More than 40 years have passed since the end of the Vietnam War and it has taken nearly as long for a serious, prolonged examination of that conflict. The Vietnam War – the recently-aired documentary on PBS from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick – incorporated 18 hours over 10 episodes and yet even that ambitious length barely scratched the surface.
It would be near impossible for any documentary, debate or even discussion about the Vietnam era to do anything but raise more questions than it could ever answer. The most telling thing about the undertaking is probably the project’s tag line (no doubt to be found on future DVD covers): “There is no single truth in war.”
As anyone can tell you, the search for truth can be a very tricky road to travel. There may be as many ‘truths’ as there are individuals and how each person views that time in history probably depends on their unique experience at the time.
What the soldier saw in the jungle informs how he felt about that time – likewise his loved ones left back home. Those who were at Kent State and those who protested in city streets drew on that tumultuous reality to shape their perception. And what of the young men who made the near unthinkable sacrifice to leave the United States and find their way to Canada? Surely that life decision colours their feelings about Vietnam in a way that few among us could ever truly understand.
The multiplicity of experience that can’t be avoided when trying to construct a coherent whole is reflected in the following passage from Tim O’Brien’s novel Going After Cacciato. It’s the story of a platoon in search of a deserter, a young soldier who decides one day in Vietnam to walk away from the war.
“In battle, in a war, a soldier sees only a tiny fragment of what is available to be seen … after a battle each soldier will have different stories to tell, vastly different stories, and that when a war is ended it is as if there have been a million wars, or as many wars as there were soldiers.”
So there’s an inherent contradiction in speaking about one Vietnam instead of many Vietnams. Any recounting of the war tends to impose an arbitrary and mythical unity on experience in Vietnam, in order to validate whatever ideology it’s attempting to convey. One thing is common with those attempts: the ideology is always and invariably cloaked in the mantle of being the ‘truth.’
I’m not certain Americans are interested much in ‘truth’ where Vietnam is concerned. The opportunity for that investigation and introspection probably came and went in the late 1970s. Instead of truth, Americans were searching for absolution. They wanted to forget that period as soon as possible and recapture the mythic and comforting belief in their own innocence.
Enter Ronald Reagan.
Has there ever been a more perfect president at a more opportune time for those wanting to forget unpleasantness? Reagan chose to give Americans the gift of feeling good about themselves again and, like the actor he was, rode in on a horse to tell the townsfolk everything was going to be all right and that they lived in a “shining city upon a hill.”
The trouble with systematically avoiding painful reflection is that a reluctance to confront past demons often leaves the seeds for future division and repetition. Anyone who believes there are two Americas now would be forgiven for not realizing that the deep social divide in the United States is not a new phenomenon.
It’s been in place at least since Vietnam and is once again bubbling up into civic unrest and increasingly violent rhetoric.
Where will it all end?
What will be the arbitrary ‘truth’ placed on this era?
One day, we’ll no doubt be able to watch a documentary and find out.
Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer.