Ken Burns’ New Vietnam War Documentary Speaks For Silent Soldiers Like My Father

Ken Burns’ New Vietnam War Documentary Speaks For Silent Soldiers Like My Father

Despite his liberal, pacifist inclinations, my father answered his country's call during the Vietnam War, and worked as a U.S. Army medic.
Casey Chalk
By

Ken Burns’ much anticipated, newly released Vietnam War documentary is receiving high praise from practically everyone, including George Will, who has called it a “masterpiece” and a fine “example of how to calmly assess episodes fraught with passion and sorrow.”

Thus far through the series, I have certainly been inspired to contemplate many of our contemporary culture war battles through the lens of Vietnam. But the documentary especially makes me think of my now-deceased father, who was himself a Vietnam War veteran.

Why My Father Fought

My father grew up practically at ground zero of the 1960s southern segregation fight, desegregation coinciding with his junior year at Huntsville High School in Alabama. He was disgusted by the racism pervasive among his many white classmates, and became a liberal hippy, experimenting with drugs, drinking with Black Panthers, and loudly vocalizing his opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet in order to help pay for college at Auburn University, he joined the university’s ROTC program.

He ultimately dropped out of Auburn, only to have his draft number called. He promptly answered, and spent four years as a U.S. Army medic, two of which were spent serving in South Korea, including participating in the medevacs to retrieve and care for soldiers wounded in Vietnam. In the few anecdotes he told about his experience in that theater, I never got the impression that his liberal politics obstructed his ability to serve his country, the country his father and grandfather had also served in World Wars I and II.

The virtue of patriotism also stands out in my knowledge of my father’s service. He remained adamant throughout his life that Vietnam was the wrong war: a tremendous waste of life, money, and American goodwill. But this never meant he wasn’t proud to serve. Every 4th of July at our church, the pastor would ask military servicemen to stand during the service’s national anthem. My dad reluctantly but dutifully stood, his head held high. His personal political opinions never obstructed his patriotism, his love for his country, or his loyalty to the flag and what it stood for. He remained ever proud to be a U.S. Army medic.

Grappling With Grief

My father’s military service was also marked by an intense suffering and isolation. He loved to tell stories about his wayward youth, but offered few details about his war experience. A close family friend died from cancer when I was in eighth grade—my mother and father were both there at her deathbed. Afterwards my mother wept, but my father never shed a tear. I asked him why. “I’ve seen too much death in my life,” he replies. “I don’t think I’m capable of crying anymore.”

Sometimes my mother would ask me to wake my father from his weekend naps. I was terrified to do it. If I came too close to him, trying to quietly speak his name, he’d violently grab my arm, his eyes portraying some mad, primal readiness to kill.

“I’m sorry,” he’d mutter with embarrassment once he’d collected his senses. “I’ve spent a lot of nights fearing for my life.”

I knew few stories of my father’s actual service. There were no old war buddies. When my father was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, I spent months in vain trying to contact those with whom he served. I never received any responses.

Four years since his death to cancer, I have had plenty of time to reflect on his memory and the four years he gave in the middle of the Cold War. I see in today’s college-age youth (who are the same age my father was, when he was drafted) many of the same qualities my father possessed: a passion for life, a fervent commitment to social justice, and a yearning for a better world. Yet in other respects, there seems a divergence: a very potent immaturity and irresponsibility visible across much of the millennial generation, something I think even my hippy father would have found disconcerting.

Our Fraught New World

Fewer Americans in younger generations have served in the military than our predecessors. Moreover, a comparatively smaller percentage of young Americans even have a family member who has served. As many military historians and social scientists have observed, this has created a society far less understanding of military life and its inevitable costs. It’s also enabled a growing inertia regarding U.S. military intervention overseas: if one doesn’t know anyone who has served in Afghanistan or Iraq, who cares if the U.S. maintains a military presence there?

Like the Vietnam War era, we’ve witnessed an increase in student protests on American campuses. But whereas protests during my father’s era were motivated by calls for the U.S. Government to extricate itself from a war many Americans believed to be unjust and unwinnable, today’s young demonstrators seek to silence speakers and academics with whom they disagree. In some cases, they violently attack them or those defending them; they have even imprisoned the most pliant academics in their offices. Students evince not tenacity, intellectual precision, or personal sacrifice, but irrational angst and hyper-sensitivity at the slightest threat of micro-aggressions.

Patriotism and pride in national identity also appears to be on the wane. Iconoclast movements across America seek not only to tear down monuments dedicated to Confederate war heroes, but anyone associated with causes deemed inimical to the progressivist mantra. Those who discovered America, pioneered many of her greatest achievements, and even led her federal and state governments have been vilified and demonized. Demonstrators have demanded the memory of such individuals be effectively erased from our public consciousness. This is a strange way to show one’s love of country.

Preserving Our Soldiers’ Legacy

While my family lived in southeast Asia the past three years, I took a few trips to Vietnam. During one, my wife and I took a riverboat tour of the Mekong River Delta. Our guide was an older man who was friendly, if conspicuously serious. Late in the afternoon, when conversation veered to the historical U.S. presence in Vietnam, I confessed to him that my father had served in that conflict as a medic. He immediately pulled up the sleeve of one of his shirts, showing us the length of his left arm. It appeared strangely twisted, as if permanently dislocated. “This,” he told us, “is what the communists did to me in a reeducation camp 40 years ago.” He had been a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army, and had worked alongside American soldiers, he said. “Thank your father for what he did for my country.”

Thus far, Ken Burns’ documentary has lived up to expectations. I pray that those who watch it—few of whom, I fear, are of my generation—will be persuaded of the good our country still possesses, the prevailing potency of its founding principles, and the loyalty and love we are bound to give it. That would preserve and honor the legacy of my father, as well as the hundreds of thousands of other Americans in the Vietnamese war effort. In God’s unsearchable providence, that elderly Vietnamese riverboat guide’s pride tells me it wasn’t a waste.

Casey Chalk is a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.

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