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Vietnam War is History, Not Current Events for U.S. Teens

Historians in the United States have struggled for years to find a fair and balanced way to teach students about the Vietnam War - and the atrocities committed there by U.S. soldiers. But on this 30th anniversary of the American pullout from Saigon, objectivity may no longer be the greatest challenge facing teachers.

That is the verdict of Jim Cullen, who teaches 16 and 17-year-old students at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School - a private academy in Bronx, New York. He specializes in 20th-Century U.S. History, and so a significant part of his course focuses on the Vietnam War.

Mr. Cullen says 17 years ago, when he first began teaching, it was difficult to talk to students about this war, because many of their parents had either served in the conflict, or else were active in the protests against it. But nowadays, the war has become a thing of the past for most students and most parents. "In a way, I have less of a challenge, because it's moved more decisively into their own history for these students," Mr. Cullen says. "I think most of the people I deal with are aware of the Vietnam War, are aware of it as a divisive war, but themselves don't have much of a stake in it."

Well into the 1980s, the rancor surrounding the Vietnam War was evident in American popular culture. Songs like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and movies like Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" were popular with American teenagers - who had been just toddlers when the United States pulled out of Saigon in April 1975.

But today's teenagers do not hear much about Vietnam in popular culture, and so Jim Cullen says the challenge for him, as a teacher, is not so much to find a fair and balanced way to tell the story - as it is to find a compelling way to tell it. "One of the things about the Vietnam War is that it's very well documented in contemporary media," he says. "I can show them, as I often do, the CNN documentary on Vietnam, and that documentary has things that you would not see in war today. I mean, you have correspondents talking to soldiers in the middle of battles, and [these soldiers are] expressing their bitterness. And so there is a sense in which these kids can sort of see it for themselves."

Jim Cullen has his students read personal narratives about the conflict - such as Arizona Senator John McCain's account of the 5 1/2 years he spent as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. "I think McCain is a very good example for a couple of reasons. First of all, he's a person in contemporary politics that students can connect with," he says. "Also, his story is so dramatic, and it reminds us of things like 'courage' and 'honor'- words that have largely disappeared from the American vernacular, in measure because of the Vietnam War, and the sense of cynicism that the war engendered."

That cynicism may be the war's greatest legacy - affecting people who were born long after the conflict was over. Julia Selzer, 17, says she has no personal connection to the Vietnam War, but that she and her contemporaries are definitely cynics. "I think that can be seen in the younger generation's responses to the Iraqi War," Ms. Selzer says. "I mean, we were very cynical about that, and I think for a good reason. And I think the Vietnam War really showed what kind of power the government has to affect all of our citizens, and how much war really affects our country."

But the cynicism many young Americans feel does not necessarily get in the way of pride. Just ask Josh Egendorf, 17 - one of a dwindling number of teenagers in this country whose father is old enough to have served in Vietnam. "I actually felt kind of proud about (my father's service), in a way that my dad had experienced the pains of the world," he says. "He's very knowledgeable about that kind of thing, and he's a serious man. So I felt kind of proud of him, but also I felt bad for the times that he spent in agony after the war. But it's a point of pride in my life that my dad took part in that."

As the years pass, there will be fewer and fewer students like Josh Egendorf - until one day, even the people teaching the history of the Vietnam War will not have a personal connection to it. And when that happens, teacher Jim Cullen says, documentaries and personal narratives will be even more important than they are today, because without them, the Vietnam War could go the way of the Mexican War - a bloody, mid-19th century conflict that was provoked by territorial greed… condemned by such notable thinkers as Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau… and is today largely unknown to Americans.