Skip to Content

US Values, Moral Accommodation and Remembering Vietnam

A Popular Culture Essay

I was quite aware how violent the Vietnamese were when I was a 19-year-old radio direction finder trying to locate young Vietnamese radio operators -- men intent on killing me! -- in the mountains west of Pleiku. The fact is, like most of my comrades, I was clueless about what was really going on. Using myself as an example, I've asked am I willing or able to relinquish any sense of honor about such a vital episode in my young life? Compared to many others, I had it relatively easy. I saw examples of courage in Vietnam. The most courageous thing I did was intercede when I encountered a frustrated, drunken infantryman shooting up a bar filled with terrified prostitutes. In his drunken state, he thought I was an officer, something I took advantage of. I don’t delude myself that this fellow was prevented from any future excesses of violence. I was a kid and part of a massive army. We were like the worst American tourists; instead of cameras, we had loaded guns and a sense of power that often included the power of life and death. That’s a lot to put in the mind of a 19-year-old male. When someone tells me "Thanks for your service," I always say, "I don't want to be thanked for my service; I want to be thanked for learning something from my service."

How exactly the documentary wunderkind Ken Burns treats the overarching moral issues relevant to Vietnam is something on the minds of all members of Full Disclosure. Will he succumb to the flagrant avoidance of moral self-criticism exhibited in the McCain op-ed? Probably not. As is his inclination, he will tell many stories through compelling human artifacts and voices. He’ll no doubt concede the war was controversial. Presumably he will be fair, complete and won’t cheap-shot the real story of the antiwar movement, including civilians and veterans. That also goes for the important Vietnamese side of the story.

Burns has said he can't make a "blanket statement of judgment on the war." For me, that’s dangerously close to a blanket statement. As a writer/journalist, I've run into this state-of-mind since my first job on a newspaper and throughout my career. It's called moral accommodation for the sake of access, popularity, sales or getting published at all. This is very much an American value. Mark Twain famously made such accommodations with Huckleberry Finn. The first third of the classic is morally courageous, even revolutionary. Then he puts the manuscript up for years, not sure where he wants to go with it. He wants to make money from the selling of his work, so he establishes his own publishing company. He finishes the book with a middle third of wonderful satiric incident along the river. Then there’s the disastrous third section where he inserts Tom Sawyer, and Nigger Jim is relegated to a chicken coop, where he’s more Step’n Fetchit than the full man and surrogate father of Huck he was in the beginning. Clint Eastwood did it with The Unforgiven, a would-be raw and honest telling of killing in the west that ends with an absurd gunfight right out of the spaghetti western mode. The movie was very popular.

Herman Melville, on the other hand, didn't accommodate to popular morality. After initial sales of 2,300 books, for the rest of his life Moby Dick sold 27 copies a year. Melville had to get a job as a customs inspector in New York to support his family. His magnum opus was out of print when he died.

story | by Dr. Radut