VIETNAM WAR: Teaching Understanding and Respect

By Von Lunen, Kelly | VFW Magazine, October 2010 | Go to article overview

VIETNAM WAR: Teaching Understanding and Respect


Von Lunen, Kelly, VFW Magazine


A course focused on the Vietnam War at the University of Kansas reveals a change in attitudes among college students regarding the war and its veterans. A VFW staff writer completed the course in the spring 2010 semester to experience firsthand how that war is being taught at the university level today.

In April 1970, the University of Kansas in Lawrence was much like other public state universities, with a vocal minority of students protesting the war in Vietnam, and some fighting to stay in college to avoid the draft.

"The thing was, if you were male and you flunked out of college, you had an all-expense-paid trip to Saigon," former student David Awbrey told the campus newspaper, the University Daily Kansan. (In reality, a draftee's chances of going to Vietnam was 50/50.)

On April 8, 2010, the Kansan published a 40-year remembrance of a fire at the main student union. The fire was suspected to be arson, a form of protest unheard-of at KU in 2010. In fact, any anti-war sentiments now are non-violent or nonexistent. In fact, a student veterans' lounge exists in another of the school's union buildings.

A further sign of the ideological turnaround on this largely liberal college campus: a Vietnam veteran teaches an undergraduate course about the war to small groups of students. Most of their parents are too young to have even served in Vietnam.

During the spring 2010 term, KU was the only Kansas public university to offer a class on the Vietnam War. At least five others in the state offer a similar course, but only periodically.

Exploring Complexities of War

James H. Willbanks retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel with 23 years service as an infantry officer, including a tour in Vietnam as an advisor with the Royal Thai Army at Bearcat and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam's 18th Infantry Division at Xuan Loc. He arrived in-country on Dec. 3, 1971, and departed Dec. 3, 1972. His awards and decorations include a Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Combat Infantryman's Badge and Bronze Star for valor with Oak Leaf Cluster.

As a historian, Willbanks focuses on 20th century military operations, specializing on the Vietnam War. He has published four Vietnam War books, and is the chairman and director of the Department of Military History at the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kan.

After Willbanks served in Vietnam as a young captain, he spent succeeding years trying to understand the war he participated in. Upon completing his doctorate degree at KU in 2000, his dissertation advisor asked him to teach a course on Vietnam.

"The Vietnam War had and continues to have a tremendous impact on this country, its people and its military," Willbanks said. "I think university students need to understand the war if they are going to understand how this nation evolved in the last half of the 20th century."

Willbanks says that if the students who take his class enter with any preconceived notions about the war, they are usually stereotypes drawn from popular culture. However, he says most of them have little idea about why the U.S. became involved in Southeast Asia or how that commitment there changed over time.

"The class gives them an opportunity to explore the complexities of the war," he said, "and gain an understanding of the legacies that the war had for this country."

'So Much Respect for Veterans'

During the last few years, there has been an increase in the number of veterans taking the class. "Although not all of them have seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, they can certainly more fully relate to the soldier experience in Vietnam," Willbanks said. "Many of them are struck by the similarities that can be found in America's experience in Vietnam and the more contemporary conflicts."

Matthew Steffen, a 27-year-old from Salem, Ohio, is one such veteran. He took the class in 2010 as a junior majoring in political science with a minor in history. …

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