Teaching the Viet Nam War, Part II
Peter Katopes, Adelphi University
Assumptions about the character and conduct of the American soldier must also be addressed. Students, for reasons that are understandable, have assumptions about the way in which American soldiers conducted themselves toward indigenous civilians, toward their officers and NCOs, and toward fellow soldiers--especially those of different races. They have assumptions about the competence of officers and NCOs (particularly those designated by GIs as "lifers"), and they also bring with them assumptions about the social, intellectual and educational levels of those who served, as well as about their political perspectives and moral orientation.
These assumptions may be addressed not only by personal response, but also by discussions of the various films and books dealt with in the course.
Most students are simply unaware of the origins and pervasiveness of antiwar sentiment. Many think that antiwar resistance began sometime in the late 1960s, and that it was a response to policies of the Nixon Administration. Consequently, many students tend to see the Viet Nam war as "Nixon's War" and are somewhat ill-informed about American involvement in Southeast Asia during the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson eras, and the beginnings of dissent during those times.
Therefore, it is helpful to introduce documents which suggest the depth and breadth of the antiwar movement. For instance, I offer selections which range from the "Port Huron Statement" (1962) of the SDS to manifestos of various other radical groups, to assorted student "We Won't Go" statements; an excerpt from Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice and Ronald Dellums' 1971 address to Congress on American involvement in Viet Nam; material from soldier groups like the GIs United Against the War and John Kerry's "How Do You Ask a Man to be the Last Man to Die for a Mistake?" address to Congress; statements from the American Friends Service Committee and other conscientious objectors, and even the American Bishops' 1969 letter on Conscientious Objection, among others.
Students are generally unaware of the long and difficult history of Viet Nam, nor do most have any sense of the country's geography or even of its location. During the very first class, I distribute an unlabeled outline map of Southeast Asia and ask students to fill it in. This little exercise--of course not original with me--provides a good lead-in to a discussion about American political and cultural ignorance and arrogance concerning Southeast Asia and how those attitudes may have influenced not only our political outlook but our military strategy as well.
The Vietnam Reader also provides each student with an extensive chronology beginning with Trieu Da's conquest of Au Lac in 208 BC. For most students, the chronology is an eye-opener. They are surprised to find out that the history of Viet Nam is so long and so contentious.
Students also make assumptions about the role of the press in wartime and so it is of course important to examine the role of the press. I introduce them briefly to the history of war journalism and encourage discussion of questions about whether or not the press did, as many contend, lose the war for us. Or what is the responsibility of the press to the people back home? And should the press ever be censored? If so, under what conditions? I rely a good deal on Michael Herr's Dispatches, still one of the most honest and perceptive press memoirs, to provide a framework for these discussions.
Students tend to consider the wounded and prisoners of war mostly as afterthoughts. Most students, like most people, think of the warrior only in the active sense and tend to discount the psychological consequences of being wounded or captured. Also, perhaps because we no longer have a draft, students are insensitive to the historical connection in America between the military and the civilian population--that is, the idea that the warrior is a citizen, too.
However, because in Viet Nam the wounded soldier stood a much better than even chance of surviving battlefield injury and being either returned to duty or the general civilian population (for whom he might serve as an uncomfortable reminder of the consequence of modern warfare) some discussion of the wounded veterans in U.S. society and our responsibility to them must be part of the course. Certainly Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July and Lewis Puller's Fortunate Son, as well as statistics and information about PTSD and Agent Orange must be introduced and discussed. Also worth some time are analyses of the significance and development of battlefield medicine and the effects of modern weaponry on the human body--subjects which students, in spite of the graphic violence of many films, remain woefully naive.
And because at perhaps no other time in the history of warfare had so much attention been focused on prisoners of war, the treatment of POWs and their responsibilities to themselves and their country according to the Code of Conduct is a subject which should be addressed in any course on the Viet Nam war. Helpful here are movies such as
The Hanoi Hilton as well as memoirs of former POWs like Robinson Risner and Jerome Stockdale.
Also of interest here is the ongoing debate over whether or not American POWs and MIAs are still being detained in Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, students have very strong opinions about this issue--pro and con. Useful here are The Missing Man: Politics and the MIA, by Capt. Douglas L. Clarke, and the more recent study of the subject by historian H. Bruce Franklin, M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America.
The fact one is a veteran teaching a course on the Viet Nam war may be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Students will of course view what I present to them as carrying more authority than what they might be told by a non-veteran instructor. This, however, presents a clear danger as well, so I try always to remain extremely scrupulous in distinguishing what is merely my opinion or what I know from my limited perspective as a rifle platoon leader and what may be considered historical "fact." I do use personal artifacts and memorabilia to bring the experience of the war home to my students. Doing so helps reinforce the fact that real people, not just historical characters, lived through the Viet Nam era. Besides, students seem fascinated by such items as machetes, hand grenades, short-time calendars, immunization cards, draft cards, etc., and regard them as legitimate historical documents.
Because the Viet Nam war spawned so many terms which are incomprehensible to the nonparticipant and because many standard military terms will not be readily familiar to those who have never served in the military, The Vietnam Reader provides each student with a fairly extensive glossary to help them navigate through the jumble of terms.
As I've suggested earlier, I find visual media--especially film--to be very useful in teaching the Viet Nam war. I use The Green Berets, which has been called the first Viet Nam war movie about World War II, as a way of showing how our early cultural perceptions about Viet Nam are reflected in the plot, the dialogue, and even the casting. In fairness, however, although this movie has been universally reviled--and with some justification--it is the only major studio release which even attempts, albeit in a heavy-handed manner--to address the political issues which surrounded the Viet Nam war. And it remains to this day one of the few films to suggest that the South Vietnamese had a stake in the Viet Nam war--that is, that the war wasn't merely an American war. To balance the jingoistic view provided by John Wayne, I also show parts of Go Tell the Spartans, which presents a grittier and more ominous view of our early involvement.
I also present portions of both Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, prime examples of Hollywood's attempt in the 1970s to re-mythologize the Viet Nam war by imposing literary models on films, and how these films rely less on realism than they do on a somewhat overt symbolism to suggest something about the Viet Nam war and American society.
Turning to the 1980s, I show students excerpts from both Platoon and Hamburger Hill, which ought to be viewed in tandem, as they provide contrary visions about the nature of the war and conduct and character of the U.S. soldier who served. And, as I mentioned earlier, I show portions of Hanoi Hilton, a documentary-style feature film about American POWs in North Viet Nam's Hoa Lo prison. Although the film provides a sometimes quirky chronology, the "documentary" model gives students an interesting glimpse of the controversy surrounding the treatment of American POWs by their North Vietnamese captors. I also use two documentaries: The War at Home, about the rise of the SDS and the antiwar movement; and A Face of War, a searing Canadian cinema-verité piece which records the activities of a Marine rifle company in Viet Nam in 1967. I use the latter and its graphic realism to stimulate discussion about the different between artistic representation of war and the reality.
I use literature--fiction, nonfiction, memoirs (U.S. and Vietnamese)--which frequently provide unique personal perspectives on the war. Some of the better known works are, of course, Philip Caputo's
A Rumor of War, James Webb's Fields of Fire, Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July, Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, Michael Herr's Dispatches, and Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story, to name but a few. As more Vietnamese works are translated into English, they should of course be integrated into the sequence. An interesting selection is James Banerian's Vietnamese Short Stories. In addition, I also use letters home, after-action reports, poetry, etc.
And finally, I introduce--or reintroduce--students to the protest music of the era, particularly Phil Ochs' "I'm Gonna Say It Now," and "Draft Dodger Rag." To their surprise, I haul in my guitar and sing the songs myself to give them a flavor of the intimate and immediate impact of the protest song.
The teaching of the Viet Nam war is a process which demands constant revision and refinement. New material and data are being introduced into the discussion on almost a daily basis and require intelligent scrutiny and analysis. Also, unlike many of us who have made a lifelong commitment to studying the era, most students have severe constraints on their time and so often find it difficult to handle the great mass of material which they must of necessity grapple with if they are to come to an even rudimentary understanding of what the Viet Nam war meant--and continues to mean--to the U.S. and to Viet Nam. I sometimes fear that students leave the class more confused than when they began--not about everything, but about many things. Perhaps that confusion will impel them to continue to learn about the war and to pursue further study independently.
As those of us who lived through the war grow older and more distanced from the events and the turmoil of the era, we must continue to take seriously our responsibility to present a complete and objective, although not detached picture of the phenomenon now known as the "Viet Nam Experience" in order that succeeding generations may have the tools and the knowledge to discover for themselves the significance of this major event.
Peter Katopes received his Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is currently Director of Academic Affairs of University College of Adelphi University in Garden City, NY and also teaches Viet Nam war literature, writing and humanities there. His recent publications include The Vietnam Reader (Kendall/Hunt), The Human Condition in the Modern Age (Kendall/Hunt), and The Child-Killer (Northwoods Press) He served in Viet Nam in 1968-69 with the 1st Infantry Division.
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