One of my strongest memories as a kid growing up in Putney in the ‘70s was the night I witnessed a fist fight at the gas station in the Village Center. It was at the height of the Vietnam War, and there was extreme tension between those opposed to the war, and those who supported it.
My father and I had stopped to buy gas. It was a hot night and there was a ring of men in a circle with the lights of the gas station flickering over their faces. In the middle of the ring were two long-haired college students being pushed and knocked about by the crowd. One of them was bleeding from a cut on his head. They too had stopped to buy gas for a rusty old truck waiting by the pumps. Eventually, they escaped to the truck and drove away.
Watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novik’s chilling documentary on the Vietnam war brought back this memory. In Putney, as in towns across Vermont, young men were being drafted and dying in a war ten thousand miles away that made little or no sense to many. At the same time, college students were avoiding the draft, adding to a class divide between those who served and those who didn’t. Divisions rippled across Vermont.
In Vietnam meanwhile, the bombing campaigns were increased, bringing death and destruction to civilians and military targets alike. Several of our leaders, as we now know, saw the war as unwinnable – yet the war continued. They turned instead, to a secret air war to force the Vietnamese to the bargaining table. It didn’t work.
Burns and Novick document how little we knew about Vietnam - the geography, people and the culture. And we did not understand that the Vietnamese were fighting for their country, not communism.
Today, we’re involved in another seemingly endless war – this time in Afghanistan. And while fist fights like the one I witnessed at the gas station so long ago, between those supporting military action and those opposing it, are few, the cost of the war in Afghanistan is now estimated at close to 900 billion dollars. In September we dropped more bombs than we had in seven years. And more troops have been deployed.
Like the war in Vietnam, the conflict in Afghanistan now appears to have no clear end in sight.