It’s important to understand the context in which this episode was created. It came out in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and a few years before the Cold War ended around 1991. During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, there were a number of proxy wars that occurred, in places like Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and many others. But whereas the Korean War ended with a stalemate and the Afghan-Soviet War ended with the Russians being forced to withdraw, at the end of the Vietnam War the U.S. withdrew, leaving South Vietnam to be defeated by the communist north. The reason for this withdrawal in 1975 was because the war had become extremely unpopular in the U.S. As a result, returning Vietnam veterans were not welcomed home as they should have been, but they were blamed for the war and badly treated. They were literally called killers, a word Kirk mentions in this episode, and were discriminated against when they went looking for employment. This episode, while not white-washing the war, makes an important effort to honor the sacrifice of U.S. veterans who fought for freedom in the Vietnam War and were all-too-often disrespected by their fellow citizens.
Kirk McGinty has a very simplistic and idealized view of war at the beginning of this episode. He loves the thought of victory, conquest and battle strategy. He dreams of himself as a captain heroically attacking a bunker singlehandedly and of course being victorious. One of the reasons Kirk has a one-sided image of battlefield glory is probably because he is a kid. He doesn’t understand the horrors of war and the impact it has on soldiers. It’s very possible that if Kirk’s father had survived the war he might have sat Kirk down at some point, perhaps when he was older, and explained the other side of war—the pain and the suffering that the veterans witnessed and had to go through themselves. War is traumatic and should not be entered into lightly. On the other hand, Mr. Altman’s simplistic viewpoint is on the other extreme. He believes the war was meaningless and that the death of U.S. veterans was for nothing. He completely ignores the significance of the veterans’ sacrifice and everything they accomplished. He ignores the people they protected and rescued, and everyone who thanked the soldiers for fighting for their freedom. The conflict between Mr. Altman and Kirk on this topic emerges within the first two minutes and the episode is carefully crafted so that over the course of the story both their viewpoints change and reconcile somewhat at the end.
What Mr. Altman says is devastating to Kirk. He says all the soldiers died for nothing. The fact that Kirk doesn’t respond by telling him that his father died in Vietnam speaks volumes about how Mr. Altman’s opinion has shaken him to the core. Suddenly he’s confused about whether he should be proud of his father. And so Kirk never once tells anyone in this episode that his father was a veteran of the Vietnam War. It’s Mr. Whittaker who breaks the news to Connie and then to Mr. Altman. That’s the only way it could have happened. You can’t expect Kirk to stand up and enter into a debate with Mr. Altman right after his beliefs about his father have been attacked. That wouldn’t have made sense for Kirk’s character. And this episode would have suffered greatly if it was consumed by a debate about politics and the merits of the Vietnam War. But this is a story about a boy who has lost his father. It’s an emotionally-touching narrative. Not only does Kirk now doubt that his father died for the cause of freedom, but there’s also the possibility that he was one of the bad soldiers—one of the killers. And that thought is the worst of all. This episode doesn’t get bogged down in arguments but gets straight to the heart of the matter.
According to Kirk, sometimes you have to test the things you believe in. But what a test he had to go through. It’s painful for him and it’s difficult to listen to. You have to give credit to the Odyssey team for doing an episode on this topic, not just because it’s controversial but because it’s deeply sad. Kirk is taken on an emotional roller coaster and the ride is anything but pleasant. But I think it was necessary in order to better understand the complexities of the Vietnam War and to avoid falling into the trap of embracing extreme and simplistic arguments. I liked how as soon as Mr. Aultman learns that Kirk’s father died in Vietnam, he suddenly loses his dismissive and tough outer exterior. He realizes he was taking the completely wrong approach and he opens up to Whit about the death of his brother.
The ending is powerful. I am reminded of a scene in The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis when Digory, with tears in his eyes, asks Aslan if he will cure his sick mother. He looks up to find the Lion has bent his face down near to him and that there are tears in his eyes as well. Aslan says, “My son, my son. I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.” I think a similar thing happens between Mr. Whittaker and Mr. Altman. A relationship of mutual respect and deep understanding develops when they each find out that the other has lost a close family member in the Vietnam War. They haven’t gotten over their pain, but at least they know they aren’t going through it alone. This episode doesn’t give you the full story about the war, leaving it up to the parents to discuss it with their kids. But it makes a good attempt at telling an emotionally powerful narrative. This episode gets 4 out of 5 stars.