Ken Burns’ “Vietnam” series on PBS has attracted a surprising amount of attention in the social media and from left-wing critics. Here’s a hint: If you’re a fan of Salon, Slate, MSNBC or Rachel Maddow, ignore what they say about “Vietnam.” The series is spectacular, bold, honest, tragic, and heart-wrenching. (This is just a wild-ass guess, but I’d wager our so-called president has never seen it and probably would tweet out his boredom if forced to watch a single episode.)
Burns’ rendition of the war is more complete than PBS’s 1983 series, “Vietnam: A Television History” and Stanley Karnow’s 1984 companion book, “Vietnam: A History.” The 1983 version lacked any Vietnamese perspective. This is a tremendous service Burns has provided, narrative from Vietnamese, both North and South, who were involved in the war. Most jarring: A female North Vietnamese soldier who fought in the Battle of Hue in February 1968, says matter-of-factly, “A soldier – an American – appeared near me, just a few feet away. We looked at each other and I dropped him.”
Somewhere in America, a mother and father had guided their son to adulthood, to be a good man, a patriotic man, and then the U.S. military had shipped him to a then-obscure southeast Asian country, where a young woman, desperate for peace and unity and freedom in her homeland, had killed him.
Academic critics give Burns’ effort red marks for failing to emphasize that the United States was actually the aggressor in Vietnam, but it’s a fatuous, bootless observation. University professors should never be asked to critique public media. They require their students to take them by the hand and lead them from thesis statement to supporting argument to cited evidence to conclusion. Burns is nobody’s student. He gets the idea across superbly with the narratives of those who fought as NVA regulars and Viet Cong insurgents.
It is discomfiting to hear the Vietnamese veterans talk about what they suffered for their cause. That discomfort is highlighted by the voices of the Americans who went to Vietnam to fight for freedom and to protect America, only to end up just trying to survive long enough to get home. Family members of those killed would end up on both sides of the protest movements. One woman who lost her brother made his death somehow tenable by protesting against the war; the mother of another man lost told a demonstration organizer she’d kill him if he ever rang her doorbell again.
Vietnam rent this nation as nothing else since the American Civil War, and those who whine that our polarization today is somehow worse either have forgotten or never really knew the deep divides that cleaved America between 1965 and 1975. Burns’ series brings back the reality of those divides. I remember being so frightened about the future than even my parents’ calm assurances couldn’t assuage my fears. I wasn’t afraid of nuclear annihilation, I was afraid that storm troopers in police uniforms would beat me to death because I was curious about the ruckus on a street corner. What was worse was that my father wore a policeman’s uniform, and served proudly and with distinction during that time.
Few things will fuck up a 12-year-old’s mind faster than news film of men dressed like his dad beating defenseless men and women who only want to stop government perfidy. Make no mistake, I idolized my father. He wore a badge and carried a gun. People respected him. He taught me about ethics and honor and sincerity. He was the classic heroic persona, and I have never felt safer than the night I was looking out my bedroom window and he drove down the street in the town’s only police car and shined his spotlight at me. Of all the hugs he would give me later, none made me love him more than that one flash of his floodlight.
And yet, there were those men on TV …
I suppose people who reach the age of Medicare naturally cast back to their childhoods for meaning. My wife tells me I’m trying to reclaim my youth by watching the Vietnam series, but that war defined my childhood, threatened my manhood, caused me to make choices I should never have had to make. I’m obsessed with it because, by all rights, we should have simply enjoyed the freedoms our predecessors bled and died in unprecedented numbers to protect. Instead we were fed the lie that we were somehow threatened by a political/economic system that was unsustainable, and some of our best and brightest were ground up by an insatiable military machine powered by the hubris and machismo of a Texas school teacher.
We baby boomers readily concede that the men and women who won World War II made history while simply doing what everyone believed was their duty. But we’d like a little recognition for the Vietnam vets who believed they, too, were doing their duty, only to realize later that they were sacrificed in one of the worst mistakes in our nation’s history. Their service is no less noble, their patriotism no less pure, for the cynicism of their leaders or the worthlessness of the cause.
On a recent evening, while I watched CBS Evening News footage of members of some Middle Eastern militia, whose name I cannot remember, celebrating their alleged victory over ISIS in a place called Raqqa, I thought about all of those claims of victory in Vietnam a half-century ago.
It is my fond hope that I do not live long enough to see Ken Burns do a 10-part series on the folly of American imperialism in the Middle East.