THE KEN BURNS documentary on the Vietnam War begins this evening on PBS. I’ll be tuned in for all 18 hours over the next two weeks. It’s five parts this week, Sunday through Thursday, and five next week on the same nights.
This is an area of special interest to me. In 1980 I was working for a newspaper in Maine and in a position to pay attention to the Vietnam vets who started to speak up and become more visible. In ’81, when the U.S. embassy hostages in Iran came home to a hero’s welcome, quite a few vets came out of the woodwork with a collective WTF?
Vietnam vets in Maine were regarded with suspicion and outright hostility by some of the top administrators and staff at the VA hospital. I delved into that, amid some resistance, not the least of which came from the WWII vets who ran the newspaper’s composing room. But even they came around, over time.
I won’t ever claim it was great journalism. I was green, in my 20s, could have used some mentoring on the work but it wasn’t that kind of paper. The coverage, for all its faults, did make for positive change, though, mostly because readers demanded it. George Mitchell and William Cohen, Maine’s U.S. Senators at the time, held a hearing at the Augusta Civic Center. It was quite a dust up before it was over.
The Ken Burns point, I guess, is that it’s never over, and the past is prologue.
He’s right, of course.
My niece’s husband, Rob Thomas, in Iraq with the U.S. Marines. My nephew Dave Craddock was there as well, in the same unit as Rob. Two tours and they both got home in one piece. The whole family feels fortunate about that, as you may imagine, but we’re ever mindful of families that can’t say the same.
Whether you see the Ken Burns thing or not, please do see the Debra Granik documentary on my friend Ron Hall, a Vietnam vet and Harley brother who goes by the name Stray Dog. His story is on Netflix streaming.
Forget everything you think you know. The film about Ron, his service, his friends, his family, it’s a trip into the truer than true, a reporting job that reveals and never judges.
I’ve always felt fortunate to have been born in 1954 and not a few years earlier. My friends and I came of draft age in ’72, as Vietnam was winding down. We were assigned lottery numbers but no one was called up that year, if I remember correctly. Not called up for Vietnam, anyway. In ’73 the very last combat troops came home and the draft was officially ended.
I keep meaning to look up Tony Campolo, a college professor of mine. We had some lively discussions way back when. That’s what it’s all about, mixing it up. (But aren’t kids required to parrot their professors in college? Nope. In my experience people who say that have never been to college.) Tony Campolo was the most popular professor on campus but I thought his lectures might as well have been called The Tony Campolo Show. A bit of a grandstander, I thought, and I greatly distrusted his theology.
When the draft ended in ’73 he told us, in words to this effect: This is a bad idea. A professional, all-volunteer military is going to turn the war machine into a subculture. It’ll detach the military from the country at large. We’ll have more wars, longer wars, and everyone will shrug and say, well, they volunteered for it.
Longer wars than Vietnam? Bullshit. So we said then.
It was surprising to hear a pro-draft argument from an anti-war guy like Campolo. Students weren’t having it. Pfft, you go get drafted for the next mistake the pols want to send other people’s kids to, professor.
On one of these motorcycle journeys I’ll route myself through Pennsylvania, look him up, shake his hand and tell him to his face that he was right, and we were wrong.
Tony DePaul, September 17, 2017, Cranston, Rhode Island, USA