David Harris, like so many other pro and anti-war baby-boomers, doesn’t distinguish between the personal and political when it comes to the Vietnam war. It was his most wrenching personal experience. It also transformed his politics from conventional patriotism to strong criticism of war-making, environmental degradation and social injustice in the United States. Harris’ many books — including “The Last Stand,” his critique of timber company policies — reflect this mix of politics and biography.
So too does “Our War,” which details both the political case against U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the toll it took on his own life. Harris writes movingly about having to decline his father’s request that he not refuse the draft, and about spending most of his 20s organizing draft-resisters. And 20 years later, Harris takes stern issue with those who agree with New York Times’ Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd that “the country has blessedly put the issue [of Vietnam] to rest.” He believes that we remain in denial about Vietnam, and that we need a “reckoning” in which we take responsibility for those we killed among the three million Indochinese who perished.
“[Three] million people died crushed in the mud, riddled with shrapnel, hurled out of helicopters, impaled on sharpened bamboo, obliterated in carpets of explosives, reduced to chunks by one or more land mines … [three] million died in pain, often so intense that death was a relief,” he writes. “What remains is for us to finally engage in the public arithmetic and to admit we had no right to have been there and no right to have done what we did and no right to continue pretending otherwise.”
While numerous books have been written about Vietnam since the war ended, most of these have dealt with issues like U.S. veterans and POWs. There have been far fewer direct discussions of the moral issues Harris raises. If you’re among those who believe that confronting pain can be healing, you might want to read “Our War.” It’s sensitively written, provides a brief but comprehensive overview of the many sides of America’s moral misadventure, and raises questions to which our most thoughtful citizens are still seeking answers.