Opening up the Textbook: Voices from My Lai
Perspectives: Those Portrayed and Those Overlooked
Joe Jelen: The class that I was teaching was an AP—an AP level class—made up of 9th through 12th graders. At this point we are in the 1960s looking at, we've looked at foreign policy through the 50s into the 60s, and this was the first day of looking at the Vietnam War. I was hoping that students would see the complexity of the Vietnam War and see the complexity of the American public's reaction to the Vietnam War. I was hoping that they would gain some insight of how people were reacting to what they were seeing on television and opening up and seeing in Life magazine—beginning to get a feel of people unsure of whether this war was a good idea.
The lesson is based on opening up the textbook, and that would mean that students are being asked to challenge or to look more specifically at the textbook; and regard it not as the "be all, end all of history," but regard it as something that can be argued with. Students were given a selection from their textbook about the event and students were asked to think about and write down what sources they felt perhaps were left out of the textbook—whose voices they would like to hear in addition to what the textbook authors' showed in their account.
Joe Jelen: Whose voice do you feel is missing from all this? Or who would you like to hear more from?
Student 1: From the perspective from the Vietcong rebels they were actually hunting, and maybe they could say if these operations were actually targeting them or civilians.
Student 2: Or somebody said that it wasn't an isolated incident, so maybe, like, other situations where something similar occurred and, like, the differences between them; so, the experiences of other U.S. veterans who did similar things.
Student 3: The soldiers that were in it with Lieutenant Calley, ‘cuz I mean, they killed 22 people, and, like, Calley probably wasn't the only one who shot someone. Like, I want to hear from the other people who were actually there.
Joe Jelen: Eventually they were led to think about, well, the American public. What was the American public thinking as these events came to light?
Joe Jelen: In your partnership you're going to look at these sources. You're going to think about who wrote this source. How does that contribute to some of the meaning of what's being said? And you're going to draw three conclusions from each source.
Student 2: Well, he lied. Because, like, he kept saying they were trying to go into a defensive, but you know that they really weren't going into a defensive [interrupted]
Student 1: Yeah.
Student 2: position. They were trying to kill him off. . .
Student: Yeah, I agree. [Multiple discussions are occurring simultaneously. This comment may be unrelated to the previous sentences.]
Joe Jelen: So who was this guy? Who's Paul Medlow?
Student 3: He was the, like, less—lesser officer beneath Calley.
Joe Jelen: I approached some groups who began to question what was being said and began to question why Lieutenant Calley was saying what he was saying. That he tries to make it seem like he’s some sort of hero, and I think that that's an important aspect of this. And that Lieutenant Calley did feel like he hadn't really done anything wrong in following his orders. And we quickly moved then into continuing to examine the American public's reaction by looking at Paul Conrad's political cartoon. Students participated in what's called a "zoom-in inquiry." Looking at a cartoon in small pieces, looking at a specific part of the cartoon and not the entire image and revealing slowly the entire image to them, thereby eliciting responses about more specific pieces of the cartoon to engage in some hypothesis making and think about what's coming next.
Joe Jelen: Describe who you see.
Multiple Students: The U.S. conscience. [unclear comment]. It looks like Uncle Sam kind of. He's probably dead.
Joe Jelen: What do we think we're going to see next?
Multiple Students: Some dudes, or what's on top of the ridge. American soldiers standing at the top of the ditch.
Joe Jelen: You're expecting to see some things up here. Alright, well let's find out. What new things do you see?
Multiple Students: Nothing. The top of the ditch. Look at the grass! The top of the ditch.
Joe Jelen: Kyle?
Kyle: It looks like the top part of the ditch, and it looks like some grass on top of that.
Student: Well, that’s all something to do with the [unclear] and the shade.
Joe Jelen: Alright, so light and dark is being used; perhaps, this looks like the top of the ditch, it seems like he's down quite a way.
Student 1: Like just below the grassy stuff it looks like it’s sort of like two walls pretty close together snaking off. . .
Other Student: Oh yeah, it does.
Joe Jelen: What was described in some of that testimony? That there might—there was a trench involved in this whole thing, right? Hmm, we might want to make sense of that. Well let's make a hypothesis why this person is on the ground.
Student 2: I think that it's—it’s talking about how, um, the U.S. conscience, um, like died in the My Lai incident and that, um, possibly that there wasn't really morality in Vietnam, or it didn’t seem that way.
Joe Jelen: So loss of morality, that U.S. conscience has died here. Alright. Huh. Casey?
Casey: I think it goes like maybe one step further, and it's saying that the U.S. soldiers actually killed the U.S. conscience during their actions in My Lai, since. . .
Joe Jelen: Maybe who we're going to see up here are. . .
Casey: The U.S. soldiers [comment continues after interjection]
Joe Jelen: The U.S. soldiers?
Casey: pointing guns at the dead body.
Joe Jelen: What new things do you see? Casey?
Other Student: A bunch of politicians having a barbecue.
Casey: Um, well there are people throwing up confetti, waving American flags, and somebody’s holding up one of those, like, sort of protest board things, so. . .
Joe Jelen: Now, what questions do you need to ask then to get a closer—get closer to the meaning of this whole cartoon? What questions? Jake?
Jake: What are they really cheering for?
Joe Jelen: What are they really cheering for? Great question.
Andrew: Who are they?
Joe Jelen: Andrew.
Andrew: Who are they?
Joe Jelen: Who are these people? Good. Let’s see, then, if we can get an answer to that.
Student 1: They see that the U.S. conscience is gone. They don’t see what really happened at My Lai. They just see this guy, you know, this Lieutenant in the Army who seemingly did something really patriotic, and, you know, uh, killed a bunch of stupid North Vietnamese enemy people, and they don’t see that he just massacred civilians.
Primary Sources Challenge Concepts of Truth
Joe Jelen: What students were ultimately being asked to do was to think that their textbook is a living, breathing document that they have some ability to edit and to challenge in some ways.
They frequently wanted to add more of what Lieutenant Calley had said in his testimony. They were interested in looking at what the Vietnamese people saw that day. They felt that the textbook left out the voice of the villagers as to what they had witnessed; and, by the end of the lesson, they’re including information about the American public.
They understand the importance of primary sources as to being able to construct some meaning from the people who were there or the people who took photographs of events. Students like to hear those voices and like to see those photos and hear those diary entries or whatever it might be, and primary sources have a way of making history for students a little less tidy than they would like. And I think that’s good; that’s challenging what they are thinking about and what they believe to be true. The focus on historical thinking skills has certainly helped build better understanding of history and made them more critical thinkers about—about the world around them, I think.