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Viewpoints: Elusive truths about Vietnam

By Kevin Gaughan


Whenever I see a helicopter flying overhead, I stop. The violent sound of metal blades shredding air fills my ears. I look up at the bulky shape hurling itself across the sky, growing larger and louder as it approaches. And I close my eyes and think of those boys.

I imagine a young American soldier in Vietnam fifty years ago, trapped in the madness of gunfire in a jungle, unable to see who is shooting, who is screaming, and who is dying. Hearing in the distance the faint whir of an American helicopter, he thinks, “Thank God, help is on the way.”

Then, in my mind’s eye, I see a Vietnamese boy, clothed in peasant-farmer black, crossing an open rice paddy in his village, when low over the surrounding forest appears the hulking menace of a Huey helicopter, angrily bearing down as he thinks, “Dear God, I’ll never make it to the trees.”

As horses, explosives and planes did before them, and drones after, the introduction of helicopters into warfare brought new humanity and new horror. And Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary – an 18-hour attempt to decipher that war, and which begins tonight on PBS – will reveal how into the placid existence of Vietnamese life the sound and fury of the helicopter was first introduced.

When America’s war in Southeast Asia began in 1964, I was 10. Older teenaged boys I idolized – who on summer days taught me baseball, let me sit in their sports car when they came calling on my sisters, and perched me on their shoulders while they mowed lawns – they went to Vietnam. Many of them, after dying senseless deaths on nameless hills, were raised by the outstretched arms of fellow soldiers, as if being offered up to heaven, as ropes drew their bodies into a hovering helicopter.

At war’s beginning, I remember a handsome Hamburg boy, a star swimmer, bounding into our family kitchen one Saturday morning, head newly shaved and grin barely contained. He proudly exclaimed he was off to Vietnam. As my brother and sisters and I noisily wished him well, my father, a World War II veteran, lowered his head and said nothing. We would come to share his sadness.

By 1967, my older sister Judy’s sadness turned to anger. A college sophomore, Judy possessed our father’s fierce intellect and our mother’s deep emotions. Sitting with my Dad in conversation one autumn afternoon, Judy explained why she felt she must actively oppose the war. I listened for hours as quietly, earnestly, she worked through her reasoning. Then suddenly, as if mere logic was inadequate to convey the depth of her feelings, Judy raised her voice and lowered her head onto my father’s shoulder, tearfully shouting that she couldn’t bear to see another young man’s life taken.

I had to do something. With my eighth-grade pal, Scott, I hatched a plan for our junior high classmates to protest the war by refusing to eat lunch. The scheme worked, and for two days food piled up behind glass serving stations, while some one thousand students sat in cafeteria seats with empty trays. Summoned to the principal’s office, I faced the establishment figure of Mr. Hawley, who was at a loss as to why I’d caused such waste. “I want the boys brought home from Vietnam,” I said, my voice quivering with fear for the coming punishment. With a look sympathetic and sad, Mr. Hawley said he wanted them home, too. He gently asked that the protest end, and assured me there would be no sanction. For the rest of my life, in every community and reform effort I undertook, I thought of Mr. Hawley, his quiet manner, and his kindred spirit.

It would be almost another decade until, in college, I studied Vietnam’s history and came to know the painful story of French and American intervention in its national life: France, as selfish colonial power; the United States, with overweening arrogance and overwrought fear of totalitarian governments’ ability to topple nations, in the vernacular of the times, like dominoes.

I learned how the brilliant Vietnamese scholar, Ho Chi Minh, led his nation’s independence movement in 1945. Inspired by America’s George Washington (the height of irony), Ireland’s Michael Collins and India’s Mahatma Gandhi, Ho convinced his country that, in the end, foreign occupying forces eventually tire and go home. But only if the aggrieved people never waver.

I read the books of David Halberstam, Frances Fitzgerald and Neil Sheehan, and exchanged letters with and attended lectures by each. I questioned government officials, including Richard Goodwin, who counseled presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, eventually resigning over Johnson’s decision to bomb Vietnamese people in their very homes. “Johnson never grasped that human desire for self-determination exceeded America’s ability to exert influence,” Goodwin explained to me, adding, “Vietnam was a fire fueled by self-deception.”

More important, over the years, I spoke with every Vietnam veteran willing to revisit their experience, always understanding those who quietly declined, not wanting to remember. Perhaps more than any other generation of brave American warriors, our Vietnam boys grappled with incongruous ideas, trying to reconcile so-called communist aggression with the peaceful being of the Vietnamese, and their devotion to social harmony.

One morning not too long ago, in a Town of Evans restaurant, a kind middle-aged waitress was making fun of my all-doughnut breakfast. As we chatted, she told me that she was Vietnamese, had grown up in a small village, making extra money in the 1960s by sewing clothes for American soldiers and pilots. One day, as she glanced up at the next American in line to have his trousers repaired, she looked into the eyes of the man she would marry, move to America with and raise their children in a Buffalo suburb.

I asked her about the bombs. She said in 1968, she was a typical teenage girl, with plenty of pals and even more dreams. Her village hugged South Vietnam’s northern border, and had a concentration of Viet Cong fighters. On a typical evening, she’d quickly complete her after-dinner chores so she could scoot out to meet her girlfriends. And then the alert would sound: American B-52s were headed toward her family’s farm.

The protocols were well-practiced. She’d race into a narrow tunnel that led to an underground bunker, where her seating assignment was next to a young mother. The mother held one infant, and her job was to tend to a second child. When I asked her what it was like to be bombed by American planes, she said, “all I wanted was to be out with my friends, not in a damp cave holding someone else’s child.”

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a two-acre site on the northeast side of our National Mall, designed in 1982 by the sculptor and land artist Maya Lin. “The Wall” actually consists of two 246-feet long stretches of gabbro rock that, despite its dark hue, gleams in the sun. One points toward the obelisk monument to George Washington, the other toward the Doric temple that enshrines Abraham Lincoln. At their height – about 10 feet – the walls meet at an angle, tapering off to just eight inches tall at each end.

The Wall seems to cut the earth, almost gouging it. But gently sloping lawns grow, healthy and vibrant, next to and above it. Etched into the Wall are the names of 58,318 American men and women who gave their lives in Vietnam. As you walk along its path, peering into an endless sea of names of those forever taken, you see your own reflection.

In the mid-1990s, as counsel to the Erie County Legislature, I helped develop the Family Court Building in downtown Buffalo where Franklin, Eagle and Niagara streets converge. An adjacent small triangle of land there, I thought, might be an appropriate spot for a public artwork reflecting our community’s family oriented nature. As an admirer of Maya Lin, I called her and asked if she was interested in designing something in our city.

Lin declined, but during our conversation I asked about the Vietnam Wall. By then perhaps fatigued with years of explaining her work, Lin was at first dismissive, suggesting I just visit the site. I told her that for me the war meant losing older teenaged boys I looked up to, and all my life, any time I visit Washington I go to the Wall and find their names. And she kindly relented.

Lin told me how struck she was as a young woman – 23 when she designed the Wall – by the lasting anguish the Vietnam War caused. “I thought America was wounded,” she said. “So in like manner, I wanted my design to wound the earth. But with the grass that grows above and around the Wall, I tried to show that all wounds heal.”

There is a relentlessness to the noise of helicopters. It’s neither pleasant nor soothing. The blades spin so fast you think they may break loose and shoot across the sky, searing everything they touch. If anything, helicopters sound like a mad drummer, furiously pounding and pouring out anger and loss.

Visiting the Vietnam Wall on a recent spring morning, I found myself thinking that even as it resounds across the sky, the sound of a helicopter in flight eventually fades away. It’s their nature. Helicopters are made to move on.

Kevin Gaughan is a Buffalo attorney and civic leader. His email is

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