Vietnam War lessons yet to be learned
Having watched Ken Burns’ searing PBS documentary on the Vietnam War to the bitter end, I have to admit I learned a lot, but not about that crazy country to the south of us. I also learned something about Canada, something I would never have suspected in my wildest dreams and something I find deeply disturbing.
Burns, of course, is the acclaimed documentarian, whose documentaries on PBS such as the American Civil War, Prohibition, the Dust Bowl and many others present penetrating perspectives on American history and all the tragedies and triumphs that go with it.
But what would a Burns documentary on the Vietnam War say about Canada? Well, let me tell you and I’m truly sorry to do so. In some ways, the less said about the Vietnam War the better because when you throw in the French part of the conflict it lasted more than 30 years, killed more than two-million Vietnamese, and in the case of the U.S., it killed at least 58,000 American soldiers and wounded and maimed many thousands more.
It was a gruesome and unnecessary tragedy as all the Vietnamese wanted from day one back in the 1950s was to be in charge of their own affairs as an independent country instead of a puppet colony of Western imperial powers.
So, what does this possibly have to do with Canada, you rightfully ask? Sadly, I will tell you. Prior to Burns’ excruciating documentary, I always wondered how many Canadians participated in the carnage. I knew there were some, but I always thought they would be numbered in the dozens or a few hundred at the most. Imagine my shock when the narrator said about 30,000 principled Americans fled to Canada to avoid the killing fields, a number which almost matched the number of Canadians who voluntarily joined the American soldiers participating in the slaughter.
Thirty-thousand Canadians fought in Vietnam? I couldn’t believe my ears! Surely this total must be wrong, I thought. I was so incredulous that I did what we do these days and I went straight to the Internet to check this gruesome figure and to my great disappointment I found out that Burns was right.
According to estimates by the Canadian Vietnam Veterans’ Association at least 20,000 Canadians voluntarily enlisted with the American Army to fight in Vietnam, but some historians put the total as high as 40,000. At least 134 Canadians died or are missing in action in Vietnam.
One who didn’t make it was Rob McSorley from Vancouver, who was ambushed and killed by the Viet Cong only two weeks after his 19th birthday. In a 2016 CBC TV interview, his sister June-Ann Davies said his parents tried to stop him from enlisting but he told them he was bored at school and looking for adventure.
“Afterwards my parents didn’t say a lot about it, other than to say my brother was a hero.” McSorley, indeed, is a hero. His name is even on the infamous Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC, but surely there are less tragic ways of becoming a “hero” than wasting your life in a futile and senseless war.
Most of the names of the other brave Canadian soldiers who died in Vietnam don’t even appear on the wall. Sad!
And now as U.S. soldiers remain fighting in Afghanistan and President Trump is calling on all NATO nations including Canada to do the same, one can’t help but reflect on the futility of it all. I think it’s great that Justin Trudeau, like former Prime Minister Jean Chretien before him, has again said no to the imperious Americans while wondering how many more American soldiers will have to needlessly die before the politicians realize their folly?
“Do not take lightly the perils of war,” said the Greek historian Thucydides about the Peloponnesian War. Would I be wrong in thinking that would be good advice for all politicians with war in their hearts?
– Gerry Warner is a retired journalist who will never understand why Canadians volunteered to fight in Vietnam.