WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

What is it good for …

My wife and I have been watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS series on Vietnam, reliving the grim. Every episode sits in my belly like a spiked ball, forcing me to recall and regret (on behalf of our country) the errors that contributed to that nightmare.

Fortunately for me I was too young to be drafted when the war still involved Americans. In fact, South Vietnam fell in ’75 shortly after I turned eighteen. I had dutifully tried to get the forms from the high school office to register for the draft (dragged there by some other guy), but the lady behind the counter said, “Oh, aren’t you guys adorable. No, you don’t have to do that anymore. It’s all over and done with, the draft.”

I’d been a peacenik all through high school, putting together numerous special projects about the peace movement and how come we can’t all just get along. I looked like a hippie, but more importantly I believed in avoiding war at all costs. It seemed to me that WWII had sold us a bill of goods, that, by golly, if we all just buckle down and work together to defeat the enemy, why, we will prevail because, gosh darn it, we’re the greatest country on Earth! It didn’t work out that way in Korea, though. And since Vietnam we’ve been handed our asses a few times by people who were defending their homeland from us. We are still trying to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan in a way that makes it seem like we didn’t lose that war. It’ll take quite a bit of hocus pocus and make-believe to pull that off.

But in the PBS series you can see every step of the way that the errors are going to compound until we’re forced to abandon the cause. The North Vietnamese people interviewed seem like earnest patriots. They were doing what they had to do. Most of our soldiers didn’t know why we were there.

The American vets are plagued with ambiguity about the whole thing. A couple of them in the series are especially poignant as they describe the things they had to do, and endure. And many confess that they knew we were losing that war as early as 1966. An army memo from that time admits that 70% of the motivation for being there was to avoid a humiliating withdrawal.

I was a kid through most of it, riding my bike, playing pick-up football and baseball games, fishing, running around like an idiot, standing on my head obsessively, talking like Donald Duck. My first realization that something bad was going on out there was when some kid came to school wearing his father’s black jacket with the multicolored map of Vietnam on the back (just like the one in the photo). The kid told me his dad was lucky to be alive, but I couldn’t understand why. My family wasn’t big on nightly news.

But by 1970, I was keenly aware of protest. ROTC buildings getting torched. Kent State. And my dad was no longer in the house to steer me away from the anti-war side, and my hair started growing, and I listened to Jerry Rubin on the Mike Douglas Show with John Lennon and remembered, vaguely, Chicago and Tet and I realized that my entire childhood had taken place with the horror of Vietnam offstage.

Those of us of a certain age have revisited the war many times over the years, from Apocalypse Now to the 1983 PBS series, Vietnam: A Television History. And then, as now, the protesters are blamed for a large portion of our failure, as if calling out a wrong can ever be wrong, as if standing up for innocent civilians (Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis, Palestinians) is somehow evil. It killed me in a recent documentary about Kent State to hear red-blooded white Americans wish aloud that all the students there had been shot. We hold precious in this country our freedom of speech, unless you fail to go with the belligerent flow in wartime and cast doubt on our government’s noble goals.

Or you fail to see that our government itself is evil, when the opposition is in control of it.

Or you question the myths, the motives, the manufactured heroes.

The tragedy I take from this new series is not that we lost Vietnam because some Americans didn’t believe in the mission. It’s that we haven’t changed in fifty years, that half of us can hate the other half, or, as Werner Twertzog recently put it, A third of us watch as a third of us kill the other third.

Now we have a man-child in the White House, picking fights with other countries as if we can wipe the floor with them, should they give us any grief. It’s clear he’s not watching The Vietnam War on PBS.

As I get up there in years, I tell ya – the ironies are getting to be a little too painful.

[Top image by Hu Totya via Wiki Commons. Jacket photo via army.mil.]

25 comments on “What is it good for …

  1. islandeditions
    September 28, 2017

    Reblogged this on Books: Publishing, Reading, Writing and commented:
    I’m reblogging this post by another author whose work I admire, Kevin Brennan, because he is also standing up and speaking the truth. And I agree with what Kevin says here 100%.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 28, 2017

      Thanks a lot, Susan! It’s a discouraging feeling to see history repeating itself … over and over again.

      • islandeditions
        September 28, 2017

        As it ever was, and so it shall continue … unfortunately.

  2. islandeditions
    September 28, 2017

    Dennis began watching this series, but is waiting for me to return to Bequia in two weeks and we will watch it together. Thanks for writing this, Kevin.

  3. Tim Baker
    September 28, 2017

    Amen, Alan. I was also in my youth doing stupid kid stuff with the war in the background, but I happened to befriend one of my school bus drivers in high school who had been there and over the course of rthe school year we had many conversations about the ugliness of war (any war) and how blind faith is the most dangerous thing we can give to our government.
    Excellent post!

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 28, 2017

      Thanks, Tim. I liked your take-a-knee post yesterday too. I think the blind faith thing is really the most destructive and tragic element in all of this. What ever happened to an informed citizenry?

      (I’ll tell Alan you said hi. 😉 )

  4. theshammuramat
    September 28, 2017

    Reblogged this on theshammuramat and commented:
    The question is will we destroy the planet and ourselves before we evolve into something worth keeping?

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 28, 2017

      Thanks for the reblog! I agree completely, that we don’t seem to be evolving in a way that will improve our situation on Earth. It’s gettin’ scary!

  5. kingmidget
    September 28, 2017

    I haven’t watched the series. I was 11 in 1975 when it ended and, honestly, I have no recollection of the war or the protests, but given its historical significance I know plenty about it. And you’re right … the unfortunate aspect of all of this is that we haven’t changed at all. Your Americans who thought all of the students at Kent State should have been shot are the ones who now believe the protesting NFL players should be fired (and if you listen to them in the quiet of their own homes, they’re probably whispering about thinking they should be shot as well). There is this significant chunk of America who believes America might means America right. I can’t stand it.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 28, 2017

      Right on, about the NFL Americans now. That vein is still in our culture, and I don’t think it’ll fade for a long time.

      Believe it or not, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh yesterday (for all of four minutes!), and heard some caller say that Trump says the things that “we” have had to say privately for “the last eight years at least.” He is our voice, the man said.

      There’s a lot of misplaced anger out there.

  6. Peter Wells aka Countingducks
    September 28, 2017

    I’m a similar age to you, although from the UK but a lot of what you say has echoes for me. I remember the Vietnam war real, although it all seemed a bit distant to me but the Iraq war, which I think was a reckless and very poorly thought through adventure of doubtful legality, in the UK certainly, is, I believe, at the root of many of the ills threatening our world today including ISIS and the manic desire of the nutcase in North Korea to acquire nuclear missiles so his country can’t be crushed in the Iraq was. Troubling times indeed. Thanks for this great thought-prompting article

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 28, 2017

      Thanks for reading, Peter. I’m glad it struck a chord with you. And I agree that Iraq (and Afghanistan) feel a lot like Vietnam in that the mission is vague and corruption is lurking under everything. When our leaders lie to us, this is what happens …

  7. patriciaruthsusan
    September 28, 2017

    Good post. I was in college from 1963 to 1967 and I sometimes wonder how many of the guys in ROTC were shipped to Vietnam and came back handicapped or didn’t make it back alive. That tragedy was repeated in the fighting in Iraq. I wonder if we’ll ever leave Afghanistan. It seems we’re stuck. Now two leaders seem to be trying to start an, even more, dangerous war in Asia. We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. —- Suzanne

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 28, 2017

      I don’t understand why national leaders believe that going to war solves anything. Unless their motive really isn’t to solve a problem but to profit, preserve self-interest, help allies retain power, etc. etc. … Oy!

  8. amreade
    September 28, 2017

    Thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 28, 2017

      Thanks for reading! It’s a never-ending story, I’m afraid, isn’t it?

  9. Audrey Driscoll
    September 28, 2017

    I think the “military-industrial” complex needs to have an actual distant war and the threat of an attack on America to keep itself going. Remember the term “peace dividend” when the Cold War ended? Wouldn’t want all that money going to education and social services instead of weapons, would they?

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 29, 2017

      It sure does seem like a racket, doesn’t it? We develop new weapons all the time and need real-life laboratories to test them out.

      I do recall my optimism when the “peace dividend” was being talked about it. Didn’t last very long …

  10. S.K. Nicholls
    September 29, 2017

    I am appalled by our leadership and citizens more and more each day. I keep thinking, “I just don’t belong here anymore.” I could speak volumes, but nobody listens. Nothing seems to matter. It is such a sad state of affairs. I was friends with so many who saw their brothers come home in body bags. I recall saying a prayer thanking God that I had no brothers. My husband’s father defused bombs in Korea, then retired from the military to Ecuador where they lived another 3-4 years. He then came to Sarasota, FL. So, my husband missed out on the whole anti-war movement. But even as a 7 yo child, I can recall my mother singing and waiting tables in an Atlanta cafe on Peachtree Street. She could not afford a sitter, so we three girls hung out with the hippies on the lawn and made signs…”Make Love Not War” and colored rainbows and birds and flowers on poster boards while they braided flowers into our hair. By the time I was 17, I was living on a commune. I wouldn’t change a thing about my childhood. Sometimes I think some weird things….like there should be a war on American soil for no other reason than to educate.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 29, 2017

      Thanks for sharing your story, Susan. I had to smile at the image of you girls playing with the hippies, and it made me think of how protest got associated with hippies. Makes you wonder how America would have responded if it saw protesters mainly as clean-cut young men and women who didn’t do drugs and smelled like Dial soap …

      I do think the U.S. attitude toward war is skewed by the low risk of a real attack on this country. Even though 9/11 was an attack, is wasn’t like sustained warfare. We have no idea what that’s like, and I have to think we’d have a different viewpoint if it were possible or had actually happened here.

      • S.K. Nicholls
        September 29, 2017

        MY husband was talking last night about a potential war. He works for Lockheed Martin at the bomb factory and his position is that if we don’t build the better bombs the bad guys will. But he insists that we will not need to see war on our soil to have an apocalyptic outcome, because the bombs that could be used have so much nasty fallout that the entire world would suffer a magnitude of catastrophe the likes of which it has never seen if things actually do get down and dirty between any two nuclear enemies.

      • Kevin Brennan
        September 29, 2017

        I’ve been worried about that, out here in California. Something tells me nuking North Korea wouldn’t be good for us here … 😱

  11. Ilona Elliott
    September 29, 2017

    Gosh that was hard to watch and re-hash and yet if we want to be informed, we have to be prepared to handle some hard truth. I just kept thinking through the whole thing how deluded everyone who orchestrated that war was–on all sides. It’s heartbreaking how Politicians send young men with their whole lives ahead of them off to die while they sit in their offices strategizing and worrying about elections and saving face. Makes me want to scream. I see the same delusional mindset on so many of my fellow citizens these days, especially with regards to N. Korea, and it’s damn depressing. Sometimes I think we are totally screwed Kevin.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 30, 2017

      Totally screwed does seem like a pretty likely outcome, doesn’t it. I don’t know. I’m a natural optimist, I guess, but I’m not seeing a lot of possibilities for things improving these days. Sigh. 😐

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