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Sam Cook column: Watching "Vietnam," rethinking one's own youth

Sam Cook

The closest I ever got to Vietnam was a make-believe village in a grove of trees outside Fort Sill, Okla.

It was 1970, and I was a jeep driver for a captain during my training as an artilleryman. Many nights, I'd drive him to "Vietnam Village," a supposed representation of an Army command post in the jungle of Vietnam. It was mostly darkened pathways among the thickets, lit only by red safety lights.

But I was never headed for the real Vietnam. I was a National Guard trainee, headed back to Kansas when my four months of basic and artillery training were complete. Our unit could have been called up, but it was unlikely with so many men being drafted.

Most of the young men with whom I stood in formation on Oklahoma's red dirt — and crawled with beneath barbed wire under tracer-bullet fire, and lay next to learning to kill plastic pop-up targets shaped like humans — were headed from Fort Sill to Vietnam.

I served six years in the National Guard practicing my artillery skills, and the farthest I got from home was Camp Ripley here in Minnesota. I have not yet decided whether joining the National Guard in 1970 was cowardly or merely convenient.

Now, I'm yanked back to those days as I sit rapt on these September nights watching "The Vietnam War," the 18-hour documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on PBS. I sit there, sometimes boiling with anger, sometimes welled up with grief. I sit there watching every new scene, thinking about friends of mine who did serve in Vietnam. I watch the powerful and revealing film footage and still images acquired by Burns and Novick — firefights, private presidential confessions, war journalists' reflections, out-and-out lies by government officials, interviews with North Vietnamese soldiers. I watch and listen and try to put myself in the place of my friends who were there. What do they think of this?

It was a crazy and sometimes violent time in our country, and I was a small-town kid trying to make sense of it all. I was politically naive and felt far removed from the issues of the day. Sadly, I remember no conversations about the war around our dinner table. My parents were too worried about making ends meet, I'm guessing, to engage in the issues of the day.

One weekend a month, I would swab the barrel of a 105-millimeter howitzer. I learned the rear-strangle takedown and how to inject morphine into a fellow soldier's leg. Theoretically, I would have been ready if our unit was called up.

But I wouldn't have been ready for what I am seeing nightly in Burns' and Novick's portrayal of the war. I wonder if any American soldier was ready for that.

"War is crazy, absolutely crazy," a good friend of mine, a World War II veteran, told me years ago.

He was a proud Marine who had served in the South Pacific. He had made it home alive. He did not mean to imply we shouldn't have fought the war. He was simply describing what it was like when he got there.

I suspect that is the way of all wars. I wince when I hear someone, describing some chaotic scene here at home, say, "It was like a war zone." I suspect only those who have been to war know what a war zone is like.

One of the values of watching "The Vietnam War," of course, is that it offers perspective on our current political climate and our nation's role in the world. To hear President Lyndon Johnson's private confessions about the futility of the Vietnam War, and to know that in spite of those misgivings the war continued for several more years, puts today's political pronouncements about potential military actions in a new light.

It makes you wonder whether the time will ever come when the solution to the world's conflicts is not the wholesale sacrifice of human lives.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.

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