Watching the 10-part Ken Burns and Lynn Novick PBS TV series, “The Vietnam War,” brought us back to the terrible ’60s. That decade began calmly enough; my husband had volunteered to be a physician in the service in 1963, through a little known program called the Berry Plan. I was thrilled at the prospect that we would get to travel.
Four years later, the United States was immersed in a brutal war in a place called Vietnam, on the other side of the world.
We were sent to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, where my husband became the chief of ophthalmology. Those injured, especially pilots, were flown in from ’Nam, refueling in the Philippines, and were in the operating room within the day. My husband would put their faces back together and try to save their eyes. The war was only 24 hours away from us, and we lived always on edge. We were further aware of the dangers and horror of the war the pilots in particular faced, because we were housed in the middle of their section on the base. Some served two and three tours, leaving their wives and children behind frantic with worry.
We returned home to New York City for a visit and were puzzled by the disconnect between the military and civilians. What was a desperate existence on the one hand was a seemingly unaffected population on the other. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson had promised the nation a life with guns and butter, and indeed that was what we saw. When we tried to tell friends what was going on, they seemed surprised, even annoyed by the fuss we were making. Stunned, we returned to base.
Which was the real world?
Then the domino effect theory, should Vietnam fall, began to be questioned. The gap between words and actions of government officials started to emerge. We were the innocents, believing that our president would never lie to us. We became, thanks to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, caught up in a quantified body count to measure our successes. We wondered why it mattered how many of the enemy was killed if even one American died. Why were we there? The anti-war movement took hold, led by college students across America, labeled as communist-inspired and fiercely resisted by the Johnson administration. Mourning and anti-war protests were tearing the country apart.
My husband and I left the military in 1969, years sooner than the fighting men left Vietnam.
And some five years ago, I returned to Vietnam on a tour to see the country and try to make sense of what had happened there. I was overwhelmed. The weather was insufferably humid and hot, and I thought of the heavy backpacks the fighters had to carry as they moved through the jungle. The Vietnamese in the south, where our tour started, refer to the war as the American War in their museums and in conversation. Of course they do, I realized. They were unfailingly kind to us, welcoming us and, I suppose, our hard currency. In the north, near Hanoi, the older citizens were coldly polite. Most of the population was born after the war but, for the most part, those young people never knew their fathers. They were killed. And the country? The country was beautiful, with its mountains, rice paddies and deltas, scenic and peaceful.
We had known nothing of the history of Vietnam before the nation entered the war. The Vietnamese people had struggled against Chinese occupation for more than 1,000 years, followed by the French. The Vietnamese weren’t ideological communists; they just wanted their homeland to be free. And the Chinese entered the war not to spread communism but to keep us from their borders.
We learned finally but it cost us more than 58,000 American lives, untold wounded and an unimaginable amount of money. Have we learned enough to apply the lessons to Afghanistan and Iraq and to North Korea? We have learned never again to regard our leaders with trust.