09.25.2017 | Vietnam Comes Home

“Merely an Empire” (link: Merely An Empire) reviews and captures a remarkable ten-part, $30 million Ken Burns film The Vietnam War unfolding this and next week on PBS. It’s a compelling series. It’s compelling discussion subject. 

Perhaps the psychological timelock on Vietnam has finally expired. Maybe enough heat has finally dissipated such that those old enough to have lived through our national hallucination now have the opportunity for some moral and political clarity. 

Maybe you millennials, having been spared a front row seat to the national nervous breakdown, can begin to appreciate the echoes of that experience reverberating even today — polarization, distrust of the institutional mindset, even perhaps the root of the anti-intellectual reflex. And, no, the question of humanism is not age-specific.

These aren’t the Punic Wars we’re talking about; Vietnam is but two generations old. We dismiss the lessons of the war at our peril. Some years back Bill Moyer interviewed the poet Robert Bly who argued that Americans have yet to experience the necessary catharsis. Invoking Jung, he said by refusing to eat our grief, our dark side, we won’t absorb the past and, until we do, we are condemned to repeat it.

Some of us vividly recall falling for that memorable war-cry justification of our Asian incursion some fifty years ago — something about about falling dominoes, maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever-encroaching Doohdah. That all seems to somehow rhyme with axis of evil, slam dunk, greeted as liberators, they hate us for our freedoms.

Each likely has a story — whether of oneself, a family member, a friend or that veteran on the street corner — about a life irrevocably changed. Casualties come in all forms. There’s such a thing as the death of trust. From these and millions of other stories a mosaic may appear.

The purpose is to neither self-flagellate nor dump on our wonderful country. The purpose is to extract lessons. Maybe something about hubris. Maybe something about imperial overreach. 

A clear-eyed view of history may help to avoid some future Robert McNamara the fate of that then-Secretary of Defense and co-architect of the war who, in the twilight of his life, stood a broken man and confessed (in the preface to his book, “The Fog of War”) that, “Mistakes were made, terrible mistakes of judgment.”

Steve SmithComment