Great thanks go to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for their 10-part, 18-hour PBS series on “The Vietnam War,” whose concluding episode aired last week.
In what could easily have turned into a polemic on a controversial, undeclared war, they presented an historical framework beginning with the French colonization effort and ending with the ignominious U.S. withdrawal, spaced over a half-century of turmoil in the country.
Against that backdrop, the producers artfully weaved battle scenes, peace talks and interviews with government and military officials, along with veterans and civilians – from both sides – who related their very personal experiences dealing with the war.
Also interspersed with the talking heads were excerpts from classified U.S. documents and tapes of presidential conversations that shed light on what motivated our political leaders to push for body-count ratios and seemingly senseless military offensives resulting in the slaughter of too many American lives.
The series also depicted North Vietnamese political leaders willing to sacrifice thousands of their soldiers to push out American and South Vietnamese forces.
We were reminded how America propped up a corrupt South Vietnamese regime, how U.S. generals (eerily reminiscent of Civil War Gen. George McClellan) continued to prod Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon for more and more troops in the face of stern resistance by the North Vietnamese, how Nixon sought to derail peace talks until after his election – thereby causing more needless deaths.
After we got our troops out, the military dumped boatloads of weaponry into the country and told the beleaguered South Vietnamese to defend themselves. You know where those ended up.
In a final irony, the Russians and Chinese – who had aligned themselves with the V.C. during the war – turned on their former ally.
There was more about the widespread anti-war demonstrations in the U.S., Jane Fonda’s infamous visit to Hanoi, the killings at Kent State, the uproar at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the conviction of U.S. Army Lt. James Calley Jr. for the My Lai massacre of ’68, the impact of Agent Orange and the mistreatment of returning U.S. veterans, how North Vietnam.
Interviews with some U.S. vets – including one POW – revealed the horrific internal struggles they faced, both “in country” and, later, stateside, as they grappled with conflicting emotions of pride in country, anger and guilt.
It’s a lot to absorb – particularly for millennials who had no direct connection to the terrible events – but even for those who lived through the craziness,
The series had a lot of resonance for me: I was in Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., at the time the war was raging and, luckily for me, I drew a high draft number – I remember, it was No. 345 – plus I have flat feet – which disqualified me from serving.
Had the Army ended up taking me – assuming they could’ve found a uniform for someone my size (about 5 feet) – I have no doubt they’d have deployed me as a tunnel rat in ‘Nam to search for the Viet Cong.
During my time at Lafayette, I was a reporter on the school paper whose editor was head of the local Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter, an ultra-liberal group, which was planning an anti-war rally on campus.
I tried reasoning with him that he couldn’t be objective as a journalist on the one hand while advocating for a political cause on the other. He conceded my point and then told me to cover the rally for the paper. I did and I recall that the marchers got pelted with water balloons by some of the more rambunctious campus conservatives. I remained neutral.
Our senior class graduation (June 1970) came on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia – the opening of a second front, in effect, in the Vietnam Conflict – and many of us seniors (me included) wore white armbands as a protest gesture. Like so many other actions on other campuses nationwide – including the unrest at Columbia University in New York – it was a futile effort.
As a sometimes stage actor in community theater, I had an opportunity to appear in a Jersey City-based production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1982 with a fellow actor named Bob Perrilloux, a Vietnam vet who had lost both legs in combat. He used prosthetics to get around. He never complained. After his surgery, he wheeled around to other recovering vets to keep up their spirits.
Now there was a true hero.
And me? I was worried about forgetting my lines. Me of the flat feet that kept me out of war. And alive.