Kudos to Paton-Churdan for its lesson on Vietnam
By ANDREW MCGINN
Too many wars, too little time.
Several years ago, a statistic floating around the internet stated that the United States had been at war for 222 of its (at the time) 239 years.
Like most things circulating online — up to and including that picture of an angry woman raging at a grinning white cat — I have no idea where it originated. I’m also half-inclined to question it, although I do appreciate its spirit. “Armed conflict,” however, is probably more accurate than the term “war.”
What it really means, though, is that it’s tough out there for our history/social studies teachers.
It means the American Revolution is likely to be taught (I would hope) at the expense of the Barbary Wars; the Civil War makes the cut, but the Indian Wars get left out; students get to learn about the Spanish-American War yet leave school knowing little about the Philippine-American War, despite the fact that only 385 Americans were killed in the former and 4,234 were killed in the latter.
But then we come to Vietnam, the costliest (in terms of carnage) American conflict since World War II; the one with the most living veterans; and the one that we can still learn the most from in the event we’re weighing aggression against a nation that didn’t attack us.
“We don’t really learn about the Vietnam War in school,” Megan Palmer, a sophomore at Paton-Churdan High School, confessed several weeks ago.
A couple of days shy of Veterans Day 2019, P-C Principal Annie Smith arranged an exclusive screening of the short documentary “A Bad Deal: My Vietnam War Story” for the high school student body, then had the students talk, via Skype, to the veteran who was the documentary’s subject, Waterloo native Jim Hamlyn. (As Smith later explained, Hamlyn is her sister-in-law’s father-in-law.)
Technically, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs considers “Gulf War era” veterans to be the largest group of veterans alive today, at 7.2 million, but the VA’s “Gulf War era” spans from Aug. 2, 1990, to the present, meaning that we’ll soon have veterans (if we don’t already) who fought in the same war as their grandparents.
I made time to sit in on the screening at P-C because I wanted to see the footage that Hamlyn himself shot as an 18-year-old draftee in 1966 with his family’s 8mm home movie camera.
The existence of footage that had never been seen publicly is what caught the attention of PBS station WSIU at Southern Illinois University, which originally set out to produce the short in conjunction with Ken Burns’ 10-part documentary series on the Vietnam War in 2017. It remained unfinished and unaired until this past May, meaning that Paton-Churdan students are now among the lucky few to see this rare film footage of their grandparents’ war.
“We’re lucky to be able to see this,” Smith reminded the students. “I want you to stop and put yourself in their shoes.”
Hamlyn, 72, said it had been the suggestion of his dad — a veteran of World War II — to take the family’s Keystone camera along with him to Vietnam. An Army scout, Hamlyn explained that he didn’t really know what he was doing with the camera, but that he would begin rolling whenever it felt safe.
Frankly, the footage of a low-level F-4 Phantom planting bombs on a hillside looked to be as good as anything shot by CBS News. (Just moments before, Hamlyn was involved in actual fighting, and would be awarded the Bronze Star for valor.)
Other footage showed waves of Huey helicopters, Viet Cong prisoners and lots of exotic scenery.
But if there’s one excuse — besides time constraints — why Vietnam isn’t taught more widely in school, Hamlyn provided it.
“Fifty years later,” he said, “I’m not sure what our purpose was there.”
Was it to halt the spread of communism, as he originally thought?
Or was it oil in the South China Sea, as he has come to suspect?
In all, 58,220 Americans gave their lives to something that remains as undefined today as it was then.
“They said no troops were in Cambodia,” Hamlyn said. “I was 15 miles on a mission into Cambodia.”
So how, then, do you convey that to students in a limited amount of time?
And, when do you even begin?
You could stick with the official dates of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam — Aug. 5, 1964, to May 7, 1975 — but the first casualty on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dates to 1959. I got to see the Wall in person about 10 years ago and distinctly remember feeling that we didn’t get the full story in school.
You could go back even further, as recommended by the Zinn Education Project, a resource for teachers that promotes the teaching of “people’s history” as inspired by the work of the late historian and civil rights activist Howard Zinn.
That would require teachers to start at World War II, when the United States found an ally in Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh in the fight against the Japanese. After the war, as Vietnam celebrated its independence, the U.S. decided instead to support France’s decision to reclaim its former colony by force, to the tune of $2 billion between 1946 and 1954.
Purportedly, the U.S. even offered up a couple of nukes in the spring of ’54, just before the French were finally shattered in the valley of Dien Bien Phu.
What we know about our country’s grisly misadventure in Vietnam came largely from a whistleblower named Daniel Ellsberg, who, 50 years ago this fall, began photocopying the contents of a secret report about U.S. decision-making in Vietnam between 1945 and 1968.
Ellsberg later began leaking that information — what became known as the Pentagon Papers — to The New York Times.
Fake news, right?
The truth is, it would be next to impossible for our teachers to touch on every aspect of every conflict.
They can only strive — as P-C did by showing Jim Hamlyn’s Vietnam documentary — to inspire curiosity in their students and hope they seek to satisfy it over the course of a lifetime.
“There’s so much more to it than we think,” Paton-Churdan sophomore Joe Carey said of Vietnam after seeing Hamlyn’s film.
Even then, old questions will undoubtedly give way to new ones.
One of the stories I’m most proud of during my time here as editor is my 2014 feature on the now-late Bill Kendall, the Jefferson resident who lived the entirety of his life on the same block north of the tracks. (I saw the other night that the story had been framed and is on display inside VFW Post 9599. That, to me, is a huge honor.)
“I haven’t went too far in life,” he told me.
That, of course, was utterly false.
As one of the Army’s first Green Berets, Kendall spoke of kicking supplies out of a transport plane over the jungles of Laos clear back in 1956 to be used in the Royal Laotion Army’s fight against a communist insurgency.
“This was not going on in ’56 and ’57,” Kendall said, echoing the official position on American involvement in Southeast Asia.
In Vietnam, Kendall was part of MACV-SOG, or the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam - Studies and Observation Group, which trained and advised indigenous guerillas — recruited from such ethnic groups as the Montagnard and the Chinese Nung — to act as counter-insurgents. Operations took them across Vietnam’s borders to Laos and Cambodia.
“I can say it,” Kendall told me that day, “we had assassination teams.”
He would only hint at other things. And when I left his house that day, I left with new questions.
Chief among them was a story about Kendall’s time down in Panama in the mid-’60s.
“You ever hear the name Che Guevara?” Kendall asked, then told me I should read up on his demise.
What’s known is that Bolivian Rangers caught up with the iconic communist revolutionary in 1967, promptly executing him.
What’s less known is that they were aided by a unit of U.S. Green Berets from Kendall’s Special Forces group in Panama.
It’s amazing that one man here in Jefferson could shed even a little light on history that remains very much in the shadows.
Too many wars, too little time.
On a personal note, when I was growing up, I knew Kendall only as some guy who worked at the G&M grocery store.
I’m pretty sure I even swiped a pack of baseball cards one day on his watch.
I only know now that he let me live.