Professor illuminates the ghosts of Vietnam

May 04, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

The spring term at a small community college in Southern Maryland winds down today, and with it another tour of Vietnam for Wayne Karlin, who flew on 60 helicopter missions there before many of his students were born.

He slouched into class the other night weighed down with his papers, his books and a videotape, ready to lead another foray in a course he designed himself: "The Vietnam War in Film and Literature." In only 15 weeks, several students have lost some of their innocence about war in general, Vietnam in particular.

The students in the class at the St. Mary's County branch of Charles County Community College range in age from 20 to the early 40s. Some are old enough to remember the Vietnam War; most are not. Most come to the class with only a few impressions: a war of unclear purpose in a place they might not be able to find on a map; a war that for some reason the United States lost; a jungle; names cut into a wall of polished black stone -- more images than knowledge.

"When I was in high school, they just seemed to skim over it," said Lisa Rock, 24, of California, Md. "You just didn't hear about it."

Matt Nueslein, 20, of Hollywood, Md., said his father served in the Army in Europe during the early 1950s and "has always said stuff to make me anxious to be in war." After Mr. Karlin's class, he's not sure it makes any sense at all.

"I'll tell you one thing I'm sick of seeing is those Rambo movies," said Mr. Nueslein. "I'll never see them again since taking this class."

"I didn't know anything" about the war, said Kristine Hathaway, 26, who lives in Lexington Park. "The casualties, the atrocities."

The students have an able guide in Mr. Karlin, whose perspective has evolved from soldier to anti-war veteran to novelist and student of Vietnam War literature and film. The Washington Post said the St. Mary's County resident "deserves to be ranked among the better chroniclers in fiction of the Vietnam War and its aftermath." This year, Mr. Karlin won a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to pursue fiction-writing.

He has taught about the literature and film on Vietnam for four years, each time facing students who know little or nothing about an historic chapter that has come to define his own life.

"It doesn't surprise me anymore," said Mr. Karlin, who readily praises the students for their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. "We can afford, or we think we can afford, as a country and as individuals, not to know."

March 29 marked the 20th anniversary of the day the last U.S. troops leftVietnam. It would be another two years before a helicopter lifted off the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon, marking the end of one national struggle and the beginning of another. That struggle to come to terms with Vietnam has captured the literary imagination of Mr. Karlin, who just published "US," his fourth novel and his second dealing with the war's aftermath.

"It was formative for me. But it's also something that formed the culture," said Mr. Karlin, 47. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17, shipped out to Vietnam at 20 in 1965 and served until the spring of 1967 in the infantry and as part of a helicopter crew. "What I'm interested in is how we continue to be affected by it, by the ripples. And how we are in danger of continuing to make that mistake."

Thus the quote that opens "US" comes from President George Bush in a moment of Desert Storm triumph: "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."

Mr. Karlin is no pacifist, but he wonders aloud if an attempt to shake the shadow of Vietnam influenced the decisions to use military force in Panama, Grenada and the Persian Gulf.

These were the conflicts his younger students have seen played out in daily newspapers and television screens. These operations were quick, with clearly defined beginnings and endings, and not many body bags on the evening news. And each time, U.S. soldiers returned triumphant.

This term's literary trip through the jungles of Southeast Asia has shown the students a different face of war. They have seen GIs cast in a strange role: often terrified, sometimes noble, frequently confused young men capable of terrible brutality against enemy soldiers and Vietnamese civilians.

"Can there be rules in war? Should there be rules in war?" Mr. Karlin asked during a recent class discussion of the film "Apocalypse Now," in which a renegade Marine Corps officer is targeted for assassination by the military command. "Can we train people to kill, then punish them for being killers?"

In discussions and in role-playing exercises, students have argued the ethical questions that Vietnam posed for soldiers in the field and politicians and draftees at home.

"I think a lot of people came into the class saying 'I'd never do something like that,' " said Mike Colina, 21, of Lexington Park, referring to atrocities committed by U.S. troops. Mr. Colina, who has served in the Marines, said it doesn't seem so simple anymore.

"It shows the students how situational their ethics are," said Mr. Karlin. "I'm trying to show that there is an objective right or wrong out there. You can recognize the situation, but you have to make a judgment about it, right or wrong."

"It's more than Vietnam, it's really a wake-up class," said Ms. Hathaway. "You learn a lot about yourself, . . . how all of us have a dark side.

"I've probably learned more in that class than any other class I've ever taken."

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