I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from February 2018, about watching Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” and wondering how our children will look back at this period we’re in right now. It’s … a little worrisome.
I’ve gotten obsessed with Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” documentary. It runs nearly 18 hours, and I’m only about 75 percent through it. But pretty much every second of downtime over the last two weeks has been spent watching it.
The film is full of insights, underreported stories, brutal scenes of carnage and moments that will tear your heart out. The film is purposefully all-encompassing, trying to tell every story from every possible angle, an impossible task even at 18 hours but a worthy one nonetheless. The film is as apolitical as anything about the Vietnam War could be; it looks back at the war with a weary sigh as thousands and thousands of well-meaning people make one bad decision after another and we sleepwalk into a nightmare. It’s full of unforgettable characters, and I have to say, every time John Musgrave — a soldier who ended up becoming a protester, but mostly just seems utterly destroyed by everything that happened — came on screen, I damned near broke down.
I was born in 1975, while the ashes of the war was still smoldering and men and women involved were mostly home, making babies like me. My father volunteered for Vietnam but spent most of the war at an Air Force base in Virginia; his two best friends from high school, who enlisted with him, were not so fortunate. He met my mother in 1971, when he was 22 years old, and once joked in a letter to her that he might get sent to “Buttfuque, Egypt,” and my mom actually went to the library to look up where “Buttfuque” was.
That’s a well-worn story in the Leitch family, and an anecdote I love to tell about how my parents met. But watching “The Vietnam War” makes vivid how urgent the idea that Bryan Leitch, who had just started courting Sally Dooley, could be shipped off in a second really was. Or what my dad’s dad, a veteran himself, must have though about all this. Or how no one could just go have a normal life and do normal things without the war grabbing them and pulling one way or another. To watch the film is to realize just how all-encompassing the war was, how, living through it, it must have legitimately felt like the world was coming apart at the seams. It is no wonder that we are still feeling the war’s aftereffects today. It’s no wonder we still haven’t made our peace with it.
Now that my parents have a house out here in Georgia, I get to see them more often, and it’s wonderful: I haven’t lived in the same town as my parents in 25 years, and it makes you realize how much it means to have loved ones that near to you. And I have become obsessed with asking them about the war while watching this … asking them too much, I’d wager. They’ve already seen the film. They watched it when it aired on PBS back in September, actual appointment television, sitting down to watch every episode in succession on a nightly basis, like it was 1983 or something. Mom said everybody their age they knew in Mattoon was doing the same thing. Everyone who lived with it found it cathartic to watch, all these years later. You needed the distance, and you needed to remember.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to live through that. But I can’t help but wonder if, in 45 years, my children are going to be watching a documentary about today, about this era we’re currently in, and wonder, “my god, what was it like to live through that? I had no idea Mom and Dad were dealing with all that.” The world feels like it’s tearing asunder, that we’re on the edge of the whole thing careening out of control. It must have still felt like this to my parents when I was born, and even as I was a child. I never knew it, or even sensed it. I feel like that’s one of the best gifts my wife and I can give to our boys: To protect them from all of this, as long as we can, until they are ready to process, until they can maybe get some distances to understand it that we never could. Because our kids are not going to be to believe what’s going on in the world right now, and the White House, and all of it. (There’s a story this morning about our President using a media organization to cover up his multiple affairs, and honestly, it’s not even in the top 10 of depressing things that has happened in the news this week.)
A friend told me that his strategy with his kids was to take advantage of “a window here where I think if we stay away from him and again just go back to teaching basic human decency, we may be able to make Trump nothing more than a weird, foggy memory from their childhood.” I hope we’re all so lucky to have it work out that way. I feel like I understand so much more about what my parents went through because of the Vietnam War documentary. But I can never truly understand. I’m glad they protected me from it all. I’m gonna try to do the same.