Truth and Storytelling: Connecting Vietnam and Iraq

The first time I showed this photo in my classroom, it was four years ago, right after it had been published in The New Yorker.

I presented it without comment, and asked students to look at all the clues and figure out what the situation was.

There’s a lot here to process — the age of the woman, the items sitting in the grass, the heritage of that name, the code-like descriptors below.

I am always surprised at how many kids recognize where that gravestone must be, and how few of them can identify what the crescent and star stand for.

That year, I also talked about Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama, and how he cited this very photograph as an example of his frustration with people who “accused” Obama of being a Muslim — as though that was a bad thing.

The makeup of America continues to change, and individuals respond to that change — in both good and bad ways. (This links to our essential question for the unit — what is the relationship between the self and the changing world?)

Four years later, I brought it up again. “Do you remember during the last election,” I asked them, “when lots of people said that Obama was a Muslim?”

So many hands went up. I shared Powell’s commentary. In one instance, I put one of our Muslim students on the spot, asking for her personal reaction, and she graciously shared how she was watching some of her own Muslim friends go into the armed forces, and the complex feelings she had about it.

When students are lost in the storytelling and meta-narrative tricks of “The Things They Carried,” this photo is a nice grounding moment. In this image, both the characters and their feelings are painfully real.

This post is a specific activity belonging to the Truth and Storytelling: Things they Carried Unit.


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