Real History

I was born in 1965 and so my memory of the Vietnam War was of something terrible that hopefully would end soon. Once it did end I accepted the wisdom that it had been a bad idea from the start and that our leaders ought to have known that. Vietnam was what taught us that war was awful, that it was rarely necessary, and that it brought out the worst in all its participants. Then my son and I recently began watching an excellent six-part documentary on the Vietnam War. Prior to this we also watched documentaries on the Russian Revolution, on Stalin, and on the Cuban Missile Crisis. By the time we were halfway through Part One of the Vietnam documentary my opinion of that war had changed. No, I am not a Hawk, nor do I think America could have won the war. What changed, rather, is my understanding of why a person, particularly a person leading this country in 1964, might think the war was necessary and winnable.

This may seem like a small admission to anyone with Hawkish memories of that time, but it is not. To me, what has revealed itself is the greatest gift possible within the study of what we call history. What happened in the past is beyond knowing, for what really happened is what every single person did, said, or thought during that period. But what is perceivable through this historical lens is a glimpse of the wholeness of human thought.

From my vantage, which is the safety of the future, the concept of political right and wrong are not applicable, for it is too late for such notions to mean anything—if they ever did. From my vantage I see only thoughts of war and thoughts of peace, thoughts everyone has held with varying strength at various times. When someone’s thoughts of peace will eclipse his thoughts of war is everyone’s journey.

I try within this column never to be right but only to see clearly. This is not always so simple. My mind is agile enough that it can rearrange reality in my favor, describing a winning move on the chessboard of life. And yet that victory never comes. By the time I am done with such fantasies all the pieces have shifted again on their own, reality moving too quickly for any solution beyond acceptance.

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