When Ken Burns released The Civil War, I was mesmerized. My husband and I watched every episode with him narrating more of what he knew about the Civil War than I did. I was inspired to read Shelby Foote’s trilogy. For me as a California girl, the Civil War had been little more than half an hour discussion in an American history class. My husband grew up 30 miles from Gettysburg, so for him it was tangible history. There was so much I did not know.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are out with The Vietnam War. Here’s where things changed. My husband is a Cold Warrior, having served in the Air Force between Korea and Vietnam. He was married with kids when this conflict gained strength. I, on the other hand, was in undergraduate school at UCLA. While not the hotbed of protests like Berkeley, UCLA was more oriented to quiet sit-ins, blockades, marching. As the death toll mounted and the scroll of names of those killed unrolled nearly every night at dinner, I felt this war viscerally. This hit home. Perhaps 50% of my high-school graduating class was drafted. A large number of my college graduating class was either drafted or high in the lottery. There was still so much I did not know.
I believed early on that our government was telling bald-faced lies about our progress. I had an activist professor who had us read materials about the French fall at Dien Bien Phu. He preached that the United States wasn’t learning from the French. He refused to call it history, because it was only a decade or so before our time. He called it “current events.” He led us to sit-ins at the Westwood Federal building, coaching us to sit on the floor in silence. We did. He said we might be arrested. We were. He said we might spend the night in jail. We did. For nearly two years, it was wash, rinse, repeat. Sit in. Arrest. Booking. Release. No charges were ever filed, because the district courts were jammed with real problems, not hundreds of kids sitting down on a floor and studying. There was no much I did not know.
I lost friends to death and injury. I watched how our military were treated when they came home. I stayed away from airports and chose instead to work with a different professor in counseling the mentally wounded. I had no inkling at the time that for many of these men and women, the war had taken up permanent residence in their heads. I thought they’d put everything behind them and get on with life in the civilian world. How wrong I was. I simply did not know.
So, now, with the Burns/Novick program airing over 18 hours on PBS, my husband and I decided to watch it. I’m almost sorry we did. Again, for him, it was a reminder of historical events, many of which tore the country apart but did not touch him personally. For me, it was an assault on the senses. Iconic images–the murder of the Viet Cong by a Saigon policeman, the napalm girl, dead on both sides–slammed into my brain. I couldn’t watch without feeling, or re-feeling, what I felt then. Anger. Rage. Sorrow. Loss. I couldn’t listen to the lies from Johnson, Kennedy, Nixon, et al, lies writ large because lives were at stake. Lives lost in a senseless slaughter. I couldn’t listen to Walter Cronkite tell us that the war was lost without remembering what we had for dinner that night–pasta and salad. And still the war continued. I did not know what was going on in political realms, in smoke-filled rooms, that lead to the loss of so many friends. I visit them at The Wall. It’s all I have left.
I did not know I would feel so strongly when the series began. Until I listened to the secret tapes about the secret bombings in Cambodia, where a man I cared for had been killed. It took 19 months for his mother and me to get the official word, when he went from MIA to KIA. His mother died within days, and his daughter went into the foster system to be adopted. I did not know all the emotions from those years were still alive, taking up real estate in my heart and soul.
The parallels between Nixon and our current president couldn’t be played out more clearly if the producers had flashed a neon warning across the screen: Don’t let it happen again. This may not be the time for marching in the streets, but if it is, I’ll be there, chanting and carrying signs. This is the time for making our voices heard. Write to your local newspapers. Write to your congressmen and senators if you think we should ratchet down the rhetoric against North Korea. Let them know how you feel. Tell them what you want. I do know. I know I want never to have our brave men and women die for a cause that is not ours, not a defense of our homeland, of the homelands of our allies. I do know. I will not sit silent. I do know.