Lessons from Vietnam offer advice for handling North Korea, Iran

By Michele Murphy

The Vietnam War is back in our living rooms now that PBS is airing a 10-part series developed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. You can catch the final two installments tonight and tomorrow.

I say back in our living rooms because Vietnam was the first war to reach a significant number of American TV viewers as more were able to purchase TVs and satellite transmission made it possible to air stories right after they happened on nightly news broadcasts.

For many Baby Boomers, this war was very personal. Our family members, classmates and neighbors’ kids were sent over there. Many died. Many more came home forever changed. They were sad, quiet and wracked by nightmares, that is when they could sleep. I learned that you never, ever approached a combat vet from behind with a tap on the shoulder – no matter how friendly you meant that tap to be.

If I live to be 100, I will vividly recall an incident that occurred while I was a student at Ohio University. I was walking down Court Street, a main drag, with a high school pal recently back from Vietnam. He was wearing his fatigue jacket, as a lot of vets did. A kid I did not know walked by us cursing at him that he was a baby killer. Then he spit on the ground in front of him. I cannot recall what we said next to each other, but I do remember the look in his eyes.

Before he went to Vietnam, he was a happy-go-lucky guy everyone wanted to be around. We wrote regularly while he was in the service. I suspect my letters were filled with great detail about the daily banality of college life. I cannot remember all that was in his letters, but I am absolutely certain there was never a word about engaging with Viet Cong. He worked so hard at forgetting and getting back to normal, he was exhausted. He also was depressed, and could very well have been suffering from post traumatic stress (PTSD). I understand that now. I did not understand then.

More recently, what has helped me understand the lasting impact of PTSD has been the willingness of vets at the Sheffield Village VA Outpatient Clinic to talk to me. Some still struggle with memories of the war. A vet from Lakewood told me he only recently had been able to begin to discuss his war experience. Still others attend group sessions at the VA where they can talk. Some say it is the only place they feel safe to talk about the war, and not feel judged. Being called a baby killer when your only motivation was serving your country and protecting our freedom is hard to shake off. War is ugly and dehumanizing, a kind of death while still breathing.

I also know from talking with VA staff that many young vets returning home, in some cases from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of an all-volunteer military, are having trouble reconnecting to the lives they left behind. Like Vietnam vets, some have turned to alcohol, drugs, even suicide, to obliterate memories of war.

That’s why two stories dominating headlines right now worry me. The first is the ever-escalating war of words between Donald Trump and Kim Jung-un of North Korea. What happens when they run out of nasty epithets to toss at each other? Both have stated they will wipe their enemy off the face of the earth. This dangerous verbal slugfest leaves little room for the possibility of negotiation. Personally, I am puzzled why Congress and the American people are not demanding negotiations at the tops of their lungs. These two guys have the arsenals to accomplish the kind of annihilation we shut our eyes at if we watch apocalyptic movies.

The other story has been bubbling around, but burst open during the President’s speech before the United Nations this past week. He had little nice to say about Iran. He says he hates the Iran Deal. Multiple confirmation from allies, the International Atomic Energy Agency and our own intelligence agencies show that Iran is living up to its end of the treaty. The President says Iran is supporting terror groups. They may be, and if they are, then address that by negotiating another treaty. Don’t throw out this one which will only green-light Iran to pursue nuclear weapons. That concern is heightened by Iran’s response to the U.N. speech. They launched their own missile over the weekend.

The vets I know are heroes and many still suffer the effects of war. We think less, I fear, about the civilian populations in these war-torn countries despite the fact that TV brings them into our living rooms everyday. Will the brinksmanship strategy work – and I do believe, at least somewhat, that it is a strategy to get the opposition to back down and back off. Some fear it works only when warning a rational opponent.

In the Burns-Nowick documentary, a former North Vietnamese soldier says, “”In war, no one wins or loses. There is only destruction.”

Fights over Obamacare or tax cuts seem less important when compared to the current international conflict. Even if our missile defense system can interdict a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile shortly after it is launched, where will there be nuclear fall out? Think Hiroshima Maidens. If you are not familiar with the term, please, for your sake, look it up.

Then remember the words, “There is only destruction,” and what the former North Vietnameses soldier says next, “Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won and who lost.”



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