How Vietnam Scarred Us

Would you join me in s short thought experiment? It’s not pleasant.

You’re growing up alongside your twin in a stable household. Celebrating your joint sixth birthday, Dad takes you to a pool for your first swim.

You stand side-by-side at the pool’s edge, where the water is five feet deep. From below in the pool, Dad tells you to jump in. He’ll catch you both.

You and your sibling jump, but Dad takes a couple of steps back. You land, each alone in the water. Nothing to cling to, so you flail, and your fear grows into intense anxiety. Dimly aware of your sibling’s struggle, all you can think of is fighting for survival. Then your fingertips touch the pool’s wall, you reach higher and find the edge. As you lift your head above the surface, you begin gasping, coughing and crying, worried that you’ll never catch your breath. But eventually you do. You are alive.

Your sibling flailed in the other direction — toward Dad, who kept moving away. When your eyes can focus, you see your sibling floating lifeless face-down in the water.

Your father’s only explanation: “It was necessary.”

Take a moment to reflect on how that might affect the rest of your life.


That scenario came to me as I watched Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s 10-part The Vietnam War.

Pushing HelicopterFor those of us born in the last half of the 1940’s, Vietnam left a stain similar to what that 6-year-old must have experienced. This 18-hour documentary both awakened the trauma in many of us and helped us understand it. It’s a magnificent history, told factually, emotionally, and culturally.

We early baby boomers, who grew up in the 1950’s, received our draft notices at the age of 18 as the Vietnam war was intensifying. We were reared on Father Knows Best, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The High and the Mighty, Shane, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and newsreels showing the Allied victory in the Second World War.

We Americans fought only for what was right. If you wanted evidence, you need look no further than the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. We dropped atom bombs on two Japanese cities only because it couldn’t be helped, and we would maintain our military superiority to keep the world safe, as we were doing in Korea.

We always wore the white hats, and we never lied.

Then we came head-to-head with the draft and the Vietnam war just as we reached the age of questioning and rebellion. Our older brothers and sisters might have perceived fighting in Korea as a legitimate stand against the advance of militaristic and totalitarian Chinese Communism, but Vietnam was a small pastoral country torn by a civil war. And our government lied to us about the role of democracy in South Vietnam and the legitimacy of its government.

We all had to plunge into that pool. Some of us trusted Dad completely but few emerged from the pool that way. Even those who refused, resisted, or evaded the draft plunged into a pool, because we had made the choice to distrust and disobey Dad. More than 58,000 Americans never emerged, some 300,000 were physically injured, and we all were wounded in some way.

The emotional impact of the just-ended documentary shows how much Vietnam is still with those who are old enough to remember, and perhaps Vietnam helps explain the distrust and divisions that still scar our nation.

— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)

Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine


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