The legacy of the Vietnam War belongs to all of us. I dare anyone to watch the Ken Burns and Lyn Novick documentary series and not feel the frustration, terror and sadness of that war. It is estimated that more than 3 million Americans served in Vietnam, of which 58,220 were killed, 1626 missing in action, and 303,644 wounded. It is those folks who lived the experience, up close and personal, while the rest of us saw in on televisions each night, had a friend or relative serving there, or witnessed our country tearing itself apart from the inside over a war that defined the 1960s, and left a deep scar across our culture. More than 40 years after the last Americans left the country as it fell to the communists, the discussion and memories of that war continue to scratch at wound that never quite healed. While Vietnam means something different to each of us, it is still a shared experience. Here’s what it means to me.
As a pre-teen, the war was a puzzle to me. Growing up in the later years of Cold War, the threat of communist domination and thermonuclear war was something driven into us from our earliest memories. We practiced sitting in the school hallway with our heads buried under our crossed arms to help us survive nuclear war. We believed that the godless communists were ready to march down Main Street USA at the first chance. As a kid, I believed what I heard on television, what our politicians said, and even the conversation around the family dinner table. The war in Vietnam led to some heated discussions in my own house and galvanized my own political views and my worldview. I heard more than once, “Oh, to be young and idealistic.” Those words stung because of the dismissive nature linked to age and lack of relevance.
In the next couple of years, antiwar protests were more visible, and not just kooky peaceniks, leftwing radicals and hippies, but an increasing number of mainstream Americans, people like my neighbors. For me, it is impossible to separate this war from other big changes happening in our country – civil rights marches, the war on poverty, the evolution of popular music, and the generation gap. All pretty confusing stuff for a young teen.
It was not surprising for a generation raised on John Wayne films and this image of the hero coming to the rescue of those in need, to feel a sense of duty to fight a communist threat, because we all knew about the domino theory. Vietnam today, Mayberry tomorrow. I too, felt some of those urges. I’ll admit, it was a mixture of fascination and fear, a very dangerous combination for a young man going through puberty. Raised on Westerns and World War II films, this was a powerful attraction.
Skip ahead several more years and that fascination with war was gone, even disappearing from my taste in films. My views on a lot of things changed. The generation gap swallowed me up. Assassinations took people I admired. The music got louder and I began to question everything. I had a cousin who served in Vietnam but I don’t remember hearing anything about his service. More on him later. My brother-in-law joined the Navy, serving his time stateside, in a faraway place called Providence, Rhode Island. I appreciate that he did not go overseas. That is about as close as I got to the war itself, other than the daily body counts on the evening news, and not understanding the scorched Earth being left in every community by average people trying to deal with it.
When I was in high school I remember a young man who moved to my town to performance community service because he was a conscientious objector to the war. I never met him but read about him in the newspaper. In 1893, the confederate guerilla group Quantrill’s Raiders burned my hometown as part of a border war. More than a 160 men and boys were killed. While many would label the town as very liberal, it has always been a mixture of conservative and progressive views, and in the 1960s, these diverse views were at odds. This young man became a source of conflict between those who wanted to embrace him and those who wanted to run him out of town. I don’t know the specific circumstances but I read that he soon left town, too much resistance.
In 1975, as North Vietnamese soldiers were closing in on Saigon, overworked helicopters took the final Americans and some lucky South Vietnamese from the rooftop of the American embassy to waiting aircraft carriers. There were so many people on the deck of the carrier that last helicopter was pushed overboard to sink helplessly into the ocean. Incredible images.
That same year, I turned 18 and as required of all young men, I registered for Selective Service. There was no war and no draft, but the obligation remained, at least for that moment. I don’t know what happened to that Selective Service card, maybe buried in old papers but probably long ago discarded.
Through the years, Vietnam remained in the background of society, by choice, usually as a harsh lesson. It took time for attitudes to change. One of the first things that began to heal the country was the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. The design was controversial and did not please many. Not long after it opened, I happened to be in Washington for a conference and I was fortunate enough to spend time at the Memorial. It was like being a cathedral, the silence and sense of respect was overwhelming. I did not know a single name on the wall but I watched for hours as people searched for names and then traced them on pieces of paper. They left flowers and other items close to the etched names of their loved-ones. Hundreds of strangers were united in their grief. Some of them still trying to bring closure to their loss, just as the country was for the 58,220 names on the wall.
Skip ahead thirty years. My older sister told me about a book where my cousin was interviewed about his Vietnam experience. I got a copy of the book. My cousin Peewee, survived the war but not the experience of living with the war. As a kid, he was a bit wild and not afraid to try most anything; he was perfect for Vietnam.
“Go to Vietnam, do my part. Be an All American Boy. Come home to apple pie,” Peewee said in his interview. He grew up watching Westerns and his hero was Audie Murphy. “I couldn’t wait to get there. My job was to kill. I killed. I don’t know how many I killed. I never took time to count.”
When Peewee returned home, life was anything but normal. In his interview, my cousin talked about how being in Vietnam changed him. He knew he had anger issues and he thought about how easy it would be to kill others, including himself. His mother pleaded with him to visit the VA to get help. He did, but he gave up on them, particularly when he learned that his spleen was three times the normal size and his liver was being eaten away by something they couldn’t diagnose. He died of what was thought to be related to Agent Orange, but back in the 1980s any connection to Agent Orange was just a theory. He was an Army Ranger and he spent time prowling around the jungles that were being dosed with defoliant. He went into underground tunnels, often alone, in search of the Vietcong and any papers or maps indicating enemy positions, tunnel locations or troop strength.
Many things in his interview bothered me deeply, like throwing live prisoners from a helicopter and the killing of civilians. “My job was to kill. I killed.” He served three tours and his final discharge was an undesirable discharge for going AWOL, not in Vietnam, but from duties as a training officer in California. Life in the new Army made no sense to him. Life after the war made no sense to him. I have read his interview several times recently, trying to make sense of his story and the family environment in which he was raised. While not exactly Ozzie and Harriett, it wasn’t an abusive or dysfunctional environment. He talked about how his parents weren’t particularly nurturing or showing of emotion, but many families are not. I can’t make sense of this behavior, but I was not there. I didn’t go into the recon missions, crawl through the tunnels, see my buddies die next to me, or feel the pressure to ratchet up the body count. None of that provides any justification; it just makes the story sadder and harder to put the entire Vietnam experience in perspective. I think about Peewee whenever Vietnam is mentioned.
This is not about whether Vietnam was a just cause or a huge waste of lives and sacrifice. Like each of you, I have my opinion. Rather, this is about how difficult an experience like Vietnam is for generations to understand it, to put it in proper context, and to learn from the decisions that led to war and escalated it to a troop strength of over 500,000 soldiers. Vietnam engulfed America and the reverberations from that war, while less, still ripple through our culture.