From the Left



Why I appreciate the 'Vietnam syndrome'

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

About a dozen of us strolled wearily and unhappily into the Greyhound bus station early that morning on a date that we would never forget. It was Nov. 19, 1969, the date that our government told us to report for the military draft.

Suddenly, as we were looking around the bus station to see which line to stand in next, the peaceful echoes in the vast, cathedral-like waiting room were disrupted by a musical blast, the opening notes of a popular hit by the African-American female vocal group The Shirelles:

"So-o-ol-dier boy," they sang. "Oh, my little so-o-ol-dier boy/ I'll be true to yoo-oo-ou...."

We were strangers still, but suddenly we all turned to each other in stunned, wide-eyed, disbelief and pointed in the direction of the music, as if to say, "Can you believe this?" We unsure of whether some unseen disk jockey was giving us Sad Sacks a salute or playing a cruel joke.

Forgive me. Obviously, I have entered my anecdotage, a stage of life in which you can't stop retelling old stories.

This particular bout has been triggered by the early episodes on PBS of "The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick," that, for me, marks the capstone of Burns' long-running efforts to suggest how we Americans should think about ourselves.

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Like most draftees, as it turned out, I never was sent to Vietnam. But like just about every American who was around at the time, the war had an impact on my life that often drives me to movies, books and documentaries about the period to try to make sense of it.

In that regard, it is appropriate and, as Burns has said in interviews, virtually inevitable that his filmmaking stardom, which began with his stunning 1990 nine-part PBS series "The Civil War," would lead to his new 10-part series, co-directed by Novick, on Vietnam.

The Civil War era created the two-party system as we know it today, although the parties' agendas have shifted over time, particularly on race. Yet, as we can see in the recent racially enflamed violence over a Civil War monument in Charlottesville, Va., William Faulkner's line still applies: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

The Vietnam era, including the civil rights revolution and antiwar movements, similarly created the left-vs.-right political and cultural landscape over which we fight today. As Burns and Novick show us, the war was one of many issues and tragedies that shook up our national innocence and caused widespread questioning of our national leaders in ways unmatched since the Civil War.


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