Honors Course on Vietnam Brings Out Tensions and Intensity
Date: Feb. 5, 2001
as Students Dress for and Play Out History
Story by: Mary Bridget Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos by: Colleen Kelley
Archive: General News
"Please, nurse, don't let me die...Please, nurse, don't let me die..."
That's what UC alumna Barbara Rounds recalls wounded and dying U.S. GIs saying as they clung to her at the mobile hospital in Vietnam where she served as a nurse from 1968-1969.
She recalls, "You wanted to hold them while they died, but if you did that, four or five others got no attention. There were immense numbers of casualties every day." She repeats for emphasis, "...immense casualties ... bodies blown into bits and pieces. And it happened over and over again."
Though she served in Vietnam for little more than a single year, the impact has lasted year after year. Rounds will try to share her life-changing experience as one of the special guests visiting an unusual UC honors seminar course offered once a year on "The History of the Vietnam War in Film, Literature and Art."
The course was created by Joan Seeman Robinson, an adjunct assistant professor of art history who has researched and written on art related to the Vietnam conflict. It offers students, especially those who weren't alive at the time, imaginative ways to understand the complexity and drama of Vietnam.
Guest speakers include Rounds, a psychobiology research nurse and study coordinator at the Veterans Administration Hospital, Vietnam combat veterans as well as conscientious objectors. The 20-student course meets every Thursday afternoon in UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.
In addition to the guest speakers, each student has taken on a persona typical of the late 1960s, dressing up and portraying their characters in heated classroom debates. The students' roles include prisoner-of-war, an anti-war activist, an army nurse, and specific political and military leaders. "Their roles (assigned by lottery) must be well-researched and realistic. It's a stimulating way to introduce young people to a war that seems as distant to them as did World War I to me when I was a child," explained Seeman Robinson who once played the role of Ho Chi Minh.
Indeed, the students' role-playing debates are both tense and intense, mirroring the divisiveness of American society in the late '60s and early '70s. Laura Gilpin, a geology major playing the role of a GI, admits, "I get very angry, very emotional. I took it very personally when someone in class said the [American] soldiers in Vietnam were 'Nazis.' It really set me off. The role-playing takes it to a completely different level. When you're going up against an adversary, that make it that much more real." Gilpin added that she is truly able to identify with her role because her father served in Vietnam, and she loyally defends him, "It wasn't his war. He trusted the government, but it becomes your war when people are shooting at you."
For physics major Justin Burton, his role as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara isn't the natural fit that Gilpin's role is for her. "It's very challenging. It's hard to sympathize with him. I don't like him or respect him. But you can do it and be an actor," he said.
The load of reading, writing and role-playing has deepened many students' ability to balance many of life's contradictions. Ngozi Ndule, a French and mathematics major playing a Vietnamese refugee summed it up by saying that though she's anti-war, she can now admire soldiers. "They exist in constant fear, and yet they keep going. They have to remain alert because their lives are at stake. I know I can't really know what it feels like, but I can feel a little...I really identified with a soldier in the film 'Apocalypse Now.' He said, 'Say what you want about me, but don't judge me.' That's what this whole course is about. Seeing all sides, judging but not judging and realizing it's a very, very difficult thing to judge."