“The Vietnam War”
Ken Burns and his team are consummate storytellers. His latest project is no exception.
I am old enough to remember well the war, but, fortunately, too young to be among those called up. Not that I would have been anyway with my eyesight.
I still remember when the war invaded my consciousness as a young boy. We lived on Marshall Street just outside of Denver at the time, so it must have been 1965 or 1966. Images of what I guess now may have been the battle in the La Drang Valley splashed across the TV screen.
Years later, when I was 17 or 18, I had a long conversation one night with Gene, the brother of Debbie, a high school girlfriend. He had been to ‘Nam, experiencing battle in the highlands of Vietnam, mostly as a door gunner in a Huey.
He told me of the first time he killed someone. He described how suddenly he was face-to-face with a Viet Cong soldier. A kid probably no older than he.
“For a moment we just froze, staring at each other,” he said. Nobody wanted to die. Nobody wanted to kill. But this was war.
I realized it was either him or me.” So he shot him.
Riding the horse
In order to cope, Gene started using heroin, readily available in the battlefield. He told me years later how he re-upped for a second tour just to stay close to the Horse.
Gene survived, cleaned up, got married, had a child, and started a career. So many others were not so “lucky.”
Everything is so much clearer in hindsight, but watching this documentary series and remembering my conversation with Gene all those years ago makes me wonder how we could have ever thought our engagement in Vietnam was a good idea. How it could have ever served our national interest.
By the time the war crept into my awareness through images on a screen, the war was unwinnable, and many knew it. But they kept going. More troops. More bombs. More napalm. More death, with no end in sight.
The cold war raged, of course. “Containment” was the overarching foreign policy of the day. Except it didn’t work. Finally, in 1975, fully one decade after I became aware of the war, Saigon fell to the communist regime of North Vietnam.
And yet, just 14 years after that, communism itself fell.
What if we had not sent a half million men to Vietnam? All the dead and wounded. All the shattered lives. The blood and treasure of a nation squandered.
There are many lessons in history. If we choose to learn what they have to teach.
Image credits: manhai, courtesy Flickr