“The Vietnam War”
Facing a deadline, I was only able to watch the first six episodes of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part series, “The Vietnam War.” Regardless, it is a poignant, historical masterpiece that relives a misguided military adventure that took the lives of more than 58,000 young American men.
Given that I graduated from college in 1969, the film retells a tragic story that many of us personally experienced. Though I had a draft deferment based upon my student status, I faced a likely induction if I passed my physical. I, like many, adamantly opposed this military conflict, but I had a low draft number and I wasn’t about to flee to Canada as many other protesters were doing.
Though I was stunned to pass my physical given the fact that I only had accurate vision in one eye and as a result suffered from a depth-perception problem, I am proud to say that I won my appeal, which helped determine my application to law school. Unlike President Donald Trump’s ability to use his connections to dodge service based upon non-existent bone spurs, my physical affliction was genuine. Nonetheless, I found little comfort given the fact that 1968 brought us Martin Luther King’s death in April, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in June and the election of Richard Nixon as president that November. To make matters worse, more American soldiers died under Nixon than had perished under Lyndon Johnson.
Beginning with an exploration of how the United States labored under the mistaken belief that we were fighting communism, Burns gives the audience a first-hand look at what was taking place in Vietnam and our country. While any fair analysis made it quite clear than Ho Chi Minh simply wanted to unite his country under one government, we opposed him on the principle known as the domino theory. In other words, if we did nothing, we would acquiesce to the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
Burns clearly exposes that our country was not only wrong, but engaged in a political propaganda program to bolster support at home. Even though the government of South Vietnam was corrupt and lacked support of the populace, we expanded a war to include more than 550,000 American troops by 1967. I still remember watching TV each night where our government tried to justify this mindless adventure on the basis that more Vietcong were killed than Americans.
But let me be clear that this film does not take any particular political side. To the contrary, it simply tries to give an accurate account of what happened that allowed our country’s leaders to justify this terrible struggle. While Gen. William Westmoreland continually preached that peace was just around the corner, we baked much of the country under a cloud of napalm and Agent Orange while dropping more bombs on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos than were dropped on Germany and Japan in World War II.
What brings this film home is its interviews with soldiers who fought in Vietnam and the families who lost loved ones. Many of these young guys enlisted to nobly serve our country only to find out how they were profoundly misled. That became clear after the Tet offensive in 1968, Walter Cronkite’s rejection of the war in a famous commentary and LBJ’s announcement that he would not run for re-election.
Scene after scene will leave you aghast, none more so than when you watch American bombers wiping out North Vietnamese villages. Houses burned while women and children died, leaving you to condemn yet understand their harsh treatments of pilots held in custody such as Sen. John McCain.
In watching this film, I was reminded of the respect shown to most American presidents through John F. Kennedy. While they faced criticism, each one of them went out of their way to make sure that the American people were not misled by their government. That ended with the Vietnam War, and every president since then has been treated like a second-class citizen by a significant percentage of the American public.
Vietnam was the cause because our government lied to its citizens. Burns’ documentary demonstrates that important fact, and no attempts by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to embrace a mea culpa in a later book will ever excuse the harm he and his cohorts inflicted on our nation.
While the 1960s are still criticized by some pundits as the lost era of sex, drugs and rock and roll, they miss the point. Many of us were college students who faced the real possibility of our government sending us to death in a foreign war having no purpose, and most of us never forgot that experience. Think of the emotional impact emanating from the killing of college students at Kent State in 1970 and you will understand. Like a number of NFL players today, many of us still want to kneel when we hear the national anthem.
Two years ago, Monica and I went on a two-week cruise that covered Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Despite still suffering tremendously from the ongoing effects of the bombs and poisonous toxins dropped on the country, Vietnam is making tremendous industrial progress. Surprisingly, despite what Americans did to the Vietnamese families and landscape, they embraced us on friendly terms at every location.
Trump should learn that important lesson centering on forgiveness while he tries to ban Muslim and Hispanic immigrants from entering our country.•
• Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis at Pence Hensel LLC as of counsel. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.