KADNER: The Vietnam War has lessons to tell, but are we listening?

SHARE KADNER: The Vietnam War has lessons to tell, but are we listening?
SHARE KADNER: The Vietnam War has lessons to tell, but are we listening?

I have been watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s PBS series on the Vietnam War and crying.

Tears filled my eyes when the mother of a soldier recalled waiting for mail from her son and again when a Marine related the story of his mother telling him during a phone call that he will not die because he is “special.”

The Marine replied that every soldier in Vietnam is special to his mother and he has been filling body bags full of “special people.”


The Vietnam War was the backdrop of my life growing up. I listened every night as my mother prayed in her bedroom for my brother to return home safely from the war.

I watched my father struggle unsuccessfully to hold back tears at the Thanksgiving dinner table, unable to look at the empty chair where my brother had always sat.

The mailman would ring the doorbell at our house whenever he had a letter from my brother and we would come running.

And those letters were filled with stories about the terrors of war unlike anything in a John Wayne movie.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have captured all of that and much more in his series, which will be aired repeatedly straight through October, but I have a sense too few Americans are watching.

There’s a moment where a Vietnamese man who fought against our soldiers recalls watching Americans risk their lives to save wounded buddies and cry over their bodies.

He had never realized until then that the Americans were human beings, just like his countrymen, not animals.

And there is an American who fought in that war explaining how he killed only one human being during his time in Vietnam. After that, he came to think of the Vietnamese as “gooks,” something subhuman, so he could kill without a conscience. He explains how racism can be quite helpful, even essential, when you are fighting a war.

There on the TV screen, just as he had been in my youth, was Lyndon Johnson, lying and lying and lying again about the war.

He knew we were losing, had been told the war could not be won, and yet continued to send Americans overseas to die.

And to kill, maim and torture thousands of Vietnamese.

Americans dropped napalm on their forests, scorched their rice patties and burned their people alive.

There are photographs of wounded and dead American soldiers piled high on armored transports and Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire.

There is a story told by an American officer who prayed in the middle of a firefight that God take his life rather than that of another member of his company — and then, realizing what he said, praying to take those words back.

There is videotape of Americans marching against the war, burning flags, fighting with police officers and clashing with National Guardsman.

And there is videotape of 500,000 North Vietnamese men, women and children carrying military equipment by hand through the forests, hacking out trails through the mountains and acting as human pack mules in order to attack the South.

My brother returned from the war physically whole, although I was never certain about the mental impact.

I had certainly changed. I would never trust the government again. Never take on faith that we were on the right side when we made war. Always suspect anyone who suggested that patriotism meant blindly supporting the government.

There are so many similarities between then and now. History can be so boring, so depressing, that most people would logically choose to spend their time on happier pursuits.

Tears ran down my face as I watched events that are 50 years old. There is no expiration date on the sadness of war.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

This column has been updated to include co-director Lynn Novick’s name.

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