Animal House Meets Vietnam: Thomas A. Barnico’s War College ’77

War College combines the best of college nostalgia with military action.

’77 by Thomas A. Barnico War College: A Novel follows a Vermont college student Jack Dunne as he navigates his dual identity of college and enlisted during the Vietnam War. Although Dunne’s college is an obvious substitute for Dartmouth, from his Green to a local veterans’ hospital to a building entitled “Administration”, War College it’s far from just another nostalgia trip mixed with some Vietnam themes to spice it up. The novel – and this is a testament to the author’s talent – is a thoughtful reflection on the American experience of Vietnam, especially in relation to today’s lack of public leadership, while also capturing the spirit of the all-male New England institution in the sunset years of the concept itself.

War College is Both Animal house And We Were Soldiers, yet it never seems ridiculous. The book begins with Dunne visiting his campus on 10 days leave from Vietnam. From the very first chapter, the reader encounters a central theme of the book: that previous generations of young people had a spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion to a cause that the hippie generation of the 1960s had abandoned. Barnico characterizes Dunne’s father as the prototypical man “they don’t do like they used to.” The elder Dunne not only served his college as a championship-winning hockey captain who always shook hands with his opponents, but he also conducted covert operations during WWII and espionage afterward. From the words of Dunne’s war hero and mentor, Colonel Tiemo Turck, the reader learns that young Dunne shares his father’s traits: the young college student is the kind of man, though once abundant, whose country it needs more. “I don’t understand much about Vietnam, but if we can’t get more guys like Jack to go,” says Turck, “we don’t belong together at all.”

From this first look at the character of Jack Dunne, Barnico introduces the reader to a panoply of personalities populating the young soldier-scholar’s life, from Asgard Hall fraternity brother Thomas “Rocco” Marconi to love interest Clare McUsic and acts as mentor to Professor McUsic and President Cipolla. The book follows these characters as the war on the other side of the world reshapes their lives. Rocco and his fraternity brothers – “footballers, ruggers, the ROTC guys” – try to survive on a college campus increasingly opposed to overt, athletic masculinity and military service. Claire struggles to reconcile her love of a warrior with her ideological opposition and her protest against the Vietnam War. At the same time, the professor and President Onion, both graduates of the college, fight to preserve an institution that seems to no longer be able to produce (or attract) the veterans and patriots they invented.

Many of the events that take place thereafter come directly from Dartmouth, from protests on the Green to ‘big weekends’ to the storming of the ‘Administration’ building. Rocco witnesses firsthand, working in the college garage, the class boundaries that underline the controversies behind the draft; his supervisor’s son, a star high school athlete, passes his medical exam, enlists, and is KIA while Marconi’s classmates consult with lawyers and medical students to receive customized medical disqualifications for the draft. Clare, despite her involvement in the anti-war movement, is harassed for her relationship with Dunne and for sympathizing with the conscripts. Elder McUsic and Onion must defeat campus initiatives to eliminate ROTC while also looking for those few excellent men in college who are still willing to do their duty.

Moments of unreality punctuate the otherwise well-written work that it is War College. Barnico preaches a significant portion of his book about President Onion taking a personal interest in Dunne because he knew his father. Onion, also a former OSS agent personally recruit and lead student for army. However, the novel more than made up for this weakness in its social commentary. What the reader sees again and again through the eyes of the main cast is the opposition to war coming from men who have never seen war but judge those who have. Instead of simple hippie caricatures, the reader sees a certain understandable despair in these agitators. They study[y] the military code of physical regulations with an intensity rarely shown in their college courses. They don’t want to die. But, in this, they sin. As Barnico points out throughout the book, others have to go in their places. As a result, the author helps provide an answer to America’s current diminished state of affairs. After all, it was the generation of young people who let others go in their place, who shouted “We don’t care!” at rallies, who enjoyed college while more dutiful men died, whose life paths didn’t take a detour the size of Vietnam. They have risen to positions of power. Many still keep them. Unlike Jack Dunne and his father’s generation, however, they still don’t care. Jack Dunne “made it all happen [his] duties”: to his fraternity, college, family and nation. Those who let others die didn’t fulfill their obligations and didn’t even know what they were. Reading ’77 by Thomas A. Barnico War College, a reflection on the liminality of both the battlefield and the university square, the reader realizes that our nation has been far worse off for the dereliction of duty by almost an entire generation and social class. Perhaps this is the price we deserve to pay.

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