“The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick” has kept many of us mesmerized since the first installment aired on Sept. 17. The PBS series, directed by two legendary documentarists, is well-researched, well edited and thought-provoking.
I began watching with trepidation, unsure that I wanted to engage the Vietnam War again. Only a couple of weeks ago, my John Hoyle DAR Chapter, conducted a ceremony honoring Vietnam veterans when the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall came to Conover, NC. I attended out of a sense of duty.
The Vietnam documentary has been another matter. Ten nights of footage and narration about this lost war is a lot to take.
Then someone commented, “You’re probably too young to remember much about Vietnam,” and I bristled.
I was 9 when President Lyndon Johnson widened the US commitment to prop up the faltering government of South Vietnam. Newsreels and body counts played in the background of my formative years, a migraine that never eased, a haunting specter of draft notices for relatives, neighbors, friends, brothers of classmates. The numbers kept growing to the point we were numbed to fathom the cost of actual human lives.
I remember sitting on the living room floor playing with dolls when I remember hearing the word “Vietnam” on the news. The TV screen showed a map of this odd-sounding place—a curled, irregular shape clinging to Southeast Asia like a giant leech.
It was the first war that America lost, so those who served in that conflict—though as bravely as in any other war– never received the thanks or the respect accorded other veterans. America lost 58,220 soldiers, and another 304,000 were wounded. The war’s cost was even greater considering invisible scars left on family members and the nation’s psyche. Up until then, America seemed so invincible.
When the curtain fell in 1975, I was a junior in college, and I welcomed the news, though I did not savor the photo of a Huey picking up desperate evacuees from a rooftop in Saigon. The “unwinnable war” as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara secretly admitted in 1964, was truly that. This humiliating scene was the reward for more than 11 years in a quagmire half a world away.
The war played out as I grew up. There was no escaping the war news, and there was no escaping the backlash that finally came in the late 1960s.
I grew up in a family that never supported the war, an extremely unpopular stance in the mid-60s. Dinner conversation sometimes focused on the military draft. We had relatives in Canada, my Dad would point out. It didn’t take me long to figure that if I’d been a male with a low draft number, it would have been easy to pay them a visit and forget to come home.
My parents were not hippies nor street protestors, but deep down they had more in common with the angry mob than the flag wavers.
By 1972 my would-be draft-dodger self wore a POW bracelet, a metal circlet on my right wrist for years. Engraved on it was “Capt. Lawrence Helber, USMC,” a random name sent to me by Voices in Vital America, the nonprofit that sold the nickel bracelets to build awareness of POWs and MIAs. I hated the war, but I didn’t hate fellow Americans who had been caught up in it.
Young men born in my year, 1954, were among the last to be assigned draft numbers, though the draft was abolished early in 1973. President Gerald Ford signed conditional amnesty for draft dodgers and deserters in 1974. President Jimmy Carter extended it to a full pardon in 1977.
Every war must have its youngest casualty. He was Dan Bullock of New York, age 15 when he was killed in 1969. He lied about his age to enlist. If he had attended my high school, we could have been sophomores together.
I cannot think of Vietnam without thinking of Billie, my brother’s best friend in sixth grade. Billie spent most days around our house, went on family vacations with us, and at the time I thought of him as an extra brother.
In college he roomed with Jim, my best friend’s brother. As I recall, both of them majored in agriculture at Southern Illinois University. Upon graduation, both were drafted into the Army. Billie went to Vietnam. Jim remained at Ft. Campbell, KY, serving as a medic. Never was the randomness of fate made clearer.
In December 1970, Billie died in Bien Hoa Province. He was barely 23.
Visiting the Vietnam Traveling War Memorial in Conover this month, I found Billie’s name on Panel 6W, line 110–one soldier among a sea of casualties in a war that Americans are still trying to reconcile. I stood silently, wondering how his family coped with such a loss.
The PBS documentary only confirms what my parents said in 1964, that the President was lying and that we had no business in Vietnam. But knowing that they were right doesn’t ease the sorrow.
Had I been a male born on my birthday, August 14, 1954, my number would have been 226. I would have never been drafted, so I would not have moved in with my aunt and uncle in Canada.
VIVA, the bracelet office, closed its doors in 1976. By then the public was tired of hearing about Vietnam and cared less about the POW/MIA issue. Capt. Helber went missing in action on Jan. 24, 1966. He is memorialized on the Wall. I still have the bracelet.
Although the official US casualty count is 58,200, veterans continue to suffer premature deaths from their service including exposure to Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder and other causes.
I hope the PBS series gives renewed perspective to this lost war, not just for those who saw combat, but for those of us who watched in real time and for those who didn’t. Hopefully, we Americans will learn the lessons this horrible history teaches, but I know that learning from history isn’t something we do well.
NOTE: This piece appeared on page 1 of the Observer-News-Enterprise, Newton, NC on Sept. 26, 2017
Photo by Hu Totya – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3158087