Moving legacies of Vietnam War found in fiction, poetry

May 7, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

John Clark Pratt earned his doctorate in English literature from Princeton, then had a full career as a teacher at the Ail Force Academy, as a jet pilot instructor, and as a combat pilot during the Vietnam War.

In 1974, he retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel and published a novel, ``The Laotian Fragments.''

From 1974 to 1980, he chaired the English department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he is now a professor of English.

When I met Pratt at the Vietnam Legacies conference at UC Davis last weekend, he told me his novel was out of print. But I found a copy at the Davis Branch of the Yolo County Library. I grabbed it off the shelf like I was finding a rare artifact.

``The Laotian Fragments'' is a documentary-style novel, including intelligence reports, airborne intercom and radio transcripts, Air Force messages, newspaper articles, official government studies and letters from an estranged wife at home. All these fragments make up the life of Maj. William Blake, a civilian in Laos. A former professor of Blake's is given the task of making sense of these documentary fragments.

At the conference, Pratt spoke about cultural legacies of the war. He described the ``triple X-rated'' fiction class he teaches at Colorado State on the Vietnam War. He warns the class that they'll be reading about rape, death and violence. Some students drop the course immediately.

``Sixty to 65 percent of the students in the classes have no connection at all to the Vietnam War,'' he said. ``Maybe 30 percent have relatives who served, but the students don't know when or where.''

Just for fun, Pratt gives the students a 10-question quiz at the beginning of the class to see how little they know. The students are asked to identify the location of the peace talks,the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Rolling Thunder,

ARVN, Nguyen Van Thieu, date of the truce agreement. the Tet offensive, Ngo Dinh Diem, the year that Saigon fell to the Communists and the approximate maximum number of U.S. troops in Vietnam at any one time.

Students fail the quiz in large numbers (Rolling Thunder, for instance, is not the name of Bob Dylan's band) but Pratt said some of his more knowledgeable students included a former South Vietnamese soldier, a nurse involved in the 1975 Baby Lift, and a number of Vietnam War veterans.

Pratt has the class read 11 novels and said no student has ever complained about too much reading. The novels are assigned in roughly the order in which the action takes place, beginning with Graham Greene's ``The Quiet American.''

He moves on with Crumley's ``One to Count Cadence,'' Dinh's ``No Passenger on the River,'' Kaiko's ``Into a Black Sun,'' Heinemann's ``Close Quarters'' and ``Paco's Story,'' Del Vecchio's ``The Thirteenth Valley,'' Boyer's ``As Far Away as China,'' McDonald's ``A Band of Brothers,'' Mason's ``In country'' and Butler's ``A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain.''

The students who were so unaware of Vietnam when the class started in late August have adopted the jargon of the war and appreciation of its literature by Thanksgiving, Pratt said.

Another member of the panel on cultural legacies of the war was Kevin Bowen, a sergeant in the Army from 1968 to 1969. Bowen then earned his Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo, and has been the director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences in Boston since 1985.

His latest book, with poet Bruce Weigl, is ``Writing Between the Lines: An Anthology from the Joiner Center Writers' Workshop.''

Bowen said he realized as early as 1969 that a vast body of Vietnamese literature existed that was not accessible to Americans because little was published in English. Today, nothing has changed.

``There is no funding for the study of Vietnamese language, no federal money available for translation,'' he said. To know and understand the Vietnamese, he suggested, one must know and understand their oral tradition of poetry.

``Writers who spent 10 years on the Ho Chi Minh trail printed jungle magazines (of poetry) on presses sent down the trail in pieces,'' said Bowen.

``I recommend this literature, the problem is it's so unavailable,'' he added. ``There's nothing available in English. How much could we be healed if this literature was available?'' he asked.

``I urge you to support translation. We talk about the past, it's what we do in the present that matters. Understanding this literature takes us outside ourselves.''

Indeed, one moment of true understanding at the conference came about because of poetry. When South Vietnamese anti Communist protesters began demonstrating outside the University Club, poet Weigl, also a vet, went outside to meet with them. When he began reciting Vietnamese poetry, tears came to the eyes of a protester. A connection above and beyond politics was made.

We need more connections like that.

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