Some said we were killing commies for Christ, some said we were killing babies, some said we were killing civilians in a Sherman-takes-war-to-the-people style, some said collateral damage was to be expected, and some said we should be proud of what we were doing while others said we were supporting the wrong side.
Vietnam was the first war brought into our living rooms. Ken Burn’s Vietnam documentary has brought it back though some people say the war never left us even if we were born years after the April 29, 1975 photo was taken of an American helicopter at 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon evacuating civilians as the North Vietnamese advanced on the city. Some say we killed those we left behind.
Pro-Vietnam war and anti-Vietnam war Americans saw in this evacuation photograph a sad and sobering epitaph for the two million civilians, 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, and 58,200 Americans who were killed during the war. The picture smacks of defeat, though the U.S. was not defeated: it left Vietnam based on the 1973 peace settlement. Nonetheless, what happened in Vietnam seemed like defeat because our political and military objectives were not met and, in fact, were impossible to achieve. Much of the anti-war anger comes from the fact that as the United States sent in more and more troops, its leaders knew that losing the war (by whatever definition one chose) was a foregone conclusion.
Those of us who were against the war wondered, with singer Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,”. . . “how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”
There’s no point in rehashing the arguments here about whether we should have been there or not. I served two years and three months in the navy before leaving as a conscientious objector. The summer before joining the navy under the threat of being drafted into the army, I was in the Netherlands with one foot on the gangplank of a ferry that would take me to the safe haven of Sweden when I changed my mind and came back to the U.S. I regretted that for a long time. Burns’ documentary, which seems balanced to me, has brought back all the images and doubts and regrets and angers of those days of war and protest.
I’ve never felt comfortable saying I am a veteran, much less taking advantage of any prospective veterans’ benefits, because, while a pacifist, I still experience survivor’s by suggesting that I “fought” in the Vietnam War. I was on a aircraft carrier one hundred miles off the coast, a far cry from the terror and danger of those who served in-country. I was in Da Nang for only 24 hours as I flew back to the states for a change of duty assignment. I feel this guilt all over again as I watch Burns’ series.
Burns takes us back many years prior to the United States’ involvement, background which I think is necessary. He tells us that the U. S. initially supported Ho Chi Minh via covert ops in his fight against the French. I don’t think we knew that during the 1960s. He shows us images we want to forget. He makes us (well, some of us, I guess) wonder just what the hell we were thinking or if going there was really the right thing to do. Either way, we paid for it with a lot of blood.
Personally, I don’t think we’re past Vietnam as a country because we’re doing the same things again in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I know I might be wrong about all this, but I don’t see the point of it. Ken Burns’ series has added a lot to the discussion about military intervention and national policy even though I could have done without the memories becoming energized again.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “At Sea” based on his experiences aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger during the Vietnam War. His novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman” was nominated for a Readers Choice Award in the fantasy category. Click here to vote.