On April 17, 1972 I was in the spring of my second year of teaching: English, creative writing, and ancient history. The History Channel and A&E report that on this day “the first major antiwar protest of 1972 [was] held…. at the University of Maryland…” (http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-antiwar-protest-of-the-year-is-conducted). I was the only veteran at the school at which I taught and talked with no one about Vietnam, ever. Maybe that’s when I started crawling into a shell. I don’t know.
When I returned home in July, 1967 I wanted to forget the war, go back to school, and become a teacher. Pretty good plan that worked pretty well. Thinking about that time today, however, two issues squeeze me tighter into that shell I mentioned. The first concerns the adjectives before “protest of 1972” in the sentence above. It was the first, there would be more; it was major, there would be disruptions; and it was antiwar—so was I.
At Montclair State College there was very little talk of Vietnam, much less protests on campus when I was there between 1968-70. But personally I was very much aware of what was happening in the war zone I thought I should not have left. At that point five additional years of fighting in Vietnam raged since I had left, and there would be at least three more before America’s ignominious withdrawal. I hadn’t heard the term “survivor’s guilt” but I know now I had/have it.
Alone, I believed, I had to acknowledge my combat experiences, while trying to disentangle them from my growing pacifism. Looking back, I was one screwed up dude.
Realism in Literature and Life
The small, private school at which I taught followed a core curriculum wherein faculty from the different disciplines would try to coordinate lessons by time period. So, for instance, students studying the American Revolution in history class would be exposed to art, literature, and maybe music of the time in their other classes.
I taught juniors. That spring they read Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, while they were also studying about WWI in history class. This is actually one of my favorite novels, one whose various depictions of war I like to think about personally. And so it was difficult for me to teach this book holistically to teenagers.
It’s not the style, which is magnificent. It’s not the code of the Hemingway hero, grace under fire. It’s the war. It is one thing for a teacher to point out the various isms, as in romanticism, idealism, classicism, colonialism, etc. When it comes to realism, though, things get tricky. For one thing, two individuals can go through the same experience and come away with different perceptions of its reality. So in my lessons I created a wall between Hemingway’s realistic “last supper in the tent under mortar fire” scene and nothing on my side of the wall. His depiction of realism and symbolism in the same paragraph was genius. Whatever was going on in my own head was muddled. Students didn’t need to know that. I wasn’t prepared to let anyone in, anyway.
So, here we are: still starting war, still protesting war, still extending war, still profiting from war, still lying about war. Still looking for the next war.
Hemingway claimed that “war is natural.” His reasoning:
- Nature is indiscriminately hostile to humans, e.g., floods, earthquakes, volcanic overflows, etc.
- Human beings are part of nature.
- Therefore, humans are hostile to each other.
Of this you can be sure, that ain’t romanticism. Nonetheless, the novelist lived a fairly decent life of fame and fortune and adventure. He couldn’t qualify as a protagonist in one of his own stories. Yet, in the end, he took his own life, another event that never occurs for a Hemingway hero. He broke the code. I wonder if he would have been better off protesting wars rather than writing about them.