Why I appreciate the 'Vietnam syndrome'
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.
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.
I served my two years in the Army and returned home as many did, looking for some silver lining in a war that, as Burns' documentary shows, did not have to happen. The best I could come up with was to hope that, at least, we Americans had learned enough from our tragedies in Southeast Asia that we won't make that kind of mistake again. No, we have learned how to make new ones.
That was illustrated by our ill-fated quest to find "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.
"If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace," declared President Ronald Reagan, denouncing the "Vietnam syndrome." "And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win."
That's a wonderful thought. Yet here were are again, trying to find ways to prop up Iraq, fight the so-called Islamic State in Syria and somehow withdraw from Afghanistan, even as we try to figure out what "winning" is supposed to look like in that region.
History is written for the living. Years later, I feel blessed not only to have survived the Vietnam call-up but also to have learned from it. At a young, impressionable age, I learned what it is like to serve in the military, an experience that is becoming increasingly rare for Americans in the post-draft era. I was able to know real heroes, sung and unsung, who had sacrificed in a cause much larger than my individual self.
The Vietnam War left us with more than 58,000 dead Americans, more than 3 million dead Vietnamese and a new cynicism about our leaders. The "Vietnam syndrome" has its virtues. It should not make us afraid to fight for what we know is right, but it should make us extra careful about questioning what we think we know -- before we are confronted tragically by the awful truth.
(E-mail Clarence Page at email@example.com.)(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.