David Kieran was Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Skidmore College from 2014-2015 and is the author of Forever Vietnam: How a Divisive War Changed American Public Memory (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014). He will be an Obert C. & Grace A. Tanner Humanities Center Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Utah this year and will join the history department of Washington & Jefferson College in 2016.
Last month, on the evening of the fall of Saigon’s fortieth anniversary, “Stories of Vietnam” opened at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, NY. The 400 square foot exhibit curated by the students in my course, “The Vietnam War in American Memory,” resulted from a collaboration between my class, the museum, and the city’s Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemorative Committee. Using the oral history of eleven local veterans and artifacts that they donated, it presents the war’s impact on the community and the nation. This project represents, to my mind, the sort of engaged learning project that should be central to teaching history in an undergraduate liberal arts context. On campus, as one student put it, “we pride ourselves on being open-minded, but so often we are still stuck in a place where liberal ideology takes precedent and other thoughts are discredited.” In building this exhibit, students grappled both with the fraught relationship between history and memory and the challenges of creating a nuanced public presentation of a complicated moment in U.S. history.
We began the semester by delving into the vast body of scholarship about the war’s legacy in U.S. culture. Thanks to Christian Appy’s generosity, our reading of his masterful Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, was accompanied by some of the original interview transcripts of the book’s published oral histories. Still, students struggled—albeit productively—to hear, contextualize, and present local veterans’ oral histories. It was not until students worked directly with veterans and museum professionals that they fully explored how this scholarship informs lived experiences and political realities in their communities.
In some cases, this work was emotionally difficult. These oral histories were the first time that many veterans told their stories. More than one cried during his or her interviews—a challenge for any interviewer, let alone for twenty-year-olds performing their first oral histories. In other cases, the challenge was ideologically and analytically difficult. One pair of students told me that while they really liked the veteran with whom they were working, they struggled because they found his actions during the war questionable and disagreed with his assessment of its outcome. “I am critical of myself for failing to conquer . . . the cognitive dissidence that I experienced,” one student later reflected. “While I supported and appreciated the fact that the exhibit was designed to tell the story of the Vietnam War through the narration of local Vietnam veterans, I could not let go of the fact that I disagreed with much of what they said.”
Finally, students struggled with the reality that veterans sometimes recalled their experiences in ways that contradicted our class readings. Yet, ultimately, these moments resulted in students grappling with the relationship between history and memory more deeply than would otherwise have been possible. As one put it,
When we read a reliable and convincing book that argues that the spat upon Vietnam veteran is a myth, and when in complete contrast most of the veterans we interview share that in their very personal experiences the opposite is true, a host of questions are raised – For example, how do we weigh memory vs. history? Which has more capital? Can they be reconciled, and how? And where do these contradictions come from?
Another student later reflected that “it was hard for me to reconcile the dissonance between honoring the people and their memories of the war and at the same time learning . . . about the political and social processes that helped construct their memories. I wanted to use what I had learned of the war to challenge and critically assess the veterans experiences . . . [but]I had to recognize that the truths that the veterans operated under are valid and real.” These are, of course, precisely the questions that we hope students will consider, but it became possible to do so deeply only when they left campus to work with veterans.
Another set of challenges emerged as the class considered what stories could be told—and how—in the inherently ideologically-charged space of a state-run military museum. Initially, students wondered whether a veteran who believed that the war was a “noble cause” would be offended by another’s comment that it was “all nonsense” or by the peace flag he flew in his barracks. Ultimately, they decided that presenting the war’s impact on the nation required letting these competing stories co-exist. A more significant challenge came when one veteran felt that he described his combat experiences too graphically. His feelings led students to consider who owns the oral history transcript and to seek ways of balancing their desire to acknowledge the war’s violence with the recognition that the veterans were also members of the community in which the exhibit would exist.
Students also struggled to meaningfully present the war’s impact on Vietnamese civilians. One student, who initially wrote the section of the exhibit script in highly critical terms, subsequently found that she had to adopt a less strident tone. Still, she felt uncomfortable, reflecting that “the exhibit was on [veterans’] terms, which to some degree meant . . . that we had to be less critical and more complacent.” This student was obviously disappointed, but her reflection recognizes that the issues that we take up in a classroom must necessarily be handled differently in a museum – a lesson that she may not have engaged as fully had she not been trying to figure out how she might present a U.S. Army training manual’s description of “The Vietnamese People” to a general audience.
Assignments like this one are not easy to include in a course – planning them requires that instructors locate and vet oral history subjects, build partnerships with local public historians, and provide more guidance and mentoring than a traditional class requires. Executing them raises a host of challenges that aren’t inherent in a paper, exam, or in a final project that never leaves campus. The payoffs, however, are enormous. In this case, the community benefits from an exhibit that will help them debate the war and its enduring legacies. For the veterans, it offers an opportunity to tell stories that have never been told—an experience some of them told me was “cathartic.” And, most importantly, it benefitted my students, all of whom called it one of the most meaningful experiences of their college careers. As one put it, “I enjoy speaking critically and theoretically on the events, notions, and effects of history in the classroom, but applying all of that to real lives and a public exhibit frankly just made it matter so much more to me.” Making history matter in the lives of our students is our business as educators, and as this exhibit demonstrates, community partnerships are a key way that students may engage meaningfully in history.