By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Back in high school, I wrote a paper about Vietnam War movies for one of my history classes.
As best I recall, the paper concerned how movies about the Vietnam War approached the war — whether they were for it or against it — while factoring in when those movies were made. I can’t remember if it was a good paper, but the research certainly wasn’t too burdensome. I watched the stone-cold classics like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Full Metal Jacket, along with such solid entries as Platoon and Hamburger Hill.
Of course, I also watched The Green Berets, the 1968 John Wayne film that was a financial success and a critical embarrassment and remains the only pro-Vietnam War film I’m aware of. My favorite scene is when John Wayne, inexplicably playing an active-duty Green Beret at the age of 61, places a beret on the head of a young South Vietnamese boy named Ham Chuck, informs him that “you’re what this thing’s all about,” and then they both walk along the beach as the sun sets in the east. It’s not a great war movie, but it’s a remarkable comedy.
As part of the paper, my professor asked me to interview some actual Vietnam veterans. Fortunately, I had two relatives who had served and they were more than happy to sit down with me and talk about their experiences.
Those experiences, as you might imagine, were not pleasant. It’s hard to remember now, but I think at least one of them had been drafted. They talked about the loss of life, the heat and humidity and yellow mud, the Agent Orange, the constant fear of being shot to death by an unseen enemy like so many others before them. It was a brutal, traumatic experience.
Near the end of our conversation, I asked them a question that I’m now wise enough to never ask a veteran who served after World War II.
“Do you think the war was worth it?”
They both grew very quiet and looked down at their cups of coffee.
“I hope so,” one said.
Those three words, delivered unconvincingly, made me understand the horror of the Vietnam War in a way all the movies never could. The horror was not merely the death and trauma and bombings and gunfire. The horror was also watching U.S. government employees pile into a Huey helicopter as Saigon fell in 1975 and realizing that all of the sacrifice meant nothing.
It’s been said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. After watching U.S. government employees pile into a helicopter on the roof of the embassy in Kabul this week, that rhyme feels pretty lazy. The War in Afghanistan was not merely a retread of the Vietnam War, it was a retread of Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary: incredibly long, incredibly depressing, and almost everyone knew how it was going to end before it even started. I remember my friend Jordan, one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, telling me that Afghanistan was going to be Vietnam 2. That was back in late 2001 when we were both in 11th grade.
Plenty of people are blaming Joe Biden for pulling out the troops and allowing Afghanistan to fall to the Taliban. Others are blaming Donald Trump for his Feb. 2020 peace treaty with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. troops in 14 months. But frankly, the fall of Afghanistan was inevitable since we first dropped troops there 20 years ago. If we had left ten years ago or if we had left ten years from now, this was always going to be the end result. We should have learned from the Soviets when they invaded and occupied Afghanistan for almost the entirety of the 1980s: you can’t fight another country’s battles for them.
I feel terrible for the Afghani people, the vast majority of whom are just innocent folks who want to live their lives free of terror. I feel especially terrible for the Afghani women who will inevitably suffer the most under Taliban rule.
And I also feel terrible for the U.S. troops who served there and the families of those who didn’t make it back. War is a terrible business under the best of circumstances, but when the dust has settled, the survivors can usually point to something and say, “You see that? The war made that good thing possible.”
I’m not sure if the dust will ever truly settle in Afghanistan. In the meantime, we’ll all be left somberly staring into our cups of coffee, struggling to say that we like to think it was all worth it.