The war that haunts us still

For me, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is an emotional place. Walking past name after name after name of those killed and missing brings home the true cost of the war in a simple, heart-wrenching way.

As you walk along the polished black granite wall, inscribed with more than 58,000 names, you walk deeper and deeper below ground level, until, at its lowest point, the granite slabs tower above you. Before you realize it, you’re literally in over your head. The design is a (perhaps unintentionally) fitting metaphor for the war.

For more than 40 years, we tried to sweep the war and its divisions, disillusionments and cynicism under the country’s collective rug. We didn’t want to talk about it. Or maybe it was too soon, and we just couldn’t.

In the meantime, valuable lessons from the war went unheeded, and the unhealed divisions in our country only got worse.

Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Vietnam War,” which aired recently on PBS, brings much of this out into the open. For those born after the war ended, and even for some of us who lived through it, the series offers a comprehensive history of the conflict. It looks at the war from many perspectives, including those of North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Ultimately, however, it is unable to answer the most important questions: Why did this happen, and what did it all mean?

Early in the series, a commentator says that the United States should have viewed the Vietnamese fight against the French in the late 1940s as a nationalist war against colonialism. But the Americans instead viewed it through the lens of the Cold War, as a fight between communist nationalists and the West. By the time the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, the U.S. was footing nearly 80 percent of the bill for the French forces.

It’s easy to get into a war. Not so easy to get out.

Approximately 3 million people visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., every year. (Courtesy photo)

The series makes clear that presidents and their advisors, as far back as John F. Kennedy, realized the war was unwinnable. Yet they continued to send thousands and thousands of Americans to fight and die, year after hopeless year. Was it just so they didn’t get blamed for being the first president to “lose” a war with Communists? I’d like to think there was more to it than that, but I honestly don’t know that there was.

In public, however, those same American officials talked about how well the war was going, that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” These oft-repeated official lies not only eroded public support for the war, they also undermined people’s belief in and respect for the government in general.

One older baby boomer, who served in Vietnam, noted in Burns’ series that his was the last generation to grow up believing the government would never lie to them. By now, this Vietnam-era cynicism has so pervaded the public’s consciousness that people are ready to believe all manner of conspiracy theories and internet hoaxes.

Sadly, one of the main lessons we seem to have learned from Vietnam is that if there’s no draft, there’s a lot less opposition. The draft meant the war personally affected nearly every family, fueling widespread protests. Now, wars personally impact very few.

We could have learned that there are limits to how successful nation-building can be when it’s imposed from the outside. We could have learned that supporting corrupt regimes to serve a broader geopolitical goal doesn’t work. But we didn’t. We’ve made nearly all the same mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq that we made in Vietnam.

To stop repeating them, we need a robust public discussion about what happened in Vietnam and why. Perhaps Burns’ series can help start those conversations.

When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was first built, there were some who felt it wasn’t traditional enough, not heroic enough. So a statue of three American soldiers was added — a second statue dedicated to women who served came even later. The three soldiers stand a respectful distance away, looking toward the Memorial Wall, as if searching for their own names.

Many of us are like those bronze soldiers, looking at the war and searching for the meaning in their sacrifice.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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