Ken Burns’ new film about the Vietnam War begins tomorrow night. Ever since I heard a few months ago about the film, I’ve been anxiously waiting for it to show, somehow in expectation that it will be Burns’ best and most important film since The Civil War. I’ve seen a couple reviews this week which only feed my expectation.
This just might be one of those things which every American should watch. I’ve long been amazed at how central the Vietnam War was and is to my personal experience, even though I seemed barely and only distantly touched by that war. I was eleven years old in 1964, when the war was beginning to ramp up. I was in high school through the Tet Offensive and Nixon’s first winning presidential bid and the rise of the hippie counterculture, with its sex, drugs, rock and roll and protests. My high school year I was subject to the draft, with every eighteen year-old’s birthdate being drawn in a lottery. Everyone with the first fifty or so birthdates drawn got drafted. My birthdate was drawn as #306. I guess I can’t say I’ve never won anything. A couple guys in the classes I was taking at Georgia Tech at that time suddenly disappeared from class. So, the war was certainly there every day of the last years of my childhood. Still, it felt as if it was not so much really there at all. Until much later, when I started to understand how much it shaped how I see and understand things. Yikes! Back then I never heard the likes of Pete Seeger and now he’s my favorite singer!
There is another big reason why it is odd that the Vietnam War seemed so far away to me. That reason: my oldest brother Steve was over there, fighting. He was there for the Tet Offensive, trying to keep himself alive inside a foxhole outside Da Nang. How could the war have seemed so distant if my own brother was right smack in the midst of it? In part, because there was some real distance between me and Steve to begin with. He was our half-brother, had a different father, who played a mysteriously evil role in our family because Mom refused and refused and refused to say anything whatsoever about the man. Steve too said nothing. We learned from him much later that he said nothing because he had nothing to say because he had no recollection of anything in his childhood prior to his tenth year. An added factor in the distance between us was the age difference. He was nine years older, nine years bigger, nine years stronger. When I was young, I was fiercely competitive, burned to win and burned if I lost. If Steve joined us in our kickball games out front of the house in Dayton, the game was over because he could kick the ball all the way to Schantz Avenue. That infuriated me and my fury stood between us for a long time (for as long as it took me to kill the beast inside me which demanded I win).
Although Steve sent letters home from Vietnam, they said very little about Vietnam. I recall him writing once, twice, perhaps more than twice, that he was required to say little. We Paukerts weren’t storytellers anyway. I can remember maybe only five or six stories Mom ever told about her own childhood. As astonishing as that seems, Dad told us even less about his childhood. I plan sometime fairly soon to inventory the few stories Mom and Dad told, partly in hopes that maybe Jill or Skip know other stories I don’t know. Suffice it to say, we Paukerts were not big storytellers.
One of Steve’s letters, though, did tell a story. A great story. The story of how Steve had won the Purple Heart.
The story takes us back to his outpost on the fringe of the Viet Cong “infested” jungle near the American-controlled city of Da Nang. As I have already said, Steve saw some frightening fighting while at that outpost, but on this particular day there was no fighting. Maybe I don’t remember or maybe he didn’t tell us how he broke his glasses that day, but somehow he broke his glasses. He told his immediate superior, who arranged for him to ride a jeep into Da Nang to get his glasses fixed. The jeep came, loaded with other soldiers bound for the city for one reason or another. Steve jumped up onto the jeep and rode into Da Nang and was delivered to the front of a hospital tent there. He was told to get out and go into the tent, which he did. Inside the tent he was told to sit on a particular vacant cot and wait for assistance, which he did. The tent was full of wounded soldiers, some not so badly wounded and others badly wounded but all of them to one extent or other wounded. For a long time nothing happened, no one came to help with his eyeglasses, but being a good Marine means knowing how to be patient so Steve sat patiently. At some point during his wait he noticed two officers enter the tent through a flap at the other end of the tent. These officers moved from cot to cot, soldier to soldier, talking a short while with each, then shaking the soldier’s hand and moving on to the next soldier on the next cot. Steve watched this for a bit then lost interest and busied himself with other things when suddenly these two officers were standing at his cot, looking at him. “Good work, soldier!” one of the men said, then shook Steve’s hand and moved on. Steve felt something in his hand, opened it and saw that the officer had used the handshake to give him a Purple Heart. My brother was a Purple Heart recipient because of grievous injury to his eyeglasses! We never saw that Purple Heart because, instead, it fetched him a few dollars at some pawn shop in Da Nang.
Something tells me Ken Burns might have been interested in that story. War in general is absurd and Vietnam was as absurd as most any other war. I think Mr. Burns will drive that point home to us. Steve’s story does as well.
The thing is: Steve in fact completely earned that Purple Heart. He, like all the others, came home from Vietnam in some ways stronger but in other deeper ways almost mortally wounded. As far as I know, he almost never talked about Vietnam, kept his Paukert silence about the war.
All honor to Steve and all honor to all the other boys (and now girls) of war. William Tecumseh Sherman told us war is hell. When will we ever learn? But it’s the men and women of war who are to blame, not the boys and girls. The boys and girls are to be honored.
Steve didn’t have only a purple heart; he had a golden one too, even if he took way too much satisfaction at my expense when kicking that damn ball out of our yard. But I deserved my humiliation. In my little boy way I believed in war back then and it took me a few years to understand that Steve was just trying to teach me to play games, not fight wars.