I watched Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s10-part documentary “The Vietnam War,” told in large part from the vantage point of the American, North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and South Vietnamese (ARVN) foot soldier. It was powerful, poignant and heartbreaking watching these brave men and women recall through tears the memories that still haunt them every day of their lives. Even the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers – the “victors” – still wonder what it was all for.
The brutal fact remains that more than 58,000 brave young Americans died for nothing more than the wrong-headed notion that, if Vietnam fell to the Communists, it would be the first in a series of “dominoes” to fall in Asia. Later, as we heard shockingly and chillingly on audio tape, the amoral President Richard Nixon (and his cynical adviser, Henry Kissinger) plotted twice – four years apart – to actually prolong the war for political reasons. Listening to those tapes made me sick to my stomach.
▪ 2,709,918 Americans served in Vietnam (including 7,484 women)
▪ 58,220 Americans died
▪ 303,704 were wounded (incl. 75,000 who were severely disabled)
▪ An unknown number of “walking wounded” – soldiers who suffered PTSD
▪ 2,338 were missing in action (over 1,800 are still unaccounted for)
▪ 3,000,000 approximate number of Vietnamese people killed
What is the meaning of all this? What was the point?
When I was 16 years old, I participated in marches to end the Vietnam War. Shortly thereafter I had a religious experience. I became a Conscientious Objector for religious reasons when I came of draft age. That means I went before the draft board with two elders in my life who testified on my behalf and I received C.O. status. I would have gone, but I would not have carried a gun. Nonetheless I was 19 years old and shaking in my shoes when I heard the announcement on television that Nixon had abolished the draft in 1973. The relief I felt was beyond words. Countless times since then I have thought of how my life would have been different had I had to go.
My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II in a rifle company that was decimated. He never recovered from the experience – even though WWII was considered a “just” war (certainly my view). He spent the rest of his life trying to cope with his experience by numbing the pain of recollection with alcohol. We had no choice but to stand up to Hitler and fascism, and thank God we did. Brave young men gave their lives for a cause worth fighting for.
Vietnam was different. It was an elective war. And it is time we were honest with ourselves about it. It is time for a national discussion about the war so that we might learn what we can learn from it. So that in the future, we don’t sacrifice our brave, precious young people on the other side of the world without just cause. If we had had this discussion earlier perhaps we would not have recklessly sent our service people into Iraq (4,487 killed / 32,226 wounded) and unleashed ISIS on the world.
More than anything, I hope that the Ken Burns documentary helps us focus, perhaps truly for the first time, on the soldiers who did their duty and gave their all in service to our country in a very unpopular war. It is long past time that we honor these brave men who are in their 60s and 70s now and tell them: thank you so much for what you did for us. Even though our leaders were misguided, your hearts were true.