And he's fighting for Democracy,
He's fighting for the Reds,
He says it's for the peace of all.
He's the one who must decide,
Who's to live and who's to die,
And he never sees the writing on the wall
- From The Universal Soldier by Donovan
The Vietnam War is eating up my life right now. I refer to the Ken Burns PBS series that, as of this writing, I’ve watched seven-tenths of. So many memories of the war come flooding back and I didn’t even fight in it. I was growing up with the war in the background. As a pre teen I assumed that my country was doing the right thing. But coincident to my becoming a teenager, questions about the war began to arise. This was natural for anyone anywhere but particularly for me growing up in Berkeley. Also many of my cultural heroes — The Beatles, for example — were critics of the war. Most of all I saw the light (not the one that was supposed to be at the end of the tunnel) and being a news junkie as I was (starting as far back as I can remember) became well-versed in what was going on in Southeast Asia and could see that US actions were not serving the country’s best interests. It wasn’t long before I began to see that in addition to not needing to be there, we were on the wrong damn side.
Vietnam went hand-in-hand for me with the Civil Rights Movement, the emerging Black Power Movement and the evolution of our culture with rock and roll as a vehicle to express this new questioning of government in particular and authority in general. Vietnam was a symbol of a government that was deeply flawed (Watergate would later offer a glimpse into just how deeply). Two Kennedys and King had been assassinated and those deaths robbed many young people of hope — just as did government perfidy in Vietnam. But blind patriotism did not give way to cynicism. The late Sixties and early Seventies were filled with a kind of gleeful hope and optimism. A belief that change could come. Liberation movements were not without some success and even failures and setbacks were immediately greeted by action. For example in the wake of the Attica prison riot — in which the authorities responded with excessive force and abuse — the reaction on the left was swift and powerful. There were protests and official investigations. Any slap in the face offered by the establishment would be met by protests and calls for corrective action.
The protest movement was critical to the success of the counter culture. First Civil Rights and later Vietnam brought people together in a spirt of sister and brotherhood. There were not just angry messages of protest but a sense of unity. The oppressed and alienated were not lonely figures plunged into despair, but integral parts of the rallying cries for justice. My participation in demonstrations imbued me with a sense of being part of something greater than myself.
Vietnam is high on a long list of wars that the US should have had no part of. But men will gladly go to war “for their country” as what they perceive to be the ultimate act of patriotism. Imagine, blindly going to wherever your country sends you to fight regardless of the reason. The US being invaded? Sign me up. Defending the sovereignty of an ally? Sign me up. Fighting to defend a corrupt, racist regime? Sign me up. Invading a foreign enemy to better take advantage of their natural resources? Sign me up. It is literally true that millions of people will fight in a war without the slightest hesitation and without having a firm grasp of the objective. Oh and they’ll tell you they’re fighting to defend our freedoms.
So many young Americans went to Vietnam in a patriotic fervor. Those who died did so needlessly. Just as did the Americans who have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost to the country is in the billions. Money that could be spent on health care, education, scientific research, housing, infrastructure and job creation. Instead those dollars go towards blowing up buildings, villages and humans, often creating permanent enemies for the US.
The wanton destruction in Vietnam was catastrophic and it says quite a bit that the North Vietnamese won despite the battering they took. They were the ones who were fighting, not out of an imagined sense of patriotism, but to defend their homes.
The US has been terrible at foreign policy throughout much of its history, but particularly since the end of World War II. The US is supposedly a beacon of freedom and equality but to many it is a meddlesome bully whose actions have done more to deny freedom than enhance it. Just ask Chile, Iran, Guatemala, The Congo and other places where the US has intervened.
I have resumed this writing after a few days and have now finished watching the Vietnam documentary series. It is amazing to me that something nearly 20 hours in length can be so near perfection. The series captured the experiences of soldiers from of the US, North and South Vietnam and of the Viet Cong as well civilians in all parts of the country. It also explored the American experience during the war and the manner in which the US was torn asunder by opposing views of the war. Every American should watch it.