By John Henry, Mike Kimball, Michael Peterson, Michael Carrigan, Guy Maynard and Carol Van Houten
Beginning Sunday, Sept. 17, PBS will present a 10-episode, 18-hour documentary, The Vietnam War, by noted filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
Coming 50 years after a pivotal year of escalation of both the war and the anti-war movement, the filmmakers say they hope the documentary will serve as a catalyst for long overdue reconciliation and healing of the deep divisions that war created among Americans.
“The seeds of disunion we experience today, the polarization, the lack of civil discourse, all had their seeds in Vietnam,” Burns told the New York Times.
The U.S. war in Vietnam has indeed left deep wounds, most dramatically among those who answered their country’s call — or in many cases, obeyed their country’s orders — to serve.
But many at home were also deeply affected, including family and friends of soldiers, as well as millions of Americans whose lives were forever changed by their fervent opposition to a war they believed to be unjust, immoral and contrary to our country’s best interests.
And, as Burns suggests, our national sense of self was fractured: How do we go forward as a nation responsible for the devastation of a country (three million dead, environmental destruction) from a war that many of us believed to be wrong, and that we ultimately lost?
Healing and reconciliation are noble and desirable ends. But ask any mental health expert, and they will tell you that no real healing can take place until there is acknowledgment of the underlying causes — that reconciliation cannot happen without some common understanding of the truth of the circumstances that led to the division.
Burns and Novick, in a New York Times op-ed, indicate that the film may avoid some of the most difficult truths about the war in Vietnam: “Many questions remain unanswerable. But if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.”
“More than one truth” sounds dangerously close to “alternate facts.” Certainly, the war was a complex historical phenomenon, and those who experienced it can bring many distinct perspectives to its discussion.
The film can serve a valuable purpose by exploring that complexity and showing us those perspectives. But the ultimate objective of studying history should be to get at historical facts — the truth — so we can learn from them.
Americans have had trouble learning from the Vietnam experience for at least two significant reasons.
One, much of what has been established as historical facts shows a sinister U.S. role in the creation and manipulation of a repressive south Vietnamese state, which challenges the notion of American exceptionalism — that we are always on the side of the “good.”
Second is the largely successful proliferation of the cynically false notion that to acknowledge our fault in Vietnam is to challenge the bravery and sacrifice of the American men and women who served there.
That notion gives cover to all wars. All soldiers sacrifice, but war is a matter of policy that should always be questioned — because expecting that sacrifice for an unjust and unwinnable war is unconscionable.
So we encourage people to watch the Burns-Novick film. Watch with friends, with family, with neighbors or at community gatherings. Folks who lived through that era should watch it with younger people who only know it as history.
Watch it critically. Follow up with other sources. Use it as a basis of discussion. As you watch, think of these questions, based on a list developed by Veterans for Peace:
• What was the U.S. motive?
• What was the motive of the Vietnamese enemy?
• Did the U.S. mistakenly stumble into the war or was it part of a conscious strategy?
• Were U.S. intentions honorable?
• Who was most responsible for the suffering of the civilian population?
• What were the motives of the anti-war movement and was it effective?
• Why did the U.S. lose?
• What are the basic lessons of the war?
• Does the film tackle the hard lessons?
• How do the divisions created by the Vietnam War express themselves today?
• Is there a path to healing and reconciliation? How do we get there?
Let’s take this an opportunity to honestly face this difficult history, so we can stop repeating it.
John Henry, Mike Kimball and Michael Peterson are Vietnam veterans and members of Chapter 159 of Veterans for Peace; Michael Carrigan, Guy Maynard and Carol Van Houten are members of Community Alliance of Lane County.