Our Views: An invitation, finally, to talk about Vietnam

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Vietnam War lacks anything like Pearl Harbor or D-Day, a memorable date to invite Americans to contemplate Vietnam's significance and its veterans' sacrifices.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 and the frenzied evacuation of Saigon in 1975 evoke none of the patriotic feelings associated with the two world wars. Murky circumstances triggered the Vietnam War, while false hope fueled its escalation. As many troops discovered while patrolling through villages and jungle, even the enemy was difficult to identify.

Every war brings confusion and angst, though Vietnam's pain was unique and left Americans at a loss to discuss it. A code of silence, as some veterans describe it, has not only prolonged this pain, it has prevented the nation from learning Vietnam's most important lessons.

With the U.S. still embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and tensions mounting over the Korean peninsula, the Vietnam War remains as relevant today as ever. We need to have a dialogue, and we now have a reason. An 18-hour, 10-part documentary airing on PBS, “The Vietnam War,” probes old wounds but with an objectivity that invites the viewer to empathize with the film's subjects and resist a rush to judgment.

Produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the masterful series (available for streaming at PBS.org if you missed its airing) has also given local Vietnam veterans a chance to open up about their experiences, something Gazette columnist Anna Marie Lux elegantly captured in her column appearing in today's edition.

The code of silence discussed in the film was also part of local veterans' experiences. Anyone who mentioned his involvement in the war risked being alienated and met with hostility, as happened to Janesville Vietnam veteran Pat Riley upon returning to the states in 1969.

In Lux's column, Riley described telling a college teacher he had served as a Marine in Vietnam, and the teacher responded, “So, you're a baby killer?”

Many people today cannot fathom civilians treating veterans with such disrespect, and thankfully most veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are well regarded, though too often met with indifference. If we've learned anything about Vietnam, it's that the soldiers aren't to blame for carrying out the faulty polices and strategies of government and military officials.

“The Vietnam War” doesn't uncover new ground about the war's causes and failures of government officials. (Many books, such as Neil Sheehan's “A Bright Shining Lie” lay bare the missteps.) Rather, the film's greatest contribution is it unravels the war's complexities for Americans who might not have bothered to otherwise study Vietnam's significance. It offers perspectives from all sides—U.S. troops, their allies in South Vietnam and fighters from the North.

The viewer learns the Vietnam War was a tragedy built on fallacious assumptions—from the ideology justifying it to the strategy guiding it.

While young and inexperienced, many soldiers understood better than most government officials the war's fatal flaws. The May 1969 assault on what became known as Hamburger Hill came to symbolize the war's futility. The U.S. took the hill while inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. But when the U.S. abandoned the hill June 5, it left Americans wondering why 72 troops died (with 372 wounded) trying to capture it. What were Americans fighting for?

Not every soldier had a negative view of the conflict, but certainly the nation would have approached Vietnam differently had it known then what it knows today. Waging war is never easy, though some wars more than others are worth fighting.

A lingering question for some is whether Vietnam could have been won had it been fought differently, and an abundance of what-if scenarios offer varying answers. But there's no such thing as a do-over in war. We need to get it right the first time, and “The Vietnam War” serves as a blunt reminder of what happens when our nations' leaders get it wrong.

Let's heed the lessons.

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