Top News

Martha Muzychka: Vietnam War — no clear answers, even now

Mattie Ethridge of Chattanooga, Tenn., sits at the grave of her husband, Air Force Maj. Walter Ethridge, a Vietnam War veteran, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Dec. 16, 2017. — Cliff Owen/The Associated Press
Mattie Ethridge of Chattanooga, Tenn., sits at the grave of her husband, Air Force Maj. Walter Ethridge, a Vietnam War veteran, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Dec. 16, 2017. — Cliff Owen/The Associated Press

I was 13 years old when Saigon fell to North Vietnam and brought what was famously described as the 10,0000-day war to an end.

 

Martha Muzychka
Martha Muzychka

 

I remember other, slightly earlier historical events, but the Vietnam War, even as a Canadian, was something we heard about regularly.

I think my first remembrance about the war came from the popular game show, “Truth or Consequences.” Host Bob Barker often reunited Vietnam soldiers with their wives or girlfriends, or their parents.

It happened often enough that — now, with the wisdom of maturity — I wonder if some of the contestants worked hard to be chosen just so they could get a chance to visit with their loved ones as a “consequence” earned from the show.

But by the time I was 13, I was aware that the war was not a love story by any stretch of the imagination. Our history teacher was keen that we should follow current events at home and abroad; the end of the war resulted in a rousing discussion on what had been achieved, when very few of us could even comprehend why the United States had been involved.

Still, we grasped that there had been destruction abroad and in the U.S. There had been protests, and the burning of draft cards. We heard about Canada as a haven for what were called draft dodgers, and it was within that context that I first learned about the concept of conscientious objectors.

It wasn’t until I reached university that I started to read more about the particulars of the war and to piece together what I knew of the history I had seen unfolding on the evening news.

I still didn’t know enough to understand the controversy about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when it was announced in 1981. Years later, however, I knew that when we were planning a holiday to Washington, D.C. to visit friends and family, the memorial was on the list of places I most wanted to see.

I don’t think there would have been any amount of knowledge about the war that would have prepared me for the memorial. It’s is still one of the most emotionally fraught sites I have encountered.

The two walls of names stretching seemingly endlessly, the notes and remembrances left by friends and relatives mourning their loved ones, the silence of the visitors broken only by the wind, the birds and occasional sighs as someone found a name they were searching for.

We often say hindsight is 20/20, but even looking back at recent history is not as simple as you might think, even with all the documentation, journalism and research that has been produced in an effort to make sense of a war that was, to most people, senseless.

When we sat down to watch “The Vietnam War” recently, the PBS documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I knew it would be another kind of history I would be seeing.

We often say hindsight is 20/20, but even looking back at recent history is not as simple as you might think, even with all the documentation, journalism and research that has been produced in an effort to make sense of a war that was, to most people, senseless.

My own history of the Vietnam War is composed of fragments of my childhood memories derived from different sources and different contexts: protest marches, civil rights, coverups, refugees, press freedoms, and so on.

The war that Burns and Novick reveal in their series is also fragmented. Viewers get stories from multiple contexts: the soldiers who fought on every side, the ones who died, the ones who were captured and were later released, the policy makers who planned the debacle, the journalists and photographers who reported it, the mothers who mourned, the protesters who tried to make a difference.

Some of those stories start in one episode and appear intermittently in others (it’s a long series of films, clocking in at more than 17 hours), each showing a little part of the whole until Burns and Novick bring it together.

While the series has its flaws — post-traumatic stress disorder amongst returning soldiers only gets a brief mention in the very last episode, for example — it is also moving, disruptive and provocative testimony.

It is perhaps the only way to tell this multi-layered, complex and deeply fractured event in American history.

 

Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant living and working in St. John’s. Email: socialnotes@gmail.com

Recent Stories