‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Seven: ‘The Veneer of Civilization’

That clip above follows an extraordinary story of heroism in battle.

In a night battle against overwhelming odds — his company was badly outnumbered by the attacking NVA — Vincent Okamoto, a Japanese-American who had been born in an internment camp during the Second World War, did an Audie Murphy: He left cover to jump atop an armored personnel carrier, pulled aside the dead body of the machine-gunner, and fired the gun at the enemy until it stopped working.

Then he went to another APC, and fired its gun until it was out of ammunition. Then he did it again from a third APC. When all that ammo was gone, the was still coming, so he started throwing grenades at them. Twice, he threw back enemy grenades thrown at him. A third landed out of his reach, and peppered his back and legs with shrapnel.

Convinced he was going to die (“Mom’s gonna take it hard,” he thought), Okamoto lost all fear, and kept fighting. Eventually, the enemy slipped away into Cambodia, leaving a third of the American company as casualties.

Vincent Okamoto

Vincent Okamoto

“I killed a lot of brave men that night,” he says. And he tells himself that by doing so, maybe, just maybe, he saved the lives of a couple of his own guys. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for that night of fighting. By the time he went home, he would become the most highly decorated Japanese-American to survive the Vietnam War.

But as is the case with so many decorated heroes, he shoves that aside rather impatiently, speaking of the “real heroes” with whom he served. That’s the clip above. I thought I should share what went before to enhance your experience of the clip.

It’s a pretty powerful evocation of the thing that those of us who’ve never been to war often misunderstand about those who have. We can talk about courage and sacrifice and heroism, and patriotism and causes and waving flags. But to those who have been there, that stuff is so often (if not always) beside the point. It’s about the guys next to you. Whatever you do, you do for them, in the context of the moment, and not for the stuff of Fourth of July speeches.

And I can say all that stuff in words, because I’ve read it so many times in words, and I think I understand it well enough to do that. But I don’t really know. How can I?

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about that “veneer of civilization” that turned thin and frayed and was ripped aside at about this time.

At this point, Martin and Bobby have already fallen, and once again we’re reminded of how much was lost in those two men. (By the way, if you’ve never listened to the recording of RFK announcing MLK’s death at a campaign rally, and then going on to speak with an eloquence that puts everyone since him in the shade, listen now. It always gives me goosebumps.)

RFK, I believe, could have been the guy to pull his party together and not only win the election, but help heal the country. It had seemed that way since he had made his late entry into the race. He, perhaps, could have done what neither Humphrey nor McCarthy could do. Without him, and MLK, there wasn’t much of a chance for that.

The Democratic Convention in Chicago was one of the low points of American civilization — all those multifaceted freaks acting out in the streets, and all those Chicago cops brutalizing them. And what did they accomplish? Why, the election — just barely — of Richard Nixon. In the same sense that the Bernie Bros helped elect Trump, only more so. The Democratic brand was so damaged that HHH couldn’t overcome it, despite the prevalence of his party all through the decade up to that point.

I’ve heard a lot from Doug and others during this series about how awful JFK and LBJ supposedly were. It just makes me sad, because I know I can’t explain to folks with that attitude why they’re wrong to engage in such blanket condemnation.

It’s foolish for people with that attitude of monolithic negativity to think a series such as this would “open my eyes” and cause me to see things as they do. And it’s equally foolish for me to think the same experience would temper the views of those who are deeply cynical as a result of the way that war tore the country apart. (I didn’t have much hope of that, but I’ll confess to thinking “maybe…”)

But there is one point on which this series has affected my thinking, leaving me with a darker view of someone or something: I am repeatedly appalled by hearing those conversations that Nixon had with Kissinger and others.

Over the decades, my view of Nixon has softened somewhat. After all, his mastery of policy seems particularly worthy of respect in a time when we have a complete idiot in the White House.

But his cold cynicism and clamoring for personal political advantage is nauseating. How can a person, even speaking privately with his confidantes, say such nakedly Machiavellian things?

And remember, folks, this is the guy who kept his promise to get us out of Vietnam.

I’d still take him over Trump, for many reasons. But he was pretty awful. I’m reminded by this series that he was the worst president in my lifetime, until now. Worse than I had remembered…


9 thoughts on “‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Seven: ‘The Veneer of Civilization’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Speaking of things that men who have been in combat know that the rest of us don’t…

    I rewatched “The Civil War” to warm up for this series — a more pleasant experience by far than watching this one, as I suspected it would be. (Distance, all those years since the Recent Unpleasantness, helps — even though we haven’t completely resolved the issues from that one, either, have we?)

    I was deeply impressed by this letter that a soldier from Alabama wrote home to his wife after the particularly bloody battle of Murfreesboro:

    “Martha . . . I can inform you that I have Seen the Monkey Show at last and I dont Waunt to see it no more I am satsfide with Ware Martha I Cant tell you how many ded men I did see . . . thay ware piled up one one another all over the Battel feel the Battel was a Six days Battel and I was in all off it . . . I did not go all over the Battel feeld I Jest was one one Winge of the Battel feeld But I can tell you that there Was a meney a ded man where I was men Was shot Evey fashinton that you mite Call for Som had there hedes shot of and som ther armes and leges Won was sot in too in the midel I can tell you that I am tirde of Ware I am satsfide if the Ballence is that is one thing shore I dont waunt to see that site no more I can inform you that West Brown was shot one the head he Was sent off to the horspitel . . . he was not herte very Bad he was struck with a pease of a Bum”

    Wow. He had seen the Monkey Show at last, and he was satisfied — he didn’t want to see any more of war.

    Maybe he couldn’t spell, but he had a powerful way with words…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    As I think I indicated somewhere — either above or on another thread — I watched the last episode last night.

    And the last four episodes were so unpleasant to watch that I was tempted to just post about the last episode and have done with it. Partly because I can foresee the arguments we will have over these episodes, arguments I’ve been dreading ever since I heard Ken Burns was doing this series — arguments that I know don’t lead to resolution, but simply reveal the cognitive split that the war created in our society, a split that causes me pain every time I encounter it.

    The REASON it causes me pain is because I believe in, well, reason. I believe in words and ideas and their power to bring people closer together. So I always hate it when I feel like I’m just beating my head against a brick wall.

    The bizarre thing is that it’s not hard to find points of agreement with my antiwar friends.

    But the war did something profound to them that it did not do to me. It’s caused in so many of them a sort of generalized alienation, a tendency to overstate the case and extrapolate to places where I don’t think the evidence should take them.

    And I think that thing that happened to them, that metastasis of alienation, has been a huge factor in so much that has been wrong in our politics ever since. We ceased to be a nation that believes in its ability to do good things — on the domestic or international fronts.

    Watergate caused some of it, too. Whereas I see Watergate as a terrible chapter in our country that had a good ending — the system worked — too many can’t seem to put the loss of faith behind them. It still afflicts us.

    So watching the country fall apart over the war AND Watergate happening at the same time, all over again, is unpleasant…

    1. Doug Ross

      Sadly, once I started watching this series, I suspected that you would not find anything that would change your viewpoint on the war in any meaningful way. It seems like every episode recap you’ve posted has gone to great lengths to snatch the one good apple out of a barrel of rotten ones to try and say, “See, my views AREN’T wrong!” It brings to mind the line that goes, “Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

      You try to present this as a 50-50 split between Americans over what the Vietnam War meant and whether it was successful or not… but the people who share your view is in a very small minority. In order for people on the anti-war to change their minds, we need to see evidence that counterbalances the overwhelming evidence that supports our views. You’re not quite in “flat earth society” range of public opinion when it comes to Vietnam, but you are pretty close to “opposed to interracial marriage” territory which has flipped from 90% against to 87% approve in 50 years. It’s unlikely your views on Vietnam will continue in another generation.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And what views are those? I don’t think you understand my view on the war yet.

        And I’m kind of put off by some of your comments:

        — “It seems like every episode recap you’ve posted has gone to great lengths to snatch the one good apple out of a barrel of rotten ones to try and say, ‘See, my views AREN’T wrong!'” Nope. I haven’t gone to any lengths at all. I’ve simply noted something or other interesting from the episode in an effort to start a conversation, the way a writer always does when he lacks the time to examine everything about the two-hour show. If I’ve gone to lengths, it’s to avoid being argumentative about anything. I’m just trying to have a civil conversation.

        — What caused you to pull in “opposed to interracial marriage” there? That kinda threw me…

        — “You try to present this as a 50-50 split between Americans over what the Vietnam War meant and whether it was successful or not.” I have not tried to do any such thing. I see things as they are, and I do NOT try to misrepresent them to anyone. Give me some evidence here. Show me where, even once, I tried to make anyone think that ANYONE, much less 50 percent of the population, thinks our efforts in Vietnam were “successful”…

        This is really distressing. Because I don’t see what happened exactly the way you do, with blanket condemnations of everyone involved, you accuse me of doing or saying things I have not said or done.

        It’s frankly pretty depressing…

        1. Doug Ross

          I picked the interracial marriage example as something that has seen a wide swing over the past 50 years… where people have transformed their views over time from 90% opposed to 90% support. Those remaining 10% won’t ever change their minds…

          I’d challenge you to go back to your recaps and find where in a series that has laid out fact after fact, quote after quote, memory after memory of those involved supporting the premise that the war was, as Burn and Novick called it, a “failure” — where you have moved at all in being able to admit that. The conversation starters you select tend to be very minor points that miss (ignore) the bulk of the story being told. Episode 4 is a perfect example — the central story is about a 19 year old kid, Denton Crocker, going off to war a gung ho soldier and coming home in a casket after becoming completely disillusioned. Your recap doesn’t even mention that central theme – a story that crossed two episodes!! But you included a clip in your post that is very pro-military (rightfully) (“Humanity”) and focus on a one minute section with George Kennan about what he said versus what you thought he said about containment. It’s like watching Saving Private Ryan and posting about whether the uniforms were historically accurate.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        And I guess you’re making fun of me with that “Sadly, once I started watching this series, I suspected that you would not find anything that would change your viewpoint on the war…”

        But the thing is, I DID dread the show, because I knew we’d have these kinds of arguments about it.

        I felt about it about the way that I would have felt about an upcoming 10-part, 18-hour documentary series on abortion in America — something that would lead to a great deal of acrimony and no meeting of the minds…

  3. bud

    Brad I don’t mean to pile on here but I read your comments and came away with the same head scratching feeling of wow that Doug does. I’m especially frustrated to see that you and many others still defend the utterly indefensible “dominoes” theory. That was proven completely wrong, completely. Yet you somehow defend it. I’m just at a loss. Early on in this discussion I made a rather huge concession to your worldview by accepting the notion that early on Vietnam WAS complex. We had never really lost a war outright (although I’d suggest the War of 1812 was sort of a loss). Korea was a partial success and the south is doing great today. In return it would be nice to see a bit of understanding that Vietnam was based on lies by Johnson and later Nixon and that it was a big, big mistake. Clearly we should not have escalated our involvement in 1965 but even more clearly we should have exited the place in it’s entirety by 1969. Most Americans accept that. Why can’t you just acknowledge, without hedging, the obvious?

  4. Barry

    The Vietnam War was totally unnecessary, a total waste, a failure, and those are the best parts about it.

    ANYONE that can’t see that or finds positives in it has serious deficiencies.

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