Teaching the Vietnam War with the Greeks
Lawrence A. Tritle, November 1998
In war, truth is the first casualty.
The first casualty of war is innocence.
—Oliver Stone, Platoon
Loyola Marymount University student Bridget Carberry, analyzing films of the Vietnam War and the historical perceptions of the post-Vietnam generation in an essay written last year, commented, "For those of us born during or in the years following the Vietnam War, the war represents the great unknown. ... [It] has affected my generation in innumerable ways, but most of us do not know enough to realize this. While pre-Vietnam [American] society respected and trusted the government, it has only been since America's defeat in Vietnam that we have become a cynical society that does not trust its leaders." Carberry's comments demonstrate an awareness of the impact of the Vietnam War on American society, but her views, while perceptive and on the mark, are not widely understood by many in her generation. This was brought home by another student in the same class, David Urbach, who wrote on a similar theme but included a survey of student knowledge on Vietnam, asking questions about the American involvement in Vietnam, ranging from the war's chronology (which most knew), to the Orwellian debate of it as "war" or "conflict," and why the United States was there in the first place—most said to stop the spread of communism. This survey, in no way scientific, concluded that what most students knew of Vietnam came from a high school course (perhaps only in part) or from movies and television. Very few admitted to reading a book on Vietnam unless it was assigned in class.1
The investigations of these students coincide with my own assessment of the understanding and knowledge of most college students today regarding the Vietnam War; what is known among those who do not go on to college or university is perhaps even less extensive. This points to a serious gap in secondary education today, and one that frequently continues into university education because quite simply the Vietnam War, 23 years after the fall of Saigon, remains as controversial and as perplexing as ever. Yet as Carberry observes (and here she is certainly not alone), the cynical mood of contemporary American society has its roots in what was America's "longest war," as well as its most divisive since the Civil War.
The Vietnam War and Ancient Greece: A 20th-Century Odyssey
For nearly 11 months in 1970–71, I served as an adviser to South Vietnamese forces in the Mekong Delta (known technically then as IV Corps). I was assigned to Advisory Team 71, located in Ba Xuyen province, as assistant senior adviser on Mobile Advisory Team 50 (not that we were very mobile!). My tour was typical for many of those who served in the field: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of fright, usually over before we knew it; my overall assessment of my contribution to the war effort was that it was negligible. After a couple of months "in country," I realized that few South Vietnamese were willing to die for their country and so I adopted their laissez-faire attitude, determined to get out alive and in one piece.
When I returned home, courtesy of the army's "early out" program to resume my education, I renewed my study of ancient history, eventually receiving my degree in 1978 from the University of Chicago. My luck continued as I was able in the same year to land a tenure-track position at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where from 1978 to 1995 my teaching focused on classical and Byzantine history, in addition to the usual gamut of Western civilization courses.
In the winter of 1994–95, I read Jonathan Shay's powerful study Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York, 1994), which a friend, another ancient historian, had told me about. Shay had spent years counseling Vietnam veterans still troubled by their wartime experiences, and as he listened to them he realized that their experiences echoed those of Homer's heroes. These ranged from the grief arising from a special friend's death (cf., Achilles over that of Patrocles) to the reality and impact of going "berserk" in battle and the consequences of having simply survived. Reading this was an epiphany. It suddenly explained to me why, whenever asked about Vietnam, I would go off on a sort of Dennis Miller rant. After writing a long review article on Achilles in Vietnam ("'We Are the Unwilling' ... ," Ancient World 26 : 247–57), I decided to bring Shay's work into the classroom, but in an expanded and revised version. While I thought that he had done an excellent job in matching up Homer's Iliad with the nature of the Vietnam experience, it also seemed to me that there was a whole body of ancient Greek literature and experience that would, by a comparison with Vietnam, enlarge our sensibilities and knowledge about both the ancient Greek and modern American reaction to the experience of war, the trauma of violence, and how this was reflected in the culture and society of a people.
Such a course, however, would also address the gap in student knowledge about Vietnam. In the years that I had taught at LMU, I had noticed that whenever I said something about Vietnam, the reactions of many students were little different than those to references to the Peloponnesian War or the Thirty Years' War. When students engaged in dialogue, I learned that some were simply intimidated by Vietnam, that they saw their own reflections in the faces of young Americans killed some 30 years before. By teaching "Achilles in Vietnam," then, students would be taught not only how the violent experiences of the Greeks in war and conflict were reflected in the culture and society of Greece in those times, but resonated also in present-day America; thus, they would learn twice over about the nature of the violence and its impact.
Teaching Achilles in Vietnam: Approaches and Problems
A number of courses are now taught in the nation's colleges and universities on the Vietnam War. These range from the colossal thousand-member class at the University of California at Santa Barbara, first taught by the late Congressman Walter Capps, to the graduate course, The Meaning of Vietnam, taught at Duke University by Alex Barton and John Parrish, both Vietnam veterans. (On the latter see Duke Magazine, Nov.–Dec. 1997, 2–7.) The Achilles in Vietnam course that I teach at LMU is more like the latter than the former in that it is, first, smaller, but more important, interactive, requiring active participation rather than passive assimilation of material and experience.2 Moreover, as the title notes, the course is also comparative in nature, examining not only the American and Vietnamese reaction to the trauma of war and violence, but also of the ancient Greeks to the ever-present state of war that confronted their society.
One example of the universality of conflict and violence is the infamous My Lai massacre of March 1968, where American soldiers killed five hundred Vietnamese civilians in a single morning. Although the brutality of this incident is undeniable, similar massacres can be found in the ancient Greek experience. These include the Athenian attack executed with Thracian mercenaries on the unsuspecting town of Mycalessus during the Peloponnesian War, and the destruction of the island community of Melos, an act that inspired Euripides' drama The Trojan Women and Thucydides' "Melian Dialogue." These incidents reveal the range and depth of human experience in war, and studying them enlarges our understanding of both the ancient past and the "present past."
When I began to organize the course for the first time in the winter of 1995, I decided that my primary objective would be social-intellectual and cultural rather than political and military. While political decisions and military events of the Vietnam War and the many wars waged by the Greeks would be mentioned, they would not be emphasized. My own teaching experience had taught me that students were not especially interested in military history, and that the political decisions lying behind events were only slightly more appealing. Moreover, my own interest and concern was in exploring the ways in which two societies, modern American and ancient Greek, responded to the violence of conflict. I was especially interested to see how this could be discerned in literature (including visual media for the American experience) and in the building of commemorative monuments to the hallowed dead, applying a comparative method of investigation.
Two problems in this general outline emerged from the first seminar class taught in spring 1996. The first of these was a perceived deficiency in the discussion about the political dimensions of the Vietnam War. The students, contrary to my expectations, actually wanted more discussion of the issues and the decisions taken that led the United States into such a massive involvement in Vietnam. Related to this was an interest in knowing more about the actual campaigning and tactical methods employed both by the American forces and their Vietcong and North Vietnamese opponents. The second problem, which I thought had been adequately dealt with, became apparent with a request for additional attention and discussion of the Vietnamese and their reactions to the violence of conflict and their experience with the "Other." As an American who had lived and fought with the Vietnamese, I was particularly sensitive to this issue and had built into the course a full seminar session to address this issue. As it turned out, the student who first presented on this topic was herself the daughter of an American officer who had married a Vietnamese woman, and who spoke passionately and eloquently on the complex nature of the Vietnamese American experience (J. Armstrong, "Dragon Descending").
In the two classes that followed, I further explored these two problematic areas. First, by expanding the discussion time for the history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and second, by assigning additional reading that would introduce the students to Vietnamese society and culture, including the Vietnamese reaction to the "American War." Especially useful here are B. Ninh's The Sorrow of War (New York, 1993) and W. Karlin, et al., The Other Side of Heaven: Post-War Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers (Willamantic, Conn., 1995).
Achilles in Vietnam: The Course
My first objective in setting up the course and presenting such disparate material to the students was to examine the ways and means by which two societies, Greek and American, chose to go to war. In some ways, this was perhaps the least interesting of the topics to be discussed in this class, as the basic ideas are simple: the Greeks, especially the democratic Athenians, met in assembly or council and by their actions voted to send themselves, their sons and brothers, into battle where the dangers were shared equitably.
This contrasts with the American example where those in power acted and voted to send others into battle, where the dangers fell unequally on the have-nots of society—those least able to escape the draft.
This great inequity, one made worse with the enactment of the infamous "Project 100,000," a governmental policy most Americans have forgotten if they ever knew, underlines the inequities of the American way to war in contrast with the Greek where those who stood to lose the most fought to preserve the community.3
While the ways to war were different in ancient Greece and modern America, there was common ground in the heroic ideal. For the Greeks, Achilles and the other Homeric heroes provided models of conduct and bravery that educated and nurtured the young. This may be seen in Homer's Iliad and in the literature of subsequent generations, first in the continual citation of Homer throughout the classical era (and afterward) which demonstrates how deeply the Homeric ethos penetrated Greek culture. This may be seen in the work of later authors such as Tyrtaeus, the Spartan warrior-poet of the late seventh century who wrote of the Messenian Wars, and also the more complex Archilochus, who too writes of the realities of war though with a distinct sense of humor.
This literature, and that of the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, may be compared effectively with that of modern America in the post–World War II era. Here the dominating image is cinematic, that of John Wayne in The Sands at Iwo Jima and Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back. The exploits of these heroes brought home lessons of valor and heroism in war to the generation that would experience Vietnam, as seen most dramatically in Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July, a story echoed by that film's director, Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran, who tells his own story in Platoon.
These accounts echo the heroism and sense of obligation inherited from the acts of our fathers in World War II. What those of us in the baby boom generation were not told was that the American legacy in World War II was not unsullied—that it was not only the "Japs" and "Krauts" who committed atrocities but also patriotic Americans. Too late to help came the memoirs of E. B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peliliu and Okinawa (Novato, 1981; reissued New York, Oxford University Press, 1990), and Paul Fussell's Doing Battle. The Making of a Skeptic (Boston 1996), which, among other works that could be cited, tell of brutal acts that we in the 1950s and 1960s imagined only the other side committed.
This examination of the heroic ideal sets up the parameters for the entire course, which then branches out into an investigation of related issues: the changing of character that follows from seeing too much death, from experiencing too much violence. In Achilles in Vietnam, Shay examines this issue through the character of Achilles and the "berserker" he becomes on the death of Patrocles for which Achilles blames himself. Shay's analysis here and the discussion of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is enlivened through the experiences of his Vietnam veteran support group. The students in my Achilles in Vietnam class read Shay's analysis, Homer's accounts of Achilles mutilating the dead Hector, and listened to the testimonies of Vietnam veterans invited to class to bring to life the literatures both ancient and modern.
The changing of character theme takes another direction, one out onto the streets of America, where the largest single group of homeless men, some 40 percent, consists of veterans—mostly from Vietnam but also including Korean War and Gulf War vets. Stories of these ruined lives are told in such current fiction as J. Mulligan's Shopping Cart Soldiers (Willamantic, Conn., 1997), and in recent cinema—for example, Distant Thunder (1988), a film that depicts the lives of the "Bush Vets," those solitary men living today in the wilds of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, rural Arizona, and the mountains east of San Diego, California. Such realities of the Vietnam War, the "present-past" referred to above, should not be regarded as new or unique to modern war or society, and the literature of ancient Greece demonstrates this clearly. Sophocles' Philoctetes tells the story of the abandoned warrior, shunned because of his unhealing wound which symbolically represents physical and mental injury; in Xenophon's epic war-story the Anabasis or Persian Expedition, the account of that war-lover and victim of PTSD, Clearchus the Spartan, is told.4 These accounts demonstrate that the wounds of war that we know in our own time have a history that dates back to the Greeks, one that shows us that the social problems that we encounter today have their parallels with other societies and are reflected in their literature in much the same way as our own.5
While the wounds of war afflict the warriors most dramatically, "Others" in addition to the enemy also become ensnarled in the vicious web of violence. This includes most notably the wives and children of veterans who are often left to deal with the aftermath of defeat as well as victory. This was a theme that the Greek tragic poets knew well and often discussed as may be seen in the surviving corpus of tragic plays. Among those that deal with this theme are Sophocles' tales of Ajax and Antigone, as well as Euripides' The Trojan Women and Hecuba. Discussion of these plays alongside contemporary fiction such as Bobby Ann Mason's In Country: A Novel (New York, 1985), Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods (New York, 1993), and such films as Coming Home (1978) and In Country (1989), allow students to compare the experiences of those who were not directly involved in battle but were yet confronted with its consequences. As with the combat veterans mentioned above, it proved very effective to introduce into the discussion women who served in Vietnam as nurses or who experienced their husbands' or boyfriends' tour of duty, waiting at home and dreading a telegram, or worse, an officer's visit with news that the wait was over, that the homecoming would never come.
Commemoration of heroic sacrifice is both a very human thing and one with a long history. Much can be learned from the monuments that a society constructs for those who have served it. Such monuments offer a rich body of material for the Achilles in Vietnam course. Ancient Athens was loaded with monuments to the sacrifices of its heroic citizens, particularly in the area of the city known as the Kerameikos where the casualty lists were to be found, and also in the city agora or marketplace. The construction and purpose of these corresponds to those found across the United States today, from the neighborhood monuments and casualty lists to those that decorate Washington, D.C., especially the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (the most visited monument operated by the National Park Service) and the nearby Korean War Memorial. Along with the monuments comes rhetoric and again there is much to study and compare, ranging from the funeral orations that the ancient Athenians delivered annually over their war dead (especially notable are those of Pericles found in Thucydides, but also those of the fourth-century B.C. orators Demosthenes and Hypereides), to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and in some fashion, the remarks made by Lyndon Johnson during his presidency.
Achilles in Vietnam: Practicum
In my spring 1998 Achilles in Vietnam class, I was fortunate to receive from the university administration a grant that enabled me to bring in the speakers alluded to above, who not only made presentations but also participated in the seminar discussions with the students. This proved to be a stimulating experience for the students, who frequently shared the dais with nationally known scholars, practicing psychologists, and Vietnam veterans. During the term, students were also able to earn credit toward the course through volunteer internships at the National Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit organization located in Los Angeles whose function is to assist veterans of all wars in need. Some students worked on the foundation's newsletter and learned firsthand the nature of the problems confronting veterans and society today. Others participated in the foundation's outreach program to local schools, accompanying and supporting staff members in their presentations to these students about the Vietnam War. During the past spring, these same students supported a major project of the foundation's other community outreach groups in the promoting and staging of several educational seminars that accompanied the 20th-anniversary showing of Apocalypse Now. Through these activities, these students were able to apply what they had learned in the classroom about the Vietnam War, the wars of the Greeks, and the toll exacted by war and violence upon these societies, and how this ripples through society like a pebble dropped in a still pond.
—Lawrence A. Tritle teaches at Loyola Marymount University, and is the author and editor of several studies in Greek history. His book, From Melos to My Lai: A Study in Violence, Culture, and Survival, will be published by Routledge in 1999. He welcomes comments and suggestions regarding this article, and can be reached at email@example.com.
1. B. Carberry, "The Vietnam War in Late 1980s Film: Historical Perceptions of the Post-Vietnam Generation"; D. Urbach, "Hollywood Goes to Vietnam: A Student Perspective." Both papers were written in a required historiography course, History and Historians; both students had taken my seminar course, Achilles in Vietnam, the previous spring 1996 term.
2. I adopted Shay's title because it is simply difficult to improve upon. After writing my review-article of his book, we had a long discussion during which I asked him if he minded that I had borrowed his title. He didn't.
3. "Project 100,000" brought into military service this number of men whose score on the military aptitude test was below the minimum acceptable. Approximately 10,000 of these men were killed or wounded in Vietnam, and that many more, at least, encountered numerous adjustment problems in the military resulting in bad conduct discharges, etc., that would forever follow them through life. With little doubt, some of these are the homeless vets seen on the streets of America today. For discussion see L. M. Baskir and W. A. Strauss, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation (New York, 1978), 122–32, and C. G. Appy, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill, 1993), 32–33.
4. Recently E. T. Dean Jr., in Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War (Cambridge, 1997), 45, rebuts the view (rightly) that "Vietnam veterans [are] unique in American history [on account of] their delayed stress problems." Unwisely, he continues (on the dust jacket of the book) that "the politics and culture of the time" led to the "development of the modern concept of PTSD" as well as the idea that only Vietnam veterans suffered from it. In short, what the author does is run down one group of survivors so as to elevate another. This past spring I delivered a paper, "Xenophon's Portrait of Clearchus: A Study in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," that shows that what trauma counselors, psychologists, and veterans today know as PTSD did exist in ancient Greece, among real people and not just literary heroes like Achilles. Dean's study, despite the accolades of eminent historians, should be read carefully and critically.
5. Discussions of other literary forms also figure in the Achilles in Vietnam class outlined above, but space does not permit more than mention here. Among these, first is historiography, or what I refer to as "writing about war's experience: the historiography of violence." The primary classical text read is the historian Thucydides, whose history of the Peloponnesian War reflects not only the age of intellectual experimentation associated with the Greek Enlightenment, but also the violence of the war itself. In particular, his accounts of the revolution in Corcyra, the Melian Dialogue, and the massacre at Mycalessus reveal a sober analysis of the toll of war and violence that are mirrored in the language he uses to report these events. In much the same way, Michael Herr's Dispatches (New York, 1977) relates the violence of Vietnam with a language and a literary structure that is at once surreal and chaotic, and so accurately conveys the confusion/ambiguity of the Vietnam War. Other sessions focus on the nature of media, through an appraisal of the nature of Greek tragedy and the imagery of modern news organizations as well as film.