Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Students to gather for Vietnam class reunion


When Walter Capps started teaching a course on the Vietnam War and its impacts on society at UC Santa Barbara in 1978, he was the only one in academia tackling the subject.
His strategy of allowing veterans to give gripping narratives of their experiences before, during and after the war drew national media attention and the class quickly gained renown.
Now, after 29 years, former students and others touched by Capps’ course will gather for a reunion to discuss and share their experience in “The Impact of the Vietnam War on American Religion and Culture.”

“Students always describe it in their course evaluations as a life-changing course, the most important course they’ve ever taken” said Richard Hecht, a religious studies professor who now teaches the class. “I really believe that is the case.”
Hecht is moderating the reunion discussion, which is free, open to the public, and will take place during UCSB’s All-Gaucho Alumni weekend this Saturday from 1:30 to 3 p.m. in the Hatlen Theater.
As a colleague in the religious studies department during Capps’ stint as professor of the class, from 1978 to 1995, Hecht frequently sat in on sessions. When Capps gave up his job as a religious studies professor to take a seat in Congress, Hecht took over as a temporary fix, since Capps had planned to return after one term.
But when Capps suffered a fatal heart attack in October 1997, it was up to Hecht to keep the legacy of the course alive.
“If Walter were alive and still teaching this course, I think he would do exactly what I have done,” Hecht said.
In the 13 years since he assumed the reins of the now-legendary class, Hecht has seen its marked evolution alongside societal and political changes.
In the first few years of the course, some Vietnam veterans gave angry presentations, expressing rage about not being welcomed back with any positive accolade.
“The issue of homecoming was very, very important in the early years,” Hecht said. “Walter would always end the course by asking the class to welcome home the veteran.”
With the launch of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the dynamic of the course has shifted. With a widening gap between the generation of Vietnam veterans and current students, Hecht has focused more on bridging that gap by focusing the discussion on similarities and disparities between veterans of Vietnam and today.
In 2004, an Iraq war veteran took the course, Hecht said, staying mostly silent until the end, when he identified himself and told the class how important it had been for him to see how other veterans had made sense of their experiences.
In 2005, Hecht started inviting veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to class. Now he dedicates the last section, a two-and-a-half week chunk, to comparing the two generations of veterans.
“I think that the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan will spawn a new generation of veterans who will want to narrate their experiences as well as students who want to understand those experiences,” he said.
How students view veterans and military personnel today has also changed from his generation, Hecht said.
“In some ways, the country learned that the veterans are not the ones who are responsible,” he said. “It’s the Congress and the executive branch of the government who bear the responsibility for sending young people to war.”
But other things haven’t changed, Hecht added, such as the failure to recognize the hidden costs of war. He said Capps always evoked Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, when he called on the nation to support those wounded by the Civil War and help the families of those who perished.
“The horrible thing about this war is how miserably unprepared the Bush administration has been to respond to what Lincoln saw as a central aspect of presidential power,” Hecht said. “They have done very little to meet the new needs of veterans.”
When he joins with many of Capps’ former students and colleagues this Saturday, Hecht said he plans to ask them one simple question: how has the course affected their life?
Joining him will be Congresswoman Lois Capps, who was elected to her husband’s seat following his death, and James Quay, former executive director of the California Council for the Humanities and a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
Wilson Hubbell, a helicopter crewman in Vietnam, and Jim Nolan, an infantry rifleman and later a squad leader, have both been longtime assistants in the course and will also take part in the discussion.
In a prepared statement, Congresswoman Capps said she is looking forward to the reunion and celebration of her husband.
“The course truly connected students to a challenging moment in our nation’s history in a way that was powerful for both the students and the teachers who were able to share their unique perspective and experiences,” she said. “To this day, I regularly encounter former students and teachers who tell me how much this class meant to them, and I always cherish those exchanges.”

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