Filmmaker Ken Burns’ 10-part, 18-hour documentary series on the Vietnam War premieres Sunday night on PBS.
It couldn’t be timelier.
In just eight months in office, our unpredictable and erratic president has threatened to use “the military option” with a number of countries around the world. We could soon have another war like Vietnam in which there is no solid foundation for justified conflict and the loss of American lives and treasure.
During the Vietnam War, an accident during training at officer candidate school in 1967 left me blind in my right eye, and I spent two months in the naval hospital in Newport, Rhode Island. The wards were filled with Marines who had been badly wounded in combat in Vietnam. Many dealt not only with terrible physical injuries, but also psychic wounds after what they had seen and done. For the first time, I began to understand the human cost of that war and what a hollow fraud it was. I came out of the service very angry. That anger fueled a long detour into politics.
It was pretty ironic that after I spent a lot of years in Congress trying to prevent another war built on a lie like Vietnam, my son volunteered to serve as an officer in the army after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“Dad, they attacked our country,” he said. I remember telling him that there was no way to know how things were going to turn out, and that he shouldn’t make the decision right away. The nobility of young Americans to want to serve is too often taken advantage of by arrogant men and women in Washington, most of whom have never served. Iraq was a perfect example.
The 15 months my son spent at a forward operating base near Karbala, in central Iraq, were the longest and most stressful of my life. He lost a number of friends to improvised explosive devices, as well as to betrayal by our supposed allies. A young man who reported to my son was kidnapped with three others in the unit, tortured and killed. My son called me only once during his deployment, and it was to ask me to call the father of this young man, who lived a few miles from our home in Ithaca, to tell him how much his comrades liked and respected him. It was a very hard call to make to a father just experiencing the news of his death. And for what?
We lost thousands of young Americans just like him in Iraq for a “victory” that led to the creation of the Islamic State and the emergence of Iran as a destabilizing power in the region. Now, President Donald Trump has Iran in his sights.
During the Vietnam War, we still had a military draft. It made every family think hard about whether that war was justified enough to send their sons. Without a draft, fewer American families are personally invested when we go to war. Tying a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree isn’t the same as having a child serving in a war zone.
I am a strong advocate for a universal national service plan. All young Americans healthy enough to participate, ages 18 to 22, would serve for a year to strengthen our country, including military service, the Peace Corps, or other initiatives involving teaching, the environment, infrastructure, and local and regional security. During their service, participants would be paid and have the opportunity to earn tuition credit for college. They also would be free to choose the public service endeavor they want to pursue. The program would help to bring our country together. Serving side by side, young Americans from different regions, income levels, races, ethnicities and religious beliefs would work in tandem to better our society while developing a deeper appreciation for the diversity of races, cultures and talents that embody the American mosaic.
In the meantime, our young people need to be aware of what can happen to them if they volunteer for military service when amazingly ignorant leaders in Washington, many of whom have little conception or concern about its human cost, put their lives at risk.
Robert J. Mrazek is the author of “And the Sparrow Fell,” a novel set on Long Island during the Vietnam War. A Democrat, he represented Long Island’s 3rd District in Congress from 1983 to 1993.