The parallels between the Vietnam War and our “war” against Covid-19 are eerily similar, only we’ve not had our own Walter Cronkite net it out.
A war we watched on TV
Back in 1968, the war was something most Americans watched on TV. Journalists spent their time in Saigon and received their stories from daily government briefings, which sometimes included footage shot in the field (after battles, not during them) and highlighted the statistics of dead and wounded that as the metric for the war’s progress.
I remember watching those newscasts during dinners with my family and my mom often getting emotional when she thought of her two sons in the footage (we were still a few years from draft age), and many others were agitating for a change in policy.
But, like the war, American opinion was somewhat at a stalemate. It was a show most people watched on TV before tuning into The Red Skelton Show.
Then, early that year, the North Vietnamese launched its Tet Offensive, which took the war to the streets of Saigon. Images of civilians fleeing the fighting appeared on the newscasts — it was impossible to ignore — yet President Johnson continued to report to the American public that many more Viet Cong were killed for every US solider who lost his life.
“I thought we were winning the war,” CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite supposedly said before he flew to South Vietnam to see things for himself.
Cronkite was no critic of the government; he’d dutifully delivered its prognostications unchallenged and was considered an objective, trusted voice of reason by his faithful viewers. President Johnson was deeply suspicious of the media and believed reporters had a bias to undercut him whenever a news report even implicitly challenged the notion that the war was going along swimmingly, and Cronkite was no exception. But there’s no evidence that Cronkite had any agenda beyond accurate reportage.
In a one-hour broadcast on February 27, 1968, he reported that he couldn’t independently confirm if there’d been a winner or loser in the Tet Offensive. Without using any images of the brutal war, he nevertheless delivered a conclusion and the end of his broadcast, which he qualified as his subjective opinion, that was shocking to many:
“[I]t seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate . . . [I]t is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
Johnson is said to have watched a tape of the broadcast and commented “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” The Presidential election followed, and America began its slow retreat from the conflict (nearly 20,000 American soldiers would lose their lives, almost a third of all deaths, before the war ended in 1975).
The Covid-19 show
Like the Vietnam War, Covid-19 has unfolded as a TV show about some distant time and place. Sure, most of us have been stuck at home and many of us have suffered, but the reality of the pandemic — the people it affects directly and our collective response to it — is a far away war. Invisible, even.
We’re being fed numbers by the government intended to prove that we’re winning because of our testing numbers, and told that sending kids back to school is necessary (echoing requests for hundreds of thousands of new troops to be thrown into the war in 1968). We don’t really see the actuality of the combat, either, because hospital rooms are protected by health and privacy regulations.
So, we’re left to our own conclusions about the show, which has led some to refute it and others to refashion it as a show about their politics or individual rights. President Trump, like Johnson before him, sees it as a show about his own political survival, not the life and death of the people he was sworn to protect.
There are notable differences, too: We have no obvious Walter Cronkite talking to us every evening; instead, a slew of talking heads fill cable stations, talk radio, and the Internet with every twist and turn imaginable, making their reactions part of the show and not a commentary on it.
News has a half-life of a nanosecond these days, unlike the time when it might take many hours for reactions to get published. People had time to contemplate things for a bit, whether or not they liked it.
Oh, two more differences: Almost three times as many Americans have died in the war on Covid-19 versus casualties in the Vietnam War, and there aren’t mass protests in the streets over its conduct.
Where’s our Cronkite?
Imagine the pandemic’s resurgence these past few weeks as our Tet Offensive, and our valiant hospital and public health people fighting to tamp it down.
It needs to be clear to everyone that we’re not winning this war; at best, we’re looking at a stalemate that we can hope to perpetuate as we send our kids into schools, our millennials back into bars, our faithful back to their pews, and our workers back to their jobs.
And then the temperatures will fall, the seasonal flu will return, and the war will continue. Even the promise of a vaccine sometime in 2021 may not end it, or address the lingering health problems the pandemic’s survivors may experience.
Enough with the statistics and declarations intended to confuse or buttress a political position. I’m done with otherwise normal people equating wearing a mask with slavery or genocide, or confusing the inane confusion of their inner worlds with the reality around us.
I’m tired of yelling at the Covid-19 TV show when people say things that are patently misleading or untrue, and then nobody asks the most glaringly obvious “WTF?” questions.
We need a Covid Cronkite to report from the front and tell us what’s going on.
I just don’t know who it could be, or whether everyone could hear what she or he had to say.