The Vietnam War: Episode 1 – Déjà Vu - What Happened?

By Craig Kennet Miller

What Happened?

“Coming home from Vietnam was close to as traumatic as the war itself. For years, nobody talked about Vietnam…It was so divisive. It’s like living in a family with an alcoholic father, “Shh, we don’t talk about that.” Our country did that with Vietnam. It’s only been very recently..that, the baby boomers are finally starting to say, ‘what happened?’” Karl Marlantes, Marines, 1969

So begins the new series “The Vietnam War” on PBS by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Taking over ten years of research, interviews, and collating images, Burns and Novick focus on answering the question of “what happened?”

In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, boomers were ages five to twenty-three. Caught in the geopolitics of the Cold War, boomers were being drafted into a war not of their own making. Over 2.5 million served in Vietnam. Unlike the soldiers of WWI, WWII, and the Korean War, they were called baby killers and murderers by their fellow boomers when they came home.

This divide, between those who faithfully served and supported the soldiers who served in Vietnam and those who protested against what was perceived as an unjust war, has never been breached. Boomers, who are now the most powerful generation in the U.S.– serving in congress and as CEOs of major companies­­– still carry with them the open wounds from their youth. That was the time when they found themselves killing in jungles of a far-off land or burning their daft cards or marching in protest marches.

Much of our current political and cultural conflict can be traced to the political upheaval undergone during the time of the Vietnam War.

This thing that we never talk about is what Burns and Novick are attempting to reveal. The first episode, “Déjà Vu,” told of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese passion for independence as seen in their insurgent fight against the French, who claimed them as a colony. Not having the typical weapons of war, Minh and his followers perfected the art of guerilla war, engaging French troops only when they could win and then disappearing into the jungle until the next time. By 1953, the French had suffered 100,000 casualties; and protesters in France called it “The Dirty War.”

By the time the episode is over in 1961, the French have been defeated, and Vietnam has been divided into two rival territories: the North ruled by Ho Chi Minh; and the south, with a quasi-democratic government supported by the United States and the western European countries. It also reveals two competing narratives. The North has a passion to reunify Vietnam, no matter the sacrifice; the United States has a strategic focus to support the South so it doesn’t fall into the hands of the communists. While the North is focused on having an independent Vietnam, the South is seen as a bulwark against the interests of China and the Soviet Union, who are trying to dominate the world through their communist ideology.

What is most revealing in this episode are the scenes from the 1960s, when the American soldiers find themselves in the same quagmire as the French. The episode concludes with the video of a group of American solders walking through a minefield, as one man who served in Vietnam says, “just to walk was brave.”

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What memories do you have of the Vietnam War?
  2. Why is it so difficult to talk about?
  3. What does your faith say about war?

Go to Vietnam Episode 1 to view this episode.

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 »