The planned March 31 Vietnam Veterans Celebration at Charlotte Motor Speedway is being promoted as "a long overdue homecoming" for those who served in that conflict more than four decades ago.
Except in the hearts and memories of the 2.5-million men and women who experienced it first-hand, the events of the war and turbulence it generated are fading from importance in the march of history. Today's college students, born about 20 years after the war ended, study it at most institutions in the broad context of 20th century America, rather than as a stand-alone subject.
But students at Davidson have for about 25 years been able to take a history department class titled "The Vietnam Experience." In addition to the usual curricular material like books and films, the course has given them an opportunity to understand the emotional impact of the war through first-hand testimony of Vietnam veterans themselves.
The class was initiated in the mid-1980s by former professor of history David Shi. When he left the college to become President of Furman University, Vail Professor of History Ralph Levering picked it up, and has offered it every second year since the mid-1990s. "Students are absolutely fascinated by these veterans," Levering said.
The ten or so who speak in Levering's class almost invariably start their presentation to the 32 students with one sentiment. "I was just about your age...."
They almost universally didn't choose to become soldiers, but answered the call. Their vivid testimony to students about their misery, boredom, terror, and close quarters realization of mortality provides a lens on the conflict that textbooks can only begin to approach.
Levering himself brings an interesting perspective to the course, since his Quaker upbringing led him to play a Conscientious Objector role during the war. He spent two years working in a children's hospital, and participated in many of the anti-war demonstrations of the early 1970s. With the passage of time, and hearing the stories of veterans in his class, he has since then gained an appreciation for soldiers who fought the war.
More than half the class periods during the semester are devoted to personal testimony. During other class periods Levering leads students into discussion of the stories the veterans tell, or a discussion of class readings. He uses two standard texts-Where the Domino Fell and Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War. Supplemental readings include Robert McNamara's In Retrospect, The Killing Zone and When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.
The veterans provide a broad diversity of perspectives on the conflict. They have included a fighter with the South Vietnamese ARVN forces, a Viet Cong sympathizer, an American medic and an American nurse, and an American forward artillery observer.
Several were wounded in combat and tell stories of watching close comrades die. One had to hide underwater in a rice paddy and breathe through a stalk to escape capture. Navy pilot Quincy Collins was shot down early in the war and endured seven years of horrific treatment in a prisoner of war camp. The former head of Davidson's physical plant, the late Bob Collins, talked to the class several times before war-related injuries and cancer due probably to Agent Orange exposure led to his death at age 60.
But this is the final time "The Vietnam Experience" is being taught at Davidson. Levering will retire next year, and the course will not be adopted by another member of the department. It's a logical curricular progression as the years between today's young people and the war increase, but it's hard to escape the feeling that something will be lost when the course drops out of the catalogue.
Levering concedes that future students won't have the opportunity here to learn about the war from such a personal point of view. But Levering looks at the silver lining rather than the cloud. "Yes, something will be lost when the course is no longer available," he said. "But my replacement in the history department will bring other courses of great value to the college. It's wrong to keep the world the way it is, to continue as in the past. I'm enough of a student of history to know that's the way the world works."
Levering's extended scholarship about the war and contact with veterans have profoundly changed his view of the war and its place in American history. He said, "I wouldn't have said it in the 1970s but now I see that there should have been parades and programs to honor Vietnam veterans at the end of the war. We should have welcomed them home, but that would have been almost impossible in a lot of communities; maybe even Davidson. There was so much self-righteousness, and so many people who felt the war was horrible mistake."
Levering will show his gratitude to all the veterans who have served his "Vietnam Experience" class over the years by hosting a dinner for them on May 12.
He also hopes that the March 30 speedway event will provide the suitable, heartfelt welcome home that Vietnam veterans never formally received.
Former Davidson grounds director Irvin Brawley has told Levering's class many times the importance of that seemingly simple gesture. Brawley was plucked from college and trained as an officer in a transportation company in Vietnam. He was involved in a few fire fights, but wasn't injured.
At the end of his year of duty, he returned home to Mooresville and rarely talked about the war. Then one day a friend took him to an American Legion meeting attended almost exclusively by soldiers of other wars. As the moderator introduced the program he noted "And we have a veteran from the Vietnam War here with us today," and called Brawley to the stage. Those in the room rose as one and applauded him. Tears welled in Brawley's eyes from their gesture. "It was the first time I had felt appreciation for what I did," he said.
And to this day, every time Brawley tells that story to students in Levering's class tears well in his eyes still.