A few weeks ago, in the run-up to the PBS airing of Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam, I was asked by several friends for my opinion on that period of time in which the United States was being whipsawed emotionally, politically, financially, and, most important, mortally, by our involvement in the war.
On the surface, their requests seemed reasonable, given my personal and professional credentials: I was a military brat, son of a West Pointer; I was a college student in the late 1960s, on a campus that had its share of pro- and anti-war organizations; I was a journalist/photojournalist who covered several of the Washington anti-war marches and the race riots of 1968, and I continued to cover the military well into the 1980s; and I eventually served for more than 30 years in government, on the House and Senate Veterans committees, and in the executive branch under four presidents, principally as a senior-level staff member—speechwriter to four Secretaries—in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In the course of my work for and with veterans, I had the distinct honor to know men and women whose bravery and sacrifice humbled me every day. Even now, thanks to social media, I look with wonder at the names of Vietnam veterans and journalists who are legends, heroes, and wounded warriors, and who were gracious enough to accept my friend requests, or who invited me to be their friends.
These are just facts of a long life here in Washington, D.C., facts that pale in comparison to the career contributions of so many other men and women whose life’s orbits occasional cross mine.
I understand why a career arc like mine might encourage friends and colleagues to ask my opinion on the Vietnam war. And I understand why so many them would question my reluctance to share an opinion. It is my habit to demure on offering opinions about things of which I have little experience or no personal investment—either as a participant, or as a knowledgeable spectator—because such opinions are of little value in debates of real substance.
But then I started watch the Burns’ documentary, and, at the same time, watched professional athletes come under fire from a disruptive, unethical, and immoral president, and so many things began happening inside me that my internal worldview began to morph. A door opened.
My ‘ah-ha’ moment was not sparked by the Vietnam series; it came about as I watched the kneeling that that is taking place in our athletic arenas, and president Trump’s response to them. It is his continued moral infirmity and the reactions of his team of sneering, hubris-filled suits he has surrounded himself with that broke this reluctant camel’s back.
It is clear that I—and many Americans—do have a personal investment in the events and outcomes of a war painted inaccurately at the time by the blood-soaked brushes of leaders whose moral palettes did not contain the right colors, e.g., truth, candor, clarity of purpose, admission of failure, accountability, shame, sorrow, guilt, and responsibility to the fallen and their families. No, the Vietnam War isn’t over, because the painting is not yet dry for so many Americans, and I’m not sure it will dry in my lifetime.
America’s leaders of both parties have been unable to shake a very bad habit: lying. That’s not revelation, to be sure, but addressing it and calling it out by name has taken on a new urgency in a world that is divided and hostile here at home and abroad.
What’s more, too many of our leaders compound their lies with ignorance, impenetrable rationalizations, hiding behind shields of scripted spokespersons, and establishing media alliances all-too-eager to take the proffered bags of silver in exchange for ratings.
There is no difference between the Vietnam protester and the kneeling athlete. Most Vietnam protesters I knew—some of them close friends—did not question the strength or purpose of the overarching fabric of the Constitution—a blood-stained cloth, hand-stitched imperfectly, by the Founders. What the protesters objected to was the willful back-room repurposing of that sacred weave by leaders who tried to justify their immoral decisions by wrapping their mistakes in the very cloth that defined their role in government. That’s not responsible governance; that’s cowardice. It’s shameful. And it took the lives of 58,000 Americans, and left hundreds of thousands more—families, friends, colleagues—broken in sorrow.
When I see an athlete taking a knee during the National Anthem, I don’t see a disrespectful citizen; I see someone who is exercising our democracy’s prime directive: “You are allowed to express yourself peacefully without fear of reprisal.” If the First Amendment had a mantra, that would be it. There is even an essay on its value that every American should take time to read: Letter from Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King, Jr.
What do the kneelers have to protest? Here’s a short list of what our newly-unenlighted government is too self-involved to take on: Racism, bigotry, inequality, injustice, lives ignored, lives taken senselessly, poverty, homelessness, religious persecution, xenophobia, unequal education, unaffordable medical care, no medical care, disdain for those who are physically or mentally disabled, soaring drug abuse, senior abuse, child abuse, human trafficking, climate change, and global responsibilities that would fill another page.
Vietnam’s aftershocks continue as still-rolling waves of discontent and disaffection rising and falling on the shores of our national conscience. To those who say, “Let it go. The damn war is over,” I say, no, the war is not yet over, it has begun anew. Its first shots were heard in November 2016, and they continue to ring loud and mercilessly upon the sensibilities of every American who once dreamed of a day when the echoes of Vietnam would truly fade away, to be muted by the sounds of comity, friendship, and peace. I am one of those Americans, and that is my opinion.