Ken Burns and the Vietnam War: Ten Items to Watch For


W.J. Astore

On September 17th, a new TV documentary series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns (famous for past series on the U.S. Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, among others) and Lynn Novick begins its run on PBS.  Airing in ten parts over 18 hours, the series promises a comprehensive look at the war from all sides, with the catchphrase “There is no single truth in war” serving as a guiding light.  Initial excerpts suggest the series isn’t looking to provide definitive answers, perhaps as a way of avoiding political controversy in the Age of Trump.

I’ll be watching the series, but I have ten points of my own to make about America’s war in Vietnam.  As a preamble, the Vietnam War (American version) was both mistake and crime. What’s disconcerting in the U.S. media is the emphasis on the war as an American tragedy, when it was truly a horrific tragedy inflicted upon the peoples of Southeast Asia (Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians). Yes, American troops suffered and died in large numbers, yet Southeast Asian casualties were perhaps 50 times as great. Along with wanton killing came the poisoning of the environment with defoliants like Agent Orange; meanwhile, mines and unexploded ordnance from the war continue to kill people today in Southeast Asia. In a sense, the killing from that war still isn’t over.

With the caveat that we should reserve judgment until we’ve seen the series, let’s keep these ten points in mind as we watch:

1. To most Americans, Vietnam is a war. And war is a distorting and limiting lens through which to view cultures and peoples. Will Burns recognize this distortion?

2. The series talks about hearing voices from all sides of the conflict. But will the Vietnamese people, together with Laotians and Cambodians, really have as much say as Americans?

3. The U.S. suffered nearly 60,000 troops killed. But Vietnamese killed numbered in the millions. And the destruction to SE Asia — the spread of the war to Laos and Cambodia — was on a scale that rivaled or surpassed the destruction to the American South during the U.S. Civil War. Will that destruction be thoroughly documented and explained?

4. Whose point of view will prevail in the documentary? What will be the main thread of the narrative? Will the war be presented as a tragedy? A misunderstanding? A mistake? A crime? Will the “noble cause” and “stabbed in the back” myths (the ideas that the U.S. fought for freedom and democracy and against communism, and that the U.S. military could have won but was prevented from doing so by unpatriotic forces at home) be given equal time in the interests of a “fair and balanced” presentation? Will these myths be presented as alternative truths of the war?

5. Which American war in Vietnam will be presented? Even when we talk of the American part of the Vietnam War, there were at least four wars. The U.S. Army under General William Westmoreland fought a conventional, search and destroy, war. The Air Force wanted to prove that airpower alone, specifically bombing, could win the war. The Marines were more interested in counterinsurgency and pacification. The CIA and special ops types were engaged in psychological warfare, assassinations, torture, and god-knows-what-else.

6. The American presence in Vietnam became so overwhelming that by 1967-68 the Vietnamese economy was completely distorted. We brought American materialism and profligacy to a nation that was, by comparison, impoverished and “backwards” (from our perspective, of course). Material superiority bred and fed cockiness.

Consider Meredith Lair’s book, “Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War” (2011).  It details the non-combat experiences of U.S. troops in Vietnam.  Here’s a telling book blurb written by historian Christian Appy: “Meredith Lair’s fascinating analysis of rear-echelon life among American G.I.s dramatically challenges our most common conceptions of U.S. military experiences in Vietnam. From steaks to steambaths, swimming pools to giant PXs, the amenities provided on large bases not only belie conventional images of that war, but also stand as dramatic testimony to the desperate and unsuccessful effort of American officials to bolster flagging troop morale as the war lurched toward its final failure.”

Will this orgy of American-driven materialism be documented?

7. Anti-war protests and serious unrest within the U.S. military led to the end of the draft and the creation of an “all-volunteer” military. Has this decision contributed to a more imperial U.S. foreign policy facilitated by a much more tractable military of “volunteers”?

8. Short of nuclear weapons, the U.S. military used virtually every weapon in its arsenal in SE Asia. The region became a test/proving ground for all sorts of weapons and concepts, from “smart” weapons and electronic fences and sensors to horrendous pounding by conventional bombs to war on the environment using defoliants and massive bulldozers to … well … everything. All sorts of pacification theories were tested as well, along with COIN and “small wars” and unconventional tactics to search and destroy to Vietnamization to … well … again, everything. SE Asia became a laboratory and its peoples became lab rats. Will this reality be fully documented?

9. It’s essential that people realize President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, knew the war was a lost cause no later than 1969. (Their conversations on tape prove this.) All they were looking for was a “decent interval” between a peace treaty (“peace with honor”) and what they saw as the inevitable collapse. They got that (in)decent interval of roughly 2.5 years. The Congressional decision to cut off funding to South Vietnam was convenient for the Nixon/Kissinger acolytes, since it allowed them to shift the blame for South Vietnam’s collapse in 1975 to Congress as well as to the usual “suspect” elements in American society, i.e. the peace movement.

Will the duplicity and hypocrisy of Nixon/Kissinger be adequately documented?

10. Finally, an important aspect of the Vietnam War was the breakdown in discipline within the U.S. military, which helped to drive the eventual elimination of the draft. Part of this breakdown was driven by drugs, a trade in which the CIA was implicated. At The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviewed Alfred McCoy, who wrote the book on this drug trade. Here’s an excerpt from their recent interview:

Alfred McCoy: And in 1970 and ’71, there were rumors that started coming back from Vietnam, particularly 1971, that heroin was spreading rapidly in the ranks of the U.S. forces fighting in South Vietnam. And in later research, done by the White House, [it was] determined that in 1971, 34 percent, one-third of all the American combat troops fighting in South Vietnam were heavy heroin users. There were, if that statistic is accurate, more addicts in the ranks of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam than there were in the United States.

And so what I did was I set out to investigate: Where was the opium coming from? Where was the heroin coming from? Who was trafficking it? How is it getting to the troops in their barracks and bunkers across the length and breadth of South Vietnam? Nobody was asking this question. Everyone was reporting on the high level of abuse, but nobody was figuring out where and who.

So I started interviewing. I went to Paris. I interviewed the head of the French equivalent of the CIA in Indochina, who was then head of a major French helicopter manufacturing company, and he explained to me how during the French Indochina war from 1946 to 1954, they were short of money for covert operations, so the hill tribes in Laos produced the opium, the aircraft picked it up, they turned it over to the netherworld, the gangsters that controlled Saigon and secured it for the French and that paid for their covert operations. And I said, “What about now?” And he said, “Well I don’t think the pattern’s changed. I think it’s still there. You should go and look.”

So I did. I went to Saigon. I got some top sources in the Vietnamese military. I went to Laos. I hiked into the mountains. I was ambushed by CIA mercenaries and what I discovered was that the CIA’s contract airline, Air America, was flying into the villages of the Hmong people in Northern Laos, whose main cash crop was opium and they were picking up the opium and flying it out of the hills and there were heroin labs — one of the heroin labs, the biggest heroin lab in the world, was run by the commander-in-chief of the Royal Laotian Army, a man whose military budget came entirely from the United States. And they were transforming, in those labs, the opium into heroin. It was being smuggled into South Vietnam by three cliques controlled by the president, the vice president, and the premier of South Vietnam, and their military allies and distributed to U.S. forces in South Vietnam.

And the CIA wasn’t directly involved, but they turned a blind eye to the role of their allies’ involvement in the traffic. And so this heroin epidemic swept the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The Defense Department invented mass urine analysis testing, so when those troops left they were tested and given treatment. And what I discovered was the complexities, the complicity, of the CIA in this traffic and that was a pattern that was repeated in Central America when the Contras became involved in the traffic.

These ten items highlight just some of the complexities of the Vietnam War and its effects throughout Southeast Asia.  How many of these will be tackled honestly in Ken Burns’s new series?  We shall see, beginning in two weeks.

25 thoughts on “Ken Burns and the Vietnam War: Ten Items to Watch For

  1. Hah ha! For some some reason whenever I see W. J. Astore or Alfred McCoy I jump to read! Now WJA publishes one of his essays! lol!
    Though seriously, 2 great writers & thinkers. I’d guess a few generations apart, proper thinking & morals remain the same: you’re both on the right track.
    I spent my life as a “capitalist”, unlike yourselves in the military. Yet we had sympathy for draftee’s in Vietnam. We too could have been drafted, but worked for an advertising company that had JP Stevens, fabric maker for army uniforms & tents etc. as an account. We only worked 20 minutes a week; other clients Coca-Cola, Buick, etc. MANY hours. It was a con game between big business & Military Industrial Complex. Not that we complained! And NEVER engaged in anti war marches! “Neutral”.
    Now I’m an old bastard at 72! Have all limbs; brain maybe so-so.
    Time to make amends. Of course it’s WORSE today, but I think with writers like WJA & McCoy, we’ll S-L-O-W-L-Y start to win. The so called “Wolfowitz Doctrine” is basically dead. At least colonists of the past took over, controlled, then plundered.
    We, US & puppets, today just wreck & destroy. The old colonists were far smarter!
    The cost of stealing their resources is FAR higher than they are worth!
    Which is why Houston is underwater. Plenty to fight in Afghanistan for lithium, but bankrupt at home.


  2. Folks should know that the heroin trafficking addressed in question 10 extended into Army bases in West Germany. At least that was the situation at the artillery base where I was stationed.


  3. I’m a product of this war. I was in the Navy from 1967 to 1971. I am now suffering from at least two physical conditions to Agent Orange exposure ads I was a machine gunner on a riverboat when Admiral Zumwalt decided to defoliate the riverbanks. But this is not about me. As a history professor, have you delved into what I believe is the real root cause of our involvement in Viet Nam. During WW2, Ho Chi Minh was our ally fighting the Japanese along side the OSS operatives in the northern sections of the country. After the end of the war, a parade was held in Hanoi honoring some of the OSS operatives. Meanwhile Truman put Viet Nam on the backburner since he had Marshall implementing his plan to rebuild Europe. Which was deemed more important. After WW2, colonialism should have been put to rest. But we all know the French and Michelin were given cart blanche to go back for the rubber plantations and whatever else. Ho Chi Minh defeated them too. We then bail out the French yet again. Also the ridiculous excuse of the US containing Communism, mainly the Chinese is totally ludicrous. The Vietnamese did not and do not want to be colonized by anyone. Including the Chinese who they have been fighting off and on for 5000 years. They certainly didn’t want us either. Would we tolerate a foreign some other country trying to change our form of government through invasion?


    1. Greetings, Mike. Always good to have another Brown Water Navy veteran aboard.

      For your information, you can find an extensive discussion of this upcoming Ken Burns documentary at The Contrary Perspective website: Vietnam Redux: An Open Letter to Ken Burns, with over a hundred comments to date, many of them dealing with the overall history of America’s military misadventure in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) as well as the recollected personal experiences of some who took part in that history. You might find that discussion of interest.

      As for my own insignificant part in this history, I have put together some pictures and an accompanying narrative — still incomplete in places — at The Misfortune Teller. I began the website as a place to put my virulently anti-war poetry, but I later expanded it to include a seventeen-year project putting together a pronunciation guide to the Japanese version of the Threefold Lotus Sutra. Then, I decided to add a still-developing page of references to some of the reading that has most guided my own intellectual and literary development. A work-in-progress, certainly, and one that I’ll probably never finish in this lifetime. Still, it did all start for me on a specific date, three years into my six-year enlistment in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club (a.k.a., the United States Navy):

      DATE: JULY 09, 1969

      PO BOX 2751
      IDAHO FALLS, IDAHO 83401.


      Translation from military gobbledegook into plain English:

      Electricians Mate Second Class Michael R, Murry will transfer from the Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and report no later than 1500 (three o’clock in the afternoon) on the 21st of August 1969 to the commanding officer of the Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado Island (near San Diego) for seven weeks of temporary duty instruction (4 weeks academic phase and 3 weeks Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE)) at the conclusion of which he will report no later than 1500 on the 18th of October 1969 to the Superintendent Naval Postgraduate School Monterey for 32 weeks of duty instruction with the Defense Language Institute West Coast Branch in the Vietnamese Language (Southern Dialect), course beginning on 20 October, 1969 and ending 18 June, 1970. In compliance with Operational Naval Instructions he will ultimately be assigned to the Chief of Naval Advisory Group, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, for duty as an Electrical Advisor.

      Which all leads up to my relationship with Admiral Elmo Zumwalt — whom you mention in your comments — and the affect that this man had upon my subsequent life, all of it no doubt unintentional on his part. But that story remains for another comment some other time.

      I’ve read most of the better histories of the United States and Asia, but I’d like to know your own story, as this information will no doubt help us enrich our understanding of the unfolding history which continues to produce us all.

      Best regards,

      Mike Murry — Kaohsiung, Taiwan


      1. A Navy nuke power guy with SERE training and more than half a year of Vietnamese language instruction…posting from Taiwan…nothing to see here, move along. Bet you don’t have any good stories to tell!


    1. Thanks. If you know, just what were we supposed to win. Whatever that elusive concept is, were are repeating it all over again in the Middle East. What and how are we going to win in Sandland?


      1. That is a great question. Check out Major Danny Sjursen’s article at today. Here’s an excerpt:

        “If ever you have the urge to do just that, ask yourself the following question: Would I be able to confidently explain to someone’s mother what (besides his mates) her child actually died for?

        What would you tell her? That he (or she) died to ensure Saudi hegemony in the Persian Gulf, or to facilitate the rise of ISIS, or an eternal Guantanamo, or the spread of terror groups, or the creation of yet more refugees for us to fear, or the further bombing of Yemen to ensure a famine of epic proportions?

        Maybe you could do that, but I couldn’t and can’t. Not anymore, anyway. There have already been too many mothers, too many widows, for whom those explanations couldn’t be lamer. And so many dead — American, Afghan, Iraqi, and all the rest — that eventually I find myself sitting on a bar stool staring at the six names on those bracelets of mine, the wreckage of two wars reflecting back at me, knowing I’ll never be able to articulate a coherent explanation for their loved ones, should I ever have the courage to try.”


  4. I wonder if they address Nixon’s pre-election sabotage of LBJ’s peace talks, which Johnson and others have described as treason.


  5. Yes, it will be interesting to see how the political decisions will be presented. I suspect a good deal of arrogance lurked in the back of some of these decision makers minds. The USA had become accustomed to instigating coups, saber rattling, or outright military interventions especially in Latin America to achieve a desired result. Perhaps North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was viewed within this prism of arrogance. The long history of Vietnamese resistance to foreign invaders was ignored.

    I was a combat infantryman with the 1st. Cavalry Division along the Cambodian border 1970-71. I was a part of the invasion of Cambodia. I knew even as a “grunt” the Army of South Vietnam would lose once the last American Combat forces and support troops, including the Air Force were gone.

    Tran Van Tra was a Viet Cong and NVA Lt. General. There is an extensive report Part 5 from the Paris Agreement to Complete Victory, he authored in 1982 on the internet: General Tra, mentions China had given signals in the 1960’s that the USA was free to act in Vietnam as long as the USA did not clash with China.

    There is one other part, the degradation of Vietnamese Society. There were brothels set-up from south of DMZ to the South China Sea. You could go on R&R to several different cities outside of Vietnam. Back in Vietnam there were “hooch girls” who would clean up the hooches (barracks) or other buildings. Some engaged in prostitution.

    No book or TV Program can completely bring home the Vietnam War. It was in Vietnam when I saw people frantically going through our garbage before it was buried in a pit. It is like a factory hog farm. I can describe the eye burning stench and could show you pictures or video of it. You will not be able to experience it or understand it from a book or other media.


    1. Great comment, ML. Some things must be lived to be understood, and your experiences in theater in Vietnam fall in that category. I’ve read a lot of combat memoirs about Vietnam, but I don’t pretend to understand what the war was really like. We catch glimpses in memoirs, many of them powerful and ghastly. They make an impression, but they don’t haunt me because I didn’t live them.


  6. Thank you for the post Prof Astore.
    There is so much literature on Vietnam war, for a late comer, it is overwhelming to know where to start and there is no agreement regarding anything related to this war and I guess that will continue as Mr James Reston Jr states……
    I still have to read the book by Frances Fitzgerald, “Fire in the Lake” however did read “Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon & the Destruction of Cambodia” by Shawcross which was shocking to say the least. I am hoping to read “On the Frontlines of the Television War”……….memoir by a TV Cameraman, Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki.
    Can’t say I will watch the documentary live…. have seen enough carnage already what with all the wars raging all around us. Can not take anymore lies. Will await reviews!


    1. Thanks for the link to the op-ed article by James Reston in The Los Angeles Times, RS. I especially apprecieated the following observation:

      “It is with bitter irony that the Vietnam generation has witnessed the friendly visits of Presidents Clinton and Bush (both of whom avoided the war) to Hanoi.”

      Personally, I never begrudged anyone avoiding a needless, pointless war that anyone in his or her right mind would have avoided if they could. Nor did I ever resent reconcilliaton with a united and independent Vietnam. We Americans had no business fighting the Vietnamese in the first place. I just wish that we had sent a genuine advocate for peace, like Jane Fonda, as our official representative, and not some cynical, self-serving “Commander-in-Brief” who loved war and couldn’t wait to start more of them as long as someone else did the fighting and dying. So, I dealt with the bitter irony as best I could eleven years ago on my birthday:

      Written on the occasion of President George W. Bush finally making the trip to Vietnam on November 17, 2006, decades after a better American woman, Jane Fonda, made the trip in his place. Three-and-a-half years into his own Vietnam-style debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan — disasters that he would bequeath to his successor two years later — Dubya the Dimwit proved to the world that what he didn’t learn about America in Vietnam he wouldn’t learn about America in the Middle East, either.

      Hanoi Haiku

      In Hanoi at last
      Red-carpet in return for
      Our carpet-bombing

      The words no one heard,
      Due so many years after:
      “We apologize”

      Deputy Dubya
      Sheriff Cheney’s Barney Fife
      Lost in Mayberry

      Gullible Goofy
      The boy who cried Wolfowitz
      Far too many times

      Emerald City
      Naked ruler’s brand new clothes
      Viewed through glasses green

      Mission Accomplished!
      A cakewalk in its last throes
      Now a glacier race

      Four Years an “instant”
      Nothing happens right away
      What did you expect?

      Broken-egg omelets
      George Orwell’s Catastrophic

      Shop till the troops drop
      Buy a plane ticket or two
      Your part in the “war”

      Rob the future now
      They will never break our will
      Those grandkids of ours

      Lecture the victors
      About their First and Second
      Indochina Wars

      Where did we get him?
      How come we can’t do better?
      We look so stupid

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006


      1. Or this, written two years later (2008). And now, nine years later still (2017), Deputy Dubya the Third (Donald Trump) takes over and …

        “All In” on a Bad Hand

        Shrub had an urge to waste and splurge,
        But now we moan a mournful dirge.

        Procrastination has its aims,
        Yet never offers truthful claims.

        Again we stay to stall for time,
        ‘Till Shrub can cover up his crime.

        Like Vietnam in desert sands,
        Iraq once more has tied our hands.

        The violence goes down, we say;
        So that just means we have to stay.

        The violence goes up and so
        That just means we can never go.

        We train them to dependency
        So that they’ll never once break free.

        We’ve given them vast wounds to nurse,
        And English, so they’ll learn to curse.

        Thus, mission-creeping with a “surge,”
        We flog ourselves with our own scourge.

        But Dick says Shrub the burden bears:
        Deciding stuff while chaos flares.

        This propaganda catapult
        Continues to our minds insult.

        His lies he’s never once un-spun,
        Or failed to twist the Truth for fun.

        So now he waits for greater fools
        To buy his worthless quagmire jewels.

        We’ve gone “all in” on Shrub’s bad bet.
        How stupid can one nation get?

        Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2008


  7. The Vietnamese who fought to expel the French and then us did so, to use a sort of analogy; 12 hrs a day, 7 days a week, for 25 years if they lived that long, without pay. They fielded perhaps the best motivated best disciplined best lead army of the 20th century. Against that America had one answer. Blow it up. That didn’t work either but it was good for business and provided the majority of Americans with the thing they most love. Blowing up someplace that isn’t America.

    Which we have continued to do for nearing 50 more years with no end in sight.


    1. Thanks for the link, RS.

      Sometimes I wonder about Ken Burns. Take the following, for example:

      “I do believe in our exceptionalism. I am not Pollyanna-ish; we simply have to hold ourselves to a much higher standard than anyone else is held to. I think that’s part of the American promise.”

      Sure. I thought American exceptionalism means no accountability or legal obligations whatsoever for the ruling corporate/military junta. As George Orwell put it in 1984: “In Oceania, there is no law.” So much for that “higher standard.” More like no standards whatsoever — for us.

      And then this series of connected whoppers:

      “I think the military learned a lot of practical stuff. They didn’t like having collateral damage, so they learned precision bombing. They didn’t like having their planes shot out of the air, so they developed stealth technology. They didn’t want the press getting into every nook and corner, so they invented the embedded thing.”

      “We don’t as a people blame the soldiers anymore; that’s one of the best and most durable things I think we’ll never, ever forget.”

      Translation: We don’t blame the generals and admirals, no matter how many decades they spend locating unnecessary and pointless wars to fight — just to keep in practice — and then losing to any and every rag-tag group of barely armed goatherds and poppy farmers they can find. But when something goes wrong and the American people find out about it, the brasss always blames the enlisted men. See Private Bradley/Chelsea Manning for only one example. He/she ruined everything for the ticket-punching career brass by committing journalism because the “in bed with” Pentagon sycophants wouldn’t do their job. No accurate reporting on our secret and uncounted “wars” allowed The American people certainly can’t forget what they never hear about in the first place.

      When Mr Burns looks up at the sky in his world, I wonder what color he sees?

      I think I’ll watch NASA’s broadcast of the Cassini/Huygens spacecraft’s final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15th. Twenty years in space and thirteen of them spent exploring a fascinating planetary system. Shows what the United States and Europe can accomplish together when they don’t squander decades and trillions of dollars blowing up impoverished Asian and Muslim countries so the fuck-up-and-move-up brass can decorate themselves like Christmas trees. After that, I think I’ll take some time off from the Internet and wait until someone else reports on whatever Mr Burns and company have produced.

      Thanks again for the link.


    2. Yes, thanks for the link, RS. Burns thinks he can be an objective umpire calling balls and strikes, without taking a position on the game.

      But that’s impossible in history. When you decide to be studiously neutral, that means you’re taking a side, especially as an American viewing U.S. intervention into Vietnam.

      I also like the way he casually admits we’ll never get thorough, no-views-barred, journalistic coverage of wars as we had in Vietnam. In other words, all wars after Vietnam have been heavily edited and directed, so to speak, by the Pentagon, with all those “embedded” reporters acting as so many cheerleaders. Tall about a legacy of Vietnam!

      A true journalist would call this reality out as the worst form of censorship, as it implies a glorification of war by government propaganda.


  8. >> Unlike the other wars of this century, of course, there were deep divisions about the wisdom and rightness of the Vietnam war. Both sides spoke with honesty and fervor. And what more can we ask in our democracy? And yet after more than a decade of desperate boat people, after the killing fields of Cambodia, after all that has happened in that unhappy part of the world, who can doubt that the cause for which our men fought was just? It was, after all, however imperfectly pursued, the cause of freedom; and they showed uncommon courage in its service. Perhaps at this late date we can all agree that we’ve learned one lesson: that young Americans must never again be sent to fight and die unless we are prepared to let them win. Ronald Reagan Remarks at the Veterans Day Ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial November 11, 1988. <<<
    Reagan carried on and amplified the myth that we fought in S.E. Asia for the "cause of freedom". No acknowledgement that the USA added an accelerant to the fires. By the time the United States ended its Southeast Asian bombing campaigns, the total tonnage of ordnance dropped approximately tripled the totals for World War II. The Indochinese bombings amounted to 7,662,000 tons of explosives, compared to 2,150,000 tons in the world conflict.

    Plus, we used Agent Orange.

    Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. Friedrich Nietzsche

    Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win. Stephen King


  9. I wasn’t in the service (drew 232 in the draft lottery) but I have read many books and heard personal accounts by/of those who were in wars. It’s very common to run across, “he never spoke of it”. Even family members will tell of being unable to get a vet to tell what happened. From this alone, those who have not served should understand that war, even if one had been an eager volunteer, is not a place most want to return to later. This is why I feel sick to my stomach when viewing a smiling and honored Henry Kissinger who represents so well those who glory in moving the pieces, making the “courageous decisions” over the chessboard of power.

    Today, an hour ago while riding my bicycle, I was surprised to come upon a war memorial in town, that, though I have lived here most of my life, I did not know existed. Put up in 1929 by the DAR, it is a cylinder upon which march ranks of four men one after the other, each rank from a different war – the Revolution, Civil War, Spanish-American, and “World War” (not WW1 because in 1929 there had yet to be a second). All of those represented are mute, because long gone. With the Vietnam War we have plenty, of all nationalities, still alive to speak up and tell their stories independent of official mythology. The disturbing thing about the Ken Burns production is my sense that people believe this will be the definitive story, when such a thing is impossible.

    Though I don’t have a TV to view it, I look forward to the critique of the production and the comments that will appear here.


    1. Memory comes back to us in different forms, at different times. When memory comes for me, I try to deal with it by rearranging words into particular forms and sounds. Then, at least, I can convince myself that I’ve put memory to some creative use instead of letting memory create a cripple out of me. Something like:

      The Good Ship Memory Hole

      One dark and stormy night this tepid tale
      Began, and waking from a dream, it ended.
      Unmoored, the uncrewed Fantasy set sail
      On twilight seas where day and nighttime blended.
      The empty sky complained to no avail
      About the disbelief it had suspended.

      The tide went out and with it went the boat
      Adrift and rudderless, no one commanding.
      The fog rolled in and swallowed in its throat
      The strangled cry of something dim demanding
      To know the reason why the fishes gloat
      To see a thing beneath their understanding.

      The wind, that vagrant quantity, died down,
      And then arose to drive the ship before it.
      No Ahab paced the deck to rage and frown.
      No fickle fate consented to abhor it:
      That nightmare stream in which the dreamers drown;
      The mind awaiting waking to restore it.

      The whales and dolphins swam along beside.
      The albatrosses soared, the gulls they glided.
      The barnacles hung on to bum a ride.
      The turtles temporized, their time they bided,
      Until the seals would cease them to deride;
      Till someone, somewhere, sane, this scene decided.

      The ocean rudely rolled, the eyes they crossed,
      As stomachs down below grew sour and trembled.
      The passengers turned pale; their lunch they lost;
      And wondered why they ever had assembled
      To voyage to the void at such a cost —
      And who the ticket-selling fraud resembled.

      No Ishmael survived the trip who knows
      Why thought reflected off the waves and scattered,
      Absorbed into the swirling ebbs and flows
      That left the crazy craft careened and battered
      Upon Amnesia reef where nothing grows
      Except forgetfulness of things that mattered.

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2009


  10. My aunt was a faculty member at Kent State Univ when the horrible tragedy happened ( she is retired now ). To this day, she has not said a single word about it or her reaction to it ( she is totally apolitical ). The expression on her face if one brings up the subject is indescribable.
    When all is said and done, WAR brings a kind of SADNESS to those affected by it ( directly and indirectly ) which is heartbreaking.


  11. Written [eleven] years ago in 2006, but just as relevant today: the unfolding saga of America reducing itself to passive intellectual incarceration, mesmerized by the moving colored images emanating from a glowing television screen; like the island aborigine Boobies cut off from the world’s cultural mainland; like prisoners kept underground who can only see shadows dancing on the walls of their cave and not the marionettes and puppeteers on the elevated stage behind them who produce and cast the shadows that they mistake for reality. In the accelerating economic insecurity enveloping so many Americans today, we can see the usual and historic:

    Boobie Top-Down Class Warfare
    (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    It happened back in Vietnam
    Some [four] score years ago
    When those within the upper class
    Declined to serve, and so
    They coined Selective Service to
    Select who wouldn’t go

    They called themselves the brightest and
    They called themselves the best
    And then they sent their countrymen
    Into a hornet’s nest
    But not themselves, of course, because
    They’d passed the privilege test

    These parents of a George and Dick
    Thought Communism bad
    But worried that some other lands
    Would find it not as sad
    As slaving for the rich ones whose
    Rank greed had made them mad

    So sympathizing with the rich
    No matter what they did
    The parents of a George and Dick
    Sent someone else’s kid
    To fight the dreaded communists
    No matter where they hid

    But not their George and Dick, of course,
    They couldn’t spare the time
    And Vietnam seemed far away
    Immersed in war and grime
    An atmosphere too turbulent
    For orchids in their prime

    These studly hot-house orchid types
    Worked hard to dodge the light
    Their parents helped them jump the line
    To keep them out of sight
    Arranging for deferments that
    Would keep them from the fight

    And so the years of war went by
    And communism won
    Which had exactly no effect
    On those who had the fun
    Of skipping out and turning tail
    To take off on the run

    Soon Vietnam recovered from
    The blasting it had got
    And communists turned businessmen
    To hatch a common plot
    With those who liked cheap labor
    And cared less why some had fought

    Still some remained embittered by
    The waste made of their lives
    And swore they’d never live again
    Like worker bees in hives
    Content to feed the rich who dined
    With sharpened forks and knives

    But Boobie schools taught only fraud
    And fiction to the young
    With fantasy and fables coined
    To see the truth unstrung
    Till history became a fog
    That never bit or stung

    On schedule, Boobie Dick and George
    Found Politician Town
    And learned that pandering for votes
    Could win some safe renown
    Affirmatively actioned up
    They never could fall down

    The millions seemed to flow their way
    And stuck to them like paste
    They spent what others raised for them
    With no thought for the waste
    Since someone else’s money had
    The sweetest sort of taste

    They made a deal between themselves
    To do a pantomime
    With Dick to do the thinking while
    George mouthed a lisping rhyme
    And so with the Supine Court’s help
    They grabbed for our last dime

    The Boobie George then tripped and crashed
    Into this truth sublime:
    That Boobies hated freedom and
    Considered it a crime
    Dick told him then what he should do:
    Just work them overtime!

    With not a moment left to think
    The Boobies wouldn’t know
    Where all their beads and shells had gone
    Or why they couldn’t show
    A single thing as evidence
    That they had labored so

    Once George and Dick gained access to
    The treasury’s largesse
    It hardly seems surprising that
    It soon contained much less
    A fact which few observers seemed
    To think of with distress

    But “stupid is as stupid does,”
    The stupid do and say
    Confronted by a wealthy thief
    They genuflect, then pay;
    With eyes and minds shut fast like that
    They make such tempting prey

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006


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