North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States … They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.— President Trump
We Americans have done fire and fury before, and it didn’t end well, either for us or for our enemy. Of course now, 42 years later, the Vietnamese, once the hated foe, are now our good friends, and we visit their country and they welcome us with genuine warmth. Still, the savagery of the Vietnam War and the deception that led to it burned scars into the soul of this country. The wounds still throb.
I watched — and I hope you watched — the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick series on PBS about the war. It was 18 hours of brilliant and emotional television, beginning in Vietnam in the late 1800s and taking us through the war. The series was groundbreaking both as a work of art and as a history of the time, told with the perspective of decades passed and lessons learned.
Like any national trauma, the Vietnam War haunts our memories. We read the newspapers of the day and the literature that came out of the war, and we try to come to terms with the 57,000 dead Americans and millions of dead Vietnamese. There is no easy resolution.
Of course, that time and experience, that particular war, has unique lessons to teach. Vietnam lacked the clarity of World Wars I and II, in which the enemy started the fight and was determined to take over the world. Soldiers wore uniforms and marched in lines and organized attacks.
In Vietnam the enemy wore black pajamas. Sometimes they were the friendly farmer by day and the assassin by night.
The underpinnings of the entire mission were spurious. The war was built on a fear of Asian nations falling like “dominos” to communism. Our leaders believed that America’s job was to save the world for democracy, and one after the other, from Truman to Eisenhower to JFK to LBJ to Nixon, they sank into the quicksand of that unwinnable mission. The presidents and their generals and secretaries of state lied to us, sanctioned clandestine missions and eventually committed to an all-out war that killed scores of thousands of our best and brightest and tore this country apart.
No question, the series resonates in our Trumpian world. We see interviews with a Marine who says of his tour over there, “I went because JFK asked me to go, and to me, he was God.” He knows now that President Kennedy had no divine insight. He was a struggling world leader who upped the ante in Vietnam, party because he thought the effort could defeat communism and partly because he was worried about being re-elected, and needed a win.
We see soldier after soldier recall the nightmare of guerilla warfare, of creeping through miles of dark jungle with Vietcong dogging their steps. We hear former Vietcong soldiers speak of the pure hatred they felt for the Americans who burned their villages and poured down napalm and Agent Orange on their farms and families.
Over the 10 episodes (which can be watched free on any streaming device), we learn the full history of Vietnam, going back before French occupation and then through colonial times, moving on to the French defeat and finally to America’s misguided belief that it could conquer a country, subjugate its people and turn their hearts and minds toward democracy.
Here we stand again. It is a different time, with different leaders and a new president. The enemy is different, too, armed with nuclear weapons and, apparently, the will to destroy the world.
More than ever, we need to find a path toward peace. We Americans need full disclosure from our government and our president. Vietnam taught us to demand accountability.
In the series, a former Vietcong soldier says that when he saw an American soldier crying over the body of a friend who had been shot, he realized for the first time that Americans were really people. And an American Marine said it helped him kill Vietnamese if he thought of them as “gooks” and “slants.”
The killing in Vietnam began as it always does, by dehumanizing the enemy, and with racism and ostracism that stoked the fires of prejudice and bigotry.
Heaven help us, it all sounds so familiar.
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at email@example.com.