I am surrounded by 20 individuals whom I assume know a lot more than me; I've only taught the Vietnam War for two years.
Once I self-acknowledge my neophyte status among the heavy hitters, I am ready to relax and learn at the round table discussion: Turning Points in the Vietnam War. Though I've read the 45 pages of primary documents, I still won't be contributing much to the discussion.
The discussion leader is a university professor of history who's read every book ever written on Vietnam, and intimately knows the players, the events, the venues. The unexpected bonus is a combat soldier who's served in Vietnam, and a few other gentlemen who've lived through the time as political savvy adults. I remember well the Vietnam war, but only as a junior high student. Oh, and I did purchase a POW bracelet for $2--my first political activism.
Laptop, pencil and paper ready, I am excited to absorb and process as much as I can in the next six hours.
My basic background helps and the first time I miss a connection, I raise my hand.
"So, the US wasn't supportive of free elections because the winner would have been Ho Chi Minh, and consequently communism."
My feet are wet. I'm getting the lecture. Because of the teacher's expertise, he continues to make assumptions that we already understand the little details. Each time it isn't clear, I ask, and I'm never left behind.
As the discussion enters the early afternoon hour, some of the participants begin to lag, but I feel like we've only started. This will end too soon! When will I have another opportunity such as this?
Dave, the Vietnam vet, and the professor, veer into another interesting side story. "The Lieutenant who led the men into Hamburger Hill, there was a price on his head."
I wait for that story to continue, but it doesn't. "Wait," I raise my hand, "he had a price on his head? From who?"
"In America or Vietnam?"
"The soldiers. It was representative of the degradation of morale and integrity that plagued the troops.
The professor mentions the fraggies.
"What?" I nearly jump from my seat.
Dave explains the fraggies were soldiers who refused to obey orders and chose to throw grenades in their superiors' tents ending the need to follow orders that didn't make sense in a war that no longer made sense.
And the Buddhist retaliation of 1963?-- provoked because of hidden arms within the Buddhist pagodas. And the famous photo of the aged monk who self-immolated? His doctor testified that he was forcefully persuaded to do so by the younger monks, and the event was super staged with signs in English and a call to the AP journalist who just happened to be on the spot with a photographer.
The assassination of President Diem? The CIA was heavily involved and there wasn't a back up plan in place?
"Were the advisors (two specific men) ever held accountable?"
"No," the professor answers "but the woman journalist did call him and ask, How does it feel to have blood on your hands? She was the only journalist who caught on to what was happening."
"Who was she?" I ask.
"Marguerite...ummm, Higgins." I look her up immediately and find a famous female journalist who dug deep where no one else dared to dig.
It's almost 2:00 p.m. and the only people who look alive are the professor, Dave, and me.
"What was the monetary cost of each Viet Cong life?"
Dave knows the answer, "One million dollars."
"You know Thieu ended up with a villa in Hawaii and $25 million in cash," Dave mentions.
"Why?" I am bewildered.
"For his work with the United States and helping to end the war."
The professor thanks the class for coming.
It's over? I thought the class finished at 3:00. I'm on fire and the extinguisher has been sprayed.
Tony sends a text, How's the class going? I respond: If there were an award for most engaged, I would have won.
I give glowing feedback on the questionnaire. I express my gratitude. As I drive home I try to understand why the discussion was so meaningful when my fellow participants seemed to check out and even leave early. I think I get why, at least one of the reasons: when I missed the first connection, I wasn't afraid to ask, I didn't fear I'd look stupid, I was there to learn. When I missed another connection, I'd asked again. I refused to be left behind and I loved every minute.
The next morning I sit down to re-process and add to my notes. I am crestfallen when I see the document titled Turning Points in the Vietnam War, is empty. I failed to save the document before shutting down and my six hours of notes have vanished. But the memory of intense learning and how I was able to learn, never will.