I watched the last episode of “The Vietnam War” last night and was glad I was home alone. The section about The Wall finally drew the ugly sobbing that had been welling inside me while I watched the other nights of the broadcast.
Thank you, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, for this 10-part documentary that took 10 years of your lives to create. Thank you to the sponsors who must have donated a gazillion dollars just to get official permissions to use some of the most soulful contemporary music ever written in our county. Thank you to PBS. I’ll be donating more than the pennies I’ve been giving in the past.
I watched and waited to see certain images and stories I had heard from veterans. I never saw them. But I’m not here to complain. There aren’t enough 10-year spans in the world to squeeze every account into a film.
What Burns and Novick did was amazing. Because of their interviews, we get living room-intimate, heartfelt stories from U.S. Vietnam combat veterans, one who fled to Canada and another who wished he had, North and South Vietnamese warriors, American and North Vietnamese women who served, peace movement leaders, journalists, a South Vietnamese woman whose sister served in North Vietnam, people behind the scenes of U.S. and North Vietnam war efforts, politicians on both sides, grieving family members from our country and Vietnam, and many more.
What Burns and Novick achieved is a masterpiece.
I could write 10,000 words why, but instead I’ll focus on the future. I’m an American, so I’m pragmatic. How can we use the wisdom in this amazing TV series? It gave us the chance to relearn what we had forgotten, to learn secrets we never knew, and to ponder how all of that touches us today.
How can we use this TV series to make our world better? A few reflections . . .
· Wars have long shadows. Many years ago, I knew a large family whose father served in Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange. Every one of his children inherited a different bad effect from the father’s exposure. In a recent year, one of my friends buried her brother who died from effects of Agent Orange. There is an online Agent Orange Vietnam Veterans Memorial “in memory of our veterans and their children we loved and lost because of Agent Orange/Dioxin or physical and emotional wounds as a result of their service in Vietnam and to their country.”
There is help for veterans who suffer from the effects of Agent Orange/Dioxin as well as from post-traumatic stress disorder, what we used to call “Post Vietnam Syndrome” and what had other names in other wars. There are suicide prevention efforts.
· Politicians lie. I won’t say they all lie. I want to believe that there are 50, or 45, or 30, or 20, or maybe 10 honest humans in politics. But “The Vietnam War” exposed the international scope of brazen lies, the cold-blooded self-interest behind them, and their grisly results. When my daughter asks me why I don’t hate Trump for some of the things he says and does, I tell her, “I used up all my presidential hatred on Richard Nixon.” It’s true. I could feel my hate in the place under my jaw where I’d have gills if I had gills. It was deep in me. It consumed me. I see no purpose in my hatred then or now; it only hurts me. As Neil Young sang, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.” Politicians lie. There must be a way we can deal with them without hatred burning us up.
· People can work together even if they don’t believe the same thing. John McCain suffered gruesome wounds and torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He has gone on to lead our country as a Republican senator, consistently working with Democrats on controversial issues. He ran for President and lost. He recently bucked his own party because of his convictions on health care, voting while sporting fresh sutures in his head after brain surgery. If our country - and democracy - is to thrive, we must find ways to work together, in politics and in everyday life.
|John McCain with stitches|
· Civil war strikes a sword into the heart of our country. That is how it felt during Vietnam. That was the war I felt at home, fighting every day with my dad about what was going on “over there,” fighting with other young people about it. I can never compare my hardship to the suffering of warriors and their families, or to the abject misery of Vietnam civilians. But to me, the civil war Stateside was agony. I feel agony again today about the sharp divisions in my beloved country. I believe we can come together. As A.J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” If you put peace as the first principle, everything falls into place. There are many efforts in peace education. I was involved in The Ulster Project, which helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland after centuries of conflict. There are many other efforts at peace education around the world.
· Peace begins at home. Peaceniks can get pretty high-falutin’. If I really want peace in the world, I have to start in my own family, in my community, in my workplace. Peace starts with my own big mouth. Dang it’s hard.
· The dominoes did not fall. Probably the main reason that intelligent people wearing pinstripes or hard hats backed the Vietnam war was deep fear that Communism would take over the world. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened us with words that have been translated, “We will bury you without firing a shot.” He warned that the American working class would rise up eventually and embrace Communism. That did not happen, and the Soviet Union crumbled under itself.
· Can we compare the Islamic State to Communism? The communists didn’t launch an attack on United States soil like violent Islamist terrorists did on 9/11. Communists may have had cells in our country and across the world, but they did not proceed with the gruesome, deadly attacks that we see nearly every week from ISIS. Communists were not known for mutilating and subjugating women. Communists were not known for brainwashing or forcing developmentally disabled people and women into being suicide bombers. My grandma was paranoid about Communism. I am afraid of violent Islamists. I don’t know what can bring peace to people who seem to have no rationality and who are driven by a fervor they consider religious. But I do know that Communists were determined to bring Communism to the world just as Islamists are determined to create a worldwide Islamic State. Someone smarter than I am may have a new idea for dealing with them other than bombing them into oblivion. If they are in cells everywhere, bombs won’t work anyway, will they?
· When you jump into a quagmire, you get stuck. Vietnam was a quagmire. A snake pit. Use any analogy you want for the disaster it became – a civil war aided and abetted by outside interests. Northern Ireland had been a quagmire of sectarian fighting since the 16th century. But we didn’t jump into Northern Ireland. They solved their biggest troubles, and continue to work on them. The Middle East is a quagmire of age-old sectarian violence. I think we are stuck there. Is there a way out? Smart people need to discard their differences and work creatively together to find the way.The Consistent Life Network is a nonsectarian, nonpartisan organization that opposes war and violence of all kinds as a sort of "seamless garment."
Here is one peace organization in the Middle East. There are probably more.
Here is one peace organization in the Middle East. There are probably more.
The Baha'i Faith has an inspiring outlook on world peace.
· Journalism is a life-saver. If it hadn’t been for gutsy journalists, many of whom died in Vietnam, the public never would have known what was really going on. Journalists exposed the truth behind the lies and helped to end the bloodshed. Thank God for journalists who fight to keep us informed. They make my love grow for my country, for our precious freedom of expression, for our precious democracy.
· Peace movements have power. Nixon became isolated in the White House. The demonstrators wore him down. Returning Vietnam veterans threw away the medals they had won for valor and wounds. They helped wake up the public to the lies and the disaster. It took years, but the peace movement, like the journalists, helped to end the war.
· In war, civilians suffer the most. Until I watched “The Vietnam War,” I never imagined how much the civilians suffered in Vietnam, how many millions of them died. I think about the refugees created by today’s wars all over the world and especially in the Middle East. It is for them that I write this piece.
· There is no way to peace; peace is the way.
Gail Grenier is the author of Don’t Worry Baby, Dessert First, DogWoman, and Calling All Horses, all available at Amazon.com.