Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Speak at 2017 Memorial Day at The Wall

Memorial Day, May 29 2017 
Keynote Speakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Full Speech 


Ken: It is an honor to be here today, on the 35th anniversary of the creation of the Wall, to pay our respects to the brave men and women whose names are so beautifully inscribed here. For my co-director, Lynn Novick, and I, it is overwhelming to stand in this profound place, knowing that behind each of these more than 58,000 names lies an incomprehensible tragedy, an individual human being whose life was cut short by the Vietnam War, and a family that has endured immeasurable, devastating loss. 

 

Lynn: Ken and I are humbled to be here today with all of you, the keepers of the complicated story we have tried to tell.  

We have come to the Wall many times since it was dedicated, especially in the past ten years as we have tried make sense of the Vietnam War -- one of the most consequential, divisive and unresolved events in American history. We have searched for answers to so many questions:  

What really happened? 

Why did things go wrong? 

Who is to blame? 

Why do we avoid talking about the war? 

Why, four decades after it ended, are we unable to put Vietnam behind us? 

And why, long after our government reconciled with the government of our former enemy, have we not yet fully reconciled among ourselves?

 

Ken: Today, we feel as though we have come full circle. Throughout our production, we have been inspired by Maya Lin, the designer of this remarkable work of art and memory. When she unveiled her design, Lin explained that her memorial would be a journey “that would make you experience death, and where you’d have to be an observer, where you could never really fully be with the dead… [It isn’t] something that’s going to say, it’s alright, it’s all over. Because it’s not.” 

 

Lynn: We may never be able to make the tragedy of the Vietnam War alright. But we can, and we must, remember the more than 58,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and nurses who died in it. 

Today, we honor their dedication, bravery, heroism and sacrifice, and we grieve for their families. We remember the missing in action, and the hundreds of thousands who were wounded. We also express our deep gratitude to the millions of men and women who served in the armed forces during the war, and we want to say to all of you what our country failed to say at the time: “Thank you, and welcome home.” 

And we want to tell all of our active duty military personnel, and the veterans of our more recent wars, that we did learn at least one important lesson from the Vietnam War: We will never again blame our soldiers for the policies of our leaders, never again will we confuse the warriors with the war.

 

Ken: Since time immemorial human beings have made war on each other, and have suffered unspeakable losses. But for Americans, the pain of the Vietnam War has been especially deep. 


This bitter conflict tore our country apart, as Phil Gioia, who was an officer in the 82nd Airborne, told us: “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America and polarized the country as it had probably never been polarized since before the Civil War.” 

When Maya Lin visited this site for the first time, she had a vision of taking a knife and cutting the ground, making a deep gash in the earth, and placing the memorial there. In time, she said, the grass would grow back, the land would recover, but the memorial would remain, a reminder of what had happened. In building the Wall, Jan Scruggs and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund gave us all a place to begin a national dialogue about this divisive time, and to start to heal the wounds the war inflicted.

 

Lynn: We hope that our film can continue and deepen the conversation that began here 35 years ago.

We have tried to look at this tragic and messy chapter in our history with fresh eyes and to see it from many different perspectives. It has been our great privilege to bear witness as dozens of brave men and women who lived through the war on all sides generously shared their personal stories with us -- stories of courage, comradeship, perseverance, fear, anger, doubt, conscience, grief, humanity, and love.

 

Ken: Karl Marlantes, who was a lieutenant in the Marines, told us about the day he and his men were pinned down under machine gun and mortar fire trying to take a well-defended hill. He rose and started to advance, sure that he was on his own, but then he sensed movement and looked back. 

“It was a kid from my platoon,” he said, “And then I looked behind him and there were more kids… The entire platoon just stood up, and out they came.”  Forty years later, this transcendent moment remained for him “just almost inexpressible of the heart that these kids had.”

 

Lynn: Three hundred members of the West Point Class of 1966 volunteered to go to Vietnam, eager to prove themselves and lead young men in combat. 

Many, like Matt Harrison, worried that the war might end before they got the opportunity to fight in it.  Soon after he arrived in Vietnam in the spring of 1967, Harrison got everything he bargained for, and more. He and seven of his classmates were assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. By the time his tour was over, four of his classmates had been killed and two others very badly wounded.

“Getting killed is forever,” Harrison remembered.  “I think the hardest thing I’ve ever done was having to put four of my classmates in body bags. No twenty-two year old should have to do that.”

 

Ken: Army captain Vincent Okamoto, who was born in a Japanese American internment camp in World War Two, also volunteered for service in Vietnam and got there in 1968. Remembering the men in his 25th Infantry platoon, he told us, was almost enough to make him cry: 

“Nineteen year-old high school dropouts from the lowest rung of American society… To see these kids, who had the least to gain... They weren't going be rewarded for their service in Vietnam.  And yet, their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself: how does America produce young men like this?”

 

Lynn: Eighty-nine year old Jean Marie Crocker of Saratoga Springs, New York, told us about her oldest son, Denton, whom the family called “Mogie.” He was 17 when he volunteered for the Army early in the war, inspired by President Kennedy’s vision of service and heroism. Mogie  was disappointed to be assigned a desk job in the 101stst Airborne Division, but eventually he got himself transferred to a combat unit, and was decorated for carrying a mortally wounded friend off the battlefield under fire. In his letters home, Mogie told his family nothing of what he saw or did.

 

Ken: Jean Marie told us how she followed the war on television, and worried whenever letters from Mogie failed to arrive. Then, on a beautiful spring day in 1966, she looked up and saw two men in uniform coming to the house. 

In an interview, she re-lived that unimaginable moment, told us how she implored them, “Don’t say it, not my beautiful boy. But they just said, yes.” 

She gathered the other children around her and tried her best to reassure them, “We’ll love each other and we’ll be alright,” she said. “We all tried.” When her oldest daughter, Carol, asked how could she still believe in God, Jean Marie told her,  “Because we had Mogie. His life was a real gift. It was a privilege to have him.”  Our children, Jean Marie came to believe, “are only on loan to us.”

 

Lynn: Mogie was buried at Arlington. It was many years before his sister, Carol, felt ready to come here, to the Wall. In telling that story, she helped us understand the special power of this sacred place.

“When I caught sight of the Wall,” she told us, “I literally lost my breath. Of course I wept. I saw my brother's name. I had help getting lifted up so I could touch it. I looked at his name in the company of all those other people. There was sadness. But now he wasn't alone either. He was in the company of people. And he was there for people to know and to think about. And he wasn't forgotten. And he wasn't lost.” 

Denton Crocker, Jr.’s name is on Panel 8E, the 6th line from the top. For Carol Crocker – as for so many families and comrades of the fallen -- coming to the Wall was “incredibly healing and freeing. “I was changed afterwards,” she remembered. “It is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.” 

 

Ken: While Mogie Crocker, Vincent Okamoto, Karl Marlantes, Matthew Harrison, and hundreds of thousands of other Americans were fighting and dying overseas, hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens back home, including veterans of the war itself, were taking to the streets to protest a conflict many had come to believe was unjust, immoral, or simply not in our country’s best interest. 

As antiwar activist Bill Zimmerman told us, “two groups of Americans, both thinking they were acting patriotically, went to war with each other.” A chasm opened in American society. Things were said -- and things were done -- that could never be unsaid, could never be undone. 

In the fifty years since, that chasm has only widened and deepened. The troubles that beset us today — alienation, resentment, and cynicism; mistrust of our government and each other; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions -- so many of these seeds were sewn during the Vietnam War. Until we can find a way to talk, not shout, across this divide, the ghosts of the Vietnam War will continue haunt us.

 

Lynn: In ten years of trying to understand the war, we have learned that there is no single truth to be extracted from this traumatic, epic tragedy. Many of the questions we asked may never be fully answered; they lead instead to deeper questions. 

What does it mean to be a patriot? 

Who was right? Who was wrong? 

Were the sacrifices in blood and bone too high? 

Could it have turned out differently? 

What meaning can be found in all of the suffering of the war?

 

Ken: If with open minds and open hearts, we can listen to each other, perhaps we can permit more than one truth to obtain, and rather than arguing over how the war should be remembered, we can focus on the profound truths the Vietnam War can teach us about courage, loyalty, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.