by Jodie Schull
“It's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down”
The Vietnam War is finally over. For a week and a half, I watched the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick PBS documentary on the war with awe and horror. The program presented everything we should have known about the war but were too afraid, distracted, preoccupied, or unwilling to ask.
For those of us who grew up in the late 1950s and early 60s, the Vietnam War was to be a defining life event. The walls of our elementary schools had photos of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. We said the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every morning and learned the National Anthem, “God Bless America,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and “America the Beautiful” in the music classes that were still part of a public school education. The seeds of future tragedy were there, although we couldn’t see them. President “Ike” warned of the military-industrial complex, made mighty by the needs of WW II, and he was visibly uncomfortable with the somewhat oily “Dick” Nixon.
The shadow of the Vietnam War loomed over the life of my generation—my high school and college years—yet what I knew about the war was mostly false. Important truths began to emerge for me last spring when I read three books by PCC visiting author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, English and Ethnic Studies professor at USC. Professor Nguyen came to the U.S. with his family as a refugee in 1975 when South Vietnam was engulfed by North Vietnamese forces after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer, about a young Vietnamese-French double agent, reveals for a western audience the story of the “American War” from the Vietnamese point of view. Nguyen’s academic nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies, provides further historical insights into the war years. His most recent work, a short story collection The Refugees, highlights the experiences of Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. after the war. Nguyen was one of the advisors who contributed to the new PBS documentary.
The Vietnam War will become a staple of the PBS line-up along with the many other excellent programs by Ken Burns. I recommend it highly although it is sometimes difficult to watch, with its detailed portrayal of the deaths of millions---soldiers in three armies and civilians who were only trying to live their lives while war raged around them. The behind-the-scenes revelations of political issues that drove the war are fascinating at the same time that they are truly horrifying.
Author Tim O’Brien appears in the program as an American veteran who lived to write about the war in The Things They Carried (1990). In his book, he speaks on behalf of all the fighters in a war that didn’t have to happen, "They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing--these were intangibles….” The program features the personal stories of participants in the war and their families: Americans, South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese.
Few Americans knew the real story of the war although journalists tried valiantly to bring the reality of it home. The Vietnam War portrays what the people in both the U.S. and Vietnam were told and how each society experienced the war. The music of the times---60s rock and war protest songs—provides the soundtrack. Works of artistry and genius like this documentary and the books of Viet Thanh Nguyen open our eyes and give us awareness of some very painful truths. Without awareness, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes that lead to tragedy for humankind.