The Insanity of Wars: A Reflection on Ken Burns’ Documentary “The Vietnam War”

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October 1, 2017

Last week, I was invited to speak on KindWorks’ Inspiration Day.  KindWorks, formerly known as MoverMoms, is a local foundation started ten years ago by a group of mothers.  They have participated in many community projects such as serving meals to homeless shelters or sending care packages to soldiers abroad.  Their membership grew quickly including many male volunteers thus a change of name to KindWorks.  The theme of KindWorks foundation’s Inspiration Day this year was story telling from refugees.  In addition to me, Kind Works leaders invited Blanche Porway, a witty and wise 94 year-old Holocaust survivor, and Abdullah Al-Sayed, a Syrian refugee whose family settled in the Washington area six years ago.  The three of us refugees of three different wars, who once lived in three different parts of the world and worshipped three different religions, found each other in the same room in Maryland.  We agreed how grateful we were for living in freedom and being accepted into kind and loving communities in America.  We acknowledged how current refugees are facing more difficult conditions where many parts of the world are rejecting their immigration from whatever tragic situation has caused them to flee.

Ironically, in the same week, I was watching Ken Burns’ documentary “The Vietnam War.”  My family escaped from the roof of the American Embassy on April 29, 1975, a few hours before the communists took over South Vietnam’s capital Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, and officially ended the Vietnam war.  I have since lived in the United States – for so many decades, a lot longer than the fourteen years I grew up in Vietnam, yet I still hum Vietnamese childhood songs and occasionally have dreams about my all-girl high school in Saigon where I and my two sisters attended.  In the dreams, I would still be a high school age girl, wearing a white uniform (a Vietnamese traditional dress), taking tests or talking to my classmates and friends.   I guess a part of me is still “stuck” in that era, a childhood revisit.  Like Marcel Proust, I think an era of our life is never really gone away.  It stays hidden somewhere in our memory bank and becomes a part of who we are.  Images, such as those in Ken Burns’ documentary, suddenly trigger this memory to resurface, with all the scents, sounds and sights, as if it was yesterday when I was very young. 

Until I watched Ken Burn’s documentary, the Vietnam war had always left me with such anger about the “winners,“ the North Vietnamese communists and their comrades in the South called “Viet Cong,” and the “losers,” being us South Vietnamese and the Americans.  Losing that war brought so many tragedies to so many families.  Mine was lucky to have escaped whole, while some of my friends had to flee without their parents or siblings.  There were so many deaths in the Vietnam war, 58 thousand Americans and two million Vietnamese.  So many disrupted lives with many of them, like my mother’s, never recovered from the war.  

It was in the first episode of Burns’ documentary that I suddenly realized what I have known all along, when one of my family’s former “enemies,” a former North Vietnamese soldier, stared at the camera an said softly:

“In wars, there are no winners or losers; there’s only destruction.”

Did I forget how, on the winning side, there were as many disrupted lives and unnecessary deaths?  I thought my “enemies” were all monsters, but they still cried over their comrades’ deaths years ago, the same way the American soldiers cried over their friends’ bodies.  A North Vietnamese communist recalled how moved he was when he saw the Americans weeping over their colleagues’ bodies, making him realize they had a side of humanity similar to his own.

Some American soldiers in Vietnam called the villagers by condescending, slang terms.  They “dehumanized” them as a strategy for their own survival.  The same strategy was used by the communists, calling Americans the white devils.  If we don’t put our enemies in a different category, we might have a glimpse of their humanity, making it difficult for us to kill them.  After all, they did not grow up in the same environment, they did not speak the same language or eat the same food.  They were, therefore, not our “equal.”   It’s like picking vegetables from our garden and wash them in a sink.  Have you ever wondered how many insects were drowning in that sink? If we don’t think our enemies have feelings and emotions, they are no more than insects.

The last few episodes of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam war really moved me .  Many of my Vietnamese friends and I felt deep sadness when listening to the interviews of some surviving  American and South Vietnamese soldiers, and the Viet Cong and their North communist comrades.  All of them ironically found themselves on the same side, that of regret and sadness. All agreed it was such a senseless war where Vietnamese were killing Vietnamese, and young Americans, like sheep herded by irresponsible and dishonest leaders, left their normal life to enter “the lion cage.”  After confronting the vicious battles, many of these soldiers just wanted to come home to America, to be reunited with their families and restart their lives, to go to college or to hold normal jobs.  A Viet Cong soldier, who’s now a writer and poet, recalled how he came back to his village after six years, to be reunited with his mother.  She was so overwhelmed and overjoyed to see him but they could not celebrate, because all the other young men living in their building had gone to the war and had been killed.  He was the only survivor, like a woman communist soldier who lost her eight brothers and two sons in the war.  They all looked into the camera, telling their sad tales with such emotions I could no longer tell which side they were on.

Wars are ugly and destructive, yet humans  do not seem to be able to exist without wars.  They find reasons to fight, then reasons to quit in the middle of a fight.  Some battles in South Vietnam were labeled by naming the hills on which the battles were located. In one episode, the American soldiers finally captured a hill after a long blood bath with massive casualties on both sides.  The soldiers reached the top of the hill after their victory, looked around then came back down.  The absurdity of such battles probably can be seen in so many wars in different parts of the world.  Those who opposed the Vietnam war were considered unpatriotic or even “pro-communist.”  Some Vietnamese in communities around the U.S. have complained how Ken Burns is too “liberal” and “pro-communist.”  They complained how Ken Burns paid too much attention to the North Vietnamese communist soldiers while “ignoring” the Southerners.  In a war, people tend to take sides and hold on to their side even years later.  The bitterness and damage a war has done to one’s family makes it difficult for him to forgive “the other side.”

My son doesn’t like to study history.  As a middle schooler, he often complained how he thought the subject of history was unnecessary.  Why study one war after another, and wars continue to happen? He often said.  Maybe he had a point, as he realized humans never seem to learn from their wars, as if fighting is an ingrained part of their DNA code.

Many of the veterans interviewed in Ken Burns’ documentary show how the Vietnam war still deeply affects them.  Their eyes full of anguish and tears, their tone solemn, and the details of their stories so vivid as if they are living their experience again.  I wonder how many of them have sought counseling? How well have we treated our veterans, as most of them were pushed into wars at such young and vulnerable age?  I hope as citizens, we rally around our veterans to show them gratitude.  We need to care for their mental health and happiness.  In the last episode of Ken Burns’ documentary, a war protester tearfully apologized publicly to the war veterans for calling them “baby killers.”  To kill or to be killed, one has to be in a middle of a battle to understand the senseless meaning of wars.  

Currently, we are in a verbal conflict with another nation in Southeast Asia, that of North Korea.  We should hope all diplomatic strategies are used to avoid another senseless war.  Let us not see another war documentary years from now with bodies littering the rice fields and numerous humans with broken limbs and souls.   Let us not witness disabled children for generations to come because of chemicals like Agent Orange being sprayed all over the fields to ruin the enemies’ crops.  Soon, any war will end, and the once young enemies will look into a video camera as old men in tears, expressing how they regretted fighting in a senseless and inhuman war.  They were all young and enthusiastic to kill “for a cause,” as encouraged by their “wise” leaders.  Many of the wise leaders, as we learned watching the Vietnam War documentary, were no more than selfish humans fighting for their ego and power using somebody else’s children.  We need to urge our leaders to hold their ego in check while studying carefully the reasons they want our children to go to wars.  Maybe they all should watch Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary to avoid making the same mistake that killed million of people and disrupting million others’ lives.