‘What Did You Do In The War, Professor?’


Instead of fading away, as some thought it would, interest in the Vietnam War seems to be growing steadily. Last year all three networks devoted hour-long specials to the tenth anniversary of the end of the war, with weighty pronouncements on the meaning of it all. Newspaper columnists published similar pieces on the same subject. The Washington Post “Book World” devoted most of an issue to books about Vietnam, all of which had appeared during the previous few months. Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History became a best seller, and the related television series received phenomenal Nielsen ratings. Both the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the University of Southern California held lengthy symposia during 1983 in which distinguished scholars, journalists, and former officials searched for the “lessons of the war.”

Even Vietnam veterans have enjoyed an improvement in their public image. Until recently they were almost invariably portrayed on television as burdened by guilt, unable to adjust to normal life, possibly hiding homicidal tendencies or narcotics addiction, and suffering from delayed stress syndrome. In the television action dramas of the 1970s, Vietnam veterans figured mainly as alienated, psychotic killers; now they tend to be depicted as private detectives or fearless soldiers of fortune. If the Vietnam veteran is still seen as violent and alienated, these qualities now are viewed less with alarm than with a kind of admiring interest. The veterans almost invariably display a genius for mechanical and electronic gadgetry and a knowledge of esoteric weapons and explosives as well as an awesome mastery of hand-to-hand combat. Skeptics may contend that Magnum and Mr. T bear about as much resemblance to the average veteran as Hopalong Cassidy to the average frontier settler, but the vets themselves probably are grateful for any improvement in their public image.

The trendiness of Vietnam has inevitably affected the college campuses. More than two hundred colleges paid to license the PBS series “Vietnam: A Television History” for courses in the fall of 1983 and spring of 1984, and a recent survey by a group called the Project on the Vietnam Generation found 123 regularly offered college courses devoted to the Vietnam War, as well as thirty-one others on “the 1960s.” Almost all the courses in the survey had higher-than-normal enrollments. Indeed, one course at the University of California at Santa Barbara was reputed to have set a record with an enrollment of nine hundred students. This at a time when enrollments in history courses, indeed in liberal arts courses generally, have been declining steadily since the late 1970s.

The Project on the Vietnam Generation also observed that its survey “revealed a remarkable amount of passion and keen sense of responsibility among professors teaching courses on the civil rights movement, the 1960s, Vietnam War or women’s movement.” Whatever the motivation of those professors teaching about civil rights and the women’s movement, it seems curious that so few of the courses about Vietnam were offered before 1981. Yet the war has been over since 1975, and many of the most popular books about it were available even earlier.

In fact, there were many informal courses on the Vietnam War offered in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I taught one of these myself, at a large state university in the South. Even Ronald H. Specter stands in a classroom beside a map of Vietnam though the course was strictly voluntary, met at night, carried little academic credit, and, as I must now admit, was probably incredibly dull, it was always crowded with earnest-looking students, usually wearing the uniform of the day (work shirt and dungarees), intently scribbling down whatever esoteric lore I threw at them. Lectures and discussions that would have induced terminal boredom in any normal nineteen-year-old were swallowed whole by them, and they always came back for more. Part of it, of course, was the excitement and emotion of the time, the idea that if we only studied the problem closely enough, and learned enough about it, the Solution would emerge. Part of it also probably was the fact that I was not just a young assistant professor but a Marine, just back from Vietnam. (I never directly discussed my experiences there, but occasionally I’d let drop some allusion to suggest that the wartime adventures of Sergeant York paled in comparison with my own.)

The vogue of these courses eventually died out, however, and those teaching them turned to more reputable pursuits. In my own case, I continued to do research on Vietnam and to write about it. I didn’t have much choice, since 1 was by then working for the Army’s Center of Military History. But it didn’t take much urging anyway. The Vietnam War was definitely the biggest, bloodiest, most complex, most God-awful business I had ever been involved in in my twenty-six years, and it continued to exercise a strong fascination for me, even after it became an official non-event sometime in 1975.

The next time I taught a course on the Vietnam War, in 1981, the circumstances were considerably altered. I was a reserve officer teaching at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College at Quantico. The course had been literally smuggled into the curriculum by three regular members of the faculty who believed that the services’ self-induced amnesia about Vietnam had gone on long enough.