The Vietnam War 3: The River Styx

By Craig Kennet Miller

General Westmoreland: “We’re killing these people at a rate of ten to one.”
Senator Fritz Hollings: “Westy, the American people don’t care about the ten. They care about the one.”

There is one statement that keeps cropping up in “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns on PBS. As we hear recorded conversations of Kennedy and Johnson, we see how they reluctantly made decisions that escalated the American involvement in Vietnam. More than once, the narrator says, “They didn’t want the American public to know.”

Here are the things they didn’t want people to know:

  1. They didn’t trust the leaders in South Vietnam.
    This is easy to see as Kennedy signed off on the coup that led to the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam. In the six months that followed the coup, eight different generals tried to take over leadership and failed.
  2. They were losing the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.
    In one heart-wrenching scene, Morley Safer, a young reporter for CBS who would go on to host 60 Minutes, went on a patrol with a group of American soldiers to show what was really going on. When they came to a village where they suspected there were Viet Cong, the soldiers burned down the village. They set the thatched roofs on fire with a cigarette lighter. Old people, mothers, and children are shown weeping as their homes burn to the ground.
  3. The North Vietnamese had a compelling reason to fight.
    The North wanted a unified Vietnam without outside influence. They had fought against the Japanese and the French. In their long history, they had fought against China. The South Vietnamese did not have a compelling reason to fight other than to survive to live another day.
  4. The American soldiers were easily out-maneuvered.
    Although the Americans had greater firepower, they didn’t know how to fight in a jungle, didn’t understand the culture, and couldn’t easily identify their enemies.

Even though they knew these things, in 1964 and 1965 Johnson and his advisers kept pouring troops into Vietnam. They didn’t want to be the first to lose a war. They didn’t want to admit they were wrong. By the end of December 1965, they had two choices: Negotiate a compromise with Hanoi or send in 200,000 American troops as requested by General Westmoreland. They chose to send more troops, turning the conflict into an all-out war.

Karl Marlantes, a Marine who served in Vietnam, shared this reflection:
“My bitterness about the political powers at the time was, first of all, the lying. I mean, I can understand a policy error that is incredibly, incredibly painful and kills a lot of people out of a mistake if they made that with noble hearts. That was, you know, when Eisenhower and Kennedy were trying to figure things out. And you read that, you know, McNamara knew by ‘65 – that the war was unwinnable. That was three years before I got there. That's what makes me mad…you’re killing people for your own ego. That's what makes me mad.”

As we reflect upon these events, we must remember that in 1965, boomers were ages 1 to 21. Those who were being sent to fight were just barely out of their teens. As young people who had heard of the heroics of those who served in World War II, they wanted to fight for their country. They believed their elders had their best interests at heart.

But as the events of the Vietnam War unfolded and those who served came back in coffins, wounded, or psychologically scared, there was an increasing belief that something just didn’t add up.

These experiences early in their lives have left deep scars on the souls of boomers.

Somewhere along the way, they lost trust in the institutions of society and, in turn, in themselves. Mistrust is pervasive in the lives of boomers. It keeps them from fully embracing life. They want to believe. They want to trust. But they enter into each new relationship with a high degree of skepticism, they don't want to get burned again.

Questions for Reflection:

1. How does a lack of trust erode your confidence in other people? In work, government, or church?

2. How does your faith enable you to stay on track in the midst of suspicion?

3. Where do you get the strength to stand up to those who have lost your trust but still
make decisions that have an impact on your life?

For a post about Episode 1 go Here.
For a post about Episode 2 go Here.

Craig Kennet Miller is the author of Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life. He will be sharing insights on each episode of this series. Join Miller in a three-part on Boomer Spirituality starting on October 4, at 6:30 pm Central Time. Register for the webinar series »