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When History Talks Back: Teaching Nonfiction History of the Vietnam War

By Larry R. Johannessen

This article originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of the English Journal. Larry Johannessen's approach to teaching the Literature of Vietnam is truly inspirational. Our thanks to him for his work, and to The English Journal and the National Council of Teachers of English for sharing it. "Copyright 2002 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Used with permission.
No book about Vietnam, or about America itself, will ever have the power for me that this one does, with its haunting, remarkable, ghastly memories of what the young were required to endure. Any woman in this country who does not know much about war will learn everything from these voices. —Gloria Emerson

I discovered the value and power of teaching nonfiction in the early 1980s, when I became interested in teaching students about the Vietnam War and the literature that has emerged in response to it. At that time I was teaching English at a suburban high school in the Chicago area. I had read or was reading what I came to regard as some excellent nonfiction works on the war, books such as Michael Herr's Dispatches, Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone, and Al Santoli's Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It. However, when I considered these works for possible use in a literature unit, I realized that they are nonfiction—personal narratives, memoirs, or oral histories—and I was concerned that if I didn't come up with something that my colleagues, administrators, and parents considered more mainstream literature, I might not be able to move forward with my unit.

I then began searching for fiction to use in a Vietnam War unit, assuming that I would have little trouble finding excellent short stories, novels, poetry, and plays that would be readily available and appropriate for classroom use. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. There were a few excellent novels at the time, such as Larry Heinemann's Close Quarters and Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato, but these works presented teaching problems that made them less than desirable choices for classroom use. For example, the narration in Tim O'Brien's novel involves the main character's elaborate fantasy of escaping from the war on foot to Paris, France. This fantasy is set against three seemingly unrelated narrative threads (the main character's standing guard duty during a lonely night, memories of home, and the horrifying deaths of several members of his platoon). This rather unorthodox narration is quite challenging, even for good readers. I knew that many of my high school students, particularly my reluctant readers, would have difficulty navigating through the complex narration and making sense of the story, even with considerable help from me. As a result, I became frustrated and ended up rejecting this novel and most of the longer fiction that I considered using. I kept coming back to the nonfiction. A few of my students had read some of the nonfiction works about the war on their own. In fact, one senior remedial student who hated reading and resisted all of my best efforts to get him to read, walked up after class and produced a dog-eared paperback from a hidden pocket in his black leather jacket. He said, "I know you're a Vietnam vet, and I just read this great book about the war, Born on the Fourth of July, by this guy, who was a Marine like you in Vietnam. I thought you might like to read it." He stuck the book out for me to take and added, "Go ahead, you can have it. He really tells it like it is. I couldn't put it down. See ya," and he walked out or, more accurately, ambled out the door, trying his best to look "cool."

I couldn't believe I was hearing this from a kid who claimed to hate reading. Even better, he started hanging around after class on a regular basis, supposedly to find out how I was doing on my reading of Kovic's memoir. But what he really wanted to do was talk about the ideas and issues in the book, a work that would, some years later, become the basis for one of Oliver Stone's three Vietnam War films. We had a number of engaging discussions during the class period and once or twice after school about Kovic's very passionate views on the war, and I realized that this young man was wrestling with some of the same issues that Kovic raises in his memoir, such as the meaning of patriotism, duty, and courage.

Incidents like this one convinced me that in my search to find what I thought of as more traditional "literature" to use in the classroom, I was missing teaching literature that some of my students were reading on their own and found engaging and compelling. I made a decision then to go forward with a unit that would center on some of the excellent nonfiction, memoirs, personal narratives, oral histories, and collected letters that had been written about the war. That decision profoundly changed how I think about and teach literature. I still feel the ripple effects today as I plan and teach college literature courses and prepare secondary English teachers.


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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