As airtime for “The Vietnam War,” the documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, neared this week, the hunger for the program was surprising. The 10-episode, 18-hour piece of public television had people chattering about their anticipation, and setting their DVRs. And Burns’ fame and fan base, while significant, don’t entirely explain the phenomenon.
It’s as if we expect Burns to provide wisdom we had in the past, let go of, and want to reclaim. Though our memories are hazy and our knowledge is limited, it is not the story of the Vietnam War we need our leading documentarian to refresh us on, so much as the lessons.
By the time the last American combat soldier in Vietnam, Master Sgt. Max Beilke, came home in 1973, the nation had absorbed some hard-earned lessons. In America we’ve grown used to a casualty number of 58,000; that’s how many of our soldiers died. But Burns reminds us that the total death toll, with Vietnamese soldiers and civilians included, was more than 3 million.
How did we let so much that we understood be forgotten?
Then, reeling from a conflict that divided our nation as surely as it did Vietnam, we learned to question every assertion from our leaders, who just might be up to something. We learned to listen very closely to our dissidents, who just might be on to something. We learned that our ability to win the hearts and minds of a nation we were attacking was extremely limited. We learned that our ability to win a war against guerrillas who would never quit was nonexistent. And we learned that we could not compel our native allies to fight with courage and bravery and competence in defense of a corrupt regime, no matter how much we trained or cajoled.
But this kind of wisdom always comes in a bucket with a hole in its bottom. The lessons fade. The emotion of the next call to arms can be overwhelming. And when attacked, we must respond.
The perspective that may be Burns’ greatest gift — the presumption that people are more often mistaken than evil — shines in this line from the first episode on our military adventurism in Southeast Asia: “It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstanding, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit it had been caused by tragic decisions.”
Much the same may someday be said of our seemingly endless involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Sometimes we shouldn’t go at all. Sometimes we stay too long. But we are not always wrong to wage war, as the rest of Max Beilke’s story showed.
He was originally drafted into the Army to serve in the Korean War, and after Vietnam, Beilke stayed involved in veterans issues. He was working as a civilian contractor in the Pentagon when terrorists attacked with a plane on Sept. 11, 2001, killing him.
We had good reason, after 9/11, to deploy our military against terrorism. But there were echoes of Vietnam in the way Americans who said we should stay out of Iraq after 9/11 were ignored or demonized. The same for those who said we should get out quickly, or now say we should get out of Afghanistan, or believe we need to stay out of Syria.
It’s very easy to get into wars, and very hard to withdraw. It’s very easy to send young people out to fix the world, and very hard to see them return broken. It’s very easy to ignore those who argue for peace before the bombs rain down, and very hard to forget their pleas after the bodies stack up.
Americans have learned this lesson more than once.
If only we could retain it.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.
CLARIFICATION: "The Vietnam War" was directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. An earlier version of this column omitted her name.