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Respect, Empathy Necessary in Teaching about War

Every spring semester I teach a course on the history of the Vietnam War. Over the last 10 years, this class has become my most popular course in terms of student enrollment at Whitworth. But for me, the course remains enormously challenging on many levels. I'm old enough to remember the war. I chose not to enlist, and my high lottery number kept me from being drafted. But the war was very real to me: I lost a high-school friend in Vietnam, and by far the most memorable experience of my freshman year in college was the Kent State killings.

In the 1980s, when I first started teaching the history of the war, I think the course was more for me than it was for most of my students. I would get to certain events or listen to the reflections of Vietnam vets and become quite emotional. And so I stopped teaching about Vietnam for several years. But in the mid-1990s I resumed the course. In this second season of teaching, I became more conscious of my students. Increasingly, they had at least an indirect experience with the war, though their "takes" on it were often very different: Some were peace-studies majors, while others, like Forrest Ewens, '04 (see below), were in the Gonzaga/Whitworth ROTC program.

Students bring real experiences, real knowledge, and strong emotions to this controversial subject. They generally want to speak, and they want to learn. But often they have an emotional investment in the perspective they bring to class on the first day. They want to confirm their strongly held beliefs.

I have tried to honor student perspectives and questions, to engender respect among students, and to nurture students' sense of empathy for others and their ability to think in complicated terms about a complicated war. But the best learning takes place when I can get them to suspend final judgment until they make an honest effort to see the war through the eyes of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, a "typical" 19-year-old Marine or infantryman, an African-American soldier in the middle of the Black Power struggle in the late '60s, and peace activists who believed the war was either wrong or impossible to win on American terms. We also work on how to balance empathy with judgment. By what criteria should we determine that President Johnson acted improperly or even immorally? By what criteria should we think about the executives of Dow Chemical, which produced napalm? By what criteria should we judge the motives of Jane Fonda when she went to North Vietnam or the role that William Calley played in the My Lai massacre?

As we make these efforts to understand, empathize and think critically, I remember students like Forrest asking great questions and wanting to learn about more than just military tactics or strategic decisions. He and others like him worked hard to broaden their perspectives rather than narrow them. But such work is never easy.

I believe it's helpful to think about how dimly we see through the glass and to remember that our brokenness makes a certain degree of humility a necessity when we regard the tragedy of this, and every, war. Not every student has responded positively, but I do want to applaud, and thank, the scores of students – from both ends of the political spectrum – who developed a greater mastery of this complicated war as well as an appreciation for others that they did not have before they began the class. For me, they have been agents of grace regarding a subject that has been a seminal part of my adult life.

Soden is a professor of history and director of the
Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith & Learning at Whitworth.

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