Teaching War to the Kids

The number of university and high school reading lists that include Ghost Soldiers for teaching the Vietnam war and the 1960s got me thinking about the sort of syllabus I’d advise for students if I were a teacher. Then  it hit me – there are plenty of good books and a few good movies about the war but only two I’d recommend, and one isn’t “about” Vietnam at all.

Because ours is an increasingly visual culture for transmitting information between generations, first on my list is Burt Lancaster’s 1978 film Go Tell the Spartans based on the novel Incident at Muc Wa. It’s the only honest Vietnam war movie made. It feels like the war. It looks like the war. And I can’t laugh when the intel officer installs his stoplight graphic over the door to measure the war’s local progress. The ending is sappy, of course, but Americans have a hard time making movies that end tough.

That isn’t true of the second item on my two-item syllabus – James Jones’ The Thin Red Line. Set in the Pacific war, here is a book that describes all wars honestly, a description that fits for Thermopylae, World War II, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Enough said.

I’d almost include on my list Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage but that great story has had too much of its power to surprise and appall readers drained from it by too many generations of unimaginative English teachers.

As an antidote, I’d give students a healthy dose of listening to actor Michael Caine recite in his native Cockney accent Kipling’s great poem about the truer rewards of soldiering, “Tommy”:

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’

But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot…”

If that can’t sting the kids’ grubby little hearts, then they shouldn’t be allowed to vote – or make babies or drive cars or any other thing adults are allowed to do – when they grow up. Because they haven’t the heart, the empathy, the sense of duty needed by citizens who will help decide the future of this country.

It’s also a true thing, and perhaps something only a Vietnam veteran can really appreciate these days, that all the troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan to applause from fellow airline passengers and cheers from passersby on the street ought to think about Kipling’s poem. And think that a “hero” from a winning war and a “bum” from a losing war pretty quickly are treated about the same by a fickle American public – forgotten. Chuck ‘im out, the brute!

Oh, yes, I’d add one last item – a piece of music. The Animals’ 1965 rock song “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” If you’re a Vietnam vet, you know why.

Yep, with this list I’d throw those students in at the deepest end. Let them learn what it means to fight and survive and come home a soldier. And hope they remember what they’ve learned when remembering counts.