A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!

Photo Source B-52 Lake | CC BY 2.0

Last year, the College of the Ozarks (C of O), a small evangelical Christian college in Point Lookout, Missouri, organized a two-week study abroad trip Viet Nam that paired 12 students with 12 US veterans of the US War in Viet Nam. Many of the destinations were sites of battles in which the veterans had fought.

Launched in 2009, these Patriotic Education Travel Programs affirm one of the five goals of the college: Patriotic Education. According to its website, “These rich educational journeys provide life-changing experiences for College of the Ozarks students, who not only learn volumes of history from its firsthand participants but grow to love and appreciate them as well. Participating students return with renewed respect for Veterans and a dramatically increased love for their country.”  The Viet Nam trip, the 21stof its kind, was under the direction of C of O’s “director of patriotic activities.”

The purpose of the C of O Patriotic Education Program is to “to encourage an understanding of American heritage, civic responsibility, love of country, and willingness to defend it.”  Not surprisingly, C of O “provides numerous opportunities for students to learn, become involved, and show respect to our nation,” including Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and citizenship classes that “provide formal academic training for students with regard to learning how to become effective citizens and if desired, members of the military” and student organizations that place “a heavy emphasis on patriotism.”

The patriotic icing on the cake is that “all members of the College community are expected to stand, be respectful, and attentive when a color guard presents the United States flag, and anytime the United States Pledge of Allegiance is recited, and/or when the Star-Spangled Banner is played/sang.”  Or else!, one would have to assume.  The entire scenario is Orwellian along the lines of “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.”

Consistent with C of O’s emphasis on “patriotism,” in reality, a sheep in wolf’s nationalistic clothing, the college announced in 2017 that it would refuse to play any team whose players took a knee in emulation of those protests in the NFL and in September 2018 the C of O president released a statement that the college would no longer use Nike uniforms, saying “If Nike is ashamed of America, we are ashamed of them.”

Patriotic Education as Misnomer

A cursory reading of the program information and the “tour blog” reveals that it would be more accurate to call it the “Nationalistic Education Program.”  The distinction between patriotism and nationalism, while quite elementary and accessible in any dictionary, is lost on most US Americans, including those with advanced degrees and obviously the leaders of C of O. Patriotism is defined simply as “love for or devotion to one’s country”.  In contrast, nationalism is defined as loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.

As with most US evangelical Christians, there are close ties to US nationalism. Why?  Because both are about a sense of group identification, exaltation, and superiority.  If you’re an evangelical Christian, you have found salvation and are “saved.”  The rest of us are doomed to eternal damnation.

On the political side of the coin, in the words of Herman Melville “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world,” i.e., are members of an exclusive club that is the “greatest nation on Earth.”  In fact, the logo for the C of O Patriotic Education Program features these words:  God, Sacrifice, Country, and Heritage, a rhetorical intertwining of religion and nationalism.

It’s clear that these programs are designed not to create global citizens, which is usually the case with study abroad programs, but to solidify preexisting nationalistic values and attitudes.  Think of it this type of study abroad as the mixing of US nationalism with US-style evangelical Christianity, the perfect international education marriage made in hell.

Vietnam Tour 2017

You can probably guess what some of trip outcomes were based on its orientation and design.  The entries in the tour blog were sprinkled with words like heroes, warriors, service, God, Bible verses, holy water, honor, savior, freedom, and sacrifice.  Viet Nam, the country, the Viet Nam of 2017, was nothing more than a sideshow, a prop for this jaunt down memory lane.

Having lived and worked in Viet Nam for over 13 years, what struck me the most was the juxtaposition of the beautiful images of the country and the sheer cognitive dissonance of reading war stories told by veterans who somehow still believe that their service was honorable or that they were trying to do the right thing.  (Was the destruction of Viet Nam and millions of its people really synonymous with defending the USA?)

The last post, entitled “Homeward Bound – After four flights and thousands of miles, we are back in the good ol’ USA! Thank you Veterans and WELCOME HOME!, will give you a flavor of the blog and the trip on which it was based. A counterpoint follows each paragraph in italics.

It is a surreal feeling that our trip has come to an end. The opportunity to spend the last two weeks with our Vietnam Veterans has been indescribable. George Haley perhaps said it best, “A lot of the times you hear the word heroes passed around…these [men] are some genuine heroes.” As students, we have had a once in a lifetime experience to walk side by side with our new heroes, and we will never forget their dedication and sacrifice. Our Veterans have invested in us more than we thought possible and for that, we will be forever thankful.

No historical context. Nothing about why there was a war in the first place.  No comments about the many ways which Vietnamese continue to suffer, i.e., about war legacies.  As with most discussions of Viet Nam as a war, it was all about “US(A).”

Learning about Vietnam in class was interesting, but being able to see the war zones, roads, tunnels, mountains, and monuments first hand brings learning to a whole new level. And best of all, we were able to see these places with warriors who were here over 40 years ago. Our Veterans imparted to us their knowledge and personal experiences that a student could never receive in the classroom.

So, the “learning about Vietnam” was mostly about Viet Nam as it relates to the “Vietnam War”?  What about the dynamic and vibrant society that is contemporary Viet Nam?  What about the view, shared by many veterans but apparently not those who joined this trip (otherwise, they would have not been selected) that the war was a colossal mistake, immoral and unjustified?  What about the notion that the US had no right to be here in the first place?

We had many adventures that significantly impacted our hearts and minds. One such event was our trip to the Hanoi Hilton. Students and Veterans alike could not help but admire Dan Glenn’s courage and composure as he shared his experience. Dan gave each of us a coin that states, “Freedom from the caves, cages, and cells of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China….” Dan went through many challenges, but overcame all of them to receive his freedom back. His perseverance in the mist of evil reflects the true hero lurking inside all of Veterans.

While I’m sorry for Dan Glenn’s suffering, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In spite of his struggles, he returned to the US alive and not in a flag-draped casket.

Speaking of freedom, all Viet Nam wanted was the freedom to determine its own destiny, freedom from outside interference, freedom to be a unified and sovereign nation, as it should and would have been, had the US not ignored a key provision of the 1954 Geneva Peace Accords that would have resulted in a national election in 1956.  Even the US government said Ho Chi Minh would have won with 80% of the vote.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

I wrote in a 2014 essay entitled Jumping on the Vietnam War Commemoration Bandwagon: The Vain Search for Honor about the true heroes, former POWs who opposed the war like Bob Chenoweth, a former US Army staff sergeant captured in 1968. Chenoweth had this to say five years after his release: “Most of the POWs celebrate the day they were released. But I celebrate the day I was captured. It was a red-letter day for me, the day I began understanding another race.”  (Bob Chenoweth spent five years in the prison known in the US as the “Hanoi Hilton.”)

One student wrote about the veteran she was paired with who volunteered when he was 23 years old and told her “’I was willing to go to Vietnam and do whatever I could to help both our country and theirs.’ This attitude applied to his entire experience in Vietnam. As we drove through Da Nang, Fred pulled out his camera and showed me a picture of the patch he wore on his uniform. The patch had a Vietnamese flag on one side and American flag on the other, with an American and Vietnamese handshake in the middle. This demonstrated what he came here to do. ‘Our main purpose was to help the Vietnamese people however we could, making life better and easier. We came to befriend them and do our best to represent our country in a positive light.’”  Which Vietnamese people?  The ones whose government put its military and political eggs in the US basket?  The ones whose government stood on the wrong side of history?

In a war in which “kill anything that moves” was policy at the highest levels and in which nearly 4 million Vietnamese were murdered, over half of them civilians, and most between 1965 and 1972, I seriously doubt if many Vietnamese saw US soldiers as “friends.”  Most saw them as yet another legion of foreign invaders, feared, often hated, mostly to be avoided lest they end up on the receiving end of an assault or worse.

Finding God in Viet Nam?

Another student who was “honored to experience this journey,” wrote about the silver lining and a delayed fringe benefit of the war for herveteran: “For Steve, war was the force that brought him to a fear of the Lord. Twenty years after leaving Vietnam, he began to recognize God’s hand in protecting him and his soul’s need for a Savior. Now, Steve’s relationship with Christ defines his identity more than the war ever will.”

I’m happy that Steve has found a measure of peace in his life after the war but wish he could have found this without a war the resulted in the deaths of millions of people, mostly Vietnamese, the destruction of much of the country, and continued suffering to this day through war legacies such as Agent Orange (AO), now in its fourth-generation, and unexploded ordnance (UXO).

The Beautiful War

Here’s another religion-related lesson that one of the student participants learned: “On the way back to our hotel, I realized Mike has taught me much more than just about the war. He has taught me about the importance of keeping God first, how important relationships with others truly are, and how you can consider a tragic war to one day become something beautiful. Because without the war and the veterans who served, this beautiful opportunity for us students would never have occurred.”

Thank you, “Vietnam War, or American War in Viet Nam, as it’s logically known in the country in whose cities, towns, and villages the war was fought, for occurring so that these God-fearing students and their aging warrior companions would have this “beautiful opportunity” to come together and bond.  Yet again, the Lord works in mysterious way by making lemonade out of lemons.

Service as a Transferable Skill

Finally, there was one story about a veteran’s “skill and tenacity in flying.”  The student continues: “What really strikes me, however, is his servant heart. The military was just an avenue for it. I have been honored to serve him on this trip, but in turn he has served me even more. Through his stories of service in the Vietnam War, he has taught me courage, respect, faith, and joy, all with an ever-present smile and infectious personality. These are stories and virtues I will forever remember.”

No doubt, the students returned to the “good ol’ USA” with the feeling that the “Vietnam War” was some kind of grand and noble cause and that the US intervened in a “civil war” – rather than a war of national liberation – with the best of intentions to prevent the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.  It’s obvious they didn’t know or learn much about Vietnamese society and culture, including the origins of the 2ndIndochina War.

First the French, Then the US Americans

In a 2013 essay entitled The 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War: Revising the Past, Revisiting the Lies, I quoted from a veteran who would have told these students the truth about the war:

“One of our victims was searched when the shooting stopped and the bleeding continued and was found to be in possession of a medal. Our interpreter told us it was for heroism at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu fourteen years previous. While we were sent to war to fight communism, he had fought his whole life for his country’s right to self-determination. We traveled 12,000 miles to kill him for that.” — From I Would Rather Die Alone — for Peace: A Soldier’s Dream by Steve Banko, 2003

That sums it up in a few sentences.  That is the reality, the inconvenient truth that the College of the Ozarks prefers not to share with its students because it contradicts their “patriotic” aka US-centric and nationalistic view of the world and their country’s place in it.  They would no doubt take issue with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s characterization in his April 1967 Beyond Viet Nam speech of the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” as true now as it was then.

I have other veteran friends, including some who have been living Viet Nam for 10-20+ years and working on various war legacy issues and others who live in the US and elsewhere but make frequent trips here, giving back and doing penance, so to speak.  These are men who quickly turned against the war and returned home angry, alienated, and suffering from PTSD, in most cases.  These are the veterans young US Americans should be hearing and learning from not those who somehow thought the undeclared and immoral war in which they participated was a worthy cause.

The Anti-Study Abroad Program

The Vietnam Tour 2017 – College of the Ozarks Patriotic Education Travel Program, whether knowingly or not, is part and parcel of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, a 13-year commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the “Vietnam War” that extends from May 28, 2012 to November 11, 2025 in which US Americans from sea to shining sea are joining in events that “recognize the Vietnam Veterans and their families’ service, valor, and sacrifice,” according to the official Vietnam War Commemoration website.

In his proclamation that set the stage for this commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War President Obama noted that: We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women who left their families to serve bravely, a world away from everything they knew and everyone they loved. From Ia Drang to Khe Sanh, from Hue to Saigon and countless villages in between, they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.  Protect which ideals?

As I mentioned at the time, instead of a historical whitewash, why not take this opportunity, perhaps one of the last in this overwrought national melodrama, to indulge in some long overdue soul-searching and ask the hard questions? Why not make an honest and concerted effort to deal with, learn from, but also overcome the past in the German sense of “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past” or “work through the past”?  Why not confront the monstrous reality that the American War in Viet Nam was unjust, unnecessary, and immoral?

Why not admit, once and for all, what the late Stanley Karnow, journalist and historian, told Stanley McChrystal, then Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, in a brief telephone conversation when he asked Karnow if there was anything “we” (Americans) learned in Vietnam that “we” can use in Afghanistan? Karnow’s reply: What we learned is we never should have been there in the first place.

Study Abroad and US Nationalism:  They Learned Nothing (New)

Study abroad programs for young US Americans, regardless of country or duration, should help them examine their own nationalism, which Anatol Lieven describes in America Right or Wrong as “an ability to step outside American national myths and look at the nation with detachment, not as an exceptional city on a hill but as a mortal nation among other nations,” not reinforce it.

This program is extraordinary in that it dispenses with the usual goals of study abroad, which include learning how to interact with people from other countries, get students out of their comfort zone, appreciate cultural difference, dispel myths and stereotypes, learn more about themselves and their country, etc.

Under the guise of “patriotic education” the prevailing view was that the “Vietnam War” was a war in which US soldiers fought for sacred ideals and to “protect our freedoms.”  Rather than viewing the US as yet another foreign power that attempted to prevent Viet Nam from determining its own geopolitical destiny and acknowledging the fact that US sacrifices in blood and treasure were in vain, the program attempts to perpetuate the national myth that the war was justified.  Shame on the College of the Ozarks.

Postscript:  C of O liked the 2017 Viet Nam program so much that it has organized a fourth trip to Viet Nam this month from 9-22 December 2018.  More indoctrination, more dyed-in-the-wool US nationalists.  Since they’re running out of veterans who are alive, yet alone able to make the long trip to Viet Nam, what’s next, Patriotic Education Travel Programsto Afghanistan and Iraq? 


Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.