Like many of you, Becky and I have spent the evenings of this past week watching Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War.” Five episodes and nine hours in, we have reached the halfway point of the series and the beginning of 1968 in the story it tells. The next episode will take us to the Tet Offensive. The second half of the series will add over 35,000 American deaths to the over 20,000 already seen through the end of 1967.
Over two million Vietnamese north and south of the DMZ lost their lives during the war.
At the end of 1967, I was a junior in high school. The story Burns has told through the first half of the series is largely the story that unfolded during my junior high and high school years, and I remember it well. Always fascinated by history and current events, I watched as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, and Chet Huntley brought reports from the war into our living room evening by evening. Our copy of Time or Newsweek was usually in the mailbox on Thursdays and I would read them first thing when I got home from school.
As we watch the series, I am taken back to those junior high and high school years in La Mesa, California. The images are all too familiar. Some things that were confusing at the time are made much clearer in the retelling of the familiar stories, in the unveiling of the untold stories, and in the perspective of time and life experience.
I have talked to a couple of veterans of the Vietnam War who are watching the series. The program brings vivid and intense memories to their minds. The stories they tell are much different than mine and compelling.
Reviewers have used words such as “mesmerizing” and “heart breaking” to describe the story told in Burns’ “The Vietnam War.”
In the series we hear the voices of presidents and generals, cabinet officers and members of congress. The Bible’s suspicion of the powerful is confirmed. But by the end of 1967 we hear presidents and generals, cabinet officers and members of congress, who ignore their better instincts following ill-made decision with ill-made decision. Our hearts break for our country.
Mesmerizing in a different way are the stories told of and by the young men who served their country in Vietnam. Among those stories is that of Denton Crocker, Jr., a 19-year old from Saratoga Springs, New York. Crocker goes by Mogie, his nickname. He begs his parents to allow him to enlist early, before his eighteenth birthday, and they finally relent.
In the series we meet his mother and his sister and hear Mogie’s own words in the letters he wrote home. Mostly he writes of small things and is upbeat about his experience. But the longer he is on the battlefield, the more open his words become. He writes his sister to tell her about his worst experience, of “…being pinned down by two Chinese light machine guns firing 900 rounds per minute and having my best friend killed more or less beside me. Someday I may tell you the whole story if my nerves aren’t completely gone by then. Actually, the latter is just wishful thinking, in false hope they will take me off the line. I was fantastically religious for awhile . . . but I am once again an atheist. Until the shooting starts.”
Mogie Crocker was killed in action on June 4, 1966, one day after his 19th birthday.
Voice faltering, eyes filled with tears, his now 90+ year old mother tells of the summer day over fifty years ago when an officer from the army and their parish priest visited their house with the news they must tell.
Mogie Crocker was the same age as my oldest brother, would have been the same age as a good friends at LPC and over the years.
The decisions presidents and generals make always have consequence. Decisions must be made. Too many of the decisions made by presidents and generals during those years when I was safe in junior high, high school and college were not well made.
Mogie Denton was 19 years old when he died. He had seen things in his few years of life I have never seen and hope never to see, things that drove him from believing God, but then compelled him to believe again.
It is important that we ponder the decisions that led to the deaths of 58,000 young Americans and 2 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and to wonder about “what if?” History may not repeat itself, but it has truths to teach.
We have nothing to say about Mogie Denton’s faith the day he died. He had flirted with atheism and had cried out to God.
We have something to say about God. His love never ceases.
The Apostle Paul asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”
He answers, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Becky and I plan on watching “The Vietnam War” to the end of the series. Our eyes will fill with tears again as the story moves to its somber end.
I have not experienced so many of the things Mogie Denton experienced in the jungles of Vietnam. But my heart has been broken by many things. And from a heart broken and healed and broken again, I am able to say in ways I did not know when I was nineteen years old, “Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ. Not danger or sword, neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”