I started watching Ken Burns series on the Vietnam war. I was fascinated by the stuff I did not know, the events before WW II particularly. I was happy to learn the true story behind Ho Chi Minh and amazed that Le Duan had been inspired by Lawrence of Arabia in building a guerrilla army.  I watched through until Johnson’s election to the presidency and then I couldn’t really stand it any more. Not because of Johnson, nothing like that, but because the whole thing was just so fucking stupid and we knew it at the time.

Our presence in Vietnam was a relentless litany of error married to the lack of commitment by the South Vietnamese. And why would they be committed? I couldn’t see any reason at all except it’s impossible to foresee the future. I don’t think anyone in the mid 1960s could have imagined the fall of the Berlin Wall or the disintegration of the USSR. And it doesn’t seem like any wargamer was building a model with that as a scenario.

I couldn’t help but see the fiasco and conundrum of the current “war on terror.” Again, it’s a war against something abstract, elusive, almost indefinable. The big difference is that we are not drafting young people into the military. I think that is a huge difference. The draft was the fire behind the anti-war protests during the late 60s and early 70s. No one is protesting now because the only people who go volunteer.

The documentary is extremely detailed. It would be possible for Ken Burns to do this because the reportage of the Vietnam War was extremely detailed. We saw that war on television every night in ways that we have not seen a war since. Again, the gubmint learned from that that if people see too much of what is happening in a war, they are less likely sit still for it. I admit, the last war I saw televised (because I haven’t had TV) was the Gulf War and that shocked me because there was actually a theme song for that thing and transitions into the reportage that looked like lead-ins to adventure television shows.

I thought at the time, “Make it a show, and it will be less likely that viewers will be completely aware of what is going on.” I don’t know, but it seems plausible. It also seems like Fahrenheit 451 where there is a war going on all the time but one’s own husbands don’t die and the war isn’t that serious; it’s a dull roar in the back ground of the vacuous lives of the vacuous women.

I liked the way Ken Burns laid it out about JFK. I’ve never seen him as a heroic person; I’ve seen him as a guy who got us into an a war that couldn’t be won (or even ended decently). This was what my dad told me. My dad was a wargamer at SAC in Omaha and an adviser to the chiefs of staff. He said Kennedy was a grandstanding jackass and McNamara had put the Edsel on the road and that right there disqualified him from gubmint office. I didn’t know why. I was a kid.

Burns also shows how politics was involved in the decisions made by leaders during these years. LBJ backs off on sending troops until he realizes Goldwater is running on a “send troops” platform and it’s popular. JFK says straight out to McNamara, “I can’t do that. There’s an election coming up.” Something like that, meaning the lives of people hung in the balance of where these guys languished in an election cycle.

I was impressed by Ken Burns’ listing LBJ’s achievements as president — there were many and they were important and we are fighting for some of them now. I appreciated LBJ saying he hated the “goddamned war” because he had “important work to do right here at home.”

I don’t know if I could have borne the program longer if we were not in such a parallel situation right now. As is quoted constantly these days, “Those who do not learn fro the past are doomed to repeat it” George Santayana


I’m surrounded by people of my generation now, many are somewhat older than I, old enough to have faced down the moment to enlist or wait to be drafted. By the time my brother’s turn would have come, the lottery had been instituted and my brother got a number that exempted him. Some of the guys around have PTSD from the war, as did my former office mate at San Diego State. I’ve heard Vietnam war stories that remind me of the WW II stories I heard from my dad’s generation with the big difference that the experience was more personal. I don’t get the feeling that the veterans I know now believe they were fighting something as blatantly evil and concrete as Hitler. Their war is something else. This came through on Ken Burns’ documentary, too.

So I’ve given up on the documentary. I don’t need to see it all again. I learned what I needed to learn. I know what happens next.

Where did someone get the idea that a democratic republic means that the gubmint can “use” the citizens? Isn’t that what we fought the Brits for back in the day?


In 1983, in the People’s Republic of China, I sat at a table in a teacher’s house on Hainan Island, across the Gulf of Tonkin from North Vietnam. There was no electricity in the village. The indigenous culture was close to that of Vietnam. The people on the island had fought with the Americans against the Japanese. Many left, and this teacher had left for Malaysia as a little boy with his family. He returned when Chairman Mao called for overseas Chinese to help rebuild the Motherland.

What he got for that? Months in a tiger pit on Hainan. Years of hard labor. Punishment and political correction because he spoke English.

So that night we sat with the lantern light and my Chinese friends and Mr. Hu talked about….

The Vietnam war.

Right then China was involved in a war with Vietnam over Cambodia. They’d had a hard time getting out of their 1979 war with Vietnam over Cambodia. They finally did it by declaring that they had taught the Vietnamese a lesson and didn’t need to be there any more. But…

Since the early 1980s, China pursued what some observers described as a semi-secret campaign against Vietnam that was more than a series of border incidents and less than a limited small-scale war. The Vietnamese called it a “multifaceted war of sabotage.”

I could not believe I’d traveled so far in space (if not in time, though the village was medieval) to listen to the very argument that had echoed through most of my life.


One thought on “Vietnam

  1. Garry was there. During the war, twice for maybe 9 or 10 months in total. He knew. ALL the reporters knew. They couldn’t say it on screen, but they told their friends what was going on. All of it. I can’t watch the show. We discussed it and decided we already knew much more than we wanted to know, especially Garry who seems to know a lot about a lot of things he wishes he didn’t know.

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