The Vietnam War in words © April 25, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications

The Vietnam War Memorial.

photo by iStockphoto The Vietnam War Memorial.

A new course at Norwich University seeks to immerse students in the gritty, graphic and somber experiences of the Vietnam War, a conflict that for many Americans has parallels to today’s Iraq War. First offered to undergraduates this semester, the class covers seminal literature from the era. More than half of the students also will travel later this summer to Vietnam to visit the settings firsthand.

“The writings provide [a way] for thinking critically about what it means to participate in a war and how the experience of warfare changes one’s identity and values,” said Lea Williams, assistant professor of English. Students are reading fiction, memoirs, and oral histories about the war and its aftermath from the perspective of soldiers and others directly impacted.

As a future officer, it’s important [for me] to study this war because it is critical to learn from the mistakes of others and to adequately prepare for the aftermath of being involved in war.

~ Ashley Lally, ’08

Williams said the Vietnam War and its literature continue to be influential and may even be increasing in importance, perhaps one reason the course drew considerable interest from Norwich students. “The war had a huge impact on American society and culture, from our future military strategies to the use of the press during wartime,” Williams said.

These ramifications are particularly relevant at Norwich, where 60 percent of students enroll in the Corps of Cadets. “Students at Norwich are more interested and invested than most because many plan to go into the military or already have military experiences,” Williams said. She added that for them, this literature provides “models for working through the difficult issues that challenge the individual and writer during wartime.”

The writings also are stunning works of art that have moved writers as acclaimed as William Styron. Writing for the New York Review of Books, Styron wrote, “Caputo’s troubled, searching meditations on the love and hate of war, on fear, and the ambivalent discord warfare can create in the hearts of decent men, are among the most eloquent I have read in modern literature.”

Reading these works offers students the chance to think about how literature evolves. Just as today’s writers and thinkers may be influenced by Vietnam-era writers, Vietnam-era writers were influenced by writers from previous world conflicts. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, WWI “soldier-poets,” as Williams calls them, “were really the first to challenge heroic notions of warfare and to replace it with realistic depictions of the terrible nature of modern trench warfare.

“These writers’ willingness to reveal the awful violence of war,” Williams said, “and their ability to find a new and effective language for talking about war, is something that would obviously resonate with writers of Vietnam, who seem to be possessed by a need to make the reader understand, as much as possible, the reality of that war.”

One such example is Michael Herr, who chronicled the nightmarish qualities of heavy combat from the viewpoint of soldiers he met as an embedded correspondent for Esquire Magazine. His record faithfully reflects the obscene, jargon-ridden language commonplace among the combatants. Of his classic work, Dispatches, Publisher’s Weekly noted, “Herr captures the almost hallucinatory madness of the war…with a visceral impact, its images stuck in the mind like shards from a pineapple bomb.”

Ashley Lally, a senior in the Corps of Cadets who will commission in the Army after graduation, was drawn to the class by the chance to think deeply about war. “As a future officer, it’s important [for me] to study this war because it is critical to learn from the mistakes of others and to adequately prepare for the aftermath of being involved in war,” Lally said.

She was struck during her readings by “the humanity—or lack thereof—of warfare and the affect it has on those involved. ” Lally is writing a research paper on literary depictions of how the United States dealt with soldiers coming home.

In designing the course, Williams particularly wanted to include a travel segment. She prepared for this portion of the class by going to Vietnam in 2007 to research where she and the students should visit, a trip that was funded by the Bride Family Foundation, established by John W. Bride, ’60. “I was honored to receive this award at the end of my first year at Norwich as a sign of the University’s support,” Williams said, adding that her grant made “this trip to Vietnam a reality.”

Lally is among 10 students who will go with Williams to Vietnam at the end of May. “I am hoping the trip will give me more of an insight on the aftermath of the ‘American War’ in Vietnam,” Lally said. “I am also excited to get a chance to travel to a beautiful, simple, country. Everyone I talk to who has been there absolutely loves it.”