Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Living in the Wake and Being "Woke"

In case you don’t know, our local Public Television station, WVIZ, is broadcasting the new documentary series, The Vietnam War, by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It is a ten-part, 18-hour affair that, based on what I’ve seen the last two nights, is remarkable for its ability to evoke that era in all its turbulent excitement and energy, conflict and confusion, tragedy and heroism.

Insofar as possible, the story is being told thus far through the eyes of participants — draftees, enlisted men, officers, Viet Cong, diplomats and politicians on both sides, protesters, etc. To this point the story has been remarkably free of dogma. Assigning blame is not part of this story; rather the goal seems to be to one of seeking understanding what happened and how.

My best friend served in Vietnam as an enlisted man. I was an anti-war protester and conscientious objector. We have talked over the years about that era. While many families were divided and torn asunder by divergent views over the war, somehow the domestic strife of that conflict never affected our personal relationship. In fact, he asked me to edit his memoir of his service in that theater of war. [His account is a deeply personal story. I found it a compelling read, of course, and commend it to anyone interested in how an innocent young man from the ghetto was able to navigate his tour of duty and return with his spirit intact.]

I have another friend, more than a decade younger, who also grew up in Greater Cleveland. Little Italy was his touchstone. Unlike my infantryman buddy, this friend and I disagree vehemently on many political issues that are core to what I believe. I suspect it has much to do with our being brought up in different eras and different parts of town. I lived through experiences that he first heard about listening to adults in his community react to in ways that most likely were not sympathetic to me and mine.

First impressions often die hard, especially when they come from people we trust and love. I’d be a lot better off financially if my father had never spoken to me about money but my mother had taught me much more about it.

Each of us has an obligation to challenge the “truths” we inherited from our parents and their generation. Some of the lessons may hold. Others may need to be revised. Still others should be discarded.

That is one value of this Vietnam series. I suspect that when I finish watching it, I will have greater understanding and empathy for all who lived through any part of it, or suffered the consequences of their own or a loved one’s participation.

I called my writer friend last night. He has lived mostly in the Virgin Islands for the last 25 years. I wanted to see how he had negotiated Hurricane Irma and to see if he knew about the PBS series. Turns out that he had just returned to Ohio Monday night, was feeling great, and did not know about the series. Although he usually goes to bed before 10pm, and I was calling him just after that time, he signed off after a bit to go catch last night’s episode.

In my house, we are taping the entire series. [PBS will likely offer the series for sale next month in a nice boxed set for $199 or so; see me for a real deal!]

Tonight’s viewing may be interrupted for me. In a variation of life-meets-art, there is a nationwide telephone call tonight about Herman Bell, a victim of the Vietnam passions that are inextricably linked with the civil rights struggles and the COINTELPRO response of the U.S. Government [see here generally and here re Cleveland]. Bell’s story is gaining traction these days as people work to free him from what seems a miscarriage of justice. He has been imprisoned for more than 35 years, and nearing age 70, was allegedly beaten savagely by five corrections officers. I urge you to read his story here and here. If so moved, you can register here for a nationwide call on his behalf tonight at 8PM EST.