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  • Writer's pictureMike Matson

How I Learned About Vietnam

This column was published February 24, 2024 in the Manhattan Mercury.


I learn through two seemingly divergent methods. Repetition and through popular culture. Movies often lead me to books, and both often morph seamlessly into music. I’ll watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a song. Then, a few months (sometimes even weeks or days) later, I’ll do it again. Same movie, book or song. By design, my choices often deal with the same subject matter.

A movie about the Vietnam war opened this particular gateway. Director Hal Ashby used a triumvirate love story in Coming Home (Jane Fonda, Jon Voigt, Bruce Dern) as a vehicle to share the horrors of war broadly, and the hopelessness of the Vietnam war specifically. Released in 1978, it brought home the notion of the war’s futility.

I grew up during the formative events that would shape American involvement in Vietnam. At age seven, with my father, in front of the behemoth Zenith black-and-white in the family room, Cronkite would talk about “guerilla warfare” and I envisioned M-16 toting hominids.


The M-16 was familiar because I was the proud owner of a Mattel M-16 Marauder. Pull back the spring-loaded cocking lever and squeeze off loud, noisy single shots or short bursts designed to mimic the real thing. B-r-a-a-a-p! Or unload the whole clip, mowing down imaginary Viet Cong, keeping the backyard safe from the threat of godless Communism.


Boys toted M-16 Marauders, girls wore bracelets. In junior high, female classmates would vow to leave POW/MIA bracelets on until the soldier named on the bracelet, or their remains, came home. (The Deer Hunter, Robert DeNiro and a very young Meryl Streep, 1978).


JFK and LBJ were trying to “win” the war from a greatest generation frame of reference (John Wayne in The Green Berets, released on the 4th of July, 1968). For all his faults, and with the country being ripped apart, Nixon saw the war as unwinnable and finally negotiated “peace with honor,” a nomenclature fig leaf to cover the undeniable truth that it was all for naught. The last American troops departed Vietnam when I was a sophomore in high school.


Three weeks before graduating, as though to add insult to injury, we witnessed the coda of U.S. involvement, when America pushed South Vietnamese helicopters off our aircraft carriers. We abandoned our allies. We bugged out. (A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, Henry Holt & Company 1977).


The long hair of the class of 1975 was not a protest, it was a fashion statement. The Summer of Love was a lifetime before and involved the real boomers, not us trailing edgers. Ours was the last graduating class that did not have to register for the draft, though my most prized possession of that era was the draft card of a kid two years older, who had given it to me in exchange for an introduction to my sister.


I got the fake ID, the kid chasing my sister got the cold shoulder.


The fact that the dominoes did not fall also informed my thinking about Vietnam – the fear at the core of our involvement. If we lost the war, the theory went, one by one, the countries of southeast Asia would topple to Communism. Little did we know the brand of Communism we so feared would soon collapse of its own weight.


John McCain’s forgiveness also hit home in a way that no movie or book could, regardless of its historical accuracy. (Worth the Fighting For, by John McCain, Random House, 2002).


I miss John McCain.


When I read these books, watch these movies, listen to the protest music, lessons of the dangers of cultural misunderstandings and the lack of clear objectives are learned. I am thrown back to my childhood. A time of innocence, a time of confidences (Bookends, Simon and Garfunkel, 1968) and gradations of knowledge and insight into what is arguably the brightest line event in my country, in my lifetime, sink a little deeper.


No doubt, I will read the books, watch the movies and listen to the music… again.



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