The Weight of Memory

The final episode of The Vietnam War was telecast last night. It was called “The Weight of Memory.” That title speaks to me.

My memories weigh on me. I’ve gotten better over the years, but the images in my mind haven’t faded. I’ve learned by bitter experience to cope with them. I did the best I could to vent them by writing, especially Last of the Annamese.

Several random reactions to the last installment of the Burns-Novick documentary:

I was surprised, not only in the final episode but in earlier ones, at how many of the featured commentators I’ve met—Lewis Sorley, Tim O’Brien, Karl Marlantes, Jan Scruggs—some face to face, some only in email exchanges.

I have searing memories of watching provinces and cities fall to the North Vietnamese, all of them numerated in the film—Phuoc Long province and its capital, Phuoc Binh; Ban Me Thuot in the highlands; and after a twelve-day heroic defense by the South Vietnamese, Xuan Loc, the last obstacle to the North Vietnamese sweep into Saigon.

The many shots of the Vietnam Memorial, which so many of us call The Wall, brought tears to my eyes. I don’t go there often, even when I’m doing public readings on the Mall on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. I can’t hold in my emotions, and I’m embarrassed.

I read several articles before the documentary came out advising veterans that it might be best not to watch the episodes alone. I see why. All of the installments, but especially the last one, put me in touch again with my own despair.

The portrayal of the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, left me feeling grimly vindicated. It’s now public knowledge that he failed to heed the warnings of those of us who knew that Saigon was about to be attacked. His failure to call for an evacuation resulted in the deaths of many thousands of Vietnamese who had worked with us.

A fellow Vietnam vet expressed disappointment that my story didn’t appear in the documentary. I reminded him that the presence of National Security Agency (NSA) personnel in Vietnam was classified. The complete declassification of my time in Vietnam as an NSA representative only occurred in 2016. In all likelihood, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick never uncovered our operation and didn’t know we were in country. On the public record, we weren’t there. We didn’t exist.

The film cemented my feelings about going back to Vietnam: no way. Too many anguished memories of men butchered in combat, of friends lost, of America shamed.

I watched the end of the last installment feeling again the isolation I felt in 1975. The line I cited yesterday said it well: “Everyone came home from Vietnam alone.”

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