ALAN v23n3 - The Literature of Vietnam and Afghanistan: Exploring War and Peace with Adolescents

Volume 23, Number 3
Spring 1996

The Literature of Vietnam and Afghanistan: Exploring War and Peace with Adolescents

Francis E. Kazemek

As I write this essay, the Congress of the United States pursues a policy of isolationism. Whether it will be successful or not is questionable; the vicissitudes of politics are many. Nevertheless, there is a spirit abroad in Washington and across the nation that whispers seductively to us: "Turn your eyes inward and take care of your own. Let the dead of the world in Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Chechnya, and elsewhere bury their own dead. They are not your concern." Increasingly, we are learning how not to care for any but those close to us, and these circles of care grow smaller with each random act of violence, each perceived threat to our own economic security, and each political diatribe that separates the needs of the young from the old, white from black, women from men.

We are teaching our children and young adults not to care through our acts of commission and omission. Our curricula are based upon a "drive for academic adequacy" and not a moral purpose of "producing caring people" (Noddings, 1995, p. 366). We then turn to one another in surprise when our children and young adults learn and act upon what we teach them.

A curriculum of caring is one which helps students connect themselves to others in ever-widening circles of understanding. It necessarily bridges the students' present to the past and to possible futures. It fosters empathy for the psychological Other, no matter how alien he or she might be from the students' own personal, racial/ethnic, and social contexts. Thus, such a curriculum must highlight our particular place within a stream of time that carries with it innumerable other places, people, and events.

There are various ways of developing such a curriculum, and I want to focus on the one I have spent my professional career advocating. Literature is not a panacea for our troubles, but for ages it has offered humankind a way of examining unquestioned assumptions, broadening understanding of other peoples and cultures, developing sympathy and compassion for the struggles of others, experiencing the common joys and sorrows that many people share, and seeing the world and ourselves differently, freshly. These might seem like oddly anachronistic and sentimental observations in a culture that thrives on the fetishism of Internet, virtual reality, and other "third wave" technologies, but since literature deals ultimately with soul, we ignore it at our own peril:

Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there but in despised poems. It is difficult to get news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. (Williams, l988, p. 318)

Literature, including Williams' "despised poems," which focuses on a similar experience among people from different societies, can serve as a lens through which young adults are able to explore the world and perhaps come to see it with greater understanding and compassion. The one universal experience that has caused, and continues to cause, psychic, social, political, moral, and spiritual turmoil and soul-searching among people since time immemorial is war. In the rest of this essay I focus on the eerily-similar experiences of the United States and the ex-Soviet Union in their respective interventions in what were primarily civil wars: the U.S. in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975 and the ex-Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

Why Vietnam and Afghanistan?
I and others have argued that for the United States the Vietnam War might be considered the most traumatic event during the second half of this century. Its impact continues to be felt daily in the lives of its veterans and their families; it is seen in the faces of the homeless men on our streets; it is heard in the speeches and often vitriolic rantings that fill the halls of Congress; and the impact of Vietnam shapes our military planning and commitments, whether in Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, or Bosnia. (I daily clip from the newspaper articles or brief notices related in some way to the Vietnam War. During any one month I will fill my file folder with ten or more clippings, and this is twenty years after the fall of Saigon.)

The American public appears to have little desire to explore in any depth our involvement in Vietnam. This is true in spite of Robert McNamara's recent retrospective (McNamara, 1995), the great many books available on all aspects of the war, the serious movies that have come from Hollywood, and the various efforts made by television producers. We should not be surprised therefore if most high school and university students know very little about the war or if many elementary and secondary teachers likewise know little. (A thirty-year-old teacher was born the year President Johnson began to commit large numbers of troops to Vietnam.)

Similarly, relatively few people in the ex-Soviet Union know what happened in Afghanistan and why their sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands died there. There is little general understanding of the Afghanistan veterans, the Afgantsi, and the potential explosive force they represent in the various countries of the ex-Soviet Union. Only now are books and articles appearing which deal with the Afghan War. Participants are beginning to speak out; there is simmering bitterness; there are conflicting beliefs and opinions regarding these revelations; and Russian citizens are beginning to compare it to their present involvement in Chechnya.

It is possible to help young adults better understand the effects of the Vietnam War by exploring the literature which has emerged from it. When such an exploration is also connected to the literature of the war in Afghanistan, it provides complex and multiple perspectives of humankind. Together we and young adults can examine such themes as patriotism; loss of innocence in war; truth, lies, and deception from those in power; the terrible nature of combat; the necessity of dehumanizing the enemy in order to kill him; the resultant dehumanization of oneself; the short- and long-term psychological impacts of combat; and the efforts at spiritual and psychic healing.

Fallen Angels and Afghan Tales
There are many works of fiction and poetry available on the Vietnam War, which can help students gain a vicarious understanding of the experiences of those who participated in it. Some of these are brutally graphic and disturbing and might not be appropriate for 16-year-olds. One book that is especially appropriate for young adults is Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers (1988). This fine novel captures the combat experiences of a group of young men in Vietnam. It is highly-regarded by teachers and critics of adolescent literature, and most teenagers who read it readily connect with its richly drawn characters, vivid imagery, and powerful themes.

Afghan Tales: Stories from Russia's Vietnam by Oleg Yermakov (1993) provides a kaleidoscopic view of the Afghan War and its effects on both those who actually participated in it and those who remained at home. It serves, I believe, as a major work of connection to Vietnam for adolescents. It reflects and resonates the themes and images in Fallen Angels and, at the same time, provides deeper insights into the nature of war and its impact on soliders and non-combatants. Moreover, it gives high school students a glimpse into the lives of people in the ex-Soviet Union. Let's look at both of these works in a little more detail.

We encounter in Fallen Angels young men, mostly teenagers, who recently had been sitting in high-school classrooms, playing basketball, and dreaming of the future. Suddenly they find themselves in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, where they are expected to kill other human beings or be killed. The deaths in which they participate and those they witness change them forever. Their fall from innocence and grace is heart-rending:

I had killed a man. I thought about how he looked, how I had felt. I remembered looking down at him, the M-16 in my hands, my forearms aching from the tension of holding it. I remembered looking down at him and feeling my own face torn apart. (Myers, 1988, p. 182)

Similarly, the young draftee, Kostomygin, in the story "Baptism" from Afghan Tales faces the brutality of waging war upon villagers. During his first engagement he is pressured by his veteran comrades into killing a captured guerilla fighter. "He had fired a short burst into the broad chest of the hook-nosed man, and the man had fallen down, twisted in the dirt, blown scarlet bubbles from his nose, then stopped moving." Later he replays in his mind's eye the actual event: "But now everything was crystal-clear, like a film in slow motion" (Yermakov, 1991, pp. 28-29). The impact of his baptism into war is plain:

Kostomygin buffeted around on top of the shell-filled crates, took another drag from his cigarette, and he didn't want to die after a long, long time, after a thousand years. He wanted his heart to stop right then. But it didn't happen. (Yermakov, 1991, p. 30)
The soldiers in Fallen Angels experience first-hand the inflated body-counts that were passed on to the American public as indications of our success in conducting the war. We see one root among several of the cynicism and mistrust of government and political leaders which eventually grew wildly out of control and presently obscures our vision and better sense. Similarly, the disillusioned Afghan vet, Pryadilnikov, in "The Yellow Mountain" refuses as a newspaper man to write about the "glories" of the war in Afghanistan; instead, he bitterly attacks the hypocrisy and deception of those responsible for the war. His sympathetic editor tells him that his writing is too subjective, gloomy, and negative. His articles need to include both the postive and the negative: "That's what objectivity means." Pryadilnikov replies that he's unihemispherical: "Only one hemisphere works, the pessimistic one; the optimistic one burst from dyspepsia" (Yermakov, 1991, p. 180).

The psychic necessity of turning the enemy into something less than human, into a "gook," "slope," or "shit," in order to be able to kill him is a theme that surfaces in much war literature . The narrator in "The Belles" from Afghan Tales observes, "We learned to smoke hash, to look doomed prisoners calmly in the eye, to not think of the future, to write dispassionate letters home" (Yermakov, 1991, p. 79). The street-smart and perceptive character named PeeWee in Fallen Angels bluntly points out to the other members of his squad:

"You ain't killed nobody yet," Peewee said. "They gots to be people before you can kill them. You think these Congs is people? ... See, they ain't people to you yet. You figure out all that shit, what they names is, what they like to eat, who do the dishes and shit like that, then they people. Then you shoot them you killing somebody." (Myers, 1988, pp. 268-69)

The return home for both those who fought in Vietnam and Afghanistan was a sudden and precipitous one. Soldiers who one day were engaged in combat in Vietnam often found themselves days later stepping off a plane in California and boarding a train or bus for, say, Iowa. There were no parades or ceremonies, and there was no counseling. Many experienced hostility from those opposed to the war if not the indifference Myers describes as the two wounded young men are flying back to the United States:

Peewee stirred in his uneasy sleep. The plane droned on. A fat man complained that they didn't have the wine he wanted. We were headed back to the World. (Myers, 1988, p. 309)

The "demobs" from Afghanistan faced an even more difficult transition from battle ground to home ground. They were flown to Tashkent, Uzbekistan and expected to find their own way home. Since most of the soldiers who fought in Afghanistan were from the western republics of the Soviet Union, for example, Russia and Ukraine, they had to make a long and tedious journey. "A Feast on the Bank of a Violet River" describes the welcome that a small group of veterans receive in Tashkent. They are ignored and unable to get plane or train tickets for at least a week. When they try to get on a train, the conductor kicks them off and screams at them, "Shitbags!" (Yermakov, 1991, p. 139). This story beautifully captures the brotherhood that will have to carry the men into an indifferent, if not hostile, civil life.

The physical, psychic, and spiritual torments that many veterans from the Vietnam War faced, and often still face, upon their reentry into civilian life is a reality that adolescents need to explore. The men and women still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, alienation, and other psychological and physical illnesses are fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, friends, and neighbors. Fallen Angels foreshadows PTSD among the young soliders.

I recorded in my daily journal the bitter words of a veteran I had come to know while on a faculty exchange to Odessa State University in Odessa, Ukraine a few years ago. He had been drafted into the Soviet Army and spent two years in Uzbekistan guarding prisoners. He still was struggling with the effects of drugs ("the guards on duty with machine guns would be high"); drunkeness; health effects from the water, food, and pollution; racial fights between the European and Asian Soviet soldiers; and the "constant humiliation" inflicted upon him by his superiors. The marvelous ending to "The Yellow Mountain" presents a similarly embittered and disillusioned veteran's reconciliation with life and redemption through a return to the pastoral mountain setting from his youth.

Making Broader and Deeper Connections
Fallen Angels is a fine, accessible work with which to introduce adolescents to the complexity of the Vietnam War. The themes I briefly described above and various others can be explored through a serious study of the novel. Afghan Tales is a much more complex and sophisticated work, and it allows for a similar exploration of the above-mentioned themes. It also provides, however, an opportunity for young adults to consider the impact of combat on loved ones back home and on the turmoil individuals faced before and after the war. Afghan Tales is a powerful book that deserves attention along with the best literature coming from the Vietnam War.

Fallen Angels and Afghan Tales can lead to further study of these two wars in particular and war in general. Other works on Vietnam that I have found useful with adolescents and undergraduates include the following. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990) is a complex, yet extremely readable, novel composed of a number of war stories. "How to Tell a True War Story" from this novel is sometimes found in anthologies for high school and college students. In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason (1985) is a powerful novel for adolescents which deals with a young woman's struggle to understand the Vietnam War and her father who died there.

Kathryn Marshall's In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam (1987) and Al Santoli's Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It (1981) are only two of many oral histories that allow young adults to hear the voices of people who served in Vietnam. Santoli's is among the best, if not the best. Lastly, Bao Ninh's recently published The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam (1995) is a haunting novel written by a man who served in North Vietnam's Glorious 27th Youth Brigade and today lives in Hanoi. Several university freshmen and sophmores in my class on Vietnam have found it fascinating; they especially appreciate the way it presents the conflict through the eyes of a North Vietnamese soldier.

Carrying the Darkness: American Indochina: The Poetry of the Vietnam War edited by W.D. Ehrhart (1985) and Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans edited by Rottmann, Barry, and Paquet (1972) contain a range of poetry by both combatants and non-combatants, Vietnamese and American, that will be valuable for exploration in the high school classroom.

Unfortunately, there is very little available on the war in Afghanistan that is appropriate for adolescents. One book that I do like is Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich (1992), and it would make a viable companion to Afghan Tales. Zinky Boys is a collection of oral histories from soliders, civilian employees, nurses, doctors, and others who went to Afghanistan; it also contains interviews with widows of the war, mothers whose sons served and died, and the author's own diary reflections. At the end of the book Alexievich includes excerpts from letters and phone calls she received after the book was published in Russia: some are supportive while others are angry and hostile.

Parallels: The Soldiers' Knowledge and the Oral History of Contemporary Warfare (1992) is a collection of oral histories that resulted from a project which brought together Vietnam veterans and those from the war in Afghanistan. The stories, reflections, and torments that surfaced as the two groups of men shared with one another are often harsh and disturbing. The teacher of adolescents can profitably use this collection since it explicitly connects the two wars and the veterans' similar experiences; however, s/he would be wise to select the pieces carefully. The language and imagery are often unsettling.

What are we teaching our young adults about Vietnam? How are we helping them connect it to the terrible impact of other wars in other countries, for example, the Soviet war in Afghanistan? How are we fostering a curriculum of caring and compassion through a critical study and understanding of history and its relation to today and tomorrow? Regardless of what we might think of Robert McNamara or his recent book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lesson of Vietnam (1995), we cannot dismiss his stated purpose:

I want Americans to understand why we made the mistakes we did, and to learn from them. I hope to say, "Here is something we can take away from Vietnam that is constructive and applicable to the world of today and tomorrow." (McNamara, 1995, p. xvii)

Sympathetic, if not empathetic, understanding of those affected by war, both combatants and non-combatants, those engaged in it and those opposed to it, is best developed, I believe, through the literature that comes from it. Fiction, poetry, and oral histories allow students to enter into the lives of those who were impacted by war. When historical texts are brought to life by being paired with the flesh, blood, bone, and spirit of literature, our students are then better able to explore critically the past with both their heads and their hearts.

In the conclusion to their moving account of one horrible battle in Vietnam, We Were Soldiers Once. . . and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam (1992), Moore and Galloway observe:

School children no longer memorize the names and dates of great battles, and perhaps that is good; perhaps that is the first step on the road to a world where wars are no longer necessary. Perhaps. But we remember those days and our comrades, and long after we are gone that long blue [battle] streamer will still caress proud flags. (Moore and Galloway, 1992, p. 409)

We are helping to develop children and young adults who reject wars as necessary but who also understand what led to them and why they were fought. Literature can help us do that. But more, literature can help all of us, children and adults alike, expand our circles of caring to include those both near to us and those afar. Perhaps then we might be more able to avoid wars in the future. Perhaps.

Alexievich, Svetlana. Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War. Translated by Julia and Robin Whitby. Norton, 1992.

Ehrhart, W.D., Ed. Carrying the Darkness: American Indochina: The Poetry of the Vietnam War. Avon, 1985.

Hansen, J.T., A. Susan Owen, and Michael Patrick Madden. Parallels: The Soldiers' Knowledge and the Oral History of Contemporary Warfare. Aldine de Gruyter, 1992.

Marshall, Kathryn. In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam, 1966 -1975. Little Brown, 1987.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. In Country. Harper & Row, 1985.

McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Times Books, 1995.

Moore, Harold G., & Galloway, Joseph L. We Were Soldiers Once... and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam. HarperCollins, 1992.

Myers, Walter Dean. Fallen Angels. Scholastic Books, 1988.

Ninh, Bao. The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. Pantheon Books, 1995.

Noddings, Nel. "A Morally Defensible Mission for Schools in the 21st Century." Phi Delta Kappan , 76, 1995, pp. 365-68.

O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Rottmann, Larry, Barry, Jan, & Paquet, Basil T., Eds. Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. McGraw-Hill, 1972.

Santoli, Al. Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It. Random House, 1981.

Williams, William Carlos. "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." In The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Volume II 1939-1962 , 1988, pp. 310-37.

Yermakov, Oleg. Afghan Tales: Stories from Russia's Vietnam. Translated by Marc Romano. William Morrow, 1993.

Francis Kazemek teaches in the Department of Teacher Development at St. Cloud State University.