Out and About (Sort of): A War That Still Resonates and Sears by Howard Freedlander

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For five nights last week, I found myself transfixed by the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary about the Vietnam War. I am still watching the second five episodes. When I ask others about this superb series, I discover they too view “The Vietnam War” as searingly powerful.

This was my generation’s war. It informed my life as a young adult. It continues to haunt me. It was a conflict disastrous to the emotional health of this country, not to speak of the shocking loss of 58,000 American lives.

This documentary is stunningly impressive in its portrayal of the disastrous combat–analyzed intermittently by American, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters, enlisted and officer–and the wrong-headed policy-makers in our nation’s capital.

For full disclosure, I served in the Army Reserve, 1968-1974. I faced little chance of being called up to serve in Southeast Asia. I was lucky. I knew it then. I know it now. While I served my country, I didn’t test my mettle in deadly combat.

In 1968, I fully understood and observed the fierce opposition to the war, as expressed in widespread protests on the streets and campuses of our embattled nation. I too decried our political leadership and tactical moves made by General William Westmoreland, the wartime commander. I decried the body bags arriving sadly and solemnly at Dover Air Force Base.

While I deeply loved my country then and now, I despised decisions that resulted in the overwhelming personal destruction of our troops. I felt shaken by the urban riots, tied to the significant number of African-American deaths in Vietnam–and the still racist country to which our black troops returned. I sensed an alarming dishonesty on the part of Westmoreland and his political bosses, including President Lyndon Johnson.

Amid our increasing build-up in South Vietnam, we were saddled with an incompetent, corrupt government in Saigon. This instability added to the difficulty of winning the hearts and minds of everyday citizens in the cities and countryside.

Due to this ill-advised war and the Watergate scandal that followed in the early 1970s, a wave of cynicism toward, and distrust of government and educational and corporate institutions engulfed our country. This cloud still overhangs us. It underlies our attitudes and beliefs.

Trust with wariness, verify with doubt. In my opinion, trust became an implicit casualty of the Southeast Asian combat in rice paddies, jungles, and military miscues.

Incidentally, I recall a time in the mid-1980s when the retired Westmoreland visited Easton to participate in the dedication of the Vietnam Monument in front of the Talbot County Courthouse. He appeared in similar circumstances throughout the country. When I asked a retired Army brigadier general and Vietnam veteran if he would join me at the dedication, this mind-mannered man bluntly told me in expletive-laced words that he would stay put. He despised Westmoreland. I suspect he wasn’t alone.

The Burns-Novick documentary, so thoroughly and even-handedly written and produced, has unleashed a torrent of memories and uncomfortable thoughts. Vietnam veterans with whom I’ve spoken in recent days feel equally moved by the wide scope of this spell-binding production. Unlike me, they remember the painful loss of buddies and faith in their military and political superiors.

I watched one episode last week with a friend, a former Marine who served more than eight months in ‘Nam. He remarked about the hard-nosed North Vietnamese soldiers, fervent, violent Communists who had pushed aside the “nationalists” inspired by Ho Ching Minh. This particular episode pointed to this division in North Vietnam.

This country, so riven by discord and disagreement, treated our returning veterans with unjustified disrespect and scorn. Our fellow citizens forgot, shamelessly so, that our troops fought a miserable war planned and organized by civilian and military leaders.

Our troops deserved better treatment; they had fought for the right of their fellow citizens to disagree. They didn’t fight for inhumane treatment as they returned in uniform from a war they didn’t start or envision.

The Vietnam War bore little or no resemblance to World War II, the anti-fascist war fought by my generation’s fathers. It was far more complex. It resulted from the Cold War, not the evil, poisonous machinations of a European dictator. It had geo-political implications misunderstood by our political leaders. It required interference in a civil war between South and North Vietnam.

It compelled us to grasp an inconvenient truth: we didn’t belong in Vietnam.

Friends fought in Viet Nam. They returned, fortunately. I’ve met many veterans on the Eastern Shore. I deeply admire them. They fought in an unpopular war. They endured senseless abuse when they came home. They moved on.

I think about Kent County resident Wayne Gilchrest, a former First District congressman who served in Vietnam as an enlisted man in the Marines. He quietly wears his combat service as a badge of honor. His experience in war and keen intelligence informed his decision to oppose President George W. Bush’s decision to initiate war against Iraq. For taking this position, as well as other independent stands, this moderate Republican lost a primary election to current Congressman Andy Harris. We lost a really good person and military veteran in our fractious Congress.

At this writing, I’ve watched two more episodes. I continue to be immersed in a documentary about an explosive and contentious time in American history. Burns and Novick have produced a documentary not only about a war but about a country that suffered loss of precious American lives and a world shaken by this remote conflict.

This superb 10-episode documentary represents television at its best. The drama inherent in the starkly realistic history of the Vietnam War, as presented by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, pierced my soul.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Yes. And excellent documentary. I compare the Vietnam War to the Civil War. While there weren’t nearly as many American casualties, I think the Vietnam War divided us in a similar way and, like the Civil War, still divides us today. Thank you for you analysis and reaction.

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