Veterans Day 2017, I watch as bleachers full of elementary and middle-school students eye with shy excitement the veterans sitting facing them. I listen as eighth-graders eloquently, innocently, honor in very personal terms our service to America. My heart is warmed, my mind, concerned.
These children’s odes to veterans’ courage, commitment and sacrifice mingle with my memories of compatriots lost during, since and because of the Vietnam War.
Young, smart voices thank veterans for protecting our national principles, rights, freedoms and liberties and for our most admirable commitment and selfless sacrifice to protect those of other countries.
These were exactly my beliefs at 13. Five years later, motivated by duty, I volunteered proudly for the Army, and eagerly, to ensure those values in Vietnam.
Fifty years ago this month, I deplaned into Vietnam’s diesel-saturated 106 degrees, feeling privileged to represent the highest ideals and values a nation could embrace. I had never questioned my country. My loyalty was blind, my obedience automatic, and the war’s “justness” assumed.
And then — 1968. The most pivotal year in American history? I think so. Undoubtedly for our generation; certainly for most veterans of the war. And absolutely for me.
Baby-boomers morphed into the “Vietnam generation” that year, upturning forever our political, social and cultural “worlds” of superiority, confidence and innocence.
My faith became a casualty within months. America’s confidence in victory evaporated after Tet, while the principles justifying our presence in Vietnam were exposed, tragically, as myth.
A child’s intellectual development begins with absolutes, then gradually evolves toward holding in tension two contrasting possibilities. I leave the gymnasium wondering: When do we introduce to innocents the historical realities that counterbalance patriotic idealism and blind faith in abstract ideals?
Is it responsible to use — only — World War II to symbolize America’s international history, or to rationalize any foreign policy? Can patriotism be informed without the historical realities from Korea, Vietnam, Chile, Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan?
At what point do we demythologize war and educate young minds to think critically, which is to say, truly patriotically?
When do we admit that we are capable of doing more harm than good, thereby lessening our ability to ensure national security and compromising our espoused values — the very values we fight for, the ones these kids believe in?
On a national level, faith in abstract ideals — unchanged by half a century of experience — is a challenge. “A man who views the world the same way at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life — Muhmmad Ali’s poignant reminder of our need to learn from experience.
We’ve essentially wasted these 50 years.
This anniversary offers us the opportunity and the responsibility to review the failures of our war in Vietnam. From the unjust cause for the war, to wanton ecological destruction, excessive damage to combatants and civilians, inadequate psychological/spiritual/emotional preparation for our armed forces, and the denial of responsibility for long-term damage to veterans in terms of wounds both visible and invisible.
The five decades between 1968 and 2018 ask on this anniversary for a thorough review to link, explicitly and honestly, the past and the present — for sake of the future. No longer can we default to nostalgia, merely sharing stories or private memories; no longer can we settle into old arguments and laying blame. This focus on the particulars of Vietnam has kept us from progress.
Now is the time to use Vietnam as a reference point, to examine principles and universal truths about war in general. We have now the choice and the chance to learn from mistakes, to dedicate ourselves as a nation to the discernment of true justification for war and the limits of military solutions, to be mindful of ecological sanctity, to treat opponents and civilians humanely, to prepare soldiers adequately, and to honor our veterans on their return with support for wounds, both physical and psychological.
At the reception, my sixth-grade granddaughter enjoys cookies and punch as I enjoy her mature inquisitiveness about my service. Unpredictably, after thoughtful pause, she asks, “Grandpa, did you kill anyone?” I smile. “That’s a really important and complicated question; we’ll talk about ‘killing-in-war’ when you’re in high school.”
Fifty years out, our work is to prepare critical thinking citizens who can counter the perspective of blind faith in abstract ideals with intelligent inquiry; to cultivate a foreign policy aligned with the values and principles these eighth graders celebrate, the principles which lifted me up when I was their age, the ones the next generations deserve. We would be negligent not to.
Peter Berres of Lexington is a retired educator and veteran who served in Vietnam in 1968.
1968: The year that changed America
Jan. 30 is the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, an attack by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces that inflicted heavy losses on U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries. The offensive was repelled, but Tet shook public support for the war in this country and ushered in the tumultuous events of 1968, a year that changed America. Peter Berres, a veteran of the Vietnam War, will write about those events, and their significance 50 years on, in an occasional series that begins today and continues through 2018.