In writing my preview of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s epic 10-part documentary The Vietnam War, which is now airing on PBS and streaming on the network’s app, I couldn’t stop thinking about one particular figure who reappears throughout the series: an eloquent, soft-spoken veteran named John Musgrave. In recent days and weeks, I have learned, other viewers and professional reviewers have found Musgrave equally captivating. Why? Take heed that some big spoilers lie ahead in the next paragraph, if you haven’t yet watched the full series.
It isn’t only that Musgrave is able to vividly summon the fear and pain he experienced as an 18-year-old Marine serving in Con Thien in 1967, but also that he underwent a profound evolution after suffering grievous wounds and then coming home to an America that was in no mood to honor its veterans. As the documentary advances, Musgrave, who grew up in a Missouri town where his father and his neighbors were revered for their World War II service, retreats into depression, considers suicide, and ultimately evolves into an anti-war activist and member of the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War (V.V.A.W.). One of the series’ most dramatic moments comes in a later episode, when a bearded, long-haired protester first glimpsed in a still near the very top of Episode 1 is revealed to be the formerly clean-cut Musgrave: a transformed man.
For my V.F. article, I spoke by phone earlier this year with Musgrave, who now lives outside of Lawrence, Kansas, and has published volumes of poetry about his wartime experiences. Here are some previously unpublished excerpts from our conversation, about the documentary, his life, and the pride Musgrave still takes, despite everything, in having served as a Marine in Vietnam.
Vanity Fair: Did you feel ready to tell your story to Ken and Lynn in a way that perhaps you wouldn’t have a decade or two earlier?
John Musgrave: There are certain aspects of your stories that never change. But my perspective certainly has. The last two decades have been pretty extraordinary for our country. And for me as well. My story would have been changed somewhat, simply because I wouldn’t have had the 20 extra years of experience and maturity to formulate those opinions. The war that we’re fighting is frighteningly similar to Vietnam. And I think Americans need to be reminded of our war, and what came of it, what came of those types of political decisions. And, hopefully, strike a chord.
By “the war that we’re fighting,” do you mean our ongoing presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the war on terror?
The biggest reveal to me in the whole series is when they again show the guy with the beard and long curly hair, and, oh my God, it’s John Musgrave!
It was a shock to me, too.
It hits home, how changed a person can be by experience.
I never would have believed that I would have found myself in that position. I went into V.V.A.W. in, I think, December of 1970 or early 1971, and I was medically retired from the Marine Corps in ’69. If you’d had told me in 1969 that I’d be doing that two years later, I would have told you you were full of shit! That would never happen. But in those two years, I discovered I had no choice. I couldn’t call myself a citizen and a veteran if I didn’t do something.
We have a guilty conscience as a nation about how we treated our Vietnam veterans, and now there’s this automatic response when we meet someone who is in the armed forces: “Thank you for your service.” When, in your experience, did that change?
Gulf War. The first one. Desert Storm. I saw a rapid change. Vietnam veterans around the country, guys who hadn’t said a thing for decades, were speaking out. Vietnam veterans were saying, “Don’t treat those guys like you treated us. Never again.” I think Americans looked back, those who were alive in that period, and took a good hard look at themselves, and realized that they had made the horrible mistake of blaming the warrior for the war. But they did make a concerted effort to make sure that those veterans returning from Iraq knew that Americans appreciated their service. Looking back on it, as far as I can remember, that was the moment.
We honor soldiers now during the seventh-inning stretch of baseball games, but, in general, we still don’t provide sufficient aid and support to our returning veterans. There’s a lot of lip service to “Thank you for your service.”
Right. There are times when I watch old movies, the ones that were made in the early days of World War II. They’re very patriotic. And the documentaries about the guys coming home. And then I remember what it was like for us, and I add to that what I’m seeing now, with America openly expressing its gratitude. And it sometimes brings tears to my eyes. Because . . . I wanted that. That’s what we expected. We were children of those heroes who came home in 1945, in 1953, to a nation overflowing with gratitude. I don’t think Americans realized how hurt we were. That the best that we could hope for was indifference.
Do you get more appreciation now?
Was it around the Gulf War that that changed for you, too?
Yes. I spoke to a Rotary luncheon just today, I just got back home from that. I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful host and a more gracious audience. But there are times in my weaker moments where I think, Where were you guys when I needed you? But I realize that’s a personal weakness. I have some friends who were just in war now, and we’re trying to fight this war on the cheap, and they’re sending them back, back, back.
I worked with some of the returning veterans, dealing with post-traumatic stress. And some of them complain about people thanking them for their service. I tell them, “You don’t know how good you’ve got it.”
Why do they complain?
Because they don’t believe it’s genuine. They think it’s a knee-jerk reaction. “Hey, thanks for your service!” And then they’ve fulfilled their obligation to veterans by thanking them, and they’re not going to do anything else beyond that, and they’re not going to pay another moment’s attention to that war. And some of the veterans are bitter about it. I’m grateful every time. And my response when someone thanks me is to tell them it was a privilege. Because that’s what I think. That’s what I think service to our country is.
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