The powerful message of this Vietnam memorial

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The Kansas City Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain takes up a city block along Broadway in the popular Westport district, yet to those who pass it by — more than 11,000 vehicles a day — it is either invisible or a mystery. It is set back from the street and partially obscured by landscaping. It does not project an eye-catching shower of power, but a gentle cascade that empties into a large rectangular pool that spills into still more pools. It was not built to dazzle the passersby but to carry a message to generations. These words greet the visitor at the entry:


We knew we had to see this memorial, the one we’ve been driving past for years, after public TV station KCPT aired a stirring short film, “LZ Kansas City,” that it made in support of the 18-hour film “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Using archival footage and the voices of local veterans, KCPT producers Lindsey Foat and Angee Simmons have put together an exceptional little document that everyone, not just Kansas Citians, need to see.

Americans today stand foursquare behind their vets. And the military likes it that way, which explains why it spent more than $100 million on “paid patriotism” at sporting events between 2012 and 2015. So, unless you lived through the Vietnam era, it may be hard to imagine how bitterly Americans felt about the servicemen and women returning from the war.

One vet in “LZ Kansas City” remembers that he stopped getting care packages from his church. Another, John Musgrave (who is featured in the PBS film), recalls coming home and at first wanting to go right back to Vietnam, so disturbed was he by the shift in the public mood.

It would be more than a decade after the war ended that popular sentiment began to shift in the Vietnam vets’ favor. The turning point in Kansas City came in March 1986, as this memorial was going up. In the night someone came to the wall and defaced it with a marker. They drew a swastika over the Purple Heart etched into the stone.

Art Fillmore, the local businessman in charge of the memorial, recalls, “That time when the vandalism occurred is the first time a lot of people would drive by and say ‘Thanks for what you did’ and ‘Welcome home.’” For the first time, he says, the public was able to “distinguish between the war and the warrior.”

That is one of the ideas at the heart of the Kansas City Vietnam Memorial Fountain. The architect, David Baker, himself a Vietnam vet, designed a fountain that empties into a chain of pools, representing the swelling opposition to the war and the nation’s growing commitment of blood and treasure to the conflict.

The pools pass the water down in waterfalls before spilling into two pools that sit side by side — representing the division the war created. Standing at this end of the fountain, you read this inscription:

‘History classes are always comfortably behind’

But putting the focus on the warrior is only part of the memorial’s message. The other part is contained in the closing words of the inscription by the two divided collecting pools: FOR ONLY BY REMEMBERING CAN WE ASSURE THAT IT NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN.

One of the vets you see in “LZ Kansas City” is Patrick McClelland. He’s the one who joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) after hearing John Musgrave speak in 1970. Patrick is my neighbor; his wife and mine have been walking buddies forever. His car has a bumper sticker he made himself, with the logo of the VVAW and the words I LEFT MY GUN IN VIETNAM.

Patrick remembers the Vietnam War all too well. “I can’t quit seeing it,” he said. “If I close my eyes I see it. Last thing I want to do is see it on TV.” He’s not the first Vietnam vet to tell me he can’t watch the Burns-Novick film — but he is glad it exists.

“The movie is much needed because people don’t read books and history classes are always comfortably behind, enough that they don’t have to deal with controversy,” McClelland said. “The thing is, we haven’t learned. That’s the sad part about the inscription you read to me. The American military strategy in its general form makes enemies faster than it kills them. That’s why we haven’t won a war since World War II. We haven’t won in Iraq … Afghanistan … we’re still in Korea, 63 years later.

“The bottom line for me is that Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex, and he was right in spades. Ike was the general. He got generals Gavin and Ridgway in there and said, ‘Can we win in Vietnam?’ And they said no, not unless you drop nukes … And he said, ‘OK, we won’t go there. We’ll keep the CIA there but we won’t go.’ But the rest of ’em didn’t follow.”

Learn more

“LZ Kansas City” (LZ is short for landing zone, a constant reference point during the fighting in Vietnam) is airing on KCPT but available in pieces on YouTube. 

In part 1, anti-communist spirit in KC melts away as its boys start getting their draft notices:

In part 2, we see how protests at the nearby University of Kansas ripped Lawrence apart, with arrests, beatings, and burnings:

Part 3 is about the efforts to memorialize the dead and missing. Surprisingly, the “Berkeley of the Plains” builds a Vietnam memorial in 1986, the same year that Kansas City’s memorial goes up:

These words from KU student body president Lisa Ashner are striking. Imagine someone saying this in 2017 about the long wars the United States is in now:

“The war itself, obviously for this country, isn’t something worthy of honoring … It’s the individual sacrifice, the individual effort, which we’re trying to remember.”

Worth a read: Here’s a story on how the Defense Department made several important policy and PR shifts toward the end of the Vietnam War that put more emphasis on the importance of soldiers. For instance, official personnel were dispatched to visit Gold Star families and give them the awful news, instead of sending a telegram.

Both sides now: Putting the focus on the warrior has had unintended side effects — witness the surge in reunions between American and North Vietnamese combatants in recent years, and the amount of airtime Burns and Novick give to the stories of NVA fighters.

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