Visiting Speakers Make Compelling Impact during Course on Vietnam War and Culture

March 22, 2016

On a recent morning when a dozen students gathered in a plain, white-walled classroom for a junior-level history class, they found themselves transported to the setting of a wartime conflict in Southeast Asia 48 years earlier. Their intellectual challenge was to decide the legality— according to the military justice code—of a shooting ordered by a respected Army officer during the Vietnam War. This particular session was one of many examples of Saint Leo classes that bring subject matter directly into students’ consciousness. John -Vento -speaking _1

The teacher who convened this discussion is none other than retired U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Thomas Draude, who served three tours in Vietnam. Now that he is teaching a course on the war, though, he ventures far beyond his own experience. He creates opportunities for students to hear from speakers who were connected to the experience from multiple vantage points. The talks, as well as the readings, make the history compelling and understandable.

On this day, in a class of only 50 minutes’ duration, attorneys Patrick Poff and John Vento need to convey the essence of military law. Both are former military men (Poff was a U.S. Army major and Vento is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel) who served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps while in the military. They are perhaps the people best qualified in the area to brief students on how military law derives from Catholic intellectual tradition—and how American warriors in recent history and contemporary times are expected to conduct themselves during some of the most confusing and frightening episodes in combat. Pat -Poff -speaking -1

Because there are five ROTC cadets and two future attorneys in this class of 12, the speakers’ guidance is especially pertinent. During the Vietnam War, Poff and Vento remind the students, many soldiers were “your age.” The soldiers may have had only an hour of instruction in the rules of engagement.   

“At all times, you have a right to defend your life and fire your weapon,” explained former Major Poff.

It is also important to know that in military actions, following orders is required unless an order is actually unlawful, the visitors explained. And acting against a non-combatant in a conflict zone is considered unlawful.

Speaking from two separate lecterns on opposite sides of the classroom, the attorneys laid out the premise of an actual case from Vietnam. In the case, a long-respected officer was prosecuted. Their back-and-forth oral-presentation style reinforces the reality that this was a true military court case with a prosecution and a defense, multiple witnesses, evidence gathered, and conflicting testimony as to whether an order to shoot was a lawful act, or whether a war crime had been committed.

Vento chose and appointed a student panel to quickly render a verdict based on what they had absorbed in the lecture, and polled each juror.

 “This technique,” Brigadier General Draude commented, “as employed by two experienced former military lawyers, brought home one of the greatest challenges for a combat leader: When is it lawful to kill? It was enlightening for the class to learn that although its 'jury' voted guilty the actual military jurors voted not guilty."

In later sessions in the class, students heard from or are scheduled to hear from: a refugee from the war, one of the “Vietnamese boat people,” as they were called from the time; a Marine photojournalist and Saint Leo student with more recent combat experience during the Afghanistan War; a retired Marine who served at the U.S. Embassy during his second tour in Vietnam; and a local nun experienced with Catholic teachings and war protests at the time.

As a teacher, Brigadier General Draude explained why such speakers can be so valuable to a course such as this one. “History is people,” he said, “and I wanted the class to draw its own conclusions based on more than books and films. Saint Leo’s University Campus has within a few miles a treasure trove of active duty and retired and former military personnel, as well as two of our nation's four-star Combatant Commands (Central Command and Special Operations Command). What a tragedy it would be to fail to tap into these resources! ”