For generations born after the Vietnam War (1954-75), the dominant source of information about that war comes from popular culture. There are novels, music, TV shows and movies all depicting some part of the war. In fact, there is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to Vietnam War movies, featuring 137 different titles. The problem is that whether or not these pop culture references depict positive or negative attributes of the war, it is still an American depiction. The Vietnamese story continues to go largely untold. Little do many Americans realise that the same war is called the “American War” in Vietnam.
One Professor is trying to introduce the Vietnamese perspective into her classroom. Dr. Donna Alvah at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York teaches “The United States and the Vietnam War.” At the course’s onset she has students write an essay on what they already know about the war. Unsurprisingly, essays turned in reflect the common perspective shared by most Americans born after the war. According to Dr. Alvah, it is “largely gleaned from movies, documentaries, music, and other popular cultural expressions, as well as from older relatives who served in the war, or who in any case hold strong opinions about it.”
Many American students are not instructed on the Vietnam War in middle or high school. Dr. Alvah’s students have shared that often “teachers didn’t get as far as the Vietnam War, because teachers have a broad span of history to ‘cover’ – and the Vietnam War comes toward the end of it.” Those who do have the chance to learn about the war generally receive a very condensed history.
Perhaps one of the culprits is the infamous standardised test. Nowadays, many teachers teach in a way that ensures students do well on the state-administered tests. If the Vietnam War is not on the test, it is not taught in the classroom. Maybe the lack of instruction is a sensitivity issue.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if many teachers are uncomfortable with teaching about the war because it’s still a controversial topic in the US,” said Dr. Alvah.
In any case, the gap of formal instruction is leading post-Vietnam War generations to absorb pop culture created versions of the war. The problem is that these versions, originating in America by Americans, are leaving out the Vietnamese story. And whether it is a negative or positive depiction, it is an American depiction.
The rest of Dr. Alvah’s semester covers varying Vietnamese memoirs and other firsthand accounts of the war. She slowly introduces Vietnamese perspectives by going back in history before the Cold War and the ultimate American involvement in the country. She also includes overlooked American perspectives of the Vietnam War. Still Dr. Alvah admits that by the semester’s end, some students still hold a dismissive attitude towards the Vietnamese side, including the massive death toll.
“Perhaps fathoming the enormity of the war takes more than a semester,” she said.
Dr. Alvah hopes to add to the course in the future, ideally a travel component to Vietnam. But Dr. Alvah is just one woman, at one college, trying to debunk false American attitudes towards the Vietnamese War. Until there are more Dr. Alvah’s, or those who have the opportunity to visit Vietnam and hear their stories, the Vietnamese side of the war will remain hushed. And generations to come will continue to view the Vietnam War as dictated by pop culture fabrications.