protest activities--or simply did not support the country's involvement in Southeast Asia--may see the course as an opportunity to reassess their own motives, feelings, and beliefs after a significant passage of time--in much the same way as the veteran might.
For those who were born during or after the conflict, a course on the Viet Nam war presents a world which is at once foreign and attractive, an immediate past which is both usable and accessible, as well as one imbued with a growing mythic significance.
Students at all levels of experience bring with them a variety of assumptions about the Viet Nam war and the people who were involved in the "Experience." It is vital, therefore, that these assumptions be identified and considered.
Perhaps the most widely held assumption that students have about the Viet Nam war is that it was primarily and exclusively an American experience and that the Vietnamese--North and South, Communist and noncommunist--were mere supporting players. Consequently, it is important to integrate Vietnamese material into the syllabus wherever and whenever it is appropriate to do so. More about this later.
People bring to the course assumptions about the nature of war in general. Most students, because they are not military historians nor have been in combat, have little if any idea about the nature of war and battle beyond the general impression that it is "unpleasant" or, conversely, somewhat "glorious."
Therefore, it is essential that the teacher of the Viet Nam war be prepared to address the nature of war in general. One of the ways I handle this is to highlight and discuss Clausewitz' axiom: "Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult." That is--it is the nature of war to be chaotic, terrifying, cruel, overwhelming, and unpredictable.
From this I move onto assumptions about the nature of the specific war. In the minds of many students, the Viet Nam war exists as a kind of hellish fairy tale, populated by otherworldly characters in olive drab costumes acting out a cosmic morality play in a haunted jungle. It is important, therefore, to examine the ways in which the actual nature of battle in Vietnam differed--if at all--from that of more conventional warfare. Two excellent studies of small-unit combat in Viet Nam are John Del Vecchio's stirring novel, The 13th Valley and the aforementioned memoir of the Ia Drang campaign, We Were Soldiers Once... and Young. Furthermore, strategic and tactical theory, whether that of Clausewitz or of more recent development, although virgin territory for most students, should be analyzed and discussed.
To help the student understand the nature of the Viet Nam war, it is helpful to use, whenever possible, primary documents which lay out the various strategies and tactics either considered or actually employed in Viet Nam from the 1950s to the end of America's military involvement in the 1970s. This helps to provide a historical context as students learn about "massive retaliation," "flexible response," "graduated response," "strategic hamlets," and "Vietnamization," all from the words of the planners and originators of these strategies and programs.
And because students hold assumptions that the South Vietnamese Army was incompetent, corrupt and more than willing to abdicate its responsibility to the American military--assumptions which are, of course, both accurate and mistaken in varying degrees--the teacher of the Viet Nam war should draw freely from the growing number of retrospective accounts from the U.S. Army Center for Military History's ongoing program of publishing studies on the war from the South Vietnamese perspective written by former South Vietnamese military personnel now residing in the United States.
Students also have assumptions about the North Vietnamese Army. They frequently perceive the NVA as possessing a military superiority which bordered on the invincible. They assume the NVA to have had supernatural abilities when it came to combat. On the other hand, however, students seem unaware of the structure and intensive political indoctrination intrinsic to the NVA. Again, it is important to draw on the growing number of translated primary material available, from Generals Giap, Nguyen Chi Thanh, and Van Tien Dung, for example, to provide a basis for students to assess and evaluate these assumptions.
Students frequently assume the Viet Cong were a ragtag group of simple peasant farmers in black pajamas who were simply defending their homeland against foreign aggression. I have even had students compare them to our own Minute Men. In fact, as is now fairly common knowledge, the Viet Cong was a highly sophisticated and well-organized entity comprised of well-trained and highly-committed soldiers. Presenting various Communist party documents and training directives helps students to understand this.