Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Thoughts and emotions raced through my head and heart as I watched episode after episode.  I knew the ending but tried to believe it would turn out differently…this time.

It looked like a disaster from the beginning.  Backing our French allies as they exerted their control over a fiercely independent populace in Southeast Asia.  Trying to prop up one corrupt regime after another in South Vietnam.  Not understanding the land or the people, the topography or the culture.  Attempting to stop the spread of global communism and halt what President Eisenhower called the “domino theory.”

Trusting our leaders in the government and the military to do the right thing.  But soon realizing that they had never understood the will of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to fight for their homeland.  We were impelled by the myth of American exceptionalism and justice : that we always did the right thing and we always won.  As the casualties mounted, our hubris kept us from quitting.  No president wanted to be known as the “one who lost Vietnam.”

The question has haunted many of us Vietnam veterans for decades, “Was it worth it?”  To keep our sanity, we’ve had to find an answer we could live with.  Mine was that I did my duty; it was not my decision to go to Vietnam.  The American people, through our elected leaders, were the ones who bore the responsibility for the outcome.  So many warriors of the sixties and seventies have felt the pain of betrayal for most of their lives.  “Why fight a war that was deemed ‘unwinnable’ almost from the outset?”  “Why wasn’t our nation told the truth about the action on the ground?” “Why were our faithful South Vietnamese allies abandoned as we withdrew to lick our wounds?”

I have found peace in knowing that my Marines and I accomplished mission after mission.  We can hold our heads high because we answered the call to service.  Of course running to Canada was an option that we considered, but a rich tradition of honor, integrity, and valor compelled us to move forward, whatever the outcome.  We came to realize that although historians label it a failure, the conflict of long ago can be of great value if we learn from it.  Fifty years later, I’m not sure we have.