Episode 4: We want the dead to come back to us.
Seventeen my best friend, and I went down in the Marine Corps. I'd always dreamed of being a marine. And. How? I knew I wasn't going to be a man right away. But I was going to be a marine and that was enough. I'd be doing something mature. And I'd be doing something that was important. And there was a war on. I wanted to piece of. That's former marine John must grave in a clip from Vietnam war Americans who signed up to fight in Vietnam did so for lots of different reasons some of them like Crocker wanted to do what they saw as their part if the international spread of communism at twelve you started a diary in which he kept track of Cold War events. I hate read he wrote, and he admired most those who had proved willing to sacrifice themselves for calls. Others thought the military would toughen them up give them chances to be heroes. One doesn't want to trivialize it. But it was my chance to be the star of my own John Wayne movie and some figured that. If they died, at least their families would be provided for then my mother would be able to received a ten thousand dollars insurance policy. I thought that was a lot of money my Moby rich by die in she'll be rich. They didn't necessarily know what they were getting into or that they would be fighting hardened. Fashionable troops. But they saw just how difficult the war would be long before their bosses in Washington. More willing to admit the truth to tell their stories and the stories of their families, Ken burns, Lynn, Novick and their coworkers. Crisscrossed the country they spoke to veterans look through local archives and for one family even brought part of the past back to life. And they've started making connections between Vietnamese veterans and American ones helping them. Both learn more about some of the most important moments war. I'm Melissa Rosenberg. And you're listening to the American war a podcast about how America lost its way in Vietnam. And how Ken burns and Lynn Novick are trying to help us. Find our way back. I'm back with Ken to talk about the fourth episode of their documentary. Yes. One evening when I was reading to Denton before he went to sleep. I shows a passage from Henry the fifth. Which is he today that sheds his blood with me? She'll be my brother and gentlemen in England. Now, a bed chill think themselves accursed, they were not here and hold their manhood sheep, while any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin day. Can I before you ask a question? Can I just say something nobody has to relive for strangers? The worst thing that's happened to them and yet Jean Marie and Carol shared with us the worst time of their lives. And there is no other moment in the film more pointing to me now, I'll start crying then the very opening of episode three in which Jean Marie is reading to him from Shakespeare's Henry, the fifth, and it's the same Crispin day speech. And you know, it's all about how you're not gonna feel as much of a man if you are a bed in England rather than on this battlefield and something crosses her face. Like, oh my God. This is what I did I helped arm him to be who he became. And it's one of the most powerful moments that we've ever been privileged to sort of capture and and put their and I have only the highest gratitude for their courage, and and it's not even that it goes beyond that they were really willing to come to a screaming that we had and relive it. Again, in the way, we had had done it. And to turn around, you know, at various moments to watch MRs Crocker just tried to try to do it again with the same poignancy. She did in the interview. And then, of course, in her in her memoir and more importantly in the way, she and Carol and the rest of their family experienced, what is gotta be. You know, the worst thing I wanted to ask you about telling their story because. I feel like the moment we meet Mogi. We know he's going to die. And maybe that's me having watched too many movies and just kind of guessing, but I wanted to ask you about spacing historial out because up until the moment that we hear them talk about the decision to bury him in Arlington instead of at home. I just hoped it wasn't going to happen. Yeah. It's you know, we're we're all pretty sure, you know, there is there's no Mogi that we're interviewing we're hearing a voice and yet I've watched audiences go. Oh, no. When he died when 'cause thinking he's not gonna die. And I think this is our wish you know, we we we don't want to die. We don't want to die. We, you know, nothing. We want the dead to come back to us. And there's something extraordinarily hopeful. Even though all the signs with us. You know with not telling us until the. Moment that it happens in which a mother is not put in a position of having to Claude the dirt to reclaim the ones. That's him. I mean, come on. You know, I I'll tell you. What happens is that? I hear one too many mornings by pod Dylan, and I know what's about to happen. But I'm just experiencing it new and we're seeing the outside of their house on a beautiful day. And the American flag and that is their house in Saratoga spring. And I just I'm always sitting next to Sarah or Lynn or both. And I just reach how I said I can't do this anymore, and they they're like the same position. Like, I can't I have lived through Mogi dying, and Jean Marie and Carol talking about that day so many times, and I will never even if it's a clip and a clip reel. It will. It will hit me the same way. So you mentioned one of the veterans from the war. You've made these movies about three American wars. Are there things that unite the veterans and their families across the civil war World, War Two and Vietnam? Absolutely. My big thing is that human nature doesn't change, and it doesn't and mothers love their children and their young boys is, you know, now or as much as they did before or whatever, whatever arrogance. You have is the past less or greater, you know, it's all the same and losses loss loss. And so it, you know, wars are United because they are big loss machines, they drive families apart, and then some people don't come home. And that's what wars are. And that's why they're so instructive because they remind us again. And again, you know, that of of the worst of us, and we hope. In some ways that by studying, you might mitigate it. But it won't there will always be worse. And you know, everybody feels that this the same and yet each war also has a paralysing uniqueness to it as if it couldn't possibly be different. You know, I couldn't be there. Couldn't be any similarities to what I'm going through right now. And and I think it's somewhere in between those two polarities of of how just poignantly movingly and Mattingly common and similar. They are to also the freshness and uniqueness of each tragedy. Nobody's tragedy is exactly the same. I constantly hear all the time. I've been engaged for ten years of the film production and now in the conversation in the country people who I've arguments. Oh, you know, if they only gotten rid of Westmoreland earlier and put an Abrams, this might have happened. Well, they didn't. And it didn't. And so these become abstract not abstract are the observations and the testimony of all of our witnesses. And we carried them as if they were sort of delicate, vases through this long arduous process 'cause we knew that in in less. We honor them. It that we didn't manipulate them that we didn't sort of have a kind of greed for for content in them that that we would miss the point of having received this testimony. And I think one of the biggest things that I carry that whole time was something in my pit of my stomach that we were going to be able to take these seventy nine people, however, many are in the final film out of the hundred we filmed and just carry them and the essential -ness of their commentary unimpaired by us into the final film because you don't want the essential message, the code of that however familiar or unique or in large measure, both it is to be lost or polluted, or, you know, messed with by us who don't have the stakes in it as much as we you know, as much as we are moved by as much as we are engaged in an emotional archaeology. This is not our son. This is not our brother. And we have a huge obligation to try to be as close as to them. It's why after we finish a film. We're still friends with these people. They're still on our Christmas card list. There's still people we call up and talk to I call Catherine singer from the World War Two film, all the time and say, it's your Yankee boyfriend calling and you know, she's ninety something. And and you know, I can't not she's part of my family because we honored the suffering of the Phillips family that she was the, you know, as she watched her older brother said go off to war. One thing. I think I found really painful about the Crocker family story was the sense that I mean Jean Marie Cocco had such doubts about him. Enlisting and develops such doubts about the cause for which he died, and she and Carol had to deal with the fact that he felt doubts when he was in Vietnam. And I know, you know, it's saying that people died for noble causes is not always true. It doesn't always make people feel better in the moment. But that was something where an attention was just so painful and powerful for me that they felt that conflict. I really have a rare no comment. I don't know. How to say does the mother feel any less grief knowing that her baby died for a noble cause or one? That's not I suppose. In fought that come later, there might be some distinction, but that does not in any way, mitigate the loss. And if you feel Mogi Crocker's death in our film, then you multiply that by fifty eight thousand plus Americans, and then multiply it by three million Vietnamese and each one had a mother like Jean-Marie. There are two things that are really important when you want to tell a story of the family like the Cropper's, I you have to find them. And then you have to convince them to trust you when we started on the bag. I really before we even had done anything separate say with only about the war. One of the first things we did was to go see Tim O'Brien with February about the war fiction nonfiction. And he said he would be willing to be involved in the film in some way. But that the first thing we had to do was to find a gold star family. That's nova's. Again. She tracked down jeanmarie Crocker and convinced her to share her family story. I talked to Lynn about how she got to know. Mrs parker. One thing. I was curious about watching. This is obviously there are a lot of veterans organizations in the United States. There are a lot of prominent veterans in the film. How did you find the Crocker family eventually after some trial and error? I contacted the veterans history project at the library of congress because I knew they had collected all kinds of credible stories from around the country, different wars and the librarian. There said that they hadn't he'd collected a testimony of a World War Two veteran whose wife had deposited memoir. That had never been published about their son who died in Vietnam. And he thought that she was still alive and that maybe she would speak with us. So I he sent us a copy of the memoir, which is called son of the Cold War, and it's jeanmarie Crocker's anguished, and beautifully researched attempt to make sense of what happened to her son. What drove him to want to be in the war and what he felt about as. He got more involved. And so we read the memoir and got in touch with her and Sarah about Stein. And I went up to see her Saratoga and spent a day with her. Just sort of getting to know her and telling her a little bit about what we were up to and you know, gingerly delicately sort of asking is there any way you would consider telling us your story for the film, and she gave it some serious thought. She says she had to think about it. She's a very thoughtful. And she's a person doesn't jump into anything. I would say and she eventually agreed that she would do it. And she said she wanted to do it because she felt that it would be way to honor her son and also perhaps to by sharing his story. Maybe that would help some of the other families who had lost someone in the war. So it was active extreme generosity for her to do that. The family have all the archival material but used in the film. I mean, I just the video of them. According those Christmas greetings with shattering to watch. And I didn't know if that was some of the bay still had. Yeah. So they had photographs of him. And when we went on to MRs Cocker's home, they're interested him on the law and his medals, and they had collected. They kept everything family photographs and some slides, and I think there's a scrapbook and some of the some of the articles in the newspaper and things like that in letters that he sent and received. And we were they were generous to share all of that with us. We did do some research at the Saratoga library as well just for pictures of the area, and that kind of thing, but in the memoir, she had described going to the television station and taping that greeting and after we read the memoir, we said, oh, you know, did you ever see that? Film. And they said, no, we never thought we sent it to Mogi. And then when he died it came back with all of his belongings, whatever was left, and so they had never watched it. And they had this little piece of film that they've got the radio TV station. And so they let us borrow it. And we had it transferred to video, and then we sent it to them, and they had never seen it until. We got organized to put it in the film, and I can't watch it without prying, absolutely devastating. I wanted to broaden out a little bit and ask about veterans it on the American side in general with the American veterans curious that what the Vietnamese at experienced in the same engagements one of the really great. Rewards of his project has been to be able to carry messages back and forth. I would say between Americans and Vietnamese who were on different sides of the same battles. And I think all the American veterans. We've talked to have been really fascinated to hear from us. What we heard from the Vietnamese and much as possible. We've tried to you know. Bring things back and forth. The most striking of that is Matt Harrison who described being eight seven five in the fall of nineteen sixty seven and was able to find an Vietnamese North Vietnamese veteran who was there as well. And that's very difficult because they suffered such enormous losses. He said, it was very difficult to find anyone who was in that battle who was still alive, but he did find when Thanh sewn and when tonnes described to us how they got their to that part of the central highlands a month before the battle, and we're told to prepare trenches and bunkers, you know, dissipation of an American attack on this hell, and that they knew that the Americans were going to come to this area, and that they would want to control the high ground and that this hill would be an objective for them. So they were basically lowering the Americans into a trap and they had a month to prepare. And that sounded to me a lot like Peleliu would Jima which is essentially very similar narrative. And this is not. Doesn't happen every day in the Vietnam war, but it happened here and not Harrison was in one hundred and seventy third airborne, and he ended up being part of that battle. And he was absolutely fascinated to find out that we had thought better was his experience. Ben, and what it was like for him. And he he just couldn't get them a bit. So before we end the show today. There's one more person I wanted you to hear from retired air force chief of staff Merrill, mcpeak served in Vietnam where flew bombing missions that were intended to make it harder to move supplies and people along the hokey Mun trail. He's one of the subjects of the Vietnam. War and helped Ken Lynn fact, check the movie I wanted to know if like Matt Harrison, he was curious to exchange messages with the people he fought against his answer surprise me. And I wanted to share it with you. No, no. I have not been back to the home. Like, I say, I'm poor loser. I did go back to Laos. And with my two boys got two grown sons. We rented motorcycles that box which is on the which is in Laos on the may call and wrote up into the forest I spent a week or so looking for the trying to find the hotel men trail, it's essentially gone. The jungle has you know, conquers all and very quickly. So it's hard to find even smallest remnants of that trail up in those forested mountains, and I got to know by heart. But I did not I did not I have not tried to make contact with any any of the my former opponents. I hope they get the message when they see the documentary how much I had Meyer in respected. I'm a professional. No, I didn't go over there as an eighteen year old drafty. I was in my early thirties. A major come in or. Unit commander interprofessional hired gun. I didn't get angry with the people that I was trying to fight. I went and did what the president said to do. So I don't feel an emotional bonding to these guys what I feel is professional respect. And I don't have to go have a beer with them to respect them because I don't want to be friends. Watching these episodes of the Vietnam war. I realize that often thought about the conflict only on the highest level. Most of my thinking about the war was tied up in policy. Questions did the United States really think North Vietnamese hard hardcore communists. Why did we think that a war in Vietnam would require the same skills as fighting conventional battles in Europe, these are important questions? But if they're all you think about you if you the Vietnam war that's dry academic. Knicks -perience of fighting the war was anything, but learning about Mogi Crocker forced me to confront the idea that Americans volunteered to fight the out of a simple, but deep faith in the value public service hearing that Harrison stories about his family's military service suggested that going to a foreign country to fight can be part of a noble tradition rather than almost eight and talking to former air force chief of staff, Maryland peak reminded me that wars a business to the stories of yet Niamey's in American soldiers, especially when you hear them all together mixed the human cost of war impossible to. Ignore. And their experiences are powerful station of the gap between policymakers and the people who have to carry out their decision. Next up. Looks for episode five what Vietnam war Todd America about race. Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoy this, please take some time to rate and review us, an apple podcasts share with friends and family and find this anywhere. You listen to podcasts. And if you want to know more about the documentary, go to Washington Post dot com slash American war and follow me on Twitter at Elissa, Rosenberg this podcast is produced by Carol alderman. And Andrea new Sarah with art direction from Chris Ruben. I'm Elissa Rosenberg this this the American. The American war. You should check out. Some of our other great podcasts like Cape up with Jonathan Cape heart, where Jonathan brings you the voices you need to hear on the topics you try to avoid or try constitutional a series about how people have framed and reframe the constitution over time from host Lillian Cunningham. You can find these shows anywhere you listen to podcasts and learn more online at Washington Post dot com slash podcast. The Washington Washington Post.