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Living with Vietnam

Spiritual Smart Aleck

I’ve been watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part film about Vietnam on PBS. It is unsatisfying, and not only because the experience as we lived it fifty years ago was a nightmare.

Perhaps it is because so many things in our country, including this documentary, are paid for by people like the Koch brothers and the Bank of America, and that has influenced the telling of the story.

What is the old saying? The winners write history?

Perhaps because it tells a story that is not my story, or your story. It tells the stories of a few people, and I think Burns and Novick mean to illustrate the whole war in the stories of these few, but I don’t think they succeed.

Do not watch it if you don’t like pictures of dead bodies. The documentary shows piles of dead Vietnamese and Americans, on the ground, on tanks, on armored personnel carriers, carried in bags and in tarps, carried on stretchers or without stretchers or on soldiers’ backs; scattered in fields and in puddles, lying alongside paths in the jungle. I have never seen so many corpses in my life. Broken bloody dolls, formerly human beings and pieces of human beings. The pictures bring home the brutality of that war.

Of all wars.

And those are the guys whose bodies weren’t blown into a pink mist. Of whom there was something left to send home.
Oh, yeah. Home.

I started college in 1965 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the most conservative of the California state schools. How conservative was it? In 1968-9, when San Francisco State was shut down for five months by the strike of the Black Students and the Third World Liberation Front, Cal Poly was considered the safest place for then Governor Ronald Reagan and the UC Board of Regents to meet. The first I knew of it was when I saw a policeman wearing a baby blue helmet and carrying one of those yard-long truncheons.

He looked bizarrely out of place to me. Such force was overkill at Cal Poly – sure, there was a small crowd of protesters, twenty or thirty maybe, but there was another group of students that presented Governor Reagan and the Regents with a welcome letter. They expressed their thanks and appreciation for the fine job the Governor and the Regents were doing. There was a nice article about it in the school newspaper afterward.

In those years the draft and the draft lottery were on everybody’s mind. You cannot exaggerate how large it loomed in  our lives. A young man never knew when he might be drafted and sent off to die, so many young men lived in fear until they got a low lottery number, or a deferment, or failed their physical, or joined some other branch of the service where they thought they’d have more control of their destiny than they would in the Army infantry.

A couple of the draftees I knew came back from Vietnam broken, angry, and bitter, unable to make eye contact. To them I suppose I was this airhead girl who had no idea, and looking at those piles of corpses I suppose they were exactly right.

Some vets drank. Some came home addicted to heroin. Some smoked dope, which they’d started smoking in Vietnam. Grass was easy to get in Vietnam. Rick said it came aboard his ship with the mail. The postmaster was a popular guy.

My husband Rick was a blue water Navy veteran of Vietnam. He was on Yankee Station, North SARS (Search and Rescue) in the Tonkin Gulf, on the USS King. Their job was to pick up pilots who came out of North Vietnam and ditched in the Gulf.

Rick always had a soft spot for John McCain because McCain was shot down and taken prisoner while the King was on station. McCain never had a chance of getting out to the Tonkin Gulf, but his plane’s distress signal was heard, so they knew on the King that he’d gone down.

I feel like I’ve lived with the Vietnam war all my adult life. I didn’t go to war, but I’ve lived with and around guys who did, and their whole lives and in many cases their deaths were deeply affected by the war.

People are still dying because they were in Vietnam.

I guess I’ll keep watching the Vietnam documentary, to see where it goes, but if it is meant to provide healing to our sad old country, I am not feeling it. I confess that I did have hopes. Oh well. Not that many quick fixes in this life, are there?

Blessings on you.