Sunday, September 17, 2017

I am who I am because of Vietnam

I cried in public. Worse: I cried while speaking publicly. It surprised me. Why? Because I was crying over the Vietnam War.

It was only the second time I’d cried speaking in public. The first was at Sophie’s bat mitzvah, and I blubbered so badly I served as the benchmark Worst Crying Mother for many years of bar and bat mitzvah kids. But that moment was intensely personal, a life cycle milestone, a sense of time passing, and a sense of family history. A sense of optimism and loss, hopes and dreams.

And so, actually, was Vietnam.

We were all gathered to watch the opening excerpts of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War for public television. The speaker opened by asking the military members of the audience to stand, asking the Vietnam veterans to stand, asking those touched by veterans to stand. And then the program began.
There it was on the big screen, the same horrors in the jungle that had been on the T.V. news every night. Plus the things that had not been on the T.V. screen; the deceit and lies our government had told us that only came out afterwards. There were the marches, the protests, Kent State, the moratorium. There were interviews with Vietnamese people, with families whose sons never came home.

If you’re in your Third Third, you lived it, too. It was the most formative event of our First Third.

And when I rose to speak to the audience, I choked. It was incredibly embarrassing. Apparently, I still hadn’t recovered. Have any of us?

Because, I felt, we all needed to stand, not just the soldiers. The protesters, the people from Southeast Asia, the people still dying of land mines in Cambodia. The families split by the “generation gap.” The people who lost faith in government; the people who lost faith in generals. We were all injured by Vietnam.

When I was in London, I realized that war really happened there. Bombs fell, houses were destroyed, food was rationed. Whether you were on the front lines or on civilian rescue patrol, the war touched you.

Vietnam touched us. All of us. Bombs didn’t land on our homes, but they detonated in our lives.

I still have my black armband from the moratorium. I still remember watching the T.V., hoping my brother’s birth date wouldn’t be drawn “low” in the draft lottery. I still remember fights between “love it or leave its” and “peaceniks” right in our living room.
I still remember raising bail money for protesters, writing an essay for a friend’s conscientious objector application. I still remember my mother’s Another Mother for Peace stationery.

Later, I encountered returning vets, friends who’d gone to jail, men who came back from Canada. I visited the Vietnam Memorial. All I could see were the brothers and sons that never came home, and the broken, broken ones that did.

Many years later, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, I was astonished. I thought we’d all learned that lesson from Vietnam, that we didn’t mess with unwinnable wars. Even further, that we didn’t solve problems with bombs. And now, nearly 15 years later, we’re still recovering from that decision, from a government that lied to us about that, too.

But it’s different now. We can practically ignore this war. We have so many news channels, we can switch when the war comes on. We don’t see the same images; the war isn’t fought in our living room. Without a draft, we can safeguard our brothers and sons because “someone else” will do the fighting. As one friend put it, the news is about new prosthetics, not about whether we should be sending soldiers to be injured.

And yet, they’re still getting injured. They’re still dying. Families and hearts are being broken. Civilians are dying. Gains made are lost, “winning” is a meaningless concept. “We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on.”

There are just so many reasons why I cried in public over the Vietnam War.


  1. I get your rage and hope and fear... and the tears, though mine might flow from a different source. But maybe I am who I am because of Vietnam, too.

    Just what is America when it is the world's most powerful military -- does war become purpose for such a culture always readying for war?

    I don’t live in the USA anymore; I don’t take in its daily culture as you do. Still, that growing-smaller part of my American identity is embarrassed.

    No one likes a bully. Military might is proof-in-hand of being one. Vietnam’s harsh lesson was lost on America. That became another part of why I had to leave and why I became a Quaker.

    Be well, friend.

    1. I've missed your additions to the conversation! I've been reading The Inheritance of Loss about British colonialism in India, and hearing about French colonialism in Vietnam is just the SAME STUFF. Are you able to watch the PBS series there?

    2. We might look it up but we don't pay for signal feeds, though. I'm doing my bit to oppose things American, as I've joined in a doomed effort to stop NFL 'football' coming to London. Shall see what happens. Sigh.

      But on the bright side, maybe we'll finally get hotdogs with sauerkraut! Empire doesn't have to be all bad.

  2. Barbara,
    "Vietnam touched us. All of us. Bombs didn’t land on our homes, but they detonated in our lives."
    Thank you.

  3. FYI on war(s):
    Man Who Saved the World From Nuclear Armageddon in 1983 Dies at 77

    Petrov reasoned that if the Americans were going to launch a first strike they’d send more than five missiles, despite the fact that they could still do an enormous amount of damage. He also believed that since the alert system was relatively new it seemed likely that it could be sending a false alarm.

    1. Oh, this is so sad. He didn't even make it to Petrov Day September 26. You know about my post on him, right?

  4. I'd also note that the media had much more freedom in Vietnam than they have now at war locations. I'm sure if soldiers were still picked by draft boards, this war would be over by now. War had much more urgency when you knew that you or your boyfriend or son or grandson could be drafted and sent to Vietnam.


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