I recorded the documentary, which began on Sunday night while I was traveling back to Seattle, and I’m a little behind in watching. I’ve just seen the first episode, which talks about the long history of foreign colonial domination in VietNam, the rise of Ho Chi Minh, and the very early strategic decisions by Truman, Eisenhower, and then Senator Kennedy that placed the U.S. on the wrong side of history.
I lived through the VietNam war. I didn’t have brothers subject to the draft, but I had friends, cousins, boyfriends. I remember the monthly lottery draw, and the angst over whether a young man’s number was high enough so he wouldn’t likely be called, at least that month. I remember the dilemma young men felt over whether to go to Canada, or try and get an exemption. I remember the war footage that dominated nightly news, the campus unrest, the spectacle of Johnson and McNamara telling us the war was being won when it didn’t look like that at all.
The first episode of Burns and Novick’s documentary reminds me how hard it is for Americans to get out of our own way and see things as they are in other cultures. Few Americans are multi-lingual, even diplomats who are supposedly experts on the countries they serve. We travel in a cocoon-like bubble of American branded hotels, cruise lines, tour groups. We’re bad at geography and history. We had very little understanding of VietNam’s long suffering under colonial domination, of who Ho Chi Minh was, of how the passion and resilience of a people determined to overthrow foreign invaders could stand up against overwhelmingly superior fire power. Our intervention in what the Vietnamese call “the American war” was tragic for that country, bathing its lush green countryside in napalm and bombs. The war was tragic for us, with wounds that seemingly are yet unhealed.
The timing of the documentary is interesting, as Trump’s bellicose rhetoric celebrates American ignorance of the rest of the world and proclaims our self-centeredness a value. Am I wrong to sense that we’re on the cusp of going down the same destructive path with Iran and North Korea as we did all those years ago in Viet Nam, and for many of the same reasons?