Ken Burns’ ‘Vietnam’: The War in Our Hearts and Minds

National Guard were regulars on UC Berkeley campus during those days.

National Guard were regulars on UC Berkeley campus during those days.

Forty-two years after the Vietnam War ended, it is still difficult to talk about the conflict that set the groundwork for the divided America we live in today.

Perhaps Ken Burn's 18-hour, 10-episode documentary about the war that defined a generation and a country will help us start the conversations we still need to have.

The war to me, a Filipino American, presented another internal conflict beyond the political or military conflicts that was presented on our TV screens.

"The Vietnam War was a decade of agony that took the lives of more than 58,000 Americans," Burns said. "Not since the Civil War have we as a country been so torn apart. There wasn't an American alive then who wasn't affected in some way -- from those who fought and sacrificed in the war, to families of service members and POWs, to those who protested the war in open conflict with their government and fellow citizens."

Vietnam was the first war to be televised. Every night, we saw the horrors and terror of war. No doubt, in the ensuing weeks of the broadcast, Americans saw and heard the war again in our living rooms and stirred up a lot of forgotten, conflicted memories.


1966: After I received my acceptance letter to UC Berkeley I faced the decision of whether to join ROTC. I'm an Army brat and I didn't have the animosity towards the military as some of my contemporaries did.

I lived 30 miles from the campus, but it was really a world away. Anti-war protests were taking the place of the Free Speech Movement. Vietnam was forever lingering in the background of my consciousness, hearing snippets of TV news reports and articles about a war that seemed far and away.

The application to Army ROTC on campus woke me up from by suburban slumber. It was one of those moment-of-truth moments. I wandered into my parents' bedroom and plopped down on the bed with a deep sigh, an act so out of sync for me that it got my father's attention, who was doing the bills at his desk.

"I don't know," I said, about joining Army ROTC. "I don't know if I can lead men into battle ... where men can die. I don't know if I can order men to their death."

   My mother, Felicidad, pinning my 2nd Lt. bars, 1969


My mother, Felicidad, pinning my 2nd Lt. bars, 1969

My father was not a talkative man. He very rarely talked about his own service in the Battle of Bataan during World War II where he was among the thousands who became POWs and took part in the Death March; and he never told me about his service in the front lines of the Korean War except that he saw Bob Hope perform in a USO tour.

He was taken aback, because we rarely had these father-son moments. He paused as he thought about what to say. He stared off into the distance, into a memory that he never talked about, and said, "You get used to it," and "You just do it."

That was it. No tremendous insight. No words of wisdom. He closed, "You can do it."

"I just don't know," I said as I struggled to express my own doubts about serving in the Army and most likely going to fight in the steamy jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam.

* * *

1967, Summer of Love: While my peers were going to "love-ins" and concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area, which at the time was the center of the hippie counter-culture and the breeding ground for the growing anti-war movement, I was sweating in hot, sticky Fort Benning, Georgia, carrying around 50-lb. backpacks, lugging a 9-pound M14, and learning to become an officer and a gentleman.

Vietnam hung over the young people like a 100-pound blanket meant to block out the sun. It was suffocating and ever-present.

Many of us baby boomers did anything to avoid getting drafted. Some got married to make use of the marriage deferment. Some moved to Canada where they were welcomed with open arms. Others sought medical deferments like Donald Trump's alleged case of flat feet. Others became perpetual college students. Some joined the Coast Guard thinking they would at least stay near the U.S. coastline (they were wrong). Some joined the National Guard or Reserves to avoid going overseas.

And there were those of us who joined ROTC. For me, the monetary compensation offered by ROTC made college life affordable, paying for those unplanned expenses like late night runs to Top Dog, Thursday night at a local pizza joint to kick off the weekend, those spontaneous parties to let off steam, and late night penny-ante poker games.

ROTC also allowed me to avoid the draft. Most draftees became infantry and were more than likely assigned to Vietnam. It was like a death sentence.

One particular exercise stuck in my mind -- bayonet practice. The instructor was talking to a company of college students not used to being yelled at. "The spirit of the bayonet is -- to kill," said the non-commissioned officer giving the instruction. "What is the spirit of the bayonet?" he'd ask.

"To kill, to kill," we were compelled to yell back.

"I can't hear you," he'd bark. "What is the spirit of the bayonet?"

We yelled back louder, "To kill, to kill!" as I gave the what-the-hell look to my fellow squad members.

It was my turn. I unsheathed the bayonet. As I charged the practice dummy made of straw, I noticed that on its face, someone had painted the slanted eyes often caricatured Asian Americans. The face of the enemy looked like me.


1968: What a terrible year.

Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, killing the hopes and dreams of a generation; in the void flooded cynicism and distrust of our institutions.

It started with the Tet Offensive when the Viet Cong attacked South Vietnamese and American installations simultaneously. It was a shock to the U.S. military and the American public to hear that these little brown men did not roll over and bow down to the superior American forces.

The anti-war movement, driven by the draft, was growing. Demonstrations were getting larger, noisier, more violent. Burning of draft cards was becoming more common. National Guard troops and tear gas were also part of the campus environment.

It was also the summer that I attended my second ROTC camp in Fort Lewis, Washington, where I met other Filipino American cadets, a good number of them from Hawaii.

On a rare day when we had time to ourselves, one of the cadets asked our platoon sergeant to listen to a song. It was Country Joe and the Fish singing "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag." You know, the one that starts with the spelling of the F-word.

The NCO, probably in his mid-30s, listened to the lyrics ...

And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam

The sergeant, smiled under his Smoky the Bear hat. He liked it.

* * *

December 1, 1969: I was on campus, walking back to the dorms. I remember it was night and the brisk air was refreshing after a long day capped with a karate class at the campus gym. I was rushing back hoping to catch some dinner in the dorm cafeteria before it closed.

Earlier in the year, in order to make the draft more fair, it was decided to have a lottery for the draft.

(RELATED: The end of the Vietnam War 40 years ago<>)

A lottery drawing -- the first since 1942 -- was held on December 1, 1969, at Selective Service National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. This event determined the order of call for induction during calendar year 1970; that is, for registrants born between January 1, 1944 and December 31, 1950.

Reinstitution of the lottery was a change from the "draft the oldest man first" method, which had been the determining way for deciding order of call. The draft was also racist. Those who couldn't afford college, formed the largest pool of draftees. That meant the poor. In most cases, that meant those young men of color, mainly black, filled the ranks of draftees.

There were 366 blue plastic capsules containing birth dates placed in a large glass container and drawn by hand to assign order-of-call numbers to all men within the 18-26 age range specified in Selective Service law.

With radio, film and TV coverage, the capsules were drawn from the container, opened and the dates inside posted in order. The first capsule -- drawn by Congressman Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) of the House Armed Services Committee -- contained the date September 14, so all men born on September 14 in any year between 1944 and 1950 were assigned lottery number 1. The drawing continued until all days of the year had been paired with sequence numbers.

As I walked back, past the Greek houses, dorms and off-campus apartments, I'd hear a yell, "Oh, shit!" A few minutes later, a wailing, "Oh, no-o-o-o!" So it went as each date was announced. Curses and cries broke the silence of the night.

It was my turn. I unsheathed the bayonet. As I charged the practice dummy made of straw, I noticed that on its face someone had painted the slanted eyes that often caricatured Asian Americans. The face of the enemy looked like me.

1975: My ROTC commitment was completed and I was lucky. I never went to Vietnam. The war was winding down, and the Army didn't need all those officers anymore. El Paso, Texas was as far as I got (but, that's another story).

I went to San Francisco's Japantown to watch “Hearts and Minds,” an Academy Award-winning documentary about the Vietnam War directed by Peter Davis.

The film's title is based on a quote from President Lyndon B. Johnson: "the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there." The movie was chosen as Best Feature Documentary at the 47th Academy Awards presented in 1975.

It presented the war from the perspective of the people who took part in it, from both sides.

There were a lot of Asian/Americans in the audience. To them/us the war had become personal.

The concluding interview featured U.S. Vietnam veteran Randy Floyd, stating, "We've all tried very hard to escape what we have learned in Vietnam. I think Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminality that their officials and their policy makers exhibited."

When the film ended and the credits rolled, more than a few people were crying -- not sniffling -- but deep guttural sobbing, as if a close family member had just died.

* * *

2012 in Vietnam: A tour of Vietnam from Hanoi to the Mekong Delta has its ups and downs. Reminders of the war are all around us. Here's the Hanoi Hilton, there's a torture device. Here's a favorite park, there's a bomb crater. Here's where Ho Chi Minh stayed during the war. There's a reinforced shelter from the American bombs. Here is the Presidential Palace. There is the captured American tank, now a museum piece. Here's where the Americans had their biggest base. There is where the Vietnamese had a huge tunnel system right under the Americans' noses.

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's George Washington, was so enamored with the U.S. that the Vietnamese Constitution's preamble was, word for word, copied from the U.S. Constitution.

In the 1950s, he approached the United States first for help in fighting the French. When the U.S. turned him down, he went to the Chinese for assistance.

Today's Vietnamese don't hate Americans and welcome back the former soldiers who fought in their country. "We know that the (American) soldiers didn't want to be here," said one Vietnamese vet that we met.

The Vietnamese -- from the veterans to the young children -- have a certain pride that their small country, without an air force or navy, was able to fight to a draw the greatest military machine the world has ever known. They never flaunted that with the American tour group.

It made some in our tour group uncomfortable. It was, nevertheless, a fact. It was part of their history ... and ours. The guide, trying to soften the blow to our wounded egos, said, "That was then. Now is now."

* * *

2017 - The Trump era: U.S. involvement in Vietnam lasted 20 years -- 1955 to 1975. According to documentarian Ken Burns, the U.S. was aiding the French even before that.

It took Burns 10 years to produce the PBS series, "Vietnam," that started Sept. 17, through Thursday, Sept. 21. Then we got a few days to catch our breath. The final five episodes aired nightly from Sunday, Sept. 24 through Thursday, Sept. 28. All showings were at 8 p.m.

To the millennials and the generation following them, the war may all be ancient history. It started with the best of intentions, but as the series explains, the Eurocentric view of the world warped our decisions. As a result, the war has had a long-lasting effect on the U.S. and might explain why we are still debating the future direction of our country.

As the war dragged on and the casualties rose, the reasons we were in Vietnam became more blurred. Fighting the communists was not good enough for the American public anymore and the moral conflict was gaining more importance.

The Vietnam War muddled our perception of the American identity: Americans don't slaughter civilian villagers as was done in My Lai; Americans don't  napalm little girls as was done to Kim Phuc and documented by photographer Nick Ut; Americans don't ally themselves with people who execute people by shooting suspect  Nguyen Van Lem in the head in the middle of a Saigon street.

There were atrocities on both sides, to be sure, but until then, Americans saw themselves as the good guys and good guys aren't supposed to do all those terrible deeds. But we did.

Those newsreels and photograph images exploded into U.S. living rooms in the ‘60s and ‘70s and seared into our collective consciousness. The Vietnam War was the first war in which the United States wasn't clearly wearing the white hats and a lot of people couldn't accept that.

The war ripped this country apart. President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for a second term, which drew the applause of anti-war activists. Little did we know that would open the door for Richard Nixon, which, in turn led to Watergate and the further erosion of our faith in our government.

I imagine that for people in Middle America, far from the left-leaning Bay Area and the colleges on the East Coast, it might have looked like the country was on the verge of a revolution.  Their political views were also formed during this tumultuous period and many of them saw that period of turmoil as the beginning of the end of the America they knew. Donald Trump, some say, is their last ditch effort to "Make America Great Again" by preserving the America they grew up in the 1950s.

"And it’s just the sense that we live in this extraordinarily polarized and divisive moment, and we don’t seem to be able to talk," said co-director Lynn Novick in an interview with PBS's Hari Sreenivasan. "We don’t seem to be able to listen. We don’t seem to be able to agree about basic facts. And yet so much of that really started escalating during the Vietnam War.

"The resonances of where we are in the world and who we are in the world, especially — we have been in several wars that are not unlike the Vietnam War for the last 15 years."

"More than 40 years after it ended," said Burns, "we can't forget Vietnam, and we are still arguing about why it went wrong, who was to blame and whether it was all worth it."

Originally posted in the author's blog, Views From the Edge.<>

Ed Diokno

Ed Diokno

Ed Diokno writes a daily blog, Views From the Edge<>., which provides news and analysis from an Asian American perspective.

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