The ghost of the Vietnam War is strutting on the American stage

Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake Thy gory locks at me. Macbeth (III, iv, 50)

Macbeth is seeing the ghost of Banquo who was murdered by Macbeth’s paid assassins. That scene is the play’s climax, the point when Macbeth’s fate is sealed.

It’s a lesson for us today. The Vietnam War was a crucial turning point for America. Thanks to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s riveting PBS series, the war’s ghost is strutting across the American stage shaking its gory locks, haunting and reminding us we have an accounting due as a nation.

Vietnam never posed a threat to the United States. Ho Chi Minh admired America, quoting the Declaration of Independence while declaring Vietnam independence after World War II. He actively sought our help in ousting France, its colonial master, but got neither our empathy or support.

Veteran Tim O’Brien relays one of many compelling personal tales in the ten-part series. O’Brien describes his upbringing in Worthington, Minnesota living a 1950’s Ozzie and Harriet life: little-league baseball, hotdogs at the amusement park, and so on. His idyllic life, though, would be obliterated by war, one that would, in tandem with the racial strife, tear apart the nation.

While stationed at Ft. Lewis, WA, O’Brien sent his parents a letter asking for money and his passport. They obliged without questioning, though one would think they understood the underlying reason for his request: Canada was a mere 90 minutes away.

“What prevented me from doing it?” O’Brien mused. “Fear of embarrassment, a fear of ridicule, a fear of humiliation. What a coward! What a sissy going to Canada! I couldn’t summon the courage to say no. I have had to live with it now for 40 years. It’s a long time to live with a failure of conscience, a failure of nerve. The nightmare of Vietnam is not the bombs and the bullets; it’s that failure of nerve that I so regret.”

O’Brien’s failure of nerve was not about cowardice in literal battle, but about acting courageously in the war about the war, the one that took place stateside. Shame is a most powerful motivator.

O’Brien’s experience was common as the war hung as a Damocles sword over draft-age young men. A Greek tragedy played out on a national scale, it presented moral dilemmas not only about its purpose but especially for those men. For those of us born prior to 1955, there was no skirting around it. Options were several, but ultimately it was a binary choice: Enlist or be drafted, or go to jail like Muhammed Ali, seek asylum in Canada, or find other ways to avoid Vietnam. It was a no-win scenario.

In a moving letter to his parents explaining his decision to give up his Rhodes Scholarship and deploy with the Marines, Karl Marlantes wrote, “I will be taking part in one of the greatest crimes in our century.” Yet, he chose to do so because of his higher moral imperative: Saving lives of friends and fellow Marines. He would kill many to save a few.

The war’s legacy is pocked with ironies, lessons unlearned, and regrettable outcomes.

As Chicago police clubbed protesters, Walter Cronkite sardonically observed, “A democratic convention is about to begin in a police state.”

Panicked kids in uniform shooting and killing their uniform-less peers.

Fearmongering and paranoia ruling the waves.

The folly of war: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq.

CYA Presidents lying for political purposes.

Cognitive dissonance: Veterans enthusiastically supporting draft dodgers for president.

One such POTUS demeaning and ridiculing war heroes.

The militarization of patriotism.

“The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of the country,” Army vet Philip Gioia said. “It polarized the country not probably since before the Civil War, and unfortunately we have never moved far away from that and we never recovered.”

Ghosts of the past lose their power when confronted. I lost sleep, my blood pressure rose, and my heartbeat become arrhythmic watching the Burns-Novick series. Yet, I feel stronger, more informed, more compassionate, and, yes, more outraged for it.

Courageously engaging in conversation about that past can lead to a better understanding of our current moral crisis. As William Ernest Henley proclaims in “Invictus,” we can be masters of our fate. Or we can be victims. Your choice.

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