When I was in college my parents moved to Hawaii, and during that time they arranged for the daughter of friends to rendezvous there with her boyfriend. He was coming in from Vietnam for a few days of R&R, and they agreed to meet at my parents' house.
I was there, too, and that brief encounter left a lasting impression. The soldier showed up, fresh from the war zone, where he was a gunner on a helicopter. I remember most of all the haunted look in his eyes. He looked at us with absolute certainty that we hadn't a clue about what he’d been dealing with, and he was right.
And so there we were – the middle class college kid, protected by his deferment, who’d marched to protest the war, sitting at the dining room table with a soldier who’d been in the middle of it only a few days before. It must have been surreal for him to find himself in that peaceful Honolulu neighborhood, with its papaya, palm and plumeria trees, the ocean a few blocks away.
We didn't say much. He had no way to describe his world. And I wouldn’t presume to press my thoughts on him. Who I was and what I thought were irrelevant. Whether he resented, envied or hated me, I couldn't say. Probably I was no more than a cipher to him.
Each of us who lived through those years lived one small part of the story, viewing it from a single perspective, experiencing our own struggles, some more dire than others. Now Ken Burns's new PBS series on the Vietnam War is asking us to look beyond our own experience to see the whole picture, to see the human face of people on all sides. That’s why we study history, to enlarge our view, so that we don't remain stranded in warring camps, so we become able to see how the human tragedy enfolds us all.
My struggles were not so dire. Yet in a larger sense the nation's struggle was dire in the extreme – anger, incomprehension, division and loss coloring the era. I hope that soldier in Honolulu got through it OK.
As a nation, we're still getting through it, trying to see, trying to understand.