Chuck Turchick | Comments on the Upcoming Vietnam War Series on PBS

Our actions may have been closer to the acts of Nazi Germany than we would like to admit. Both governments perpetrated imperialist, racist, and genocidal policies.   

Editor’s Note: Beginning on September 17th at 7 pm on TPT (Channel 2, Minnesota), PBS will be showing the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War. Already a lot of interest has been generated in the airing of the ten-part series.

For those who may be interested, four of the series segments will be shown on the large-screen television at Mayday Books, 301 Cedar, Minneapolis at 7 pm: Sunday September 17th, Thursday September 21st, Sunday September 24th and Thursday September 28th .  

Viewing groups are also being organized by the National Veterans for Peace organization. Click here for more information. 

Click here for a full schedule of air times for the series on TPT .

Below are two pieces written by Chuck Turchick and sent to Twin City Public Television (TPT) in response to their request for personal stories about the Vietnam War. The first is critical of the concept of the series, the second a more personal story. The following piece is posted on the TPT Story Board at MNVietnam.org.  

By Chuck Turchick

Something about this TPT project creeps me out. Suppose we were not Americans, but Germans — “good Germans,” collaborators, military veterans, resisters, Holocaust deniers. Suppose we all lived in Dusseldorf and were asked to remember our “stories” about World War II. That’s important, but most of us see that would miss the point of the War. Its essence was a set of genocidal government policies that might be masked, not revealed, by individual ‘stories” of “Dusseldorf Remembers World War II.”

I cannot disagree strongly enough with something Ken Burns and Lynn Novick wrote in the New York Times on May 29, 2017.

They wrote:

“Nothing will ever make the tragedy of the Vietnam War all right. But if we are to begin the process of healing, we must first honor the courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served and those who died, not just as we do today, on Memorial Day, but every day.”

Nonsense! Germans do not suggest a need to “honor the courage, heroism and sacrifice” of their soldiers who served and died — of which there no doubt were many examples — in order to begin the process of healing. Dusseldorfians would see that as ludicrous. 

Unfortunately, we, like Burns and Novick and TPT, do not see that as ludicrous in the U.S. context. No, the process of healing will begin for us when the war is finally seen for what it was. Stories of sacrifice and heroism of soldiers who killed and died — not “served…and died,” not even “fought and died,” but “killed and died” — in Southeast Asia will get us no closer to understanding what this war was about.

The Vietnam War was not The Holocaust, but our actions may have been closer to the acts of Nazi Germany than we would like to admit. Both governments perpetrated imperialist, racist, and genocidal policies. We financed the attempts of a colonial power to regain its colonies, we illegally invaded other countries, we violated numerous binding international laws, including the Geneva Conventions, and we committed massive war crimes in Indochina. 

This “honoring the veterans” contributes to the government’s interest in making future wars more palatable to the U.S. public. It makes future wars more likely. 

Signage for the Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution.

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John F. Kennedy once wrote a fellow soldier from World War II something he could never say publicly as a politician: “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” 

That’s who Burns and Novick should be urging us to honor: the young men who refused to fight in this war, those people who were right about it. 

So where was I at the time? In the streets, in the face of my government’s criminal leaders, and in federal prison.

I hardly did enough, but, generally, I was where I should have been. 

I know this piece sounds harsh and presumptuous and arrogant to many people — it does even to me; you’d think I would have mellowed with age — but if after nearly half a century, we still can’t see what we did, we have our heads in the sand. 

Germany still has its Holocaust deniers, but the government has aggressively tried to educate its public about what their government did in their names during World War II, not tried to enable future wars.

What creeps me out is that TPT may unknowingly and unintentionally be a part of a project that honors those who participate in these monuments to human stupidity because those warriors were on “our side.” Such a project — and the Pentagon’s 13-year-long commemoration of the Vietnam War probably does this intentionally — helps make future wars seem more reasonable and more acceptable. 

I expect better of TPT than that.

Biographical Details
Submitted From: MINNEAPOLIS, MN

Primary Location During Vietnam: SANDSTONE FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION, SANDSTONE, MINNESOTA, UNITED STATES Vietnam location marker

Story Subject: ACTIVIST

 This second piece by Chuck Turchick was also sent to the TPT Story Board:
Jacques was the most interesting Vietnam veteran I ever met. His mere existence revealed so much about that war.
We met in federal prison. Jacques was there for a false declaration at customs and the use of a false passport. He was doing two consecutive five-year sentences for using the same fake name in both instances. What they really wanted Jacques for was drug smuggling — probably heroin — but for some reason, they couldn’t make those charges stick. So they gave him ten years for using a name that wasn’t his.
Me? Before prison, I was in law enforcement, or maybe more accurately, I was engaged in law enforcement activity. I was trying to prevent my government from continuing its criminal actions in Southeast Asia. The government saw it differently: they called it “attempted interference with the operations of the Selective Service System by force, violence, and otherwise.”
We disagreed about who were the real criminals. Unfortunately, the prosecutors and the judges were on the government’s side — probably because they were on the government’s payroll. So, five years. Thank God I didn’t use a false name on my passport!
Jacques and I had a common interest. Before getting locked up, I had played in many local and national table tennis tournaments, and Jacques had been on the junior national table tennis team. We ended up playing a lot of ping pong together. He told me he had left the junior national team, lied about his age to join the military, and was sent to fight in Vietnam.
I asked him if having been in the war had changed his attitude about it. He pointed to himself, raised his eyebrows, and, in his beautiful accent, said emphatically, “Me? Communist!.” So I asked him why he had volunteered for the military, and he made two imaginary horizontal lines on his upper arm and said, “Stripes! Sergeant!”
Jacques talked in these short sentences because English wasn’t his native language. The junior national table tennis team he had been on wasn’t ours. It was the French Junior National Table Tennis Team. Jacques was French. He had been sent to Vietnam in 1947 to help France regain its colonies in Indochina. We now know that by the end of that colonial war, the U.S. was funding 80% of it. Then the French left and we continued.
Wow! Jacques had fought 25 years earlier in what was essentially the same war I was imprisoned for because of my law enforcement activity. Jacques was indeed a Vietnam veteran — one of the earliest. His story made it ever so clear to me that Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution was the right place to be in while my government, supported by its army of prosecutors and judges and wardens, continued its massive and horrendous criminal activity.
I don’t think I ever told Jacques how his mere existence as a Vietnam veteran had made my prison time easier. After prison, I never saw him again. He was probably deported.
Chuck Turchick is one of the Minnesota 8, tried and convicted for protest against the Vietnam War. Read their story here.
Used with permission of the author.

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