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Forty Years Too Late 05/15/2010

Posted by landfallprods in Landfall Productions, Inc..
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New York Times – May 14, 2010
Watching a new documentary about Vietnam War veterans, I was surprised at how old they looked and how worn their faces had become. These were fellows who had once laughed and danced to the music of the Beatles and Motown.

I was also struck by how many of these men, now approaching retirement age in civilian life, broke down and began to weep as they told the stories about what it was like to be thrown at a tender age into the flaming sewer of combat.

It’s no longer widely understood — now that war is kept largely out of sight and out of mind — just how dreadful warfare is, and the profound effect it has on the participants and their loved ones.

John Dederich of De Pere, Wis., recalled stepping on a land mine in Vietnam and being blown high into the air. “My right leg went one way, and my left leg went the other way,” he said.

Roy Rogers of Menasha, Wis., also was badly wounded. “They couldn’t put me back together like Humpty Dumpty,” he said, managing a chuckle. “But they did the best they could.”

“Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories” is a collection of moving and often very powerful reminiscences produced by Wisconsin Public Television, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs and the Wisconsin Historical Society. But the project has become more than simply a documentary.

A major public screening will be held next Saturday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay and some 25,000 to 30,000 veterans and their families are expected to attend — one of the largest gatherings ever of Vietnam vets in the United States.

The goal is to give the veterans the kind of “welcome home” that many missed when they returned to the states from a war that by the late 1960s had become extremely unpopular.

Sam King, a Marine from New Richmond, Wis., remembered being called a baby killer when he came home and being told by opponents of the war that he should have died in Vietnam.

It hurt. It was a “hard thing” to endure, he said. “All us 18-, 19-, 20-year-old Marines and soldiers, airmen and Navy guys, we didn’t know all the damned politics of the thing. Most of us hadn’t been old enough to vote hardly, you know.”

But they were old enough to suffer, and the suffering inevitably had to do with loss — the loss of close friends and mentors, the loss of cherished illusions, the loss of vitality in bodies that just a moment ago were in perfect health.

The tears on camera almost always had to do with something that had happened to somebody else. Will Williams of De Forest, Wis., speaking slowly, as if the words had to fight their way through his emotions, said, “I don’t know how you can make one understand what it means to lose someone, if it’s not you getting hit but someone you’ve known — to see them die.”

The documentary (to be shown at various times on several public television outlets) and an accompanying book are meant as tributes to those who served in Vietnam. But for viewers and readers, they should also resonate as a commentary on the awful reality of all wars, including today’s conflicts, which are taking a terrible toll but are touching just a small percentage of American families.

The war in Afghanistan is not going well (no light at the end of the tunnel there), and the young people fighting under the flag of the U.S. are not any better-informed about the politics involved than the young people who fought and suffered and died for no good reason in Vietnam.

If more Americans understood the real horror of war, and if more families were in danger of being touched by it, we’d see a dramatic falloff in our willingness to go to war.

On Thursday, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, a loose cannon who presides over an incompetent and terminally corrupt government, visited the Arlington National Cemetery. That evening, the “NewsHour” on PBS listed 10 more United States service members who had died in Afghanistan (and one in Iraq). As always, most of them were young: 19, 21, 20, 22, 21. …

A Marine at the end of the first part of the Wisconsin documentary summed up this phenomenon perfectly.

Speaking of Vietnam, he said, “A lot of the vets tried to justify, rationalize for all the death and dying. But there is really no explanation to it. Figuring it out is a waste of time. It’s just another war that’s started by old men and fought by young boys.”

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