How Do We Tell the Story of Vietnam? Letters From a Soldier, Fifty Years On, Part 1

Last year the long awaited Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War was released to surprisingly mixed reviews. In the past, critics and the public alike have given anything the filmmaker creates a thumbs up.

Not so, however, for his newest venture and attempted explanation on how and why we lost countless American lives in a land far, far away. The ten-part, seventeen-hour program was panned by many as too simplistic, too long, too heavy on the blame game, and even not historically accurate.

Even before the reviews, it was a given I would see the series. I have been planning a book using the hundreds of letters written by my father from Vietnam during one of the critical turning point years of the war, 1967-68, including an account of the infamous TET Offensive in January of 1968. It will be fifty years this month, in April of 2018, that my father wrote his last letter from Vietnam.

The more I read, and the more trailers I saw, however, the more I couldn’t bring myself to see it, unable to process and reconcile the passionate opinions expressed in the trailers from surviving vets themselves. I realized that although I had initially read my father’s letters several years after his death, in 2002, there was still a great deal I had not come to terms with on how Vietnam had affected our family. Somewhere in me there was a ten-year-old watching her young, tremendously fun father get on a plane in 1967, and then the stranger who disembarked from another plane in 1968.

I downloaded the series onto my kindle, but it sat there for the “right time” which turned out to be months later.

It should have been right down my alley as a writer of history especially since my preferred method of writing is to use first-hand accounts, letters, diaries, and descriptions written by the very real people who lived through a given experience. I have no love for revisionist history with the benefit of hindsight, and consider it a false narrative. When I tell a story, I always tell it using as many authentic documents and interviews as I can find.

As the series aired, some were appalled by the number of “North Vietnamese” Burns interviewed. Having written about just about every war in our history except Vietnam and recently about World War I, I had long ago come to terms with the fact that all wars are multi-sided. The reasons they occur, especially those in the Middle East which are the wars of my recent lifetime, can go back sometimes thousands of years, deeply blurring the good guys and the bad guys.

I also understood that great documentary reporting looks to tell the whole story, but if the narrative is about war, most viewers and readers expect closure in the end, a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. After the American Revolution, we got a country. After the Civil War we emerged as a nation without slavery, and a determination that brother will never again fight brother. After seventeen-and-a-half hours of the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam, some viewers felt that they were still left hanging without the usual lessons learned and hope for the future.

Researching to compile my father’s letters, I had some years ago discovered several accounts and books which did bring a kind of closure. In 1992, General Harold Moore, and famed war journalist, Joe Galloway, collaborated on the book, We Were Soldiers Once and Young. Later, in 2009, they published We Are Soldiers Still.

The 1992 book is their very graphic first-hand account of one of the first big engagements of the war at what is known as Landing Zone X-ray and the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Both books explore the French occupation of Vietnam from the late 1800s until their defeat in 1954. The mistakes of the French, and how they were driven out, were required reading.

They then go on to also point out, as Burns does over and over again, that for some reason none of those lessons were taken seriously. Had they been, the heart and will of the North Vietnamese people and their leaders would not have been underestimated. It would also have led to a greater understanding of the Southern part of the country and its people as well.

Moore doesn’t focus long on the politics and politicians and how we ended up entangled in a conflict that was doomed from the start. It’s a straightforward account of a career solder whose great love was our country and was ordered to go into battle, just like my father.

In the second book Moore, and those of his comrades still living from X-ray, seek out their surviving counterparts from the North Vietnamese army and meet them in a return to Vietnam, allowing us the reader to get to know our former adversaries. We learn they are real people with beating hears and souls just like us.

Moore’s goal was to spend the night on X-ray one more time with his men. Even with the old North Vietnamese general’s support, he could not get official permission from Hanoi to go, except for a brief landing that would consist of several hours. A strange series of events resulted in Moore, Galloway, and the others being stranded for a night on the site of X-ray where the worst part of the fighting took place. Together they relived each moment and exercised the ghosts of war.

The sense of closure Moore was able to experience seems monumental, and one is grateful that some have achieved personal peace. He passed away in 2017.

Vietnam was a conflict, however, where I believe even when those who lived it are long dead there will continue to be a lack of collective closure or a lesson devoid of monumental pain. Almost anything we say at the end of the story will have a vapid ring.

For men like my father who volunteered to go to Vietnam and wore their patriotism on their sleeve, to the boys, average age 19, who were drafted and who should have been at home dating girls in the moonlight of a small town drive in …

… their sacrifice should mean something.

For families, wives, mothers, sisters, brothers at home whose loved ones died in the Vietnam War, or who witnessed the disintegration of survivors to debilitating physical wounds, or a little understood phenomena called Post Traumatic Stress …

… their sacrifice should mean something.

Their lives and future should have meant more than the political hot mess and expediency that consumed the war almost from the beginning. Our country, so beloved for her ideals that so many good men and women were willing to fight for her, should have been better than that.

No matter how it’s presented, in bits and pieces over the years with the declassification of documents and records of conversations coming to light from the highest of offices, to the Ken Burn documentary, it will never be easy to hear.

So I wondered … is there any good way to tell the story of Vietnam?

Next … “Arrival in Saigon.”

Pictured in the middle above is my father, Captain Thomas J. Medley Sr. (Code name Charlie Echo), Special Security Officer and Commander of the SSG Detachment (Special Security Group) assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and his “Professionals” taken somewhere near their base camp known as Camp Eagle, Republic of Vietnam. On his left Sgt. Tom Rahn and on the right Sp4 John Berry. SSG duties included mapping enemy communications and positions all over Vietnam, CODEWORD back-channel communications and courier services. Bien Hoa Air Base.