06/25/2013 03:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Death of Innocence

Much has been made lately of the discovery of a short, silent, anti-war film called Mickey Mouse in Vietnam.

Made in 1968 by Milton Glaser and Lee Savage for the Angry Arts Festival, the reemergence of the film has become a cause célèbre for everyone from Slate to BuzzFeed to IndieWire to our own Huffington Post.

And while theories abound regarding the film's disappearance -- including rumours of a Disney-led campaign to "destroy every copy they could get their hands on" (not true) -- and its creation, the reality is better explained by Milton Glaser himself. "Well, obviously Mickey Mouse is a symbol of innocence, and of America, and of success, and of idealism," he told Brian Galindo of BuzzFeed, "and to have him killed, as a solider is such a contradiction of your expectations."

Vietnam was contradicting a lot of expectations in 1968 when Mickey Mouse in Vietnam was made, the fallout from the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh among them. But for me and a lot of other Vietnam vets there was a far greater symbol of innocence we believed was lost in Vietnam, namely Jerry Mathers who played the Beaver in the popular television show Leave It to Beaver in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

We all grew up with Beaver (Theodore) Cleaver, his brother Wally and his parents Ward and June. The Beaver's trials and tribulations and growing pains were ours as he -- and we baby boomers -- stumbled our way from childhood to adolescence.


Which might help to explain how devastated I was when I first heard the news about Beaver's being killed, first heard it in Vietnam of course, in 1970. "Jesus Christ," I remember saying, close to tears, "if they can kill the Beaver in Vietnam, then they kill all of us."

The reality was that our innocence, personified more by the Beaver than by Mickey Mouse, was killed in the Vietnam War. Even if we would survive Vietnam, we would never, ever be the same. As Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, once put it "Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods."

Without Google and the Internet, the urban legend of the Beaver's death in Vietnam persisted for years. It wasn't until the Beaver himself, Jerry Mathers, showed up years later, a lot older and a lot fatter, that we realized he wasn't dead.

But the myth continues, probably because we still mourn the loss of our own youth and innocence.

That's what wars do to young men, and now women, too. They make them grow up fast, grow old in a hurry. That's what Vietnam did to me and nearly 3 million of my peers, who would have preferred to watch reruns of Leave It to Beaver than be cast in the real-life action drama set in the jungles of Vietnam. "Ain't no time to wonder why," the old Country Joe song warned us, "we're all gonna die."