On a recent flight to Huntsville Alabama, I sat next to a young career Army officer who mentioned that a lot of GI’s returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, and showing symptoms of PTSD, don’t want to talk to therapists who haven’t seen combat. Their reason? The therapists can’t possibly treat a malady without understanding the condition that created it. And they can’t understand it unless they were there.
Now that the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary, “The War in Vietnam” is airing on PBS and national commentary has mushroomed in countless print and media outlets, I can feel the low moan, the weary “Oh, shit” muttered into the indifferent air, by anyone who, like me, was around at the time: It was all too crazy, too brutal, too senseless, too caught up in a swirling abyss that seemed to envelop the whole country and leave it with a massive morning-after headache of pain and regret. Can’t we just let it go?
The more interesting question is: Why can’t it let us go?
Generations have filled up the census rolls since Vietnam and the ‘60s—I’m reading now about the attitudes of Millennials who have no knowledge of what it was like to live in the age of the Cold War and its background hum of Mutually Assured Destruction (appropriately tagged with the acronym MAD). There’s been the Reagan Revolution, the Clinton Expediency, the hi-tech revolution, the savings and loan crisis, 9/11, the sub-prime mortgage crash of ’08, globalization, the Obama years, the fat-cat international corporate state and the average Joe trying holding on until the next payday while hearing it about identity and gender. Fox News. The Culture of Complaint. You name it.
Behind it all, the ghost in the machine, if you will, is Vietnam. It still whispers of geopolitical power, epic violence, race, campus unrest, street demonstrations, attacks on and by the press, and angry factions yelling past each other. And yes, there’s the push for equality and justice, access to education and the voting booth, the sanctity of liberty and law, and the urge for truth to power. The formful sentiments and even a lot of the vocabulary are still with us, but they began with the war in Vietnam, which went from a skeleton crew of army advisors in the mid-to-late 50s to division-sized troop deployments, Cavalry and Special Forces units, helicopter squadrons, and supply and command bases the size of cities, all in place by the mid-60s.
By then the news about the futility of both American military operations and political strategies began to reach the increasingly fretful Johnson administration and the ears of Hometown U.S.A., along with a rising number of body bags. Grief and consternation began boiling over into rage and the spooky sense of the war flaring up at home, as if Vietnam and the U.S., sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, all fed off the same deranged power grid.
It’s virtually impossible to fault anything about the Burns/Novick documentary’s nobility of intention and thoroughness of reportage, which includes film footage—among other things, Vietnam was our first televised war—and plenty of commentary from writers and reporters; military figures from both the Vietnamese and American sides; political history from all factions and the story of Vietnamese conflict going back to 1858; a macro view threaded with heartbreaking personal stories; the mounting wreckage of the Johnson presidency and the physical toll on the man himself. The figure who set out to eliminate racism and poverty in America became the most viciously reviled man in modern history.
“The War in Vietnam” depicts the emotional and physical agony of men in combat as well as the horror, desperation and ruin of civilians caught in the conflagration, made more ghastly by depiction of the country as a magical Shangri La inhabited by a graceful, gentle people, albeit bent on national unification. And it doesn’t stint on the damage done when those in power lie to the public, or the steadfast American ignorance of Vietnamese history and culture. (The mind of the average grunt never saw them as anything other than “dinks” and “slopes.”)
But there are other forms of examination of, for want of a less pretentious term, the American condition that are beyond the film’s scope. After all, when Auden wrote, “Mismanagement and grief/must we suffer them all again?” he wasn’t writing about Vietnam but the beginning of World War II. War has been a feature of human experience ever since homo erectus first got on his feet. But the American promise has been founded on a rock of loving peace and freedom, a spiritually fervent city on a hill. Still, our literature reveals something else in our character, the flight from civilization in Natty Bumpo, the metaphysical conceit of Ahab (“I’d strike the sun if it offended me”), the American soul described by the intuitive Brit D.H Lawrence as “hard, isolate, stoic, a killer.”
“You honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” wrote Michael Herr in “Dispatches,” which definitively caught the lunatic mix of the horrible and gut-wrenching Vietnam of “mad colonels and death-spaced grunts.” “Few people ever cried more than once there, and if you’d used that up, you laughed; the young ones were so innocent and violent, so sweet and so brutal, beautiful killers.”
I know who they were; I still keep the roster of fellow recruits who made up my Marine Corps platoon in Parris Island, November 1963, two weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I know who the guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are too, though I’ve never met them. I understand the benefits of therapy, of easing the nightmares and panic attacks and getting people to function again in the World. But if you concede that the political is personal, then you’d have to go one further in allowing the personal to be private. Silence is a form of freedom, sometimes the only refuge one has left. You have to be careful about asking a person to give it up.