I have forgotten a lot about the Vietnam war, but I remember the utter absurdity of it, that at times reached the level of madness.
Like the summer of 1967, when my army artillery battery was dug in with Marine infantry and artillery at Gio Linh, a hillock of dust, mud and sandbags just south of the DMZ, that strip of land wiped clean of plant life by our country’s use of the now infamous Agent Orange. We took incoming, day and night – Russian rockets fired from in and around the DMZ. One day a Marine forward observer spotted a suspected Viet Cong in the cleared area, and we opened up, round after round of artillery, chasing the man about like wicked school boys after a frightened rabbit until he vanished, we assumed blown to bits. Later that day, badly wounded, he crawled to the entrance to our compound, begging for medical help – as it turned out a poor Vietnamese farmer caught in the war.
I returned to the madness of that war recently by watching Lynn Novick and Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War, a stunningly rendered and wrenching journey into that fated era and the hearts and minds of those who endured it. As I expected, my emotions ran high. I am still trying to sort them out.
As in their previous films, Burns and Novick are masterful in their use of photos and footage of the war to set its historical context, but it is their narrators, their survivor-witnesses, talking under the eye of the camera, who bring the story home. The intensity in the speaker’s faces, their voices intoning both strength and sadness, grab hold of you and will not let you go. “Hear this story,” they say, “all of it.” And you listen.
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It is the people who did not have the power to change or stop the war and who had to endure it – the soldiers on both sides and their families, the civilians who suffered, and others who in one way or another faced the huge moral quandary of it – who are the heroes in this tale that bleeds beyond the last rolling credit into the lasting consciousness of the viewer. If you lived through that era, it is as if ghosts have risen from your past, smacked you in the face, then taken you gently by the hand.
The film’s sadness is lightened, especially toward the end, by the courage and spirit of the survivors as they tell their tales of war and self-healing. Humans endure, and many of those in Novick’s and Burns’s film have found a way to reach a sort of timeless half-peace by bringing their pain from the past into a more nurturing present: “You see what the war left us with,” they seemed to say, “but we are still here.”
But the two emotions that cling with me most after watching the film are anger and fear. How could one not be angry at the men who got us into that war and through their deception and lies kept us there – not just the individuals like Johnson, McNamara, Nixon, and Kissinger – but their entire mindset, referred to by one commentator in the film as a deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance? They reinforced their ignorance with a system of lies they fed both to themselves and the country. And armed with their false self-assurance and fulsome certainty of the U.S.’s might and its right to control the destiny of other nations, they arrogantly pursued a war they could not win, even after they knew they could not win it.
And then comes fear, that shadowy companion of the battlefield, that stood at my shoulder and grew larger and darker the more I saw of the film. But this time my fear was not so much from the memories of Viet Cong rockets and rifles as it was of those dark forces in the American psyche that came through the war unscathed, and the fear that at some future time and place they will drag us into another national horror like Vietnam.
I applaud Novick’s and Burns’s effort to portray some measure of healing and reconciliation at the end of their story, but I am not reconciled to the Vietnam War and do not plan to be. If we achieved anything in Vietnam, it was an historical lesson in the grief we brought upon ourselves by our own folly. That lesson has been largely ignored by the ignorant and arrogant men (and some women) who at one time or another since the war have set our international policy, most notably the unrepentant group of hawks and Vietnam draft dodgers who marched us into the disastrous war in the Middle East, costing (so far) millions of lives and trillions of dollars.
The strain of that fatal mindset runs straight from Westmoreland and McNamara, through George Bush and Dick Cheney to a frightening number of the people in charge of our country today, including a president who knows nothing of war or suffering or the deadly hubris that causes it. The Vietnam War is still being fought in the lives of those who endured it, and all one has to do is to look at our current administration to know that the armies of ignorance, arrogance and folly march on.
I named the Vietnamese farmer my comrades and I tried to kill in the DMZ “Dong Ha,” after our base camp south of Gio Linh. Sometimes now he runs through my dreams, but in them he soon becomes me. I wish us both peace.
Walter Bennett is a writer living in Chapel Hill. From September 1966 through September 1967, he served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army’s First Battalion, 40th Artillery in I Corps, near the DMZ.