There Is No Truth about Vietnam

Only stories. Some stories are better than others, I’d argue. But on what grounds do you judge the stories? The historical events & ideological fixations that led to the American War in Vietnam are available in thousands of books & hundreds of hours of film & video tape, but the best we can do is choose a story that fits the facts as we understand them. My two criteria for evaluating stories are: 1) How does the story track with the available (though always incomplete) evidence? 2) How does the story stand up to what I would call the moral imagination? The function of literature is to stimulate the moral imagination. What we call literature at any particular time also shifts around. (I’m inclined to want to like graphic novels, but haven’t found many that really work as literature in the sense that I’m using the word.) As stories go, though, Jason Aaron’s & Cameron Stewart’s graphic novel The Other Side breaks open the hardening scabs of myth & requires the reader to take a new look at an old story. The story of the American War in Vietnam. I recommend it.

Note: Unfortunately, the phrase moral imagination has a history I was unaware of when I wrote the paragraph above. I may have had a dim undergraduate memory of Edmund Burke’s use of the term, but I didn’t know that arch-conservative Russell Kirk had taken the phrase and turned it into a weapon to use against liberalism & that the American Right has made a fetish of the phrase. In fact, what I was after in my usage was the idea that one human being has the capacity to form an image of the suffering of another. Or the joy. But literature is mostly about suffering.

Teaching with Pixels: A Free Form Meditation

The second week (of eight) of my online course begins today. Things are going well both logistically and in terms of learning, I think. My own learning especially. There are fifteen students, though it looks like one may drop, & that feels like a good number for this sort of course online. When I teach Understanding Vietnam in a regular classroom I let the enrollment go as high as 75 students because I use a lot of movies & slides to supplement lectures and reading. But the fact is, in a regular classroom, a large percentage of students remain passive vessels, even when we have Q & A after a lecture. In the online course, where they are required to participate in discussion boards, the teaching seems much more direct. Also more detailed and responsive to particular students rather than responsive to the whole class or just the feeling in the room. The Blackboard software is beastly, often requiring both students & instructor to click five times when twice would be enough in a decent UI. What I really don’t like about Blackboard, though, is the way it forces me to chunk information up into discrete parcels & “deliver” them as units. The strength of the program is that it allows for extensive threaded discussions; I like the gradebook function, too, though it is not as well designed as the one in Turnitin’s system. Clearly, the heart of the course is going to be the discussion boards & the students who dive into them are going to benefit. I wish there were a smoother way to present the course material. The Blackboard look & feel is so ugly that I have resorted to uploading Powerpoint slides — I can at least do a little minimal design in that format. An there are some Flash tools that I’ve looked at that would be better, but what’s lacking is an over-all environment. Next time around, I’d rather use a WordPress weblog with pages for each unit, a running commentary on the blog, and a Turnitin link for papers & grades. In a small class, I’d set the blog up so that everyone could post, but my main content pages would be protected from editing. Well, this post has just been a random brain dump or initial reactions. I’m happy to be doing this because I think that with the right tools & the right expectations, students could be be very well served by online classes. I love the classroom & would never abandon it — well, I will retire at some point — but there is, weirdly, a directness of communication in the online course that I find invigorating. In the classroom — this will sound strange — I am easily intimidated by students. Perhaps I want to be liked too much. I tend to take a very loose attitude toward deadlines & requirements & probably, too, toward sufficiently critical thinking. I’m tougher in the online environment, though friendly & supportive. I hate pomposity & self-importance in anyone, but particularly in teachers. So the online teaching experience is going to influence my meat world teaching, I think. For the better. Online, the element of performance is reduced — replaced by . . . what? Some kind of more fully-conscious rhetorical encounter. At least on my part. As with any teaching situation, you can never really know what is getting across to students. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve had Kenneth Burke in the back of my mind, with his notion that drama is central to understanding. I understand the drama of the classroom — after twenty-five years I still get nervous before class — but I wonder what sort of drama I am now enacting through the Blackboard UI with my students & even as I am acting the drama, I am thinking about how the medium could be modified to make a better production. I need to think more systematically what I mean by “better” in that last sentence. There is a trope in American popular culture of the actor stuck in a limiting role, endlessly touring the same play through provincial towns (Derived from Eugene O’Neill’s father’s biography?) that is applicable to teaching. For me, hell would be playing Mortimer Brewster, or even Hamlet or Lear, every working day for the rest of my life. I’ve never taught the same course the same way twice in a row, but this online course is a fundamentally different kind of drama. I want to perform well, but I also want to see what I can take back to the traditional classroom. I am a perpetual beginner.

David Halberstam

The journalist David Halberstam died last night from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. He was 73. Halberstam, along with Neil Sheehan & a couple of others, reinvented American journalism under the historical pressure of the American War in Vietnam. What a terrible end to an astonishing career. Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest & Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie defined a new approach to writing contemporary history. Between them, they nail down a decade that revolutionized the ways in which Americans conceive of themselves. Vietnam “changed everything” in a way that September 11 certainly did not. In fact, those who claim that 9/11 “changed everything” seem to imagine — in a breathtaking act of wishful thinking — that the terrorist attack restored the United States to some sort of pre-Vietnam state of virtue.

Update: Speaking of Vietnam, see Todd Gitlin’s note on Halberstam’s connection of the Vietnam folly to the Iraq folly.

Vietnamese Brides go to Korea

I found this story fascinating. There is plenty of room for exploitation in a system of marriage brokers. But having lived in Vietnam & read a bit of Vietnamese literature, I can tell you that there have always been such brokers & that the Vietnamese are in some ways quite unsentimental about marriage. They are also deeply committed — even sentimental — about the extended family. The Times reporter does a nioce job of showing that marriage in Vietnam (& presumably Korea, which I know much less about) is not so much a relationship between two individuals as between two families. And the bits of local color in the story made me nostalgic for Hanoi.

Ly Lan

My friend the Vietnamese writer Ly Lan has a blog & she would like to wish the world a happy Valentine’s Day & a happy year of the pig, too. Chuc Mung Nam Moi! The hill on which the school Ly Lan attended as a little girl was blown out of existence by American artillery shooting into a free fire zone. When she took me to her village in 2000, I remember her amazement that not just the school bu the entire hill had been obliterated. She lived in a refugee camp in Saigon during the war, but managed to go to school, became a teacher & is now one of Vietnam’s most important writers. I will never forget then night Lan & her friend Vang Anh took me out for a traditional poet’s drinking party to see me on way way back to the states. I remember eating small birds with the bones still in them as well as lightly grilled coconut grubs, about two inches across, washed down with plenty of beer. The longest hangover I ever had, it began on the flight home as I sobered up, then continued for several more days as my body processed whatever exotic bugs the grubs contained, a sort of bacterial psychedelic trip. To this day I carry Vietnam in my body. More importantly, I carry it in my heart & mind.

Falling Asleep in a Café

A riverside café garden
An evening of light rain
A light breeze shifts over the water
The river bubbles with a dribble of lights

Get some sleep, man—forty year’s heart weariness
Forty years to let go of a first love
Swaying lanterns flicker white hairs among the black
Close your eyes on the human stain

Get some sleep beneath the early moon
The rhythm of the running tide swaying the wharf
Close your eyes on the world
Learn to take pity on yourself.

[Ly Lan / trans. Ly Lan & Joseph Duemer]