Prairie Lights: Still learning from the Vietnam War


Associated Press

In a still photograph from Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War,” U.S. troops march into Danang on March 15, 1965.

My uncle had a lot of books in his library, but the one book I was drawn to every time we visited his house contained a collection of photographs of World War II.

It was a large, heavy book, so I usually placed it on the floor and lay in front of it, propped up on my elbows. I would slowly page through it, looking at pictures as vivid in my mind now as they were on the page then:


Ed Kemmick

Jews being marched down a street in Warsaw; battleships half sunk and blazing in Pearl Harbor; civilians trampled to death on a steep set of stairs (leading to a bomb shelter? I don’t remember); Marines on some shell-flattened island shooting fountains of flame into a tunnel; bodies of soldiers frozen on the Russian steppes; children playing in the ruins of a European city; those dead soldiers on the sand of a South Pacific beach.

World War II ended 10 years before I was born, and it seemed as though everyone’s father had fought in the war. We watched World War II movies, we “played war,” we talked about the war and we looked, over and over again, at the sort of book I found in my uncle’s library.

And yet the war did not seem real. It was tucked away in a time so distant that it might have been a fairy tale, or one of those wars in the Old Testament.

So it is almost shocking to think of a boy or a girl 6 or 7 years old — the age I was when I discovered that book — sitting down to look at a book about the Vietnam War. That war ended 42 years ago. That child today would be as far from Vietnam as I was at that age from World War I.

That war, the Great War, hardly existed in our minds. I had three different collections of little plastic soldiers as a boy, one from a Fort Apache set, one from the Civil War and the third from World War II. I don’t think anyone made World War I toy sets.

The Great War was one that even people at the time couldn’t explain. It was a war that nobody wanted but that every country in Europe was preparing for — to the point that any spark was sure to result in a conflagration.

World War II seemed more like the Civil War, like a war that had to be fought because “peace” seemed like only a postponement that would make things worse. The Korean War was fought and then promptly forgotten and today seems not quite over after all.

And then came Vietnam, almost as inexplicable as World War I, a compounding series of blunders perpetrated by the French and then handed off to the Americans.

Like millions of other Americans lately, I’ve been thinking of Vietnam, thanks to Ken Burns’ latest PBS epic, whose no-frills title is “The Vietnam War.” I’ve watched only the first three episodes so far, but I’ve already learned a lot, and have been reminded of many details I’d forgotten.

Mostly I’ve been thinking of how it all must seem to people my kids’ age, or to people even younger. How could members of the Greatest Generation make such a hash of things so soon after their triumph in World War II?

I would hope young viewers learn that things never really change much, that every generation of human beings is subject to the same flights of insanity, delusion and ignorance. I hope they learn that “progress” is never measured on a straight line.

Above all I hope they remember that in almost every war, more civilians than soldiers are killed. In World War I, because of a narrow, constricted “front,” the number of civilians killed was about equal to the number of combatants killed. In World War II, Korea and Vietnam, the number of civilian deaths far outnumbered military deaths.

That sounds like it should be unforgivable, doesn’t it? But after every war we tend to think only of military deaths, or more specifically, of our own military deaths.

It was even more unforgivable in Vietnam, when all those soldiers and an even greater number of civilians were killed years after our leaders in Washington knew and acknowledged that the war couldn’t be won, as Burns’ documentary reminds (or teaches) us. Our leaders sacrificed all those lives to avoid political embarrassment.

There’s another lesson to be learned, that principled opposition to the actions of our leaders, when they seem to be in the wrong, is not just permissible but imperative.

Sometimes it takes as much courage to oppose a war as it does to fight in it, and in the case of Vietnam, all those protests finally forced American leaders to do what they themselves knew should have been done years earlier.

The protesters were as imperfect as those who supported the war, but they saved many lives — the lives of American soldiers and of countless innocent Vietnamese civilians.

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