My final judgment of the Burns-Novick documentary is that it is a splendid piece of work. I was frankly astonished that the creators uncovered so much information about the war known to me but not generally written about. But I was equally amazed at the facts they reported that I didn’t know, mainly about what was going in the U.S. while I was in Vietnam. And I greatly admired the approach they took of presenting commentators of all stripes without qualification.
The question that recurs eternally is: was the war justified? In the broadest sense, my answer is no. I’ve talked before in this blog about Ho Chi Minh’s approach to the U.S. in the mid-1940s asking for help in attaining independence for Vietnam. The U.S. decided instead to side with the French, despite its long-standing tradition of opposing colonialism. After the defeat of the French in 1954, the U.S., in its dread of communism, sided with the autocratic South Vietnamese regimes. Ho was more a nationalist than a communist in the 1940s. Had we responded to his pleas, history would have been different and, in my estimation, better.
The issue of shame needs to be dealt with. When I returned to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in May 1975, the U.S. population was so opposed to the war that I kept my Vietnam service to myself. During the last half of the war, from 1968 on, I had been repeatedly spat upon by crowds in the San Francisco airport as I returned with the troops from my many trips to Vietnam. Already suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) even then, I felt the burning shame of being denounced by the citizens of my country for defending their interests in war.
One of the intriguing facts I learned from the film was that PTSI had other names in earlier wars. During the civil war, it was called soldier’s heart. In World War I, people spoke of shell shock. Battle fatigue was the term in World War II. The malady can be traced historically back to the Greeks. I didn’t know any of that. After Vietnam, I thought I was the only one with the symptoms. Like all victims of PTSI, I didn’t want to talk about my experiences in combat.
Over the decades that followed, I never spoke of my time in Vietnam. My work there was still classified until 2016, but, more important, the American people wanted to forget there had ever been a Vietnam. When a few years ago the attitude began to change, I discovered I wasn’t the only one with PTSI. My sense of shame shifted. I was ashamed for my nation’s people who blamed the warriors for the decisions of the elected officials. I was enraged that Americans denigrated the soldiers and Marines who had risked their lives for their country. That rage lingers even today.
The Vietnam War, in sum, was painful to watch. It reopened old wounds, brought old memories back into sharp focus. It reminded me of why I remained silent and alone in my own despair for more than thirty years. But the documentary also described that very silence, isolation, and suffering of so many vets. Most important, it brought the bitter silence about the war to an end. It told the story of why I was silent. Now I and so many others like me need be silent and alone no more.