When Will We Ever Learn?

Where have all the young men gone?…Gone to soldiers every one….     When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?   –Pete Seeger

Every evening this week I’ve been watching the new 10-part PBS series on the Vietnam War. Like all of the beautiful documentaries made by Ken Burns (this one in partnership with Lynn Novik), it brings us a complex story through many voices and perspectives–U.S. presidents, military officers and marines who served in Vietnam, journalists who risked their lives to film what was happening, the families of U.S. military men, anti-war protesters, and Vietnamese people from both the north and the south, former soldiers and civilians. The film reveals how many different perspectives there were–and still are–on what happened in a beautiful land far away from the United States.

In the first episode we learn about the man who came to be known as Ho Chi Minh, who ardently desired to liberate his people from 100 years of French colonial rule and who appealed to the United States for help in doing so.  His appeal met deaf ears.

Throughout the documentary, we hear tape recordings made of phone conversations of U.S. Presidents who were making decisions about involvement in the war; some are contrasted with clips of public statements made at the time. Many Americans feared that communism would spread in southeast Asia if not stopped. The so-called “Domino Theory” became more important that any reality in Vietnam, a rationale for escalating a war that the highest U.S. officials and military officers knew was most likely unwinnable. We learn how fear of international humiliation and desire to win the next election also affected decisions that ultimately cost millions of lives — mostly of Vietnamese people.

This larger political overview is interspersed with interviews of people who lived through the war, and the voices and photos of others who died. One veteran tells that a high percentage of U.S. casualties were from land mines, and he describes how much courage it took to just walk each step on the land. Another tells of sitting in the dark at night hearing the whispers of the near-by enemy seeking to kill him; he admits that many decades later he still can’t sleep in the dark. We follow the story of an eager recruit who badgered his parents for months to gain their permission to enlist at age 17, and then hear his letters from the war. We learn that the U.S. knew as early as 1965 that this country could not win the war, and we hear the bitterness of a U.S. Marine sent to Vietnam three years later. Former Vietnamese soldiers also recount their stories of war and terror and loss. Some intrepid journalists tell how they accompanied soldiers into battle. We see filmed coverage of bombings, shootings, falling helicopters, torched houses, and corpses strewn across the ground.

I’ve been watching all this on the sofa beside my husband, a U.S. Army veteran drafted in 1968, and I hear his pained reactions to the decisions made step by step by U.S. Presidents to escalate the war, decisions based all-to-largely on fear, misinformation, lies, ego, and political ambitions.

Why should we watch something so difficult to see and know?

As I wrote in my recent blog post, Looking at the Shadow That Blocks the Light, in order to truly understand ourselves and our current situation, it’s necessary to see truths we’ve been hiding, and the real motivations that shape our action. As individuals, we need to face not only our personal but also our collective Shadow. I recommend that you take the time to watch it. Doing so may help us make the best and most honest choices possible as we face the equally complex challenges of our time and the temptation to resolve them with military force. 

Although this documentary reveals some of the worst in people, it also captures the luminous beauty of the land, and the courage, hopes, and humanity of soldiers, journalists and civilians. I pray that as we face the thorny issues of today, the people of the U.S. — and every country — can and will hold our public officials to wise decisions that work for the best of the whole world.  I pray that we are guided by our “better angels”–not by fear or by short-term, self-serving motives, but by love, truth, faith, courage, and divinely- inspired wisdom.

Angel Holding Fallen Soldier, 30th St. Station, Philadelphia

Viewing of the show on PBS takes place for five consecutive nights, two weeks in a row, through late September. Follow the link below to see a short clip from an interview with a Marine who fought in Vietnam:


When Will We Ever Learn? What is your perspective on the Vietnam war, on wars fought since then, and on the best approach to take in the current situation regarding North Korea?

© 2017 Marcelle Martin

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness. It’s also available from QuakerBooks, which provides free shipping on orders of six or more books.

For information about other upcoming courses and workshops with Marcelle, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.

About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
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8 Responses to When Will We Ever Learn?

  1. Lois Jordan says:

    Hello, Marcelle, thank you for your thoughtful encouragement for watching the Viet Nam series. My thought, at first, was that I would not watch another film about war. But I watched the first one and felt that, as painful as it is to be reminded of those years, I felt an obligation to watch it. In the film I see our country getting more and more involved and throwing in so many precious resources – of our earth and the lives of people – into the violent attempt to direct another country’s life, I have such mixed feelings of being horrified and compassionate, and a longing for the time when we learn that truly listening and negotiating is the only way of coming to some understanding of the way to peace. I am remembering a recent book, called “No Peace Without Forgiveness,” by Bishop Tutu of South Africa.

  2. Thank you, Lois, for sharing your mixed feelings about watching the series, and for your longing for us to learn the way of peace.

  3. Homer A Wood says:

    When will we ever learn…..I was fortunate enough to have served my time before Vietnam. I did march to protest the war. My heart aches for those who never came home and for those who will never see their husbands or sons again. And yes, I am concerned about the direction our leaders seem to be taking us.
    Thank you for the reminder.

  4. Thank you for those thoughts and advice, and for the photo of the angel from the 30th Street Station in Philly. I’m usually stopped and drawn into meditation by that whenever I see it, as by your writing. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth! The statue is moving to me, too. I’ve learned that some people who use the station regularly never notice it, possibly because it’s above eye level. In the same way, I guess, we so often miss the guiding presence of divine already with us.

  5. elizak says:

    Thanks for emailing me your response to my comment. Thanks too for the lovely birthday cards Elizabeth

  6. elizak says:

    carD I meant to type.

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