A Call to Congregations to Heal the Moral Injuries of the Vietnam War

The eighteen-hour Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary “The Vietnam War” premieres September 17 on PBS as an exploration of all sides of the conflict. Will it help us, finally, to process the legacy of that terrible war? Perhaps.

We must take this chance to integrate the traumas of Vietnam and heal the old, still-festering hidden wounds in the body politic, which still infect our civic life. The current polarized, vicious politics echo what my generation lived through in the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon years that began with the Cuban Missile Crisis and ended with the desperate, ignominious Saigon airlift.

Phrases like “God Bless America” entered our civic discourse as a hollow piety uttered by President Nixon in the wake of three million Vietnamese dead and 58,000 Americans coming home on body bags as a sign of “peace with honor.” As people died in Vietnam, those at home grieved the assassinations of President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy.

To avoid the war, some young men turned to self-harm, half-truths, an education they didn’t really want, exile in Canada, or even flat out lies and deception to avoid conscription. After initially supporting the war, many religious groups eventually turned against it, but not before many of my generation sought out drugs and spiritual options such as Hari Krishna, Transcendental meditation, Buddhism, and Yoga, and avoided “organized religion.”

We have yet to come to terms with those tragic years. Vietnam broke trust in government, politics, the military, civic engagement, religious institutions, and the media. Religion scholar and Congressman Walter Kapps in his 1982 book, The Unfinished War: Vietnam and the American Conscience, suggested that one of the lingering legacies of Vietnam would be cynicism and mistrust of public institutions, a loss of civic engagement, and a turn to personal, individual pursuits and solutions to life. And Kapps foretold what we live with today as the collective moral injury of that war.

Understanding how war belongs to us all is a counterintuitive move in a society that teaches us that the highest good is personal ambition, that service is one more achievement to attach to a resume for admission to a top university, that what we earn is the measure of our success or failure, and that where we go in life is up to us with the sky as the limit. A society with these values has shallow transactional relationships and hands its young the sad mess of pottage called personal success. Are we surprised that depression is an epidemic, suicide rates are rising, opium addiction is killing so many, and the fastest growing religious affiliation is “none”?

We are not meant to be alone and lonely. We are in fact, social animals who need others. We are made for love: fierce, deep, difficult—and utterly necessary—love. But to sustain such love, we need courage, wisdom that can tolerate failure and imperfection, and compassion for the human struggle with conscience.

We, especially those of us who still belong to religious congregations, must ensure no one has to watch this series alone. We must invite our Vietnamese, Hmong, and Cambodian neighbors and our whole communities to watch with us, so everyone has a chance to talk about their own feelings and to listen deeply to the suffering that so many carry. The country threw an entire generation of veterans away after Vietnam and mostly ignored the refugee communities that fled to our shores. Two-thirds of those survivors have died, so we will not have this chance again.

The deep wisdom of every religion, often unheeded or ignored, is deeply moral. Religions know that people suffer when we fail their deepest moral values; that grief, guilt, shame, and remorse can wreck a soul; and that our communities benefit when we can bring people back to themselves more whole. So let’s get serious about what we know, and let’s offer our wisdom as a gift to all—not as a way to convert them to be like us, but as a way to support everyone in discovering our own deepest resources for recovery. If we do, I believe we can light a path out of these disheartening, poisonous times and work toward a better, wiser future for ourselves, our diverse neighbors, and our communities.

I will prepare a set of tips and guidelines for how to create moral injury conversations and share them here in a few weeks. There is also an opportunity for deeper training in moral injury recovery strategies using art, music, narrative, ritual, and mindfulness at an intensive seminar in Princeton that runs from 5 pm September 10 to 9 pm September 13, the week before the series premieres, to help people organize successful conversations.

In hosting open-hearted conversations, we have a chance to heal the legacy of polarization, mistrust, and deep anger that lingers from Vietnam and relives itself in the polarized politics of our time. By helping us all lay down burdens of suffering, we open the possibilities of healing not only to survivors but to all of us who are the children of that war. We have a chance to reclaim strong communities and a commitment to the common good. If we take this chance and guide people through the kind of sharing and listening that healing moral injury requires, we will all be changed—for the better.

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