Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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.]