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Neighbors Growing Together | Jun 24, 2018

‘The Vietnam War’: Panelists reflect on truths, downfalls of PBS documentary

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News | Feb 28, 2018
Photo by: Grace King (Left to right) Father Joseph Phung, Dr. Kenneth Quinn, Roger Farmer and Roger Pittsenbarger participated on a panel discussion of “The Vietnam War” PBS documentary hosted at Iowa Wesleyan University with The Mt. Pleasant Public Library on Tuesday, Feb. 27.

Father Joseph Phung grew up in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Since he moved to the U.S. when he was 36-years-old, he has returned to his village at least six times. Surrounded by lakes and mountains, every house has a lock on it. When he returns to Vietnam, he sees death in the villages.

Phung remembers what it is to grow up in conflict and risk his life to flee his home country to escape to freedom. As a panelist during the Vietnam War discussion hosted by Iowa Wesleyan University (IW) in the Chadwick Library on Tuesday, Feb. 27, Phung shared about the Vietnam he knew then and how he felt it was portrayed in “The Vietnam War: A film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.”

Phung was one of four panelists on Tuesday to share about his experience during the Vietnam War, adding to the documentary’s screenings over the past five weeks in partnership with IW and The Mt. Pleasant Public Library.

The other panelists included former ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia Dr. Kenneth M. Quinn, conscientious objector to the war Roger Farmer, and officer of Henry County Veterans Affairs Roger Pittsenbarger.

The International Room in Chadwick Library was packed as Henry County residents bended their ears to hear these men talk about their experience during the war and the pitfalls of the documentary.

“When I watched that, I said this is not valid to the Vietnamese people who lived there, who experienced the pain and sufferings of the war and after the war,” Phung said.

In conversations with friends back home, Phung said they talked about how it doesn’t capture the heart of the Vietnamese people. “To us, it doesn’t reflect the honesty and truth,” he said.

That isn’t to say he doesn’t overall appreciate the history captured in the PBS documentary, saying that he was “very satisfied” with the episodes he watched.

After introductions were made, Quinn took the microphone and kicked off the night by talking about his 32-year adventure and involvement in Vietnam, starting in 1968 when he began learning the Vietnamese language as a U.S. diplomat.

Quinn was in language training when the Tet Offensive hit, which was a coordinated series of North Vietnamese attacks on more than 100 cities in South Vietnam.

“It was such a shock,” Quinn said. “Terrible casualties — 16,900 American deaths in 1968 alone.”

Fifty years ago Tuesday night was the day Walter Kronkite went on air saying the war would end in a stalemate and the reports coming out of Vietnam were inaccurate.

“From that moment 50 years ago today, it’s had an enormous impact that continues to this day,” Quinn said. “If you look hard enough, you’ll find the roots of Russian information warfare against our country starts with that report because it’s the power of television.”

As a consciences objector during the Vietnam and up to today, Farmer recalled 1968 as well and the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

He was 21-years-old, a junior at the University of Illinois at the time. He remembers the National Guard occupying campus and watching a jeep drive across with barbed wire and lines of soldiers guarding buildings.

“There were protests everywhere and the TV news was filled with brutality and bombing in Vietnam,” Farmer said.

What disappointed Farmer about the PBS series was the omission of faith-based objectors to the war. “That was not mentioned at all as far as I know,” he said. “Faith-based objectors were the most consistent. By the time the war ended, there were lots of objectors, but the faith-based people were usually there first.”

As objections to the war grew, Pittsenbarger noted that a soldier’s homecoming was ill-received. In fact, he had a cousin, who had lost his leg in Vietnam, who was spit on because he was still in uniform when he arrived back in the U.S.

Pittsenbarger was drafted into the war after dropping credit hours to make more money while attending Drake University in Des Moines. He joined the Air Force in 1969 and was discharged in 1973.

Even today, Pittsenbarger said he still couldn’t give intricate details of his service. “There’s a lot of things I can’t really discuss because it’s still confidential at this point in time,” he said.

As a radio communication specialist in Greenland, Pittsenbarger said part of his job was to keep a close watch on Russia. “We had all kinds of antennas. We could tell when an aircraft was less than two feet off the ground in Moscow,” he said.

Today, Pittsenbarger provides support to veterans in Henry County, adding that the county Supervisors are very in tune with the presence of the Veteran’s Association (VA) here. Pittsenbarger helps veterans get the most out of their benefits and provides emergency financial assistance when necessary with food or paying utilities, obtains medical records for veterans, retrieves discharge papers and assists in admissions to the Iowa Veterans Home.

Pittsenbarger said that although he works limited hours, veterans can make appointments with him and he can be available 24/7.

Quinn is president of The World Food Prize Foundation, an international organization located in Des Moines that acts as the “Nobel Peace Prize” of agriculture, Quinn said.

Through all his experience, Quinn said, “When I was going to Vietnam, I thought I had taken the wrong road, and it turns out I found the right turn.”

In closing, Farmer warned about the dangers of “American exceptionalism,” an ideology that the U.S. is unique among the nations in democracy and personal freedom. “It’s difficult for us to enter international situations and hear different points of view,” Farmer said. “We need considerable humility.”

Quinn also left the audience with this thought: “A great historic question, one we will never know the answer to, is what if we had dealt (with Vietnam) differently?”

Comments (1)
Posted by: Steve Wilson | Mar 01, 2018 18:13

I agree we cannot know after the fact just what might have happened had we sought to befriend the Vietnamese on the the heels of Japan's departure from Vietnam at the end of WWII. The Vietnamese asked US Presidents to support the goals of Vietnam that had been inspired by the respect the Vietnamese had for the freedoms of America. The Vietnamese longed for national unity, independence and economic development and asked the US for help. Instead the US supported the restoration of the oppressive French colonialism of the past which had the hoped for effect of driving the Vietnamese in the north into the arms of Russia, China and international communists as they sought the military aid that was essential to their winning the war for their independence. The tactic too facilitated the goal of dividing Vietnam so it could serve as a battlefield of the Giants.Then as now US policy was to create internal strife and proxy wars in places like Korea and Vietnam to facilitate the creation of a working model of how to contain communism. A very similar model is now being used in the Middle East in places like Syria and Iraq. We are all watching how that is working and who is getting rich and who is being wounded. You and I see the pictures of the war torn and burning children. We do not see the international oligarchs who are filling their pockets in the process. There is big money in war. That is why the US fights them. Our greed is destroying the moral fiber of America and the peace among and too within nations, including our own. It is time to try something else. It is time to start being a friend around the world who brings harmony within and among the nations of the world.



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