“… all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” – Viet Thanh Nguyen
After watching “The Vietnam War,” a documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick airing on PBS, I was blown away by the fact that half a century later, Vietnam still bedevils and divides us in a way few events in our collective history and conscience have.
This far-reaching series of 10 episodes running some 18 hours may be initially daunting for the average viewer, but as the documentary written by Geoffrey C. Ward unfolds, it proves compelling and riveting. And yes, necessary.
For those experiencing this contentious and contested history for the first time, Burns has constructed a well-crafted time capsule of American and Vietnamese accounts of the war by eschewing the usual talking heads that populate most documentaries. Instead Burns gives us – through on-camera interviews and archival footage – faces and voices of those who were in the trenches, of families on the home front who also served, and of those who stood up against a war that never seemed to end. Add to this a killer soundtrack from the era as well as original music and soundscapes.
For those who lived through the Vietnam years, Burns and company present all those hot-button events and images with clear-eyed reporting from the Gulf of Tonkin, Buddhist monks afire, napalm and Agent Orange, fragging of officers, the My Lai massacre, the Pentagon Papers, the Tet Offensive, the Kent State shootings, the draft, and antiwar protesters.
Vietnam was for many Americans the first war to be televised. We saw the body count and carnage on the nightly newscasts. For the war’s supporters, these TV images led the American public who initially favored the war to turn against it. The obverse was also true. The American public initially supported antiwar protesters, but later overwhelmingly sided with National Guardsmen’s deadly action at Kent State.
In the book that accompanies the series, Burns and Ward write: “This was a war of many perspectives, a Rashomon of equally plausible ‘stories,’ of secrets, lies, and distortions at every turn. We wished to try to contain and faithfully reflect those seemingly irreconcilable outlooks.” (Burns’ documentary bears favorable comparison to Stanley Karnow’s groundbreaking 1983 miniseries “Vietnam: A Television History,” which also aired on PBS.)
And while the inclusion of Vietnamese in the film’s point of view is to be applauded, the majority of the Americans interviewed are white. Few soldiers of color are part of the film’s ongoing narrative arc despite blacks and Latinos having served in disproportionate numbers. This is a missed opportunity for healing of all our soldiers and families.
Burns previously faced criticism over the absence of Latino World War II veterans in his 2007 series “The War.” This time around, Burns focuses on Mexican-American Everett Alvarez Jr., a former Navy commander and pilot whose plane was shot down in August 1964. He was captured and held for nearly nine years by the North Vietnamese until his release in 1973. Since then the Salinas, California, native has received numerous military honors and a high school, park, and post office named in his honor. Alvarez, now 79, was also featured in the recent PBS documentary “On Two Fronts: Latinos and Vietnam.”
I came of age and served in the military during the Vietnam War. As a teenager, I wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy asking to join the Peace Corps since I was a pacifist. Kennedy never replied. Instead, I soon received a draft notice. My recruiter promised that if I enlisted in the Air Force as a medical corpsman, I’d be saving lives. At 19, I felt it was the best option for serving my country.
Fast-forward to 2017. In a powerful segment, Burns uncovers the awful fact that the Kennedy administration escalated our presence in the “undeclared” Vietnam War to 16,000 “advisors” and later approved the assassination of the U.S.-backed Ngo Dinh Diem’s government in South Vietnam. Some 50 years later, I wept not for myself, but for the other young recruits in my training unit who never returned.
As detailed as “The Vietnam War” is, it isn’t possible to cover every event or issue engendered at the time and in the aftermath. But this film is perhaps the closest thing we will ever have that provides an unvarnished history.
When Burns’ camera takes us to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., the names of more than 58,000 Americans are etched in its dark granite. Missing are the wounded, and those whose lives were irrevocably changed. Ditto the millions of Vietnamese dead.
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In the end, Burns and Novick suggest our healing can be found in reflection and reconciliation. And yet that isn’t nearly enough. As citizens, we bear some responsibility to learn from the lessons of Vietnam. So much of what went wrong there is evident in our continued military presence in parts of the world that have lasted longer than Vietnam or World War II. And like Vietnam, there is no clear path to victory or a negotiated peace.
Those who served in Vietnam and survived need more than reflection and reconciliation. Our Veterans Administration has been cavalier in its treatment of our soldiers. Health issues both mental and physical, post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, and a high rate of suicide among veterans and active-duty soldiers must be addressed now and not later.
To Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, PBS, and those who served, a heartfelt salute for this masterful achievement.
“The Vietnam War” (10 episodes, 18 hours) began Sunday, Sept. 17, on PBS stations and continues nightly at 7 p.m. through Thursday, Sept. 21. Episodes 6-10 will air Sept. 24-28. PBS has provided repeats of both the broadcast version (edited for language and violent images) and the unedited version for adult audiences of the 10 episodes on its website.