“The Vietnam War” and A Flood of Memories

Watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” unleashes a torrent of memories, few of them good. Despite the moral cover offered by the likes of Ronald Reagan a decade after the fall of Saigon, there was never anything “noble” about “the cause”. The mission of Vietnam was ignorant and ignoble and it’s execution begat an apocalyptic disaster.

People too young to remember the era first hand must have a hard time applying any kind of comparison. At its worst — which it was for nearly 10 years — Vietnam was the equivalent of a Hurricane Harvey/Irma/Maria disaster hitting every week for years in terms of expense, only worse because it was compounded by another 300–500 American deaths each week, with all the grief, rage and polarization that induced. In the midst of it Vietnam felt like a catastrophe without end.

Thinking about it again 50 years later sets the mind off in a dozen directions, most with institutional deceit at their hub.

As a generally credulous teenager in far off, all-white, small town America for half of the Vietnam years, what was etched most into my consciousness, my routine valuations and assessments of American life, was a deep skepticism of authoritarian belief systems. For me (and millions of others) Vietnam was a horrifying example of the steep and frequently cataclysmic effect of blindly submitting to “established order.” By “authoritarian” I mean the subservient end of the process, where “average citizens”, i.e. “the led” embrace and accede to the direction of what passes for our ruling class.

At one point in “The Vietnam War” a field commander gets emotional talking about the world’s greatest fighting men, young Americans who, he says, are great soldiers because they can be trained to follow commands without question, to always do what needs to be done. No one questions the value of such training/indoctrination in a combat situation where Job #1 is staying alive. But that same unquestioning reverence for authority, the willingness to be led anywhere, is also what commits an entire culture — American, Vietnamese, “radical Islamic”, North Korean — to homicidal disasters.

I’m not certain what the essential roots of the authoritarian mindset are. In the film we meet West Pointer Matt Harrison, raised in a military family with an unequivocal alpha father. “Duty” and “honor” were staples of his family psychology. An apex of Americanism. (The film introduces us to Harrison in the company of two other West Point classmates. The cream of young American manhood. The three arrive in Vietnam simultaneously and barely a week later the other two are dead, zipped up and carted away in body bags, after an ambush on a classically absurd “search and destroy” mission.)

Domineering, ethics-shaping fathers are no doubt a powerful influence in the authoritarian makeup. But so to is the group think of immediate culture, that is to say the people you go to school with, do business with and need to count on as compatriots to achieve happiness in life. As the film tells us, through surviving veterans and a precious few of the ruling bureaucrats of the era, “courage” in the early to middle years of Vietnam was defined by skepticism-free, unquestioning acceptance. Doing “your duty.” “Cowardice” was defined by expressing empirical doubt about what Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara and all the other (all white, all-male) leadership group was selling.

Only in the late Sixties, with weekly death tolls hitting 200–400 did the general authoritarian impulse abate enough to create a cultural mass sufficient enough that doubters and objectors had protection from blowback from “the silent majority.”

As depressing as it is to relive the emotions of those years, Burns and Novick are fully aware of how this same reptilian, atavistic, authoritarian mentality infects society today.

I often take (negligible) comfort in the high likelihood that credulous group-think is an aspect of our ongoing evolutionary process. Instinctual group-think impulses saved man-apes on the African savanna, neanderthals in northern Europe and fledgling humanoids everywhere from predator attack for millions of years. Independent thinking was a recipe for shunning if not death. It stands to reason we haven’t lost that go-with-group instinct in the blink of the evolutionary eye that we’ve been (sort of) fully conscious.

But evolution has proceeded. We are now a couple important rungs up the ladder of full(er) awareness. In evolutionary math terms the experience of Vietnam, with its catastrophic levels of misguidance and deceit maybe the overall percentage of independent cognition ticked up 5 to 10%.

If we survive our technological infancy, maybe inĀ  a few hundred years we’ll reach a tipping point where rational thought is the controlling norm. The hope is that then we’ll understand that the predators we most need to protect ourselves against are the people exploiting our “patriotic” impulses to attack someone else.


7 thoughts on ““The Vietnam War” and A Flood of Memories

  1. Brian, thanks for posting this. I am a Viet Nam era Marine Veteran and consider your comments to be on the mark. Only wish I could be around for the two hundred year mark and see the progress that is possible as long as we keep our courage.

  2. It’s not my recollection that “the general authoritarian impulse abated,” but rather that a sort of insurrection arose and spread against the authority of the dominant institutions and ideology. It didn’t happen during the Korean War, but it did happen during the SE Asian conlfict. And I thought then and still believe now that the dissent spread beyond the limited circles of campus radicals and old-left ideologues and sectarian pacifists, because of the extraordinary cultural combustion of LSD when ingested and then “digested” by the creative musicians who were inspired by it. As my mother once said, “It’s all the fault of those damn Beatles and their drugs.” Ken Kesey used to muse about the irony of the CIA’s thinking they could use LSD in chemical warfare . . . but when it did get out into the populace, it came with the hard-to-resist message “make love, not war.”
    This is not to downplay the critical role of the Gandhi-inspired, morally uplifting spectacle of the Civil Rights Movement—a morality play about America’s true meaning and values—taking those patriotic cliches precisely at their face value. It was because we loved what we were taught American stood for—liberty and justice for all—and then we saw that it really wasn’t true—that we found ourselves willing to question the media and government line about Vietnam. But the hedonistic appeal of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll was more potent than any argument, based on history, law, or logic, in creating a mass movement. I insist that it was especially LSD that mattered. The amounts of acid distributed and consumed will never be accurately known, but they were immense. And beer, the previous drug of the young people and the working class, could not have brought the enlightenment that acid did. The pscycho-pharmacological action of LSD exposes beer as the pathetic poison that it is.
    Some may strenuously argue that acid as popularized in the 1960’s only brought a superficial and muddled enlightenment, carrying within it the self-destructive seeds of irrationalism and anti-intellectualism, and I would partly agree.
    But as a historian, I think one must give this clandestine and ultimately obliterated agent of change its proper credit for disrupting and subverting the authoritarian, conformist cultural norms of the time. Another thing to remember is that nothing was ever quite the same after JFK was murdered.

    • That’s an interesting theory. I don’t think there’s any question recreational drugs of the era played a significant role in altering consciousness, certainly to the extent of creating tighter bonds among those who partook and were, I assume, most sympathetic to the anti-war climate.

  3. Although I think the documentary is generally good on the history and evolution of the war, it also has a decidedly jingoistic tilt. My recollection of that time is that the war itself and questioning the war at home were inseparable. Burns has a preference for gung-ho warrior types who were eager to fight for their country. Well, I get it….high octane storytelling from the front lines and, as these guys develop doubts about the war, it sheds light on what a colossal blunder it was. Misplaced patriotism played a critical part in how we unthinkingly sank into a quagmire. So I’m fine with having that perspective included. But it dominates the film. Except for Tim O’Brien, Burns has so far ignored the soldiers who DIDN’T want to be there, the draftees who knew they were being sent to risk their lives for no good reason. And, again, except for O’Brien, there have so far been no interviews with young men who confronted the draft by choosing another way…deferments, moving to Canada, joining the Coast Guard. Those things were a huge part of the reality of the times. For me, the film is gripping but an incomplete picture of what happened.

    • I have Episode 7 recorded to watch tonight. As I’ve read, Burns & Novick backloaded the protests, with more from O’Brien as it reaches its conclusion. The “jingoistic” front end may well be a narrative strategy, reflecting the attitudes of public and soldiers alike as the war commenced. On a technical level I am very impressed with the editing they’ve done on such a colossal amount of archival material. Individual moments, like the GI in the field reflecting on how his dead comrades didn’t look real, more like “mannequins”, and reflecting how of course he couldn’t imagine that happening to him … until, from the camera’s long look in his eyes, that moment.

  4. Brilliant analysis, but so obvious it is sad the word brilliant must still be applied to it. Our chances of surviving our technological infancy are slim unless the word obvious can quickly become the one a large majority applies such analyses.

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