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Theatre and War: The Campaign to Win Vietnamese Hearts and Minds

Sometimes “water-cooler talk” can develop into something much more profound. That's what Jay Ball and Jerry Dougherty, faculty in the theater arts department, discovered when their low-key chats about international affairs developed into serious discussions, and ultimately, “a great faculty collaboration.”

Ball and Dougherty co-authored "Cultural Seeding: Van Tac Vu Theatre and Pacification during the Vietnam War," a paper on the American “hearts and minds” campaign during the Vietnam War.

“I was an international relations major as an undergrad and most of my research as a theatre historian has been focused on political hot spots around the world,” said Ball, professor of theatre and performance studies. “Jerry has been to those hot spots, and ever since I arrived at CWU three years ago, we have routinely had water cooler talk about international affairs and his military experiences.”

Dougherty, CWU’s Theatre Arts department production manager, is an Iraqi War veteran and a current Lt. Colonel in the US Army Reserve. He has 23 years of service as both a cavalry and logistics officer.

“When I had the opportunity to propose a paper—in this case, on the theatrical properties of American ‘hearts and minds’ efforts during the Vietnam War—I popped the question to Jerry: want to co-write a piece of original theatre history with me?” continued Ball. “He was surprised, then shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Sure. I don't know what you want me to do, but let's do it.’”

According to Ball, winning "hearts and minds" was shorthand for the American strategy of convincing rural Vietnamese people to withdraw their support for the Viet Cong and rally to the cause of South Vietnamese government. To achieve this, the US military deployed a range of so-called psychological warfare techniques, including leaflets, helicopters with massive speakers to broadcast messages (think the film Apocalypse Now), medical assistance teams, as well as using radio and television. This type of integrated information campaign had its start in Viet Nam, Dougherty related.

“The subject of our paper, Van Tac Vu, were specially trained theatre troupes who would go from village to village putting on magic shows, short plays, and sing-alongs—all with a pro-government message,” said Ball. “Since General Petraeus revolutionized the thinking of the US military about counter-insurgency during his time in Iraq, all of these "hearts and minds" operations are being studied again for their application to contemporary conflicts.”

Dougherty mined incredible research from places Ball would not have known how to access, like the Army War College.

“The Army War College in Pennsylvania and the Command and General Staff College in Kansas are open to any one in the military who wants to do research,” said Dougherty. “I was able to access papers and other research that had already been published, such thesis projects on the subject.”

“Jerry was also able to translate government documents and military manuals into civilian English,” said Ball. “More than that, he has been in a war zone. He just brought an insider's view—and veteran's understanding—to this work that has made it infinitely richer than I could have done on my own.”

They will present the paper the national American Society for Theatre Research as part of the organization's "Theatre and War" working group. It's highly competitive, premiere theatre scholarship conference held November 5-8, in Portland, Oregon.

“I’m really excited about this paper, but I’m also very interested in digging deeper into this subject,” said Dougherty. “There are still stones left to be turned over.”

Media Contact: Valerie Chapman-Stockwell, Public Affairs, 509-963-1518, valeriec@cwu.edu
 

Photo: Jerry Dougherty and Jay Ball

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