You’d think, after giving it more than 50 years, that we, the Vietnam War Generation, would have managed to make some sense of it. Fifty years worth of education, life experience, technical skill, hobbies, travel, social engagement—all those things that add value to lives and dimension to brains—would have given us some distance, some ability to put our experience into the context of world history and allow us to say something insightful. Wise, even. At the very least, not a cliché.
In a column on Salon, (How the trauma of the Vietnam War led to the age of “alternative facts”, June 19, 2023) Arnold Isaacs observes that “the American debate about the Vietnam War sounds pretty much exactly the same as it did 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. Of course it is not as loud or as prominent on the national agenda, but there has been no noticeable change in the perceptions or opinions on both sides of the argument.”
He adds a sentence he had written 30 years earlier: “Americans have still not agreed on whether Vietnam was a tragic mistake or a noble cause; nor have they agreed on a common version of what really happened there, either to the Vietnamese or to us.” The second sentence proves his first point: the discussion has not changed, not in 30 years and not in 50.
Why is it that, even now, most attempts to look back, to remember, to show ‘what really happened,’ don’t actually move the thinking forward? Even Ken Burns, whose 11-hour documentary was supposed to give us all a chance to finally talk about the Vietnam War, gave us lots more footage and some new voices and ultimately fell back the need to sum it up somehow: mistakes “were made” but the United States “meant well.” The world has changed in 50 years but the thinking about the Vietnam War still falls into predictable patterns.
“… the American debate about the Vietnam War sounds pretty much exactly the same as it did 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. Of course it is not as loud or as prominent on the national agenda, but there has been no noticeable change in the perceptions or opinions on both sides of the argument.”Arnold Isaacs in Salon
Is there another way to look at it? What if we stopped trying to resolve how to feel about the Vietnam War? What if we accepted that if ten people witness a car wreck there will be ten different accounts? Would that allow some movement in the discussion?
Often in the comments on Amazon to a veteran memoir of time in Vietnam, another veteran will say that he was there and it wasn’t like that at all and this could get so heated that no one is listening to anyone any more. Similarly, some veterans document a “kill anything that moves” policy while others remember providing healthcare to villagers. Some say they spent most of the time patrolling while others insist it was ‘rock around the clock.’ Each might contend that their experience was ‘the way it really was.’
There is still work to be done to lean about ‘the way it really was.’ Even after all the books and articles there are still facts to learn. After all, much of the truth—the facts—happened in secret and many of those secrets are only now emerging. (See Fire and Rain: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Wars in Southeast Asia by Carolyn Woods Eisenberg). At the same time, no single narrative sums up the Vietnam War and it just wastes time to try to find one.
In “Writing about the Vietnam War is still relevant—and necessary,” AJ Moore acknowledges the vast disparity in experience among veterans serving in Vietnam. The same held true for anti-war activists and for those whose only experience of the war was the odd news item. Everyone’s viewpoint differed—my co-author, Mark Smith, used to say that his experience of the war differed from that of the man next to him—and all those viewpoints vie for a place in the story. Without a controlling narrative, though, any discussion of the war is as filled with chaos as the war itself and yet, as Moore says, we have to keep trying. We may go another 50 years without an agreement, but we may in the process achieve more understanding.
Ordnance fragment turned into a planter, Project Renew, Dong Ha, Vietnam