Armistice Day and the Vietnam War

Image, Public Domain

Armistice Day is commemorated every year on November 11 (though it also observed on the 10th as it is in 2017) to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compi├Ęgne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I. The date was declared a national holiday in many allied nations, and coincides with Remembrance Day and Veterans Day as public holidays. In the United States, it is more commonly called Veterans Day.

 I watched the PBS series The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick(also a book)  It was difficult to watch. I could only watch one episode at a time.

It has been more than forty years since the Vietnam War ended for the U.S. but many of its wounds have still not healed.

I did not fight in that war, but I did know people of my age you did fight and some died there.

As this documentary makes clear, we argued then and some still argue about why we were there, whether we could have won, and who was right and wrong in their response to the conflict. It divided the country.

The film uses many interviews in America and Vietnam and gives us perspectives of U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers and their families, high-level officials in America and Vietnam, antiwar protestors, and POWs. It tries not to take sides.

Knowing that Armistice Day was approaching again and thinking about the Vietnam War and the wars being fought around the world today and the ones that may come in my future, I tried to set down the connection between the holiday and the war for me. The poem below is the result.

Armistice Day

Once, November 11 was called Armistice Day,
honoring Americans who have served their country in the armed forces.

On that day in 1918, the First World War came to an end.
Papers signed in Paris and five hours later a cease-fire
at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It is the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut, best known for an anti-war novel
That was holy text for many in the movement of the 1960s.

On February 2, 1972, I sat with my brethren born in 1953 in a Rutgers dormitory lounge
circled around someone’s small black and white portable television
to watch a draft lottery in which our birthdates, numbered 1 through 365,
written on slips of paper, were placed in separate blue capsules,
mixed in a shoebox and then dropped into a deep glass jar.
Capsules were drawn from the jar one at a time.
March 6 was the first day drawn and those boys were assigned lottery number 1.
One boy in the room had that birthday.
He began to cry and his roommates took him away.
But we stayed until the last birthday, July 23, was called.
Someone said that if your number was higher than 100, you would not be drafted.
My birthday, October 20, was number 352.
I do not recall anyone cheering or joyful for having a high number.
Though it was not November eleventh, it was, for me, Armistice Day.
The Vietnam War had ended.

But it had not ended.
April 30, 1975, with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army,
marked the end of the war. I was a senior; studying for my final final exams.
I was not one of the 58,220 U.S. service members who died in the conflict
or one of the 1,626 who remained missing in action though my friends and classmates were.
I was not a soldier who had killed any of the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian soldiers
and civilians that we can only estimate at 1.2 million or perhaps 6.8 million.
Numbers that no one can really comprehend.
I graduated without ceremony, and that autumn I began to teach.
There were lessons taught, lessons learned and ones we still have not learned from.
North and South Vietnam were reunified the following year, and many Americans
did not, would not, or could not hear the news.

- Kenneth Ronkowitz

In fact-checking the poem, I came across a site about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I have visited that monument in Washington D.C. about a half dozen times and it always moves me to tears.

Through the website, you can search for a name, or those who came from your home state or hometown or, as I did, those who were born in your year or on your own birthday.

Vietnam was the first "television war"

1966 - Vietnam War U.S. Casualties

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