After watching the last episode of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” documentary, I feel compelled to find some overarching lesson that can be taken from it and applied today. I suspect many others who watched the program feel likewise. If there is one thing I got from the 10-night series, which chronicled the archetypal “quagmire” of modern times, it is the overwhelming sense that we as a country must learn from this massive mistake. Failure to do so would redouble the war’s tragedy many times over. Learning from it is the only hope of even a modicum of redemption for the past as well as of protection for the future.
Born in 1968, I was alive for much of the war, but was too young to think about it while it was going on. I knew it was bad, something people shook their heads over with sadness and disgust. That much was obvious even to a young child. But by the time I was old enough to reflect on such things, ‘Nam had the same feeling of being part of the “distant past” as WWI and II. It was a subject for movies and history books. It was not compelling to me personally.
Burn’s work finally brought the reality of the war home for me, at least as much as the reality of any war can be brought home to someone who did not experience it. What I mean is, it made the war extremely compelling to me personally. It allowed me to grasp how misguided our country’s involvement had been. It made me feel intensely for the (mostly) young American men and the Vietnamese of both sexes and all ages who died in huge numbers, often horribly—and so unnecessarily. The soldiers’ bravery and willingness to fight and die, even for a bad cause, moved but also deeply troubled me. The dishonesty of so many of the American politicians enraged me. The war atrocities disgusted me. The hippy protesters back home managed to both inspire and irritate me. The sheer futility of it all boggled my mind. I often had to remind myself that these were true events. How could anything even half this crazy and stupid have actually happened? But it did happen, and it went on for a long time.
The war was wrong in many ways, so there are many lessons to take from it. But what jumps out at me is a single question: Is the way America operates today significantly different from the way we operated back then—the way that led to such ridiculous wastage of life? I am no political expert, but it seems to me that we are still a global behemoth with massive financial interests—entanglements, really—all over the world that our political and economic elites feel compelled to protect at almost any cost; and that we still live in the myth that we are uniquely and unambiguously virtuous, even though we often act like thugs and criminals on the world stage. So I am concerned that yes, we still live in a way that makes unjust wars virtually inevitable. We also seem to keep electing leaders who are severely “truth-challenged.”
We can wring our hands all we like. We can analyze endlessly. We can swear up and down not to repeat past mistakes. But if we continue to live the same way, then have we learned the crucial lesson of Vietnam? It would be extremely hard to change a way of life as complex and entrenched as ours, but the Vietnam War tells us that not changing is sure to be even harder.
I wonder what documentary will be made decades from now about the war in Afghanistan?