Merits and Perils of Teaching Cultures

Nothing in my experience sums up the merits and perils of studying other cultures better than an appalling week I spent at Fort Sill in February 1969. Almost all of us recent graduates from artillery school had orders for Vietnam, and so we were subjected to a week of what the army called ‘In-Country Orientation.” A model Vietnamese fortified hamlet had been constructed there on the Oklahoma plains, and our instructor, a butter-bar lieutenant no older than I, insisted that its defenses were impregnable, as if none of us had ever heard the frequent news reports of villages overrun. We were also told what to do in case of an ambush: which is not to get pinned down, but charge right into the enemy’s guns. And we learned all about the poisonous serpents and insects we could expect to encounter. In sum, far from boosting our morale and making us gung-ho, the course left us feeling utterly terrified and unprepared. But worst of all was when they herded hundreds of us into an auditorium to hear a lecture on Vietnamese culture and society. The instructor was not a scholarly expert, or a native Vietnamese, or perhaps a Green Beret who knew Vietnamese and had lived with the people. Rather, the teacher was a grizzled drill sergeant who paraphrased a manual, stumbling over his words, “Awright, you mens, listen up! You will now git orientated into Vit-mese society. Da mostly thing y’all gots to know is dat Vit-nam is a Confusion society. Dat means that ever’body is in a kind of high-arky: like the chillun obey deir parents, and the womens obey deir mens, and ever’body obeys the guv-ment. It’s sorta like da army chain o’ command.”

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