If you haven’t watched the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary “The Vietnam War,” I hope you will. It’s long and often depressing, but I think citizens owe it to themselves and to the country to watch it. And owe it to those who paid for the war in blood and death, and to those who loved them.
Even if you’re old enough to have lived through and remember the so-called “Vietnam Era,” the film will likely inform you in ways in which you could not have been informed before. Not that you’ll know everything when you’ve watched it all. The war fought near the DMZ was not the same as the one fought along the coast. The war in the Central Highlands was different from the one in the Delta. The war fought one year was not like the war fought the next. So it isn’t easy to present all the pieces in a unified manner. Still, the overall production is about as complete and integrated as one could hope for. And the action and the music bring back old memories for many.
Of my many Vietnam memories, one I often recall and that came back repeatedly as I watched the documentary, took place not in Vietnam, but in the United States. As I inspected guards walking their posts one evening on a stateside installation, a young recruit, a draftee, answered my questions and then quickly began questioning me. Nearing the end of basic training, he was desperate for reassurance about his future, and all his questions were really variations of just two: How likely is the Army to send me to Vietnam? And how can I keep from going? The typical discomfort of a recruit addressing a field grade officer was washed away in the tide of his obvious dread and fear. He was desperate.
I tried to answer his questions honestly and at the same time reassuringly. Not everybody would automatically be ordered to Vietnam, I told him. We still had other areas to keep supplied with troops. Not everybody who went to Vietnam ended up in actual combat. And most who did, if they stayed alert and practiced what they were trained to do, came through okay. As for how to keep from going, I had no advice on that one.
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There were things I could not know at the time, else I would have found it far more difficult to reassure him without lying. I could not yet know that, over the course of the entire war, the U.S. Army would provide 67 per cent of the troops who served in Vietnam and would suffer 65.6 per cent of all the deaths of U.S. service members. Most of the deaths, typical of ground warfare, were Infantry soldiers. Thus a young draftee, trained as an Infantryman, might be sent elsewhere than Vietnam upon graduation, but not very likely. And would have more than a limited chance of being killed.
I could also not know then, and could not have looked him in the eye if I had, that his leaders in Washington had already concluded among themselves that the war could not be won. Yet they would continue, both Democrats and Republicans, to feed young Americans into the hopper to be ground up, maimed, killed. They did it, they said, so America would not look weak. And also, they said, in order to win the next election. This went on for years, so somehow they must have been able to sleep at night.
Finally it would all end, and despite everything, America would look not only weak but also dishonorable, leading one to ponder whether it might have been more cost effective to go ahead and look weak at the beginning, and no more dishonorable then than later. And thereby save more than 58,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives. But perhaps the cost in lost elections would have been too high.
If that young recruit walking guard went to Vietnam, I hope he got through it all without losing his life. Or his faith in his government.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”