A lot of buzz is occurring regarding Ken Burns and the upcoming 18 hour exploration of the Vietnam War on PBS starting Sept 17. I will certainly watch it, although reading some of the comments per a Washington Post article on it being designated must-see TV, the younger generation of today seem a bit tepid on the topic. Vietnam? What’s that? Ask an uncle or grandparent, eh?
A number of Vietnam veterans opine that actually being in the war, the program can’t provide any insights upon those who were there, fighting it. I can respect that. As a veteran of the Vietnam era, somehow never shipped over to Vietnam while serving in a M.A.S.H. unit training for many months for just that purpose, I absolutely have an intense interest in Burns’ attempt to provide an insight or two upon which to chew. While the 27th Surgical Hospital did finally get sent to Chu Lai, up near the DMZ between North and South Vietnam I, along with a few others, were kept stateside owing to our being barely a few months away from the end of our two-year active duty obligation (I was drafted). It was a surreal swirl of emotion watching most of the 90-some other surgery techs and other medical corp personnel lined up, duffel bags bulging, soon to be marched onto buses that would be the first leg of their several thousand mile journey into the jungles where the war, already several years long and no end in sight, awaited them.
While I felt relief that day, I have come to feel some hazy guilt about not remaining with the unit (should I have demanded to be sent, short-timer be damned!) even if I’d only have a relatively brief encounter in-country before the end of my active tour of duty date would arrive. Besides the “should have gone,” in the ensuing years (decades now) I began sensing that, in some counter-intuitive way, I was unwittingly denied that select, direct exposure to this tumultuous war–thus now possessed of those first-person insights–into a conflict for which Burns’ film tries to make sense of all these decades later. Would I have somehow–existentially?–been better for it if I had gone? Would I have been wounded (surgery tech/combat medic duty as needed) or possibly now been stone dead for nearly 50 years? Or even if I came out of it physically unscathed, would that rock and roll war have rendered me a unrelenting and unregenerate drug addict filled with contempt for what we all now should realize was an absurd waste of human life?, fought seemingly for reasons having nothing to do with protecting the American way of life, that modern-day meme used to justify deploying our current all volunteer military. Would I have debilitating PTSD? Would I be even more cynical than I am currently?, and I mean I am VERY cynical about a lot of life-at-large without having left for Nam with the 27th way back when. Vietnam, though never seen directly during my active duty is, regardless, an indelible part of my life.
I do hope the film is watched by all generations. It appears to be a sincere attempt to understand what, for many, will always be an incomprehensible, significant part of U.S. history, part of a turbulent era when assassinations of a President, a presidential candidate, civil rights activists both non-violent and militant-minded, the nascent women’s movement, and the ultimately influential and quite divisive anti-war movement all transpired. For those who did the fighting in Vietnam, following orders meant to assure victory (though it didn’t) who when arriving at stateside airports and in public settings who were reduced to social pariahs to be cursed at and accused of being “baby killers,” rather than in the facile fashion of today wherein all our troops are considered warriors or heroes, this is a film that might just explain the whys of not just then but now. As in, right now.
I doubt it will settle the controversy of the Vietnam War. However, by pursuing it from participants from both sides of the conflict, it might possibly teach all of us, of any generation, why war is always hell, and why no war ever really ends, even after the fighting does. It’s called history. The past, as some say, can be a prelude to the future. For better or worse.