Watching “The Vietnam War”

We’re halfway through the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick 10-part documentary The Vietnam War on PBS. The war was, for me and millions of others, one of the defining events of our coming of age. Technically I’m a Vietnam era vet, although I did not go over there, but there’s a little uniform ribbon, long since misplaced, to signify that.

A few things have struck me so far about the episodes. First is the secrecy that surrounded the build up. Where I grew up people generally believed what the government told them. Perhaps more interesting, they also refused to believe what the government did not tell them. It’s fascinating to listen to the tapes made by Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon on which they discuss strategies and rationales that were never admitted to the public.

At the beginning of each program the producers list the major funders, among whom is David H. Koch. Yes, the David H. Koch of the Koch brothers. That encouraged me to do a little research, since the Koch brothers are often thought of as ultra-conservative political manipulators, not so much as philanthropists. Turns out Burns and Novick intentionally approached Koch, as well as funders from all political stripes. Similarly, they intended from the start to include perspectives on the war from all sides, including soldiers, supporters, protesters, North and South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, etc. In fact, according to a New York Times article, they deliberately excluded many people you might have expected to see on the episodes:

In approaching the subject, Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick set some ground rules. No historians or other expert talking heads. No onscreen interviews with polarizing boldfaced names like John Kerry, John McCain, Henry Kissinger and Jane Fonda, or anyone with “an interest in having history break the way they want it to break,” as Mr. Burns put it. (The filmmakers met with Mr. McCain and Mr. Kerry for advice early on, and said both were supportive. Some other prominent figures expressed interest in being interviewed, Mr. Burns said, and were politely rebuffed.)

I’ve also noticed that interviewees who were apparently highly placed in the government are identified only by simple service designations (for example, Air Force, Army Advisor, Pentagon). But how else to explain their access to Secretary of Defense McNamara, or knowledge of President Johnson working in the White House basement to personally choose bombing targets?

After four episodes I am more riveted than ever.

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In these partitioned, almost tribal times of animosity and discord, it is my hope that enough people are watching the series that they may remember what it is like to admit there are some common truths, something that binds us as a nation, rather than divides us. Perhaps that was Burns’s and Novick’s purpose in creating the series in the first place.

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3 thoughts on “Watching “The Vietnam War”

  1. I’m enjoying this series, and learning from it. But the cynic in me questions whether or not David H. Koch and Bank of America have influenced the overall tone and narrative. It seems to me the anti-war movement (at least, so far) is given scant attention. There are short videos of black activists like MLK, Stokely Carmichael, and Muhammed Ali, but Bill Zimmerman is the only anti-war activist who’s thus far been interviewed. Alternatively, there’s a plethora of regular Army, Marine, and Air Force veterans reminiscing about their experiences, and the “Mogie” Crocker segments – although you can’t help but feel for his mother and sister – are jingoistic and cloying. Ken Burns wanted to make Vietnam vets the star of this series, which he’s certainly done. But he also wants the series to be a “vaccine” to heal ancient wounds. Not sure he’ll succeed there. The Vietnam War was more than just a “tragic mistake.” It was a criminal act.

    1. Since they’ve only covered up to June 1966, I think we’ll see much more about the anti-war movement, especially in conjunction with the 1968 Democratic convention and Nixon’s presidency. It will be interesting to see how much of the series they devote to retrospection—if the soldiers and officials they talk to regret the decisions they made in support of the war.

  2. I also would be eager to see what they have to say about the anti-war movement, but so far, I’ve missed the segments that were on. I think I just got confused about what night they’re on.

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