Whether you lived through it or are viewing it as ancient history, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War is shattering. I alternately wept and retched. It was a serious mistake that took over twenty years to back (or crawl) out of. The loss of life was staggering. Estimates of war related deaths between 1954 and 1975 vary from 1.5 to 3.6 million people. Of these 58,220 were U.S. military personnel. Less reliable estimates of South Vietnam military (ARVIN) deaths range from 100,000 to 250,000 and of North Vietnam military and their South Vietnamese collaborators (the Viet Cong) around one million. Estimates of civilian deaths range from 225,000 to 500,000 of which 195,000 to 430,000 where in the South.
But these deaths only scratch the surface of the costs of this war in blood and treasure. Those injured numbered 1,170,000 people. The sight of returned American solders without legs (which seemed more common than missing arms) became relatively common in the 1970s. Greater still was the emotional damage to those who participated in and witnessed up close the human waste of this war, the emotional anguish of those with the courage to refuse to fight what they (and history) considered an immoral war, which included Mohammad Ali, and the scars to our nation, which most of us witnessed from afar, and all can now see again in the Burns/Novick film.
The film balances the horrible visual images of the wasted and mutilated bodies of old men, women and children sprawled or piled along the roads with the personal human stories of individual participants. The terror in the faces of women and children running through the streets is excruciatingly hard to watch. But the contemporary interviews of solders and reporters who had participated in the war and the Americans back home who demonstrated against it gave a very human touch to the pointless horror they looked back on.
As the war dragged on from the 1960s into the 70s solders increasingly questioned the wisdom of torching the homes of impoverished South Vietnamese with no way of knowing whether they were the “good guys” or the “bad guys.” These men, and in some cases women, served faithfully and bravely in what was increasingly, obviously a pointless slaughter. And our Presidents—Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon—lied to us about what was going on—not the easily provable and obvious lies Trump tweets throughout the day, day after day, but serious lies most of us believed until near the end. The Burns/Novick film presents it all—all sides, including fascinating interviews with a number South and North Vietnamese—in as humanized a way as possible for such an unbelievably inhuman undertaking.
What have we (or should we have) learned as we wage war in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Iraq and Yemen to name the most conspicuous cases and not to mention the threats of war in Iran and North Korea?
- Fighting other people’s wars on other peoples’ land that we know little about is foolish. In fact “foolish” is far too mild a characterization. It is reckless in the extreme. It is insane.
- Wars are between real people, many if not most of who may have nothing to do with the struggle. The costs to them in lives and limbs should be taken into account when evaluating whether America’s interests are really served by foreign military engagement.
- The intense patriotism and sense of adventure of American solders is similar to the motivation of ISIS fighters. I admire them and their courage because they were my guys who believed they were fighting for my safety. I see them through my eyes, but I was struck by how similar their motivations for fighting a perceived enemy were to what seems to be the motivations of ISIS fighters. That should give us pause.
- Foreign adventures—a few trainers, or solders to lend a hand—almost always sound better at the beginning than by the end (when there is an end).
- Real people, especially our youth who tend to do the fighting, cannot easily escape the emotional damage of the horrible acts they are required to undertake. This cost should receive its due weight in evaluating whether our interests are really served by participating in foreign wars.
- Madeleine Albright’s famous comment that “what is the good of having the world’s most powerful military if you can’t use it?” should have landed her in jail.
We must defend and protect the homeland without question. It should be very hard to justify sending American troops anywhere abroad to fight for whatever reason. We should have very clear answers to the following questions: Why should we be there and who are our enemies? Who are we fighting and to what end? We almost never do.