There’s battle lines being drawn
And nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong
— The Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth
In another case of the uncanny synchronicity that often strikes like a bolt from a Sisters Country lightning storm around The Running Iron Report, the unlaid ghosts of the Vietnam era rose in recent weeks, asserting their undying influence over a cultural moment that lies 45 years beyond the fall of Saigon.
On a whim last month, I listened to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast with ace historian Max Hastings, whose 2018 tome Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, is perhaps the best single-volume history of the era we’ll ever see. I followed that with the PBS documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, depicting the chaotic — and strikingly noble — effort to evacuate thousands of South Vietnamese from the American Embassy as that nation crumbled in the face of hammer blows from the North Vietnamese Army in the spring of 1975 . Then Nugget columnist Craig Eisenbeis submitted a travelogue on his trip in January to Vietnam; I attended a Memorial Day service led by a friend who was severely wounded in Vietnam; then I spent hours in conversation with two friends who ardently and actively opposed the war.
And over the past weeks, we have seen scenes unfold on our streets that hearken back to Days of Rage in 1968.
What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Yes, the ghosts are stirring.
The Vietnam War era broke open cultural fissures that have never really closed. As Carlin points out, if you were to take a snapshot of America in 1963 and a snapshot of America in 1973 — at the end of the decade of America’s intense direct involvement in Vietnam — you would see two very different countries. We can’t reach back to pre-’63 America; it’s not there anymore, and no amount of yearning for a more united, stable and wholesome America can conjure it back out of the mists of time.
The 1950s, of course, weren’t anywhere near as stable and content as nostalgia would have us believe. The faultlines of American culture were already drawn taut, tectonic plates of tension and conflict grinding beneath the placid surface. The Civil Rights Movement that would gain unstoppable momentum in the early 1960s was already aborning, and the frustrations that would explode in the Free Speech movement in 1964 were stirring long before they burst forth on the Berkeley campus and spread across the nation.
Still, many Americans — white, middle class Americans, at any rate— really did lead quietly satisfying lives in safe, wholesome communities, with real reason to believe in the American Dream. Then the Vietnam War really got rolling and cultural and social ferment swiftly built to a boiling pitch, overflowing onto the streets and into American living rooms, forever transforming the nation’s perception of itself and the way we relate to one another.
Young, rebellious protesters challenged every norm and article of faith of American society, from the legitimacy and righteousness of the nation’s Cold War against Communism to race relations and traditional sexual mores. They called out lies and hypocrisy that had long gone unrecognized and unchallenged, and demanded near absolute personal freedom in the pursuit of happiness. They were right about many things. They were also too often arrogant, self-righteous and destructive.
Traditional Americans looked upon this iconoclasm with horror and disgust, seeing in rebellion an attack on a way of life that was rich and good and true. And they were right about many things. They were also too often heedless, angry and reflexively authoritarian.
The culture war that launched in the 1960s was a profound clash of different understandings of liberty and honor and duty, and what it means to be an American. It was, in part, generational, but only in part — which is why the conflict continues, a couple of generations on.
We see it in different visceral reactions to protests that exploded nationwide after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Some focus on peaceful mass action and see a spontaneous upsurge in support of long-overdue change; some focus on violence and looting and see a tragedy being manipulated to attack police, indulge in opportunistic crime, and destroy the social order.
Some look at defense of property and police as tacit acceptance of a racist order; some see any form of protest, no matter how peaceful and orderly, as an affront or a threat (which creates surreal scenes like a driver on Cascade Avenue giving an angry thumbs-down reaction to a sign that read simply “Love One Another”).
The fissures that the Vietnam era opened still exist, indeed have widened — wedged further and further apart by individuals, businesses and organizations whose agendas and livelihoods are built on division. They render simplistic matters that are complex and cherry pick history to weaponize as propaganda. The Vietnam War era is an inflection point in American history — a complex and complicated tangle of cultural and social flashpoints and geopolitical calculations, idealism and rank cynicism, nobility and atrocity. We live today in its long shadow — and yet, a my daughter pointed out, it is almost entirely unexplored in schools.
If our cultural chasms are ever to be bridged, it will require a real understanding of how and why they came to be, an honest assessment of what they mean — and a wary eye cast upon those who profit from them.