Monday, February 19, 2001

Vietnam War still rages in UC class

Course puts new generation in thick of things

By Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        She tells of how she was all for the war when she arrived in Vietnam as a combat nurse, but began questioning it as she watched soldiers dying on operating tables.

        Those sitting near her try to assuage her doubts; they tell her she was not there to kill, but to save.

        The combat nurse, Barbara Brittain, was never in Vietnam and never watched soldiers die in front of her.

        Indeed, Ms. Brittain hadn't even been born at the height of that war.

        She is a digital design major at the University of Cincinnati. She plays the role of a combat nurse in an unusual, and highly popular, course at UC called “The Vietnam War in Film, Literature and Art.''

        It is an honors seminar that requires the 17 students to immerse themselves in the Vietnam era, a time that predates the births of most of them.

        Students dress the part: A handful show up in fatigues; some wear red bandannas wrapped tightly on their heads, one carrying a black flag of anarchy.

        The seminar represents one generation reaching out to connect with another, to provide a chance to climb inside the lives of those who experienced one of the most divisive eras of 20th century American history.

        “That way they have a subjective approach to the material instead of just memorizing from lectures and text,” said Joan Robinson, an art history professor who teaches the seminar.

        “And I wanted them to have fun, I wanted them to care.”

        They listen to guest lecturers, have required readings, study the effect that war had on art and literature, on the culture of the era.

        “I wanted students to know something about the war,” Ms. Robinson said.

        “It is a terrific opportunity to look at the war from all sides. The kids get involved in it.

        “As one said last year, "This is what I thought college was supposed to be like.'”

        The students come from all disciplines: industrial design, physics, marketing, geology, psychology, chemical and electrical engineering, biological sciences, architecture, French.

        Joe Weber carried a black flag and assumed the persona of a wounded Kent State University student from 1970.

        In preparation for the role, he had done his homework on what had happened on that day in May when four students were killed and nine others wounded on the campus.

        “I wanted to understand how these events had such an impact,” said Mr. Weber, a senior in biology, explaining why he chose to take the seminar.

        “I've learned a lot. We had our own domestic problems, and there was a need to contain communism.

        “It's not that hard to see how the country became divided.”

        Unlike almost all the other students in the class, George Hicks lived through the era.

        He's 51 years old, a second-year graduate student in art history. He served in the military from 1971-92, though not in Vietnam.

        Yet, he said he understands why some avoided being drafted, why some sought out the refuge of student deferments.

        “That wasn't an option for poor black people not going to college,” Mr. Hicks said. “You just go and hope you make it back.”

        Dustin Miller, who played the role of a draft protester who chose prison over flight, still isn't sure how he would have responded if he felt betrayed by the country's foreign policy.

        “I ask myself that,” said Mr. Miller, a third-year chemical engineering student.

        “I'm not sure. It would be a major, big-time decision.

        “It would be a defining moment. I'm not sure where my heart would be.”


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