Sunday, October 01, 2017

Ken Burn's "The Vietnam War"

Like many people we watched PBS every evening over the last week to see the public debut of Ken Burn's Vietnam documentary.  As troubling as it was at times, watching seemed mandatory.  There were two strands of thought going on here...following the events as told and interpreted by Burns and remembering what was being thought by me and my friends at the time.

About 15 years ago I read, or  reread, Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" and was impressed by how explicit the book published in 1955 was about American involvement in Vietnam at that time.  The commitment had already been made.  Though often completely misguided, successive administrations continued the commitment based on a view of geopolitical struggle between communism and democracy.  What Burn's film make extremely clear is that once Nixon became President that mistaken rationale was no longer in play.  The decisions to continue and heighten the carnage made by Nixon and Kissinger was based on almost solely on U.S. domestic political issues.  The extent of that change was not clear at the time, at least not to me.

Another aspect of the documentary was the development of the strategy employed by North Vietnam and their coordination with the Vietcong.  From this perspective at the time and years afterward as well, it all seemed like barely managed chaos on both sides.  The film to some extent reinforced that thought on the American side with the seeming strategy of fighting battles for no clear reason other than to win and highlight the advantage in body counts and then give up the territory gained.  On the anti-American side the film detailed the approach of fighting battles in outlying areas to pull U.S. troops further away from Saigon and other strategic areas in order to stretch the resources and create vulnerabilities.

Above all though, the film highlighted the personal impact that the war had on individuals on both sides and on that small country's society.  It also detailed what all people alive at that time remember as a significant impact on U.S. cohesiveness at home.  From a personal perspective, I remember having moved to D.C. for college in the fall of 1967 and finding only one person in my dorm hall who also wanted to go to the October 1967 demonstration at the mall and Lincoln Memorial.  The other vivid memory was driving back from a rock festival in Florida at the beginning of December 1969 and listening on the car radio to the birthdates of draft sequence being read.  During 1970 and 1971, tear gas was inadvertantly experienced several times, on the Mall, in the Georgetown downtown area, and even on campus.  What a time of chaos and commitment by many.

Burn's documentary brought it back.


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