Interview with Victor Villanueva
Mariana (Mare) Grohowski
Victor Villanueva, who identifies as Puerto Rican, is Regents Professor and Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts at Washington State University. He is a military veteran of both the Vietnam and Korean wars, having served in the Army from 1968-1975. He used his GI Bill to receive his PhD in English with an emphasis in rhetoric and writing from the University of Washington in 1986. He is author, editor, or co-editor of eight books and nearly fifty academic articles or chapters in books on power, racism, and language. His book Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color, won the 1993 David H. Russel Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English, and has become a canonical text in English, rhetoric, and writing studies disciplines. Bootstraps, Villanueva’s first book, is the only text in which he discusses his military experience. His brief and abstract account of his military experience may be moot to some, but to this student of rhetoric and aspiring veterans studies scholar, those passages elicited questions and a venue for dialogue.
In On Writing Well, William Zinsser advises an interviewer to select a "subject…who touches some corner of the reader's life."1 A scan of his discipline of rhetoric and composition (English) journals reveals a longstanding interest in the work and life of Victor Villanueva. Indeed, scholars, most of whom are his former students, have interviewed Villanueva revealing the ways in which his ideas and efforts have had an influence on the academic field of rhetoric and composition studies. Those interviews address the "how" of Villanueva's success as an academic and the "what" of his efforts and foci in teaching and scholarship. (2 3 4)
With multiple interviews with Villanueva already published, readers may be concerned about the need and relevancy for another—a valid concern and one I have myself. What differentiates the interview I conducted with Villanueva in spring 2015 is my asking about the limited (e.g., two or three paragraphs) commentary he provides in his award-winning academic work Bootstraps (5) regarding his military service.
Prior to speaking with him, I had interpreted his work as employing a rhetorical use of silence (6) in regard to his military experiences in Vietnam and Korea. My intention in interviewing him was to parse out how his military service and war-time deployments changed him. Part of the reason Villanueva has not revealed more about his military experiences in his published scholarship is—as he explains in the interview below—the focus of his scholarship, structural racism, is informed by what he experienced while serving in the military.
Racism, imperialism, and colonization. As he explains, all were important issues to his father. Listening to his father speak about these issues had a lasting impact on him. What his father discussed was made manifest while Villanueva was serving in Korea—a result of his military service. Lessons he learned and experiences he gained as a direct result of his military experience shaped his focus and expertise in rhetorics of race and racism.
Mariana Grohowski (MG): In Bootstraps you reveal the following information about your military service:
You were drafted into the United States Army in 1968 at 19.5 years old. (7)
You served 7 years in active duty. (8)
You discharged from the military in 1976? (9)
You deployed to Vietnam (10) and South Korea. (11)
You spent 12 months in Vietnam. (12)
Your father served in the U.S. Army. (13)
You had the rank of Sergeant in the Army. (14)
The GI Bill helped you to pursue higher education. (15) But what are the (exact) dates of your service?
Victor Villanueva (VV): 27 April 1968–1 December 1975.
MG: The dates of your deployments in Vietnam and South Korea?
VV: Republic of Vietnam (RVN): 28 September 1968 – 26 October 1968; Republic of Korea (ROK): 13 September 1971–12 September 1972.
MG: The dates of your father’s service? If your father deployed?
VV: Oh, heck, I don’t really know, but he was in from 1942 to 1946 (the term was “duration of the war plus six months”). He only served in Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal Zone (as was the case in the segregated military of the time, since he was a Puerto Rican from the Island; stateside Puerto Ricans were assigned to Black units and deployed with them).
MG: Your military occupational specialty or specialties (MOS/MOSs)?
VV: 70A, 11B, 71H [Personnel Specialist] And I was SSG, E6. I left RVN a Spec 5 [Specialist, Enlisted 5), got promoted to Staff Sergeant in California, during the years in between RVN and ROK (though I don’t remember when, maybe 1970).
MG: In Bootstraps you describe your time in Vietnam as “unreal no matter how real,” (16) as “war as absurd,” (17) and your deployment in Korea as “a theater of the absurd.” (18) Can you explain these descriptions further? How, if at all, has your perception of warfare and/or war-torn countries as “absurd” influenced your willingness to write or talk about your military experiences more than you do (which is only in Bootstraps and only in a few, vague paragraphs)?
VV: In college, I became fascinated by the Theatre of the Absurd—a French experimental genre (as in Waiting for Godot), the term coined by Camus, characterized by “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and played out in his novel The Plague. You know from reading my scholarship (19) that I’m more drawn to materialist philosophies (like Gramsci) and even Liberation Theology (which, I have argued, is where Freire fits), but I was also taken by existentialism—that there ain’t no rhyme nor reason (except the meaning one imposes on the unreal reality). The Theatre of the Absurd (of course, I used the American spelling of theater), becomes a philosophical allusion to the sheer lack of rationality of war and military occupation (and the whole configuration of irrationalities of life—colonialism, racism, heterosexism, sexism, etc., etc., etc.).
To answer the question directly: I’d rather try to make sense of the rhetorics that embody the ideologies and political economies that provide the impetus for sending folks off to die in situations where the immediate threat is abstract (as opposed to, say, a home invasion; an invading force of any type). Why Iraq after 9/11, for example? The threat is abstract, but the consequences in terms of lives transported across an ocean very real. The absurdity is grander than any single instance of war. You see, Mariana, I grew up hearing of my parents’ homeland as a colony, of a 1917 decision to give Puerto Ricans citizenship, two months—two months—before the passing of the Selective Service Act of 1917 and the immediate draft of 18,000 Puerto Ricans for WWI, of my father in WWII, relegated to a segregated unit, his DD214 declaring his race as WPR: White Puerto Rican. And then there were the wars in the streets where I grew up, even though I was “the lame,” the sickly smart kid that the tougher kids protected. I mean, what the hell is all this about?
Each war is an instance of something larger to me, something larger that I need to wrap my head around. My military experience just gave a single concrete set of examples to the absurdity of empire. I never decided not to write about my military experiences; I decided it was less important than writing about what gives rise to state-sponsored inhumanity and its effects (since I believe racism is a byproduct of colonialism and sexism, and heterosexism a byproduct of a particular political economy).
MG: Beyond what you’ve written about your military experiences in Bootstraps, have you written or commented publicly about your military experiences elsewhere? If so, where? If not, are you planning to write or speak about your military experiences in the future? If not, why not?
VV: Three kinds of rhetoric: epideictic, forensic, deliberative. To speak of my war experiences is to be immersed in the forensic. I need to continue into the deliberative. I’m much more concerned with colonialism and racism and their ties to political economies in a world system. I tell my kids about those days now. I’m willing to discuss it with you because you asked, but it just isn’t my central concern.
MG: In what ways did your military service change you? Were your deployments—or was a specific deployment—integral in facilitating a shift in your identity or perspective? If so, how?
VV: This one’s tough, because it’s so huge. I went from adolescence to manhood in the military (not “being all that I can be” or “boys2men.” It was just my age—19-26; adulthood starts somewhere in the mid to late 20s, I can tell you, having raised five kids who are all adults now). Everything kind of changed. In Korea and in Sharpe Army Depot (where my buddies—one, Stanford University’s first Black Student Union president, and another, a Black Panther draftee—spoke to me as an intelligent being about race politics), I could actually believe in the possibility of college.
I saw the news being manipulated (saw myself in the news while I was on R&R [rest and relaxation] and my parents were witness; now the news tells you when it’s file footage). I learned I could suppress emotions effectively (at least I used to think so—my alcohol consumption challenged that more than a little, though). So much. I was still very insecure, but I could believe in possibility, believe that I could rise to occasions. Man, so much changed in those seven years. And it wasn’t RVN [Republic of Vietnam] really that changed me. That was (I know I say this time and again) so bizarre that I was unaware of changes, except an increase in my faith (not that I’m much of a Catholic these days), but I stopped questioning my faith—I question the dogma, but not my faith. It was Korea that changed me in a million ways. It would take a lot of conversation to parse that out.
MG: Okay, so…?
VV: You want me to start? (laughs)
MG: Yes, please! (laughing)
VV: Gee, I’m not ready for that. I’m joking. (Laughs) Before I went to ROK [Republic of Korea], before I went to Korea, I was in Sharpe Army Depot, which was an interesting place. Its main function, it was a small personnel shop. Master Sergeant Sanchez, when I got my orders, called it ‘America’s best kept secret’ and I had no idea what that meant. I was assigned to Korea in April but my son was due in June I think, so I asked for an extension of my stay in the States before being deployed and got it. It was 90 days after his birth, although I actually went [deployed] 30 days after his birth. He was born on the 13th of August and I went to Korea on the 22nd of September. Isn’t that interesting in itself? Vietnam and Korea both were in September and both were 12-month tours, even though Vietnam was supposed to be 13. It had something to do with Nixon; he was faking the downsizing and all he did really was bring home the (I think) 9th infantry division’s colors. And I was company clerk, this was Vietnam, and everybody who was 9th, I think it was 9th, I don’t remember (couldn’t have been 9th cuz 9th was when I was in Fort Lewis or, yeah ‘cuz I was…). Well, whatever division it was, everybody got reassigned to different divisions.
So one, there’s the war that was never declared a war but it was declared to have been over and wasn’t. Humongous lie and my complicity in that, even if it was unknowing, when I was in Vietnam… I used to do the paperwork as the Company Clerk [MOS 42L], re-assigning sole surviving sons from one war to another and not even knowing I was doing it. They were reassigning men from Vietnam to the second infantry division in Korea. It was somebody with a really clear sense of malice that took those kids who were supposed to be free from war and sent them to the war that nobody knew was going on, that was America’s best kept secret. Because of my job, I held a certain kind of resentment.
I mean, you’re in the military, you know, you do what you’re told and you know that some of it has moral issues attached to it, like killing people, but this one [job], it was just duplicitous. I didn’t like it; it was mean. And it surely wasn’t the spirit of the law. The spirit was that at least one child should have a chance to live and procreate and maintain a family line, and this was eliminating that change or at least putting it at risk. These are the thoughts of a young man. I’m 22 or 23 years old but it messed my head up.
So in Korea what happens is, first I see this gigantic secret, a hot war that no one knows is going on, and then in 1972, [South Korean] President Park Chung Hee declares Martial Law (20) and nothing changed for the military...
Now here’s the thing, why he declared Martial Law; the constitution for ROK [Republic of Korea] was modeled on the American Constitution (AC). The AC says that a president cannot be president for more than 10 years; two terms plus two is the max. Park had hit his 10 year mark so he declared Martial Law until the people voted for a change to the constitution that would allowed him a third term as president, do you hear the convolutions in this? And in doing that, first they had, of course, the right to bare weapons like the US, and so the first thing was to confiscate all personally owned weapons, and in that country everybody’s weapons were registered. So, confiscate the weapons.
Then on top of what was—in those days their skyscrapers, I don’t know, maybe 10 stories? On the top of those buildings were anti-aircraft guns permanently in place because they had a constant war going on with North Korea and implicitly with China.
So Park declares Martial Law, confiscates all weapons, brings tanks to sit on all bridges so no one can blow up a bridge. Has guns in placements that are on top of the buildings, uncovered, and pointing down towards the streets. We’re seeing all of this, and the highways: ya know how we have this nice green strip to separate the traffic? Well, theirs were removable, so any highway could become an airstrip if necessary. It was a country built on war. I don’t know what it looks like now, 40 years later, but at that time… Well that’s outrageous enough, but the other thing was nothing changed: we weren’t put on alert.
Nothing. Come and go as always. Come in and out of the compound any time we wanted, go in to Seoul and party, nothing changed. And here I was protecting democracy, which had just been essentially removed, and removed in the name of democracy. Removed so as to have a vote. I mean it was literally putting a gun to the head of citizenry to vote for a change in the Constitution. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, that really fucked me up. (laughs) Holy shit, what is going on here?
And then there was Mr. Yee. First, there was the very idea of Mr. Yee—that we had houseboys and the houseboys were older than us. And where I grew up, I knew what “boy” meant. So holy shit, the Koreans are boys, too. Houseboys.
The houseboys for $5 a month, so today that’d be maybe twenty, for $5 a month, they fixed our beds, they shined our boots and shoes, they shined our brass; if there was going to be an IG (Inspector General), they would walk through to see if we had our shit in order, so, foot lockers on display, everything on display in a particular way, your weapons on display … so if there was going to be an IG [coming through] the houseboy did it. They would even, and this is where it got outrageous for me, they would even iron our underwear.
Since I would sit around and read, Mr. Yee would engage me in conversation. Mr. Yee was going to college, he had I don’t know how many children, I think it was three children, but that’s a memory that’s forty years old now. But he had more than two. Going to college. Few children. He was far more educated than I was. And he started to talk to me about why I thought the U.S. Army was there. Of course, I said what I believed: we were there to protect democracy and it was what we were told, and told so many damn times we believed it. It would be okay if it were true. It’d be worth it if it were true.
The conversation went on for the rest of my time in Korea, at least once a week, sitting around talking to him. So, Mr. Yee is talking about imperialism and the like, and sounding a lot like my father. My father was very political and he would talk about—he didn’t use these terms because he was uneducated—he got an eighth-grade education with the GI Bill and then he decided to go to a trade school (auto mechanic school) instead of actually go to high school—so he wasn’t talking about imperialism and colonialism, but he was talking about imperialism and colonialism, and he was talking about racism. My mother would always poo poo him that he didn’t know what he was talking about. She wouldn’t use that language, but that was the implication, that he’s making a big deal out of nothing. My father also was the one who introduced me to the idea of racism, cuz when you’re in the midst of it you don’t see it; it’s just normal. So Mr. Yee is making me think of my father and then comes Park and really underscores what Yee is talking to me about.
All of that is happening at the same time and our purpose being there [in Korea] just didn’t register. It didn’t register in Vietnam either, but in Vietnam we just didn’t believe it could be about ideology. I mean, and it was, it really was about communism. Really, we’re gonna have people die over communism. It was about ideology. To me that’s fucking unbelievable, but there it is. But in Korea, it was just old-fashioned imperialism. It didn’t make any sense.
Korea was [my] awakening to the hypocrisy and the politics and the degree to which imperialism is alive and well, no matter how great the denial. And then my own work, the work I do [now] always connects—political economy, world systems meeting things like imperialism, colonialism, and racism—and those connections were made for me in Korea.
MG: I get that now.
VV: This is where I saw it. This is not theory for me, I have seen it.
MG: And so that was what you felt you needed to focus and hold on to in your career, rather than focusing on a small experience or shrouding it in military experience as other authors have? You wanted to focus on the heart of the issue?
VV: Yeah, on the systemic. And as far as horrors of war, I needed to stay the hell away, from that and in fact, I mean part of it. I don’t know. It’s hard to face what a person does. One of those things you learn in war is what the collective is capable of. Things you would never do. I see the riots, the race riots. I understand what happens. Once you get swept up in the collective mentality, and if it has some sort of connection to survival, you’re gonna go with it. Ya know? In this case, in the city riots, I’m thinking of Baltimore right now, we saw Ferguson and the like; fuck, I get it. It’s collective. You feel like you’re at risk. I mean you’re being shot. And I don’t know if it’s any different [than what I experienced in the military and wars].
But nevertheless, there’s something about writing about war. First, there are others that have done it really beautifully, including the beautiful, I’m thinking of Conrad right now when I say “the horror, the horror.” (21) Making that switch to that movie Apocalypse Now, that was the next to last movie I saw, and Full Metal Jacket. Full Metal Jacket actually takes place in central islands in 4th Infantry Division, Phu Bai during the first Tet. I was in the 4th Infantry Division (first of the 8th Infantry, Delta Company), just south of Phu Bai (a grunt during the second Tet). I could not go through that again. And that’s when I thought, this is not fun, I don’t want to watch movies to hurt, I watch movies for fun, and that was it. I started to watch Black Hawk Down and I said, oh, this is just pure propaganda. I don’t need this shit (laughs). So I never finished that one either… I haven’t watched any of the war TV series and I don’t read the war lit. So maybe here is the contradiction to everything above—ain’t over it; won’t deal with it, really.
So no, I couldn’t focus on the war, but what makes for war—that matters to me. It’s at least a conversation that ought to be happening, even if there’s nothing we can do about it, really. All of it, it’s all so damned absurd to me that I have a really hard time. I have to go to another level of abstraction.
That’s the answer to that. It’s just... I’ll do it this way: all three sides of the rhetorical triangle need to be in place. There needs to be someone saying something to someone, there needs to be a pathetic appeal, there needs to be a rational appeal as well as the credibility of the speaker, and part of how I established that credibility, that ethos, was by always attaching some part of it to the autobiographical. But the problem for me about writing about war, is that it’s pure pathos. I need to be able to move back a little bit and be part of logos as a part of it, that’s all.
All of these rationalizations are these conversations with you. I mean, I haven’t really thought about it…
MG: Because there’s been more important things to focus on?
VV: Bigger. Maybe a bit more important, but here’s another way to phrase it, because that sounds a little grandiose: I’m looking more towards causes than the particularities of experience. And this is also a theoretical and philosophical point: all viewpoints are based on experiences, so what you heard today is what got me goin’. I mean, Korea is everything. Korea was everything. Vietnam was just Vietnam, just fucking weird. Bizarre. Can’t believe any of that really happened. I do believe it happened, but it’s kind of still unreal.
Korea, holy shit, I mean it was at a particular age too, waking up, coming into adulthood. Korea was a mindfuck. I came back from Korea and it didn’t take long, it took about three years, Paula [my wife at the time] and me dissipated, I wasn’t the man… We came together, I went to Korea, I came back different. All kinds of differences. All kinds of differences. So much shit I didn’t care about anymore and so much new shit I cared about deeply. It was radical, and I couldn’t explain that in a paragraph [in my book] (22), so (laughs)…
MG: Well, thanks.
VV: I’ve said all of this before, I don’t write about it but I’ve said it all before. Thank you for asking and helping me play this all out.
MG: My pleasure.
VV: Feels good.
I waited four years to make this always-intended-to-be public interview public. What began as a chance in a million idea/email in 2015, turned into multiple exchanges, two of which I’d call actual interviews, one of which happened over email, the other via Skype. I say chance in a million because I was not one of his students. (23)
We didn’t know each other. I initially reached out to him over email during a conference we both attended in March 2015. He asked to meet in person for our initial encounter (to be followed by a “formal interview”). Most of our meeting occurred while in line for coffee. During our meeting, he laughed when I told him I would stop writing about veterans when we stopped having wars.
Nevertheless, the following week, I sent interview questions over email. He typed up all his responses and said he’d gladly Skype if I wanted an actual interview, which I did; mostly because his typed responses (actually) elicited elaboration.
Weeks after, in fits and starts, I began drafts of this interview to submit to journals. But I never got further than a few paragraphs. Then, on July 7, 2015, I sent him an email in which I called him out for rehashing some ideas—almost word-for-word—that he had published in his book Bootstraps. Looking back at this now, I can’t believe I sent this email. I can’t believe I hadn’t just taken him at his (written) word (as written in Bootstraps). Instead, it took me interviewing him, re-reading his book, talking to him again, re-rereading portions of his book, to arrive at the realization that—as I wrote:
You have written about your military experience and have not been "silent" about it. Which leads me to a second interpretation: you found a new mission after the military; a mission that was inspired in part by your military experience. Bootstraps outlines your mission as a scholar and teacher, which has not wavered in its focus.
He responded by writing:
I guess one’s truth remains one’s truth. I never meant to rehash what was already written. I haven’t re-read it in many years (maybe a decade, maybe longer). So I’ve forgotten some of what I wrote back then (21 years ago); and I’ve come to disagree with some of it (which is as it should be). But there is a silence, things I don’t talk about but remember vividly (more so now, it seems).
Here’s an anecdote, a recent one. A young friend/coworker and I have similar tastes in fun reading. She recommended a book: The Orphan Master’s Son. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. I tried and tried to like the book, to get into it. Just this Sunday, about half way through the novel, I decided I will never like the book and put it on the shelf, to be replaced by a mystery novel. The Orphan Master’s Son takes place in—and in most senses is about—North Korea. I think that was too close to reality (and the depiction of North Korean propaganda, as if South Korea or the U.S. is above such things) to be fun. The stuff just sticks, you know? So—no, I didn’t intend to rehash. It is what it is, I reckon. I really like what you say [about the new mission]. That really rings true to me. I think you’re right. Thanks for giving it words. Really.
I haven’t seen or written to Villanueva since that last email in July 2015. And still I struggle with our exchanges.
I didn’t share this interview previously because I wasn’t sure it was my right to do so. But the mission and scope of Collateral is precisely the niche I needed in order to share this interview. There’s a fog of war that leaves lasting consequences, many of which are, at face value, inexplicable. But with probing, along with time, patience, persistence, and hope, we—military and civilian—make sense and grow. It is not an easy, comfortable, or predictable journey. But it is one hundred percent necessary.
I understand now, in 2019, that Villanueva has found a new mission after his military service. His mission has been to devote himself to the study of race in the academic field of rhetoric and composition. He has carved that knack for himself and generations of scholars to come. The singular focus of this new mission is something that many military service personnel find and seek.
Some former military personnel find a new mission—a new way to contribute to society and history, aside from their military contributions and sacrifices. (24)
1. William Zinsser, “Writing About People: The Interview,” in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2006), 104.
2. Brian Baille, Collette Caton, & Rachel Shapiro, “Reflections on Racism and Immigration: An Interview with Victor Villaneuva.” Reflections: A Journal of Community-Engaged Writing and Rhetoric 8, 2 (2009): 197-208.
3. Donna Evans, “Some of it is Serendipity: An Interview with Victor Villanueva. Writing on the Edge 24, 1 (2013): 4-16.
4. Ellen M. Gil-Gomez, “‘For Rhetoric, The Text is the World in Which We Find Ourselves’: A Conversation with Victor Villanueva.” Composition Forum 25 (2012): n.p., https://compositionforum.com/issue/25/victor-villanueva-interview.php.
5. Victor Villanueva, Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1993.
6. Roger Thompson, “Recognizing Silence: Composition, Writing, and the Ethical Space for War,” in Generation Vet: Composition, Student Veterans, and the Post-9/11 University, ed. Sue Doe and Lisa Langstraat (Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press, 2014), 199-215.
7. Villanueva, 43.
8. Villanueva, xi, 51.
9. Villanueva, 67.
10. Villanueva, 43.
11. Villanueva, 62.
12. Villanueva, 49.
13. Villanueva, xiii.
14. Villanueva, 66.
15. Villanueva, 67.
16. Villanueva, 43.
17. Villanueva, 62.
18. Villanueva, 63.
19. Victor Villanueva, “‘I Am Two Parts’”: Collective Subjectivity and the Leader of Academics and the Othered.” College English 79, 2 (2017): 482-494.
20. The New York Times Archives, “South Korea Chief Orders Martial Law.” (1972, Oct. 18), https://www.nytimes.com/1972/10/18/archives/south-korea-chief-orders-martial-lawassembly-dissolved-and-all.html
21. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. (Project Gutenberg, 2006), http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/526/pg526.html.
22. Victor Villanueva. Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1993.
23. His published interviews (cited above) were all written by former students.
24. Near the end of Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose quotes E. Company member Ed Tipper, commenting on his fellow members’ "Postwar Careers.” Tipper wonders, "Is it accidental that so many ex-paratroopers from E. company became teachers? Perhaps for some men, a period of violence and destruction at one time attracts them to look for something creative as a balance in another part of life" (emphasis original, 306).