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Teaching the Vets

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 When I first began to teach, I had many veterans from the war in Vietnam in my classes. Between my first year in 1969 and the revolutionary victory in 1975, tens of thousands of soldiers returned home.  The college in which I taught was in the steel-mill town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and like most working class cities, Johnstown had more than its share of veterans.

Nearly all of my veterans proved themselves serious students. They were a lot like me—first generation college students, sons of factory workers, and used to wage labor. Some had volunteered for the military and some had been drafted. Most had been rank-and-file soldiers and marines, but one or two had been officers. Quite a few had not done well in school. Almost all saw college as a new lease on life, a place where they could piece their lives back together and maybe grab a piece of the American dream. I enjoyed teaching them, and drinking with them too.

If the veterans were of one mind in making the most of their classes and eventually graduating, and if in this we were on the same page, the same cannot be said about politics. Some veterans were liberal and some conservative. Some were opposed to the war, but most were not, though only a few expressed this openly. I think that most just wanted to forget about it and get on with their lives. Radical veterans were rare, however; I don’t remember anyone who belonged to Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I, on the other hand, was the most radical teacher on campus, although that wasn’t saying much back then.

Most of the veterans didn’t mind that our politics differed and were often at odds. They had that kind of easygoing willingness to tolerate differences that working class people often have, as long as both parties had enough in common. We drank; we shot pool; we played basketball; we argued. Like my dad’s buddies in the factory back home. But sometimes the differences cut too close to the bone, and then things could get tense.

In 1969, during the first great peace moratorium against the war in Vietnam, I canceled classes, much to the consternation of some of the veterans. Some teachers and students organized a small protest, the main features of which were a reading of the names of the dead soldiers and a selection of antiwar poetry. Our event took place in an open little mall area between the two main academic buildings. We were all sitting on benches underneath the flagpole. I remember thinking how outrageous it would be to take down the flag of imperialism and run up the flag of North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front. The professor of Spanish had selected the poems to be read, and he had thoughtfully copied the poems and translations for those in Spanish. He was reading one of the Spanish poems when a group of veterans charged onto the mall and ripped the poems from our hands. They tore them up and left. We sat there stunned, but the Spanish teacher recovered quickly and continued to recite the poems. I don’t remember now what happened afterward. I suppose we  figured that it was just one more indication of how badly polarized the country was. It might have turned out worse. Some of the veterans were quick to fight, but none of them did. Maybe that was a hopeful sign.

Every now and then a Vietnam vet enrolled in the college after a career in the military. Invariably these men were not at all like the young soldiers. From what I have seen, twenty years in the army or marines, with multiple tours in battle zones, doesn’t do much for one’s critical thinking. Military society is authoritarian in the extreme. Soldiers take orders; they are not encouraged to think for themselves. If they are marines, they are trained first and foremost to kill their enemies. Subtlety of thought is not usually on of their strong points. We had a teacher in the Engineering Department who had been a Marine officer. I have to say that a stupider and more regimented person I have seldom met. One of his heroes and mentors was the late congressman John Murtha, another Marine officer, who had done duty in both Korea and Vietnam and had parlayed this service to his nation’s imperial power into a long career as a Washington DC power broker. No one who knew him would ever mistake Murtha for a thoughtful person, much less a force for popular democracy. In 1976, we were trying to form a faculty union. Some pro-union teachers from the university’s flagship campus in Pittsburgh had come out to the boondocks to meet with us. We were sitting in a conference room in the library, when to our surprise, our erstwhile Marine professor came in and joined us. He was wearing an American flag pin on his sports coat lapel, and it wasn’t long before he began to ask some remarkably foolish questions. The one that struck us all dumb was whether it was right to organize a union in our country’s bicentennial year.

For many years, I taught an introductory economics course for non-majors, a class that fulfilled the distribution of studies requirement for science, humanities, education, and engineering students and could be counted toward the social science course requirements for those majoring in a social science other than economics. The class met in a large auditorium, and we packed them in. One semester I had 237 students. Unlike professors in universities, I was a one-man band; no graduate students graded my papers and exams or met the class once a week.

It is hard to teach in an auditorium, and I had to develop some tricks to keep the students interested. One was to sit on a chair on the stage below the seats and talk without notes. I had about fifty lectures committed to memory, and I delivered them as if I were in an intimate room, rising every now and then to make a point or ask a question. The chair on the bare stage seemed to concentrate student attention on me and what I was saying. A second trick was to employ the musical ideas of improvisation and variation to good effect, starting with a theme and then, using something I had recently done or read or seen in a movie or on television, I would riff off the theme or give a variation of it. Then all of a sudden, I would return to the theme.

Since it was difficult to have a teacher-student give and take in an auditorium (it took courage for a student to ask a question or answer one in front of so many people), I broke up the monotony of lectures with several films. My favorite was a three-reel—we had only film projectors and celluloid thirty-five years ago—nine-part animation called The History Book. This film was made by an agency of the Danish government and was meant to be shown to Danish school kids. Given its extraordinarily radical content, this is remarkable. In its nine sections, it tells the story of the beginning and development of capitalism from the point of view of the exploited classes (serfs in feudalism and wage workers in capitalism). The narrator is a rat, reflecting playwright Bertolt Brecht’s view that we needed a “rat’s eye view of history.” The rat enters center stage and says, “Did you ever wonder why there are rich and poor?” As good a question as there is for a course in economics, though one that was never answered or even much discussed in all but one of the thirty or so economics classes I took. Things really get rolling after that: The corruption, venality, and brutality of the feudal nobility, both secular and religious; the rise of a money-grubbing merchant class; the “primitive accumulation of capital,” including the slave trade and the pillage of Africa and the Americas; early capitalism and periodic crises; the rise of monopolies; wars and modern imperialism; and various anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles. There are many memorable scenes. Two of my favorites are the rat on battlefields in the First and Second World Wars shouting to the soldiers, most of whom are from the working class, “Don’t kill each other, kill the capitalists,” and a U.S. businessman opening up the skull of an African student brought to the capital of capitalism to be properly acculturated and vomiting a cornucopia of goods into his skull.

The History Book made students uncomfortable. In a review in the New York Times, Vincent Canby dismissed the film as ridiculous propaganda. But it is much more than that. It strikes at the heart of cherished beliefs: the sense of U.S superiority, the notion that our economic system is the best in the world, the feeling that slavery and racism are things of the past and irrelevant for an understanding of the contemporary world. The movie relentlessly attacks these and many other “common sense” ideas so dear to citizens in the world’s rich nations and nowhere more so than in the United States, even to sophisticates like Vincent Canby. What is more, it is unabashedly sympathetic to socialist revolutions, from the Soviet Union’s to Guinea Bissau’s. This sympathy is a bit heavy-handed, but no more so than the incessant and mindless propaganda we get every day in our media and schools. All told, though, Brecht’s rat’s eye view was a bitter pill to swallow—not for all, but certainly for the majority of students.

Most students confined their displeasure with the film to the end-of-term course evaluations and bitching among themselves. But a few were so angry that they stormed out of the room during some particularly outrageous scene, or they gave me a furious look. One particular distraught student was an older man who had recently mustered out of the Marine Corps a sergeant, after twenty years and three tours of duty in Vietnam. He wasn’t part of my original contingent of veterans, and by the time he came along, I was not so sympathetic to those who had tried to carry out Curtis LeMay’s vision of sending (he said “bombing” since he was an Air Force general) Vietnam back to the Stone Age. “Sarge,” as we called him, was not particularly subtle, and he had a bad temper. He never challenged me outright, probably because he was so used to taking orders from his superiors, and he knew that on a campus a professor was his superior. He made it through the course, but afterwards he told me that he wanted to come down the auditorium aisle and strangle me after I showed The History Book. I took this more seriously than I might have if a callow eighteen-year old had said it.

For the most part college was a good experience for the veterans. After a year or two of classes, they began to see the world in a more complex and sophisticated way. For some, their experiences as working class youth, including those in Vietnam, began to make some sense to them. For a few, college helped them exorcize their demons. Sarge was no exception. He started to do better in his courses, and he got a little less rough around the edges. We even had civil conversations. He  joked about the rat movie.

After graduation, Sarge took a job with the local transit company. He was on full military pension, but he was still a relatively young man, too young and too disciplined not to work. His job was covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and he turned out to be a good union man. Some time after he took this job, he called me. He had a grievance against the company, and he wanted my advice. At first, I said to myself, “Well, doesn’t that just figure. We were ideological enemies when he was a student, but now that he has a problem with his boss, who does he come to? The guy who hates the bosses but knows what to do when they put the screws to you.” But then I thought that maybe Sarge’s new experiences, including his education, had changed his outlook. Maybe under different circumstances, I’d have been Sarge and he’d have been me. Or maybe we’d both have been factory workers out on a picket line. I helped him as best I could.

I had many students like Sarge. If they were from the working class or in it, I never gave up on them, no matter how conservative or antagonistic to my world view they were. I took what they believed seriously, but I never shied away from a confrontation. I knew that most of my students would be wage laborers, probably not steel workers or coal miners, but still facing a boss. They needed to be prepared to grasp what this meant and how to deal with it. It was my job to do the preparing. Often enough the student soil was rocky and impervious to understanding. But more often than I probably know, their was just enough soil to support a nascent grasp of the ways of the world that could be nurtured and sustained through experience now seen in light of knowledge.

17 Responses to Teaching the Vets

  1. Erik February 17, 2010 at 9:09 pm #

    Thanks.

    In my experience, many middle-class people go to college, get somewhat radicalized, & they romanticize the poor & working class. Then the become disenchanted when they discover that many poor & working class people are racist, sexist, or homophobes, & they don’t say the right things, or like the right music. Rather than try to understand this, & change people’s minds, & work towards long-term goals, they give up on the working class, or they go on to fetishize the 3rd world.

    I hope that articles like this can help to counteract this.

  2. John Medlin February 18, 2010 at 7:19 am #

    Michael,

    I find your use of the phrase, “the revolutionary victory”, cute. I’m sure you can provide supporting evidence from the North Vietnamese and/or Viet Cong. However, I believe you will find the “revolution” betrayed its ideals with re-education camps and the thousands if not millions of Vietnamese boat people who left after the revolutionary victory. Check out the opinions of the large Vietnamese communities in Westminster/Garden Grove, CA – suburbs of Los Angeles.

    As to the American Flag being the flag of imperialism, another cute phrase. Having grown up in the South I very well remember the American Flag represented freedom for all, not just the white people, in contrast to the Confederate Battle Flag often used to justify “white power”, racism, and much worse.

    I too taught in college – accounting to adults at night – and I never interjected my political views, especially since many of my students were legal immigrants who had left the “revolutionary nations” of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for the opportunity to a better life in the USA.

    I am no stranger to, nor backer of the Militrary/Industrial/Political complex and believe Major General Smedley Butler’s 1935 book, “War is a Racket”, is accurate. And I grew up in the projects in Charleston, SC and am a firm believer in the United States of America as still the Best Hope for freedom loving people everywhere and very strongly support the proper display of and respect for the American Flag.

    Regards,

    John Medlin
    St. Vincent College – 1967
    US Army, RVN 1969-70

    p.s. How did you avoid the “dance” in Southeast Asia after St. Vincent? Or did you, like Dick Cheney, got deferments because you had “more important things to do”?

    • John W. Krone December 4, 2016 at 1:12 am #

      John Medlin, I am attempting to locate the RTO John Medlin in Alpha Company pertaining to news about 1/14th Golden Dragon history and participation in the 4th Infantry Division. Please get in touch, and welcome home!

  3. mike February 18, 2010 at 2:51 am #

    Erik,

    You make some very good points. It’s important not to abandon working people. I don’t think change will happen without their leadership.

    Feel free to pass this post on to others.

    Michael Yates

  4. John Medlin February 18, 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    I wonder how many North Vietnamese or South Vietnamese could have filed suit against their draft board successfully. The South Vietnamese soldiers I worked with couldn’t.

    As to my knowledge of the war, Vietnamese history being “sorely lacking”, I would be glad to match up with you any day of the week. And as to the US Flag taking its time to represent Black people, better late than never. Just ask the Black people who grew up in the South before/after 1968. Ask those who were demonstrating against the Confederate Battle Flag at the State Capitol in Columbia, SC, in Jan 2000.

    My “sorely lacking” grasp of the immigrant experience is based on my conversations with persons who have come from Africa, Europe, and Asia since I am not an immigrant, nor were any of my family. But that’s how I acquire information. I have spoken with cab drivers in NYC, Washington, and LA, from different countries; however, no Ukranian prostitutes – different samples than you.

    You would be surprised how many members of the military past and present agree with Smedley Butler’s views of the abuse of the military for war. Several of the veterans from WW II in my documentary expressed similar views and yet they still see this country, the United States of America, as grand and worth preserving, even with all its worts.

    BTW, how do you explain the many South Vietnamese who fought and died for their country against the “revolutionary” North Vietnamese and Viet Cong? I know the village chiefs and hamlet officials that I dealt with knew their lives were on the line and had been doing so long before the Americans arrived. As a Vietnamese doctor told me in 2007, all she wanted was to be able to go to school without someone throwing a grenade into the classroom.

    In 1989 Morley Safer returned to Viet Nam and interviewed various members of the victorious revolution:

    “And was the cause worth it? This was the question Morley Safer in 1989 posed to Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa, one of the 16 founders of the National Liberation Front National Liberation Front [Viet Cong]. Dr. Hoa left the communist party in 1979, “thoroughly disillusioned. “I thought I was making a revolution for the people,” she said. “I discovered that I made a revolution for a cause, for a discipline, for an ideology. The people had nothing to do with it.”

    “Such disillusionment was mirrored in Safer’s conversation with Pham Xuan An, an erstwhile correspondent for Reuters and for Time magazine in Saigon who turned out to be a Viet Cong colonel who had been working for the communists since 1944. “By 1975 I had few hopes left that the revolution would be anything but the disaster it has turned into,” he told Safer.

    “Why did your revolution fail so miserably?” Safer asked. An replied, “They called it a people’s revolution. But of course the people were the first to suffer; the people were immediately forgotten. They still haven’t remembered the people.”

    “As Pham Xuan An, a former Viet Cong colonel, told him, “All that talk of ‘liberation,’ 20, 30, 40 years ago, all the plotting, and all the bodies, produced this, this impoverished, broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic, half-educated theorists.”

    “Sorely Lacking”,

    John Medlin

  5. Toni Yates February 18, 2010 at 7:08 pm #

    So, John, you grew up in the South and think the flag represented freedom for all in the 50’s and 60’s? Interracial marriage was against the law there until 1967! Please spare me your screwed up version of reality.

  6. mike February 18, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    John,

    Unlike Cheney I was opposed to the war and wouldn’t have fought there under any circumstances. After filing suits against the selective service system, I got deferred as a teacher. Today, I’d have gone to Canada. I didn’t have that courage then.

    After years of being bombed, murdered, land defoliated, with a large group of US-supported enemies in theri midst, it is not surprising that people were sent to reeducation camps. What would you have done? Let freedom ring? I doubt it. Your knowledge of the war, Vietnamese history, etc. seem sorely lacking.

    The US flag sure took its time to represent black people. The last lynching took place in 1968.

    Your grasp of the immigrant experience is also sorely lacking. It’s more comple than coming to the land of opportunity. Ask a lack car driver in New York City. Or a Ukrainian prostitute.

    I don’t know how you square your views of the grandness of the US with Smedley Butler. I can’t. Maybe I should have been a pol. science major!

    I am always amazed at how people feel free to badmouth what others write, always with such an air of superiority. I could put you on the defensive too, no? In more ways than one I’ll bet.

    michael yates

  7. John Medlin February 19, 2010 at 12:59 am #

    Michael,

    I didn’t write a book, instead I created two short films, one of which, the documentary “Memories of War”, was picked up by a distributor and sold to a few schools and libraries in the northeast after being free on the Internet for 18 months. I’ve faced the music – and my composer added some beautiful music to both films.

    I have done my share of demonstrating – first at SVC – and have received the taunts, water and spit of those who felt otherwise. I don’t know that Butler considered himself a gangster for capitalism, I sure don’t. I do know the Vietnamese farmers and refugees I helped in Viet Nam were glad to accept and benefit from the little help I did provide.

    After all this vitriol, there is one area I would be interested in your feedback. Where are and/or what will be the jobs that will lead us out of our current Great Recession?

    John

  8. mike February 18, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    John,

    We have radically different views of the war, etc. That’s the way it goes sometimes. If you don’t want to take it don’t dish it out. Just know that I don’t think you were defending my freedom while you were in Vietnam. If you think the average Vietnamese thanks you, well you are free to believe what you want. You did what you did. That’s your affair not mine. If Smedley Butler was a gangster for capitalism, what does that make you?

    If you think you know so much, write a book and get it published. Face the music like I do.

    I have written a lot about the socialist societies. Read it sometime.

    Michael

  9. John Medlin February 19, 2010 at 8:57 am #

    Michael,

    Thank you for the feedback on the jobs recovery, or lack thereof.

    Butler’s book is a real eye opener. Some of the pix of the deformed veterans should give everyone pause about running off to war. I think it s/b required reading by all national politicians as well as the Officer and NCO training schools for our military. My Father served in WW I but stayed in the US. His younger brother was gassed in France, returned to the US, and spent the next 20 years in a Govt hospital in NC until he died.

    Cheers of USA-USA-USA might get the blood flowing but they don’t solve problems. It’s just more Bullshit. And at the same time whenever I pass through the ATL airport, where a lot of military seem to be, I thank the troops for their service.

    Enough of my rant. God Bless America and God Bless Us All.

    John

  10. mike February 19, 2010 at 2:04 am #

    John,

    Here is what Butler said: “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”

    Too much vitriol for sure. I apologize for personalizing our disagreement. I vigorously criticize capitalism, capitalists, most politicians, etc. But I try hard not to personalize arguments. Not always successfully as we see here. I never did and never would call a soldier a baby killer (unless I witnessed it) much less spit on him or her.

    My guess is that we have many points of agreement and some serious points of disagreement. No reason to impugn each other’s motives or things we can’t possibly really know about each other.

    There won’t be a jobs recovery any time soon I fear. For two reasons. There is no obvious source of growing demand in the economy. And busineses have
    used the recession to permanently reduce ther demand fo labor per unit of output (outsourcing, offshoring, speedups made permanent, etc.

    Take care John,

    Michael

  11. Mjosef February 20, 2010 at 10:59 am #

    A professor at Boston College, Jerry Lembcke, has written a book about the myth of the “spitting” upon returning Vietnam veterans. He has found no, not one, recorded instance of an actual “spitting.”
    The antiwar demonstrators of the Vietnam era were beaten, harassed, vilified, jailed, taunted, and murdered by the reigning bullies of the American right. They, the protestors against the US military and government, were and are our American heroes, but their courage still pales in comparison to the 3 million Vietnamese who died. We, as a country, seem to always replay that foundational split of that long-ago time.
    There is no god or gods, just us humans and the great grand worlds of nature and space, and yet we seem to be having trouble managing our affairs – miserably.
    In my experience, I have found professors to be morally and intellectually deformed. The job produces too much ego, too much outward bravado.
    Fine work, as usual, Mr. Yates.

  12. mike February 20, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    Thanks for your comments Mjosef. My friend John says he knowe two vets who were spat upon. So I will remain agnostic about this. I agree completely about the dead, wounded, killed by unexploded mines and agent orange, etc. Vietnamese.

    The Vietnam veterans from my hometown came back pretty broken. I felt for them, even though I hated the war and what the US was doing in Vietnam.

    Like Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam created nothing but misery for the many, and plenty of opportunities for making money for the few.

    I do know many good professors, though your remarks about ego are well-taken.

  13. Jeff Booth March 3, 2010 at 8:58 pm #

    Jerry Lembcke’s book is called “The Spitting Image”. I think he teaches at a college in Worcester, Mass., not BC but I could be wrong. Lembcke’s book covers false memory syndrome in terms of Vietnam Vets who swore they were spit on by anti-war protestors but upon investigation, these stories are invariably fasle. The whole notion of Vietnam Vets being spit on actually got created during the Reagan administration (no surprise) as part of a general, on-going re-writing of U.S. history. “The ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class.” Karl Marx.

  14. Eric March 13, 2010 at 1:24 am #

    Does anyone know where I could find The History Book? I searched for it on Google and youtube but nothing came up.I saw it years ago and forgot about but reading this post makes me want to watch it again.

  15. mike March 13, 2010 at 3:27 am #

    I have not been able to locate this anywhere. I’ll let you know if I do.

  16. Dave Blalock March 15, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    HI Mike… Long time no see…thanks for contacting me on Face Book. I was 45 years old when I had your economics class back in 1995 at UPJ. Being a Vietnam veteran the state of PA was paying my tuition. So I signed up for a full-load of classes.

    I didn’t know what the hell I was getting into but I found that your class, along with the sociology class, were both very intellectually stimulating and helpful in my learning some more scientific details of how our system really functions. The psychology class was so-so. But the history class (Western Civilization.) was a total crock of shit. My whole adult life I’ve been an avid reader of history, but the older woman professor of this class taught history as though it were a series of soap-opera like intrigues and scandals between kings, queens, noblemen, and other famous people with no real info about the very intense class struggles that were going on in the world around them. For her, the upper class was the true makers of history.

    At the end of the semester I passed all the courses, but UPJ tried to run a scam on me by refusing to give me credits because I refused to pay nearly $1,000 of extra fees for things like parking (I didn’t own a car), computer service (I didn’t know how to use a computer back then), etc, etc. At my last meeting with another slimey school administrator, he tried one last time to squeeze this money out of me by making me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. He told me that I would receive my credits if I agreed to pay off this money still owed with low monthly payments. I told him that he could take the credits and shove them up his ass! I didn’t come here for credits, I came for knowledge. With that, I walked out the door and ended my short career as a professional university student.

    For several years a credit collection agency was chasing around after me across the US and even into Europe. The few times they managed to catch up with me I’d repeat a line from an old 60’s hippy song, “WHEN YOU AIN’T GOT NOTHING, YOU GOT NOTHING TO LOSE!”

    I sure as hell hope that scientific technology doesn’t develop to the point where they can access your memories. If that happens, then for sure one of UPJ’s mercenary credit collection agents will eventually hunt me down and repossess one semester’s worth of knowledge from my brain. But, according to my calculations, at a 20% interest rate compounded annually, along with legal and mercenary contractual fees, this will take my knowledge level back to 1968 when I was a stupid young 18 year-old patriotic fool running around waving the flag and volunteering for the army and duty in Vietnam.

    Mike, I hope you don’t mind, but speaking of “patriotic fools” I’d like to address John Medlin, the Vietnam vet who wrote above in your dialog thread. I don’t have time right now but perhaps later today or tomorrow.

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