When Ken Burns’ much-anticipated 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War premieres in September, viewers will see the face of Baldwin City resident John Musgrave.
Musgrave, a Vietnam veteran who turned into a war protester and then an acclaimed poet, is featured in the Burns film. But for Musgrave, who has already seen a screening of the film, his face isn’t the one that stands out.
“It is hard to watch that footage and not see your buddies,” Musgrave said. “Even though it is not them, it looks just like them. They are in the same gear, and doing all the same things.
“I thought a lot about my friends and remembering how many of them are still 18 or 19, and will be forever.”
I have introduced you to Musgrave before. I wrote a story back in 2013 called “A poet warrior fights to tell story of Vietnam.” In that article, Musgrave was kind enough to tell me his wounds of war. He used a phrase that sticks with me as much as any I’ve ever heard in an interview: “It was an intimate ambush.”
That’s Musgrave’s way of saying that the man who shot him was about six feet away from him. In the jungles of Vietnam, Musgrave found himself in a familiar situation. He was a member of the 1st Battalion 9th Marines, an infantry unit that took such heavy casualties in Vietnam that it gained the nickname of “The Walking Dead.”
A hell of a cool nickname, as long as it is someone else’s.
The nickname was only partially appropriate for Musgrave on that 1967 day. Musgrave wasn’t walking anymore, and he had become something even worse than a dying soldier. He was bait. The enemy machine gunner who had shot him now was shooting the Marines who were coming to get him. Two of the men in Musgrave’s unit — buddies — already had been killed trying to reach him.
Two more men did reach him. They carried him back, and “even though they knew I was going to die and I knew I was going to die,” they would cover his body with theirs as they stopped and returned fire as they fought their way back to safety.
I wrote about Musgrave in 2013, in large part, because I had heard he was in the running to be included in Burns’ Vietnam documentary. After I heard the story of the “intimate ambush” and the heroism that went into saving him, I thought he was a shoo-in to be included in the documentary. The sacrifice, the commitment, the brotherly love. To me, it was one of the greatest stories I had ever heard. To Musgrave, it had a different meaning.
“That,” he said simply, “happened every day in that war.”
But Musgrave did make the cut. I haven’t seen a screening of the film, so I can’t say with certainty what Musgrave’s role is in it. But it sounds pretty significant. Musgrave has gotten a national book deal out of the film. He has written his autobiography and the giant publishing house Knopf is scheduled to release the book — working title “The Education of Corporal John Musgrave” — near the premiere of the documentary or a bit after it.
Musgrave said Burns — whom he never met but rather talked with on the phone — personally assisted in Musgrave getting the book deal. Musgrave said the experience of working on the film “blew him away,” although he admitted it often was difficult.
When I asked him what emotions he had when he viewed the film, he answered without hesitation: “I remembered a lot of fear.”
That fear didn’t stop once he exited the jungles. Musgrave, who grew up in the Kansas City area, came to Baker University in Baldwin City after spending about two years in military hospitals. It was at Baker that he began writing poetry. The alternative was to kill himself. Eventually, he ended up writing a poem titled “Notes to the Man Who Shot Me.”
“The poetry came about when I realized I had to negotiate a cease-fire with myself,” Musgrave said.
Many Lawrence residents still remember Musgrave from the early 1970s when he became an active protester to end the war. Musgrave said he opens up in the film about “making the painful decision that I had to do something to stop the war.”
Painful may be the right word to describe much of this.
“The war was an American experience and an American nightmare,” Musgrave said. “It is tragic that something that meant so much to so many of us — we gave everything we had — is now considered by most Americans to be a mistake or a nightmare. It is not much of a legacy.”
But Musgrave said he’s grateful for the film, and he thinks most Vietnam veterans will be too.
“It was an extraordinary piece of history,” he said. “It deserves to be remembered, and with an open mind and an open heart. And it will be now. It is a Ken Burns documentary. It will live long after any of us. I think this will be our legacy.”
Musgrave is hopeful the film will make an even bigger impact with those who weren’t involved with the war. That number is considerable, even for those who lived through it. Musgrave said the war was mainly just a nuisance for many Americans. They or their loved ones weren’t waging it, and they weren’t protesting it. For many, the war was largely just a scene on the evening news that made for some discomfort at the dinner table.
He hopes the film will open some of those eyes. But Musgrave particularly hopes it will cause Americans to think about the wars that America continues to fight. There are still U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. There are still soldiers who have returned from Iraq or elsewhere trying to negotiate their own personal cease-fires.
“We have a forever war once again,” Musgrave said. “It just seems to go on and on. Once again, America is pretty unaffected by it. The people who are serving are mostly the same kids who served in Vietnam — working class and poor. The upper class has next to no involvement in this. They aren’t troubled by it. They are just looking at their stock returns.
“I think people will see a lot of similarities. Hopefully, they will take away from this what Vietnam veterans have been telling them since this started: Don’t confuse the war with the warrior. We should never confuse the gift that these young men and women give us with the politics that started this war.”
A story of war, politics, division, apathy. I wonder what faces we will see when we watch this film.
One quick but important side note to this story. When I wrote about Musgrave in 2013, he was active with a group of other Lawrence residents who were meeting at Bigg's BBQ on a monthly basis with wounded warriors from the First Infantry Division that is based at Fort Riley.
The Vietnam veterans would talk through issues of returning to civilian life with the wounded soldiers. Burns’ crews filmed segments on that group too. Musgrave said they didn’t make the cut for the 18-hour, 10-part miniseries, but he said he’s been told the interviews will be part of the bonus footage available in the DVD set. So there may be some other area faces you’ll see as part of that.
What you won’t see, however, is a continuation of the get-togethers at Bigg's BBQ. Musgrave said the program ended several years ago. Musgrave said he’s not sure about all the reasons why, but the Army simply stopped cooperating and would no longer bring the handful of soldiers interested in the program to the meetings. The ending of the program coincided with some changes in command of First Infantry Division and its wounded warriors barracks.
“We never received an explanation from the Army,” Musgrave said. “We were told otherwise, though, that the new command’s philosophy was that the Army could handle its own problems.”
To be fair, I don’t know if that is the reason why the Army stopped the program, or whether it was budget cuts or something else. I’ve got a call into an official at Fort Riley to try to learn more. Regardless, Musgrave isn’t convinced that official Army programs are always the best way for soldiers to deal with such issues.
“I know the men we were dealing with did not trust the Amy’s programs that were connected to their commands,” Musgrave said. “They said they knew there were reports being made about their progress or their lack of progress. They knew when they met with us that it wasn’t going any further than us.”
The discontinuation of the program bothers Musgrave greatly. When I interviewed Musgrave in 2013, he shared a mindset that is perhaps difficult for nonsoldiers to understand: When you give up on the future, you become a much better combat soldier.
“The future is a pipe dream,” he told me then. “That is how you had to operate in the bush. You couldn’t be a good Marine if you believed in the future.”
But that lack of a belief in the future almost killed Musgrave when he tried to navigate civilian life at Baker University. Or as Musgrave puts it: “It is tragic when you realize how many warriors could survive combat but couldn’t survive peace.”
“Now,” Musgrave said this week, “we just have to hope those soldiers have found something else that is helping them.”
If I hear additional information from the Fort Riley official, I’ll let you know.
UPDATE: I did hear back from Patti Geistfeld, a public affairs specialist at Fort Riley. She said she did not have information about that specific program and its demise. However, she said it was the type of program that would not have been funded with government dollars, but rather would have been funded through a private donation or perhaps just the donation of a staff member's time. As people come and go, sometimes those programs fade away as a result, she said.
UPDATE: Well, Ken Burns fans, don't plan on getting the famed filmmaker to autograph your PBS pledge card just yet. I got in touch with an assistant for the film recently, and it turns out Burns won't be able to make the trip to Lawrence after all. But a crew and the co-director of the Burns project will indeed be in Lawrence as reported below.
A documentary film crew will be at Biggs BBQ, 2429 Iowa Street, tomorrow to film a group of veterans who regularly meet at the restaurant for fellowship and reflection. The crew works for famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, but despite earlier indications and rumors, it appears Burns himself will not be coming to Lawrence.
It sounds like the Lawrence group is particularly intriguing because it includes some Vietnam veterans, as well as current soldiers and veterans of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My understanding is that Burns' crew is filming the documentary for PBS, but the film likely won’t air until 2016.
Doug Holiday, owner of the restaurant, said Biggs will be closed for lunch on Tuesday to accommodate the filming.
The filming will wrap up a good week for Biggs. Although I didn’t see it, my understanding is the restaurant was briefly featured on ESPN’s GameDay coverage when it was in town on Saturday. The restaurant was hired by the network to roast a pig, in order to provide the broadcast a little local flavor.