My television watching has been less and less these days, partly because there is really not much on worthy of my time, and partly because i keep some wild hours. But when i heard that PBS would be airing the Ken Burns series on Vietnam i planned to be there. Vietnam may be a distant memory of a war that ended almost 50 years ago… but to so many people who were touched by the war it is a palpable, emotional scar.
So I turned on the tv and sat there soaking in the images, and sounds, and listening to the stories, interviews, and commentary. Wow, Amazing how such a war has evoked such deep and profound response all these years later. So I had to ask why the emotions are right at the surface, so palpable. Why?
This was the first war that the integrity of the cause and the leadership began to crumble. It was the first war that we did not understand why our country was sending viable young lives to bleed and die. The greater cover story of fighting communism was a good one. It was the cold war, and we certainly did not want to see more of the war embrace an ideology so opposed from our own capitalist freedom. This was all occurring when i was in elementary school. I remember clearly some of those horrific images on the nightly news… and there was that one day when they zoomed in on a bonfire in the middle of a city street in Hanoi… and it was not wood – it was a Buddhist monk who set himself ablaze in protest for events within his country that persecuted the Buddhist minority. The dull din of the tv faded as i began to realize this was real, people were facing death. Then a neighbor’s boy was killed, and the officers came to the front door to tell the family… official military staff car in the drive, dress uniforms, white gloves, high gloss polished shoes… and the neighborhood realized one of their own would not be coming home, raising a family, living to old age.
Vietnam carries such deep scars. Some people still believe there was no good reason for being there, or for so many young lives to be sacrificed for a cause that is foggy. Others remember the deep anger and resentment they experienced when they returned home from the jungles of Vietnam. Met with shame and disgrace, these military people never received the recognition for service to their nation, and the unresolved haunts them. Others saw, or did horrific things that go with them always…. that friend killed next to them in a fox hole, or that village burned to the ground, or finding a baby that was napalmed, or the affects of Agent Orange.
This film has that unexpected emotional component just like the Vietnam War Memorial does in DC,,,,, on the surface it is just images of names, then you spot a note left, or a teddy bear, or something that you know has deep connections to that name engraved on stone. Then you find the name of someone you know…. and it hits you…. each name is a life lost. If you are in the deepest part of the trench you realize you are surrounded by 282,000 names. And you realize that most of the nation still wonders why they had to go, let alone why they had to die.
As a nation we have processed a lot of life since those turbulent years of the 1960s-1970s, but some things do not heal with time, and in fact they may never heal. The war itself has left us more cynical, more angry, less trusting of government or leadership and clearly grieved deeply about the bad and unresolved outcome our involvement with this nation brought. Ken touches so many nerves with the images, the interview, and the content…. much of which is still at the surface of discussion with friends that served in that war. Dare i say it feels like we as a nation still need years of therapy to move beyond the scars.
Ken Burns achieved his goal with me. He turned the focus back to the events, and voices of this part of our history. It causes the viewer to find ways to make peace with this part of our past. As a nation it is quite a challenging piece to make peace with. But we must.