“The Vietnam War,” the masterful 18-hour documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, will likely become---and deserves to become---the public touchstone for discussion and reference of that most contentious of our modern wars, Vietnam.
In its scope---presenting testimony from both the Vietnamese and the American sides---and in its depth---presenting, most importantly, veterans and their family members, as well as policymakers, journalists, intelligence officers, and members of the antiwar movement---“The Vietnam War” sets the gold standard in documentary. In organizing disparate materials---White House tapes, news articles, books---into a comprehensible overview, the film’s writer, historian Geoffrey Ward, renders another public service, as he did in the Burns films on the Civil War and World War II.
With respect, however, as a former protester, a “peacenik,” I submit that the portrait of the antiwar movement as presented in the film shortchanges the movement in its own scope and depth, especially its moral depth.
In short: We who protested saw early on that the war in Vietnam was a lie and a fraud and, being a lie and a fraud, it was morally wrong. Thus, given the war was morally wrong, the object of our anger was not the soldier being sent to this benighted war, but the leaders responsible for committing us to it and keeping us in it: presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The film gives the impression that calling a returning vet “Baby Killer” was par for the antiwar movement; in the last episode an activist tearfully apologizes, as well she should. But the rest of us---most of us?---rather than disparaging the soldier in Vietnam, we grieved for him.
We grieved, because it meant that soldiers being sent to a lie of a war would become killers for no valid reason. Of course we understood war is all about killing, but some wars are valid and some, not. Many of us, students at the time, had fathers who fought in World War II, a valid war, a good war; we knew the difference, and Vietnam, as clearly as we could see anything in our young lives, did not qualify; in fact it was a desecration. You did not have to be a priest or a philosopher to see, down the road, that a soldier who killed for invalid reasons would sooner or later pay with his soul. Souls would be defiled, corrupted; a lifetime of moral suffering would be visited on the surviving vet. Stop the madness!
Proof, of the most sorrowful kind---testimony to injury of the soul---was provided late in the film as the veterans speak of their return home. Tim O’Brien recounts finding himself in a peace march---and feeling, finally, some measure of peace for the first time since he shipped out. Bill Ehrhart and John Musgrave, on seeing the soon-to-become-iconic photo of the dead student protester at Kent State shot by the National Guard, both describe breaking down sobbing---and joining the antiwar movement; Musgrave contemplated suicide. James Gillam laments the loss in Vietnam of “the civilized version of myself.” One who left the U.S. for Canada, Jack Todd, despite a lifetime being called “coward,” clearly grieves giving up his American citizenship. None spoke of their soul per se and its damage, but it was implicit in their sorrow.
Which is why this protester cried out to the television, repeatedly: “That was why I protested!” Would that you all had been spared this damage to your souls.
In the shattering coda, as Tim O’Brien reads from his brilliant short story, “The Things They Carried,” and we watch the vets, American and Vietnamese, whom we have come to know intimately, listening to O’Brien’s majestic words---“They carried the weight of memory”: Their faces are pained, some haunted. The protester cries out again: Would that you had been spared the memory, the pain, the haunting.
Also haunting: the soldiers who did not come home. Who can forget Denton “Mogie” Crocker, who grew up during the Cold War hating the Reds and was so eager to join the fight against the Communists in Vietnam that he ran away from home to force his parents to sign his enlistment papers; who soon after enlistment evinced doubts about the war to his beloved sister; and who, in a letter from Vietnam to his best friend just before he was killed, revealed despair, saying he had become an atheist. What is that but the loss of a young man’s soul? Would that Mogie had been spared.
Earlier in the film, antiwar leader Bill Zimmerman claims that, as the war widened and the draft widened in parallel, the antiwar movement became less a moral protest and more a “self-interested” one. Not so; for many of us it remained always a moral protest, which, yes, bled over into self-interest, as we did not want to see our brothers or friends called up to kill, or be killed, in an immoral war.
Throughout the film, the imagery of the antiwar movement tends to feature, shall we say, the more fun-loving of our number, with footage included of the Woodstock bacchanalia and Jane Fonda’s outrageous antics in Hanoi. As the war wore on and some protesters unwisely resorted to violence, forgetting peace was the whole point, the media, always drawn to the bright shiny---and noisy and violent---object, focused on this element, rather than on the serious protesters; the film goes there, too. (Activist Zimmerman does acknowledge finally that a “strategy of violence” was wrong. Somehow he is the only protester included in the film’s coda.) It should also be noted that, as the war wore on and news of troop involvement in drugs and fragging increased, more and more older adults joined the students in protest.
The film does present one serious protester, Eva Jefferson Paterson, who was a student organizer on her campus. She is shown doing respectful battle with Vice President Spiro Agnew on TV---Agnew there to argue for the righteousness of the federal crackdown on student protesters and Paterson there to push back, and winning, by making the point that young people, “your children,” are being turned into things to be afraid of. Paterson, I submit, represents the majority of the protest movement.
For many of us student protesters, the Vietnam War was the first time we protested anything, the first time we argued seriously, and righteously, for anything, but we had to, because Vietnam was a matter of life or tragic death, of body and soul. Some arguments with family and friends caused breaks that never healed. Still, it is with no exultation that the antiwar protester is vindicated by this documentary, with nearly all participants involved on-camera agreeing that, in the final analysis, the Vietnam war was a “failure.” I wonder if this film, so comprehensive in scope and depth, convinced any pro-war advocate.
Also damaged by the Vietnam war: America itself, its soul. As noted several times in the film, that damage has never healed. We still argue about who is a patriot and if protesting official policy makes one unpatriotic. We still are heedless (see: the Iraq war) of a lesson Vietnam absolutely should have taught us: that a war’s premise must absolutely be so sound, morally as well as geopolitically, that it justifies the troops’ suffering or death. And, tragically, loss of faith in government stems from this era. As veteran John Musgrave notes, his was the last generation to believe their leaders. As veteran Karl Marlantes notes, hardest to stomach was the lying.
All these thoughts, and the same angry sorrow I felt during the Vietnam era, were stirred up again over the two-week span this film ran. (Actually, I feel again, in this era of President Donald Trump, the same angry sorrow.) But the film also presented new information, most notably the Vietnamese point of view: Both North and South finally considered the war a tragic thing, ending, as it started, in bloody civil war for national liberation. On the American side, it is devastating to hear, on White House tapes, the lack of feeling for the troops expressed by Johnson or Nixon or their advisors: So often the war was prolonged---and the troops’ suffering prolonged---because an election loomed.
Strange, too, to hear on tape that both presidents, fed junk intelligence by F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, discussed us protesters as Communist-inspired. Such belief was par for Nixon, but sad coming from Johnson, who’d had the heart to enact the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but this misperception of the antiwar movement was another blind spot in his tragic fall into an impossible war. Both presidents could not recognize a moral crusade when they saw it.
(Several years ago I visited a childhood classmate, our class funnyman, who was dying of cancer. He had served in Vietnam and he wanted to talk about the war, finally. “It was awful,” he said. A medic, he described his role: “All I did was gather body parts and put them in body bags.” “I am so sorry, Bob. I was trying to bring you home, by protesting, marching.” “I know you were, Carla. Thanks, really.”)
To conclude: In its comprehensiveness, “The Vietnam War” should serve as stimulant to debate and education. Studied carefully, this film could help us connect the dots from one tragic era to our own, with the objective of mitigating more tragedy. The film’s great asset is its talking heads, especially the men who fought and suffered.
Again, it is with respect for this masterpiece that I file this protest on behalf of the protester. Ultimately, one wants one’s moral purpose understood. Many of the soldiers interviewed in this film, in going off to Vietnam, expressed a purpose that could be defined as moral: to stop the spread of Communism, to serve the nation, to replicate the valor of the World War II generation. (Tragically, it was the war itself that was morally lacking.) As the film plays out, and as the veterans speak from their deepest experience, we see and understand the moral journey they took. The conscientious protester, who also took a moral journey, asks the same consideration.
Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”