Monday, November 28, 2011

My Meeting With The History Professor Who Doesn't Know His History--The Inspiration For My Short Story "The Barefoot Hero"

A few months back my wife retired from her position as a music professor at a local college. At her retirement party I struck up a conversation with a young history professor. Turns out he specializes in the history of southeast Asia. This was of particular interest to me because I consider myself something of an expert on the origins, purposes, and consequences of American involvement in the Vietnam War. I was excited to find a knowledgeable historian with whom I could share my views on the topic, and I looked forward to a stimulating discussion. The professor, however, soon blunted my enthusiasm. The more we talked, the more I realized he was the worst of all academicians--the history teacher who does not know his history.

When I mentioned that the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which LBJ used as his excuse for an all-out troop commitment and irreversible escalation, was a hoax, the professor looked befuddled. When I named all the defense contractors (including Halliburton/KBR...yes, even back then Halliburton was making billions in blood money) that got obscenely rich off the war, his eyes narrowed and his expression told me, "So what?" And when I tried to explain to him that the point of the war was not to win it but to make it last as long as possible for American war profiteers to suck every last penny they could from it, the professor got indignant. He stammered and sputtered, "What gives you...on what basis...why..."

Before he could form a coherent sentence, I made a pre-emptive strike. "Take for instance the Battle for Hill 875. Certainly you're familiar with that," I gently goaded.

"The what...875th Hill...huh?" mumbled the professor.

"It took place in the Central Highlands near Dak To in November 1967. One of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. I've talked to survivors of it, and they have never shaken its horrors. To this day they have nightmares about it. The VC were entrenched on a large hill, called 875 by the American high command. The order came down to take the hill, but this was the VC's home turf and they would not be easily defeated. They knew jungle warfare and how to survive in it. The carnage went on for four days. The casualties were great. One suvivor remembered the hill running red with blood. It finally ended on Thanksgiving Day. The VC retreated and the hill belonged to the 173rd airborne brigade. What did American forces do with this hard-won hill? They abandoned it within a week. It held no strategic advantage. In other words, there had been no point to the entire battle. This sort of thing happened over and over in Vietnam. Battle after battle, won and lost, to no apparent end. The objective observer can only conclude that the war had no ultimate purpose other than to line the pockets of weapons makers and other defense contractors."

The professor was stunned for a moment, but he managed to recover and recite the refrain of the hopelessly misinformed, "We stopped communist aggression. If Vietnam had fallen who knows...the communists might have come to our shores. Better there than here."

"Ah...the old domino theory. Tell me you're not clinging to that; it's been discredited long ago...even by the most hawkish historians," I condescended. My patience with this neophyte had run out. "The fact is South Vietnam did fall, yet the communists did not take over the world. They got not closer than China. Not one nation in the western hemisphere fell after Vietnam."

The professor took a hearty swig of beer and looked away in resignation. I almost felt sorry for him. "Look," I offered, "It's okay not to know something, but you should at least be inquisitive...where's the curiosity to find out more? And please tell me you're not polluting those young, malleable minds in your history class. They deserve better than that. All of us deserve to know our real history."

With that, the young professor skulked away and made a point of avoiding me for the rest of the night.

In subsequent days, the remembrance of that encounter gnawed at me. The history professor's lack of intellectual curiosity appalled me. Rather than sit me down and grill me to find out more, he simply dismissed me as a crackpot. Were all American professors this way? Were they feeding their students disinformation? What the hell was really going on in collegiate classrooms? The study of history should be a diligent search for the truth about our past, not a lazy recitation of textbook prevarications.

I decided to do something about it--write a story that makes the causes and effects of the war more personal, more meaningful. "The Barefoot Hero" is my small way of setting the record straight.