• Vietnam Story at Last

    • Posted on Sep 24, 2017
    Here's this morning's (Sun. 9-24) column on Ken Burns's documentary 'The Vietnam War" which deserves serious attention and discussion.  Our national trauma from that horror of a war continues, and the truths contained in this film may help move us toward reconciliation.   That was Burns and Novick's purpose in making it.  

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    Over the years I’ve taught three Vietnam War films— “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and “Apocalypse Now.”  All led to energetic classroom discussions about the purpose and meaning of that terrible war.   

    Yet those films, and many others I’ve viewed, were missing aspects that needed telling.   I’ve been waiting decades for a film that would get closer to the complete story. That story had to include the North Vietnamese’s version, and a clear-eyed look at America’s involvment from the beginning. In other words, ignored facts.   

    That film arrived on PBS last Sunday night.  

    “The Vietnam War,” Ken Burns/Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary is available free on PBS’ website and in segments on Iowa Public Television during the last two weeks of September.  It was my generation’s defining event, and deserves respect and discussion.   

    I watched the first four episodes last week and can’t stop thinking and feeling about them.  Like any great film, it affects you in the head, heart, and gut, often all at once. 

    For the head, there’s information that few Americans knew, and certainly none really wanted to know:  Ho Chi Minh, far from being an enemy, began his political career trying to free his country from all external powers, especially the French.  He believed our American Declaration of Independence and Constitution got it right.  

    He tried to tell both Presidents FDR and Truman, that all he wanted was independence, but got nowhere.  The U.S. supported the French, who occupied Indochina as part of their colonial empire.  Ho Chi Minh was far more a believer in his own country’s autonomy than in Russian or Chinese Communism.   

    Even more disturbing, we were lied to from the beginning, beginning with the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” which justified retaliation when we had been the attackers.  I had read about that phony attack in 1968 and realized then that we couldn’t trust our government.   

    Both President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara knew we couldn’t “win” as early as 1965. As LBJ tells Defense Secretary McNamara, “There’s no light at the end of that tunnel.”  Yet they knowingly went on to escalate our involvement, sending thousands more U.S. Troops to fight in what was essentially a civil war.  That knowledge hits the gut.  

    No wonder citizens were protesting, loudly and en masse, during that whole conflict.  Had our soldiers left Vietnam when leaders knew we couldn’t win, we would have been spared a decade of slaughter and destruction that haunts us still.  

    Throughout the documentary, because our war destroyed so many lives on both sides,  individual stories get told in sharp detail. Young Denton Crocker’s story gets told throughout the third and fourth episodes, and left me choked up, thanks to current interviews with his still-traumatized mother and sister.  Denton’s story stands for thousands of other young men who left broken-hearted families. 

    Ken Burns hopes “The Vietnam War” will start a national conversation about that awful war. Our leadership went horribly awry, and we need to admit that openly.   
    Reconciliation must begin with truth.  


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  • Exposure Needed for Bad Ideas

    • Posted on Sep 03, 2017

    Today's Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier column.  Free speech really does mean just that, especially on a university campus where debate and discussion form the heart of higher education.   UNI's "Controversial Speakers" program was memorable not only for the speakers it brought before students and faculty, but also for the spirited defense of free speech set for by President J.W. Maucker as well as Cedar Valley ministers, no less.  

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    Imagine a university program that actually invites controversy, that sets out to make sure opposing viewpoints get aired, that seeks speakers who generate discussion and debate.  

     That’s exactly what happened at UNI just over a half-century ago, in the spring of ’66.

    UNI’s student and faculty Senates created a “Controversial Speakers” program.  
    This event gets explained in “A Century of Leadership and Service,” a wonderful two-volume history of UNI written by Professors William Lang and Daryl Pendergraft.  They detail UNI’s attempt to challenge students and faculty with speakers they might not otherwise hear. 

    The Iowa Board of Regents fully supported the program, saying it was “designed to demonstrate that in a democratic society all citizens have not only the right but also the obligation to inform themselves on issues of contemporary concern including politics, religion, ethics, and morals.”  

    I began my UNI teaching career as the program was gearing up.  I heard many of the speakers, including Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, civil rights activist Dick Gregory, beat poet Allen Ginsburg, and most bizarre of all, hippie/yippie Jerry Rubin, who in 1970 harangued 5,000 UNI students and faculty at O.R. Latham football field.  

    Some legislators were outraged, most prominently Charles Grassley, who roundly objected to speaker American Communist Party speaker Herbert Aptheker, calling Aptheker’s invitation to speak “deplorable and shameful,” and that “compulsory student fees and buildings paid for by the taxpayers were used to support this un-American philosophy under the guise of freedom of speech.” Other legislators chimed in, putting pressure on UNI to bar such speakers from campus.  

     However, 22 Cedar Falls and Waterloo Ministers defended the program, writing in a letter to the Courier, “. . . an integral function of higher education in a free society is to provide free discussion,” and that SCI students “exhibited a high degree of maturity in evaluating. . .speakers and opinions.” 

    President J.W. Maucker, speaking of Jerry Rubin’s wild speech, insisted that Rubin’s appearance “proved to be a worthwhile experience of a large majority of students and faculty because they got a chance to see this man in action firsthand and judge for themselves the soundness of his views.”  

    “Maturity.”   “Judge for themselves.”  Such words and phrases seem almost quaint these days, when “free speech” means huge protests during the speech and often cancellations out of fear of violence. 

    Let’s face it, a certain degree of faith in listeners’ maturity and judgment is required to invite such speakers as Ann Coulter or David Duke. As Oscar Wilde put it, “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”  

    I’d like to see the return of a UNI Controversial Speakers program. Speakers on contemporary critical issues, fringe or not, would demonstrate how much we value free debate. Bad ideas only grow stronger when opposed with violence and censorship.   

    Open peaceful debate remains the best way to expose charlatans. 
     

     


     

     






                 

     

     

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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

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