Re: Viet Nam War Literature pedagogy query

Sandra Hollin Flowers (flowers_s@MERCER.EDU)
Sun, 19 Oct 1997 19:01:06 -0400

This is an excellent question, Phil, and a timely one for me, since I, too,
will be teaching Vietnam in the spring as part of my nterdisciplinary
sixties course. Maybe because I teach literature and students come to my
classes with that mindset, I've never had problems with students accepting
fictional accounts of the war as "worth reading." In fact, two works that
I've found particularly affective are Robert Olen Butler's _A Good Scent
from a Strange Mountain_ (the entire collection, not just the title story),
and Tim O'Brien's short story, "How to Tell a True War Story."

I don't think it's an overstatement to say that a good many of the students
in this southern school (and most of the students themselves are anglo,
southern, and patriotic) are not in the habit of thinking of the Vietnamese
people as people. Nor does it seem to have occured to most of the students
in my classes that a Vietnam vet could feel sympathetic toward "the enemy"
and create compassionate stories around them as Butler has done. True, I
had to walk my students through the imagery and power of a couple of
Butler's stories. But by the time we finished the collection, they were
reading and discussing with insight and appreciation.

My students' ability to empathize with Butler's and O'Brien's characters
is, I guess, what I would say works pedagogically for me in getting
students to accept literature as a valid way of looking at war. (Ambrose
Bierce's "Chicamauga" works in the same way, weaving a spell that even the
most recalcitrant student can't resist.) I'm thinking, in fact, of starting
the Vietnam section of my course with literature and then backing into the
historical works, simply because I think the main issue for the students to
come to terms with is the people, not the war. If they can do that, they
seem to be more receptive to thinking about the complexities of war as war,
whether those complexities are rendered in fiction or otherwise.

Sandra Flowers
Sandra Hollin Flowers Voice: (912) 752-2813
Associate Professor of English Fax: (912) 757-4956
Mercer University
Macon, GA 31207