“The Vietnam War,” a documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, has renewed a debate over a war that still influences both military and political decisions. The documentary attempted to shine a light on many of the contentious issues that influence those decisions. Questions such as whether the U.S. should have been involved and whether the protestors were truly noble will continue to swirl around that war.
No more Vietnams was the prevailing theme after the fall of Saigon in 1975. We were not going to intervene in any similar major insurgencies. Our primary enemy was the Soviet Union. We could not allow the military to deteriorate as it had. We could not have our own country torn apart again by war.
The producers’ efforts to provide a comprehensive accounting of a complex war are laudable. There are two areas, however, which I found troubling because of the scant attention paid to them.
First is the short shrift given to the background of our involvement. The documentary did not address how concerns, or even fears, over communism affected our lives in the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. There was little to no mention of the significance of the fall of China to the communists, the Korean War, the Hungarian uprising, the Iron Curtain that separated democracies from totalitarian regimes, the Berlin wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, “duck and cover” drills or film clips shown on “The Ed Sullivan Show” of what a nuclear attack would look like.
Those were the times when civics and Americanism vs. communism classes were mandatory in high school. No one kneeled when the Star Spangled Banner was played. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance daily and stood while the American flag was raised and lowered in front of my high school.
It was a time when we learned terms such as “monolithic communism” and the “domino theory.”
It was a time when many, if not most, of our political leaders had come of age during World War II and had seen first-hand the threats of communism and totalitarianism to our society.
Instead of a more in-depth, contextual look at that era, Burns and Novick provide a thin veneer of the Cold War era that fails to explain adequately the subsequent decisions that led the nation into Vietnam.
My second concern is how the documentary portrays those who fought in Vietnam. Images and voices of disillusioned soldiers permeate the interviews. The emphasis is on those who were scarred by the war and took to drugs, those who had recurring nightmares or could not readjust to society. Some admitted to being ashamed of their service. I believe those soldiers spoke truthfully and voiced their weaknesses and their fears. Despite those weaknesses and fears, most carried out their duties faithfully.
The series did not address the thousands of combat veterans who returned and still remain proud of their service and believe that what they did was noble. The picture painted by Burns and Novick is an injustice to those who remained in uniform or who became successful employees, businessmen, entrepreneurs, teachers, raised families and still fly the American flag from the porches of their homes.
Six Vietnam veterans from the Leavenworth area participated on Oct. 31 in a panel discussion as part of the Kansas City Public Library Vietnam lecture series. I was privileged to be one of the six. Of the six, three had been wounded. Five were career soldiers, one reached the rank of brigadier general, two had earned doctorate degrees, one was a successful CEO, one became an educator and one had received a Silver Star and is a well-known scholar of the war.
Do the six of us have scars? Of course. Anyone who has been in combat will be changed. But as far as the documentary is concerned, soldiers such as the six of us do not exist.
Over the next decades we saw the Berlin wall collapse, the Soviet Union disintegrate, swift victories in Grenada and Panama and a 100-hour victory in the Persian Gulf. No nation could defeat the military might of the United States. But hovering over all of the victories and all of the earliest incidents of terrorism and the wars in the Middle East still is the specter of Vietnam.
It is a Gordian knot that probably no historian will ever be able to untangle.
Rich Kiper is a Leavenworth Times columnist.