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Voices from the Vietnam War are still relevant

There is no more appropriate time than the Days of Awe to absorb and reflect on The Vietnam War, writes Erika Dreifus in her View from the USA

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    We American Jews have been busy: a new school year; plenty of politics to follow; and, of course, the Holy Days. Hurricane-stricken communities are contending with much more. But for those with sufficient time and mental space to take note, a fresh batch of cultural offerings is also competing for attention, particularly on television.

    Several programmes feature material of distinct Jewish interest. Late-night comedian Conan O’Brien has taken his show to Israel. The hit series Transparent has begun streaming its fourth season, in which the fictional Pfefferman family also journeys to the Holy Land. Coming soon — this Sunday — we’ll have new episodes of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, too.

    I haven’t yet seen all of Conan’s travel footage or begun to binge on Season 4 with the Pfeffermans. But I have just finished watching a 10-episode documentary titled The Vietnam War, from filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The televised series concluded last night; all episodes may be streamed online.

    I’ve had an excellent education, and read a lot. Still, deep understanding of this searing piece of American history had eluded me. Watching The Vietnam War’s first episodes as Rosh Hashanah approached, and finishing the series shortly before Yom Kippur, it was impossible not to be affected by the darkness and suffering on all sides. The stories of those who lived, and those who died.

    Perhaps also because so much of my viewing coincided with these Days of Awe, I can’t stop thinking about what my local Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Week, described in an extensive article by Steve Lipman as “how the war played out in the [US] Jewish community, which, like the rest of the country, was divided over Vietnam.”

    Timed to complement the documentary, the article noted that the war “was not intrinsically a Jewish issue. But it was in many ways very much a Jewish issue, with members of the community on both sides of the divide citing Jewish motivation for supporting or opposing [it].”

    The documentary doesn’t spotlight American Jewish experience as such. Early on, one veteran-interviewee recalls that prior to his service, he had “never stood next to a black person or a Hispanic or anyone who was Jewish. They just didn’t mix where [he] grew up.” Less benignly, a later episode quotes President Richard Nixon as blaming exposure of the My Lai massacre on “those dirty rotten Jews from New York.”

    The Jewish Week has thus filled in some gaps, as has my friend Seth Gitell. Like me, Seth is now in his late forties (we met in university); his father, unlike mine, was among the 5,000 American Jewish troops who served in the war. Gerald Gitell died in November 2010, but his son continues to share his story.

    When we emailed and spoke this week, Seth reminded me that Jewish Americans’ involvement in the antiwar movement has received far more attention than their military service. Elsewhere — in publications including Tablet and the Forward — Seth has debunked the more noxious suggestions of a particular strand of Jewish avoidance of military service.

    Seth told me that his father, a 1963 graduate of Boston University (BU), was a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps as a student. He joined the Army and, encouraged by another Jewish BU graduate, set his sights on the elite US Army Special Forces known as the Green Berets. (If you know the famous Ballad of the Green Berets, you have Seth’s father to thank for that, at least in part; while in training at Fort Bragg, it was Gerald Gitell, with his communications degree and role as public information officer, who helped Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler record a demo of the song and sent out the pitch letters that eventually netted Sadler a publishing contract.) The senior Gitell spent eight months in Vietnam, where he led soldiers in combat.

    By the documentary’s concluding episode, titled The Weight of Memory, one is overcome by the full power of the individual stories conveyed across hours of interviews and anecdotes. As a writer, I know that we can’t always give voice to each and every story there is to tell. But Jews possess a special relationship with memory. And there is perhaps no more appropriate time than the Days of Awe to absorb and reflect on The Vietnam War — and on what The Jewish Week and Seth Gitell have shared.

    Erika Dreifus is a writer in New York. She tweets “on matters bookish and/or Jewish” at @ErikaDreifus.