And Then Saigon Fell

It is the morning after and I feel wrung out. The last episode of “The Vietnam War” was last night. I was pulled in many different directions. Back when it actually happened I was training in B-52s, this time my mission was the destruction of the planet as you and I know it. One might wonder why after I completed my tour in RF-4Cs I did not just hang it up then, I was definitely not Air Force material and the B-52 quite frankly sucked. Well, I was coming back from South East Asia to my family in the States and I did not see any options.

I had been out of the country in the Far East for five years. I wonder how many in the military today have faced that same quandary? With the new training as a B-52 Radar Navigator (bombardier), I had to finish my new commitment to the AF after my training, but when I did, I pulled the plug in 1979. For the first time in my life, I was true to myself. But back to the point. When Saigon fell I was glued to the TV. But I was kind of numb. I had put it all away. It had been coming for a long time. I watched Cambodia and South Vietnam degrade from the air in combat reconnaissance missions flown in 1973/74. Then, afterwards, I did not think about it much. Ticking time bomb for many of us.

This time when I watched it again, I was not numb. I was a bit depressed and really, really saddened by the whole tragedy. In the end, we were just as incompetent as we had been throughout. I wanted to save all those Vietnamese refugees, stop the advance of the North Vietnamese, and of course that was nonsense. Yes I felt we betrayed them in the end, but the option was a never-ending war. It still amazes me that they have more or less forgiven us.  There is a lesson there.

I guess what sadden me the most is the absolute stupidity and futility of it all. Not just for us, but for the Vietnamese too. Even some of our former adversaries  questioned the cost in lives lost. And looking at Vietnam today, why did we do it? Why did so many people have to die for what? I guess that is the ultimate lesson if we are listening. I wonder if we are listening because so far I see no real discussion of the series or what lessons we should take away are.

Ken Burns tells us that the divisions that were created in that war live on today. I am not sure what he means and what those are. Yes, we are divided today, but those divisions are born out of ignorance, fake news, in a world where truth is considered relative, and blaming and simple-minded solutions to complex problems reign supreme.  Vietnam taught me that truth and reality hits you right in the face whether you want it to or not. And when you ignore it, the cost in human lives and our humanity are high. I would love to have a one-on-one with Mr. Burns to hear his lessons learned.  The series tried to achieve balance, but I don’t think the lessons are balanced.  Generally they tell us war is futile enterprise.

I sadly see the Iraq war as a repeat of the failure to learn the lessons of Vietnam. We destroyed the Taliban and al-Qaeda mostly from the air in Afghanistan after we were attacked and if we would have just finished it by getting Ben Laden and then gotten out, one could say we did learn something. But we invaded Iraq on a made up reason (sound familiar?), and then totally ignorant of the factions and political motivations of the country, tried to nation build, an island of democracy in the Middle East. It was Vietnam all over again. And it is still ongoing.

Oh and my lessons learned from Half Way Through the Vietnam War Thoughts? Well in Iraq our government lied to us, the generals who fought it were mostly clueless using the tactics of the last war, and the biggest lie of all is that we are fighting to protect the Constitution, freedom, democracy, and our country. The biggest assault on our Constitution, democracy, freedom, and our country is the person now holding the Oval Office and the people who elected him. A man who tries to explain to us patriotism and never served anyone but himself. A man who was a draft dodger and knows nothing of history. A man who has no understanding of our Constitution and its founding principles.

When you see real patriotism, dissent in the face of large opposition, like  defying the status quo to take a knee during the national anthem to point out some of our injustices to try to make us better, and you deride it, see it as a slap in the face and an attack on the flag, you know we have learned nothing and understand little.

So I guess that is where Burns and Novick left me. Have we learned anything? There are so many parallels to today from the stupidity and counter productivity of violent protests, to simple-minded thinking about what is possible in someone else’s country. But I fear that many will look at all our failures and just say if we were smarter, with better tactics, it could have been won. They have no idea to this day what that war was about.  And again the question is won what at what cost. When Vietnam fell, the wanton killing stopped, the country evolved, and it is their country to decide how it is to be run. They seem to be doing okay today.

There is one parallel here between what the Burns’ series The Civil War taught us and what the Vietnam war taught us as previous adversaries can now show the respect and even affection for each other. In the brutal conflict of war, bravery and the sacrifice to our fellow combatants forges a bond that goes beyond almost anything else. And maybe there is some closure there in forgiveness.

But still, I am left saddened, a little depressed, and feeling guilty about that war and my participation in it. It absorbed my life from 1964 until 1979 when I left the Air Force. All those lives, Vietnamese, Korean, Australian, Cambodian, Laotian, and American, for what, the next election? The Vietnam Memorial has always been a humbling and powerful reminder to me of the cost of human hubris. I cannot go there without shedding tears for my fellow Americans and what we lost. The artist, Maya Lin, who came up with the design, and those that picked it knew something about the lessons of that war.  It wasn’t without controversy. The memorial screams the lessons and cost of war, while honoring our dead.

Some of the best days of my life were flying in an RF-4C, having “slipped the surly bonds of earth“, being part of a tight-knit group who had a mission, and we served that mission faithfully. Maybe the lesson is that in all the tragedy of the loss and destruction of that war, the very best of what we can be came out more than the very worst. To enter into such an enterprise again must only be made by those who have suffered the costs before and know the terrible costs to come, not only in lives, but to our humanity.

So again I am going to put this away, maybe a little more settled this time thanks to Burns and Novick. I ordered the soundtrack to the series, because the music defined the times. I am going to make a compilation of the songs from it that were part of my experience. Then I am going to pick a warm evening, maybe this weekend, sit on my patio overlooking my vineyard and watch the sunset with a bottle a very nice wine, slowly drink the whole thing while I listen to the music that defined me and my emotions in that time, and maybe cry a little bit. We should grieve for our lost innocence, those we lost, and most importantly, forgive ourselves. Then we should learn what we can and move on.  That’s what I am going to do.

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