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

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When I first began teaching that course, feelings about the war among the career officers who made up the class were so strongly held, so inflexible and didactic, that I would tell them to think of it as a course in comparative religion. There was plenty of anger in those classes, plenty of frustration and exasperation, but there was also a common language, born of common experience. We had all been in Vietnam, at one time or another. We knew the acronyms, the hardware. The special conditions of the war, the lack of front lines, the twelve-month tour, the short-timer’s syndrome were taken for granted. The strong emotions aroused by the war needed no explanation; they were still present.

It was a different situation at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where I introduced an undergraduate course on the Vietnam War in the spring of 1981 to the mixed apprehension, skepticism, and wonder of most of my colleagues. There the student attitude was quite different. Most of the students were too young to have clear recollections of the war, but there was a deep curiosity and concern, a concern so intense that, unlike other history courses I have taught before and since, the majority of the students enrolled in the class were not liberal arts majors. A new type of student had arrived on the scene, one for whom the war was not a direct experience but still an event far more compelling than, say, the American Revolution or the New Deal. As Arnold R. Isaacs, who teaches a similar course at nearby Towson State University, said, “It is as if they are curious about some mysterious family scandal that was important to their lives but which nobody would ever explain to them.”

While students had always shown curiosity and concern about Vietnam, the objects of that curiosity and concern had now changed considerably. Gone were the old arguments and discussions: How did we get into Vietnam? Who was responsible for what terrible mistakes and why? What were the crucial turning points in the war? And was it lost from the start? Except for the last question, which has, by now, evolved into the more upbeat “How could we have won?” there remains scarcely any student interest in such matters.

What fascinates students today are the people who were involved in the war—GIs, POWs, Viet Cong, helicopter pilots, boat people, nurses, anybody who was there. At the end of my first year of teaching “Vietnam,” the students completed the usual anonymous course critique. Aside from one student who declared that, despite being a Vietnam veteran, 1 “dressed correctly,” the most striking result was the number of students who complained that I hadn’t told them more about my own experience in the war. (I doubt whether these students ever complained that my older colleagues in American history hadn’t told them enough about their own experiences in the Great Depression or World War II.) I usually require students to write an essay on two or three related books about the war. The great majority opt for books about POWs, veterans’ autobiographies, books about refugees, oral histories, and other works of personal recollection.

Yet I have some doubts about whether this interest in personal experiences has yielded any profound insights into the nature of the war. Almost all students, for example, come away from their reading of personal accounts with stories of the bizarre behavior induced by “getting short” (approaching the end of a one-year tour in Vietnam). But few understand the more fundamental impact of the one-year tour on the U.S. conduct of the war. I was especially discouraged when one young woman, after diligently taking notes throughout the course and viewing several of the PBS Vietnam segments, asked me whether only Marines and Green Berets fought in Vietnam or were there Army and Navy guys there as well? Yet it is not difficult to gain the impression from casual viewing of television, movies, and book jackets that all Vietnam veterans were either Marines, helicopter crewmen, or members of some exotic reconnaissance and commando unit. The fact that one-third to one-half of all Vietnam GIs were never even under fire, let alone in heavy combat, is always greeted with incredulity by my students.

Those teaching the new 1980s-style courses on Vietnam are generally a different breed of cat as well. There are a few survivors of the old Vietnam-as-vital-issue days like Professor Richard Minear of the University of Massachusetts and a couple of former activists like David Cortright, as well as a handful of recognized specialists on the war like William J. Duiker, George C. Herring, Arnold R. Isaacs, Edwin E. Moise, Douglas Pike, and Joseph J. Zasloff. Most of the other hundred-odd purveyors of knowledge about the war are individuals with no particular expertise in the subject they are teaching.

Few of the teachers who responded to the survey conducted by the Project on the Vietnam Generation appear bothered by this fact. The overwhelming impression in reading the comments and descriptions of their teaching is that most believe just having lived through the 1960s is sufficient background to qualify an academic to teach a course on the Vietnam War. There are references to being “shaped by the war,” to being part of a special generation, ” ‘a lost generation’ cut off from all those who came before or after us,” to being profoundly influenced by the turmoil and anguish of the war.