Homework for a Nation: ‘The Vietnam War’

VietnamBurnsThere is something undoubtedly daunting about “The Vietnam War” (PBS, 8 p.m., check local listings), the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick epic that begins the first of its 10 episodes tonight.

The sheer weight and depth of 18 hours — presented night after night over two weeks — makes it seem burdensome as homework (There won’t be a ribbon or certificate of completion at its end, however).

The relentlessness of it cannot be compared to the conflict itself, of course, but the fact it grinds on creates its own metaphor for endless war.

The subject itself is something Americans have been avoiding — it’s the first point made by the first soldier interviewed for the epic: Nobody talks about it.

As with most history, it’s important to examine what happened to help guide us in the future. That’s especially so with a campaign that went so wrong for so long. The parallels of muddling through a war with no picture of what a victory would look like are examples of seemingly endless U.S. conflicts of today.

And as comprehensive as the approach may be, it’s with a heavy heart to sit down and engage another chapter, presented chronologically, except with some cut-in reminiscence from Marines in the field.

It was Burns’ opus “The Civil War” that created a sensation nationally when it was first broadcast 30 years ago, bringing to the fore the details of the event that still defines the country in many ways (especially this summer). The individual stories, read from personal letters, and the sadly patriotic dirges undercoating them went beyond emotional tugs to deep-seated national trauma being reintroduced.

In “The Vietnam War,” the sound of the banjo has been replaced by the helicopter blade, whirring endlessly as it had in “Apocalypse Now” or any number of Vietnam films. The well-chosen spokesmen tell their personal stories (or their letters are read in the case of the deceased) but historians by and large are not interviewed on screen; nor are ranking officials of the day, aside from period news film.

What slams things into cosmic context are the interviews from Vietnamese — soldiers from the north, ex-Viet Cong from the South, and those who allied with Americans in fighting both of the above. They had their own point of view and were, as some soldiers slowly realized, humans too. More than that, this was their country. Americans were there just to see that the government became one of our liking. It was poisoned thinking from the start, a leftover of Cold War mentality and the idea that America could do no wrong and could never lose.

More difficult than Vietnamese points of view for some viewers will be the depiction of the antiwar movement, one that grew so large the government could no longer ignore it. Burns hopes to heal the historic cultural rift that the war helped create — and comes close in the concluding chapter of the Vietnam War Memorial and all that it dredged up.

But that is a dream. The delightful footage in “The Civil War” of the Union and rebel soldiers shaking hands after 75 years is less likely now than it was in the 1920s – partisans now square off over Confederate states in the town square.

And some of the Marines presented aren’t anywhere near the point of forgiving antiwar demonstrators even though they’ve come to the same conclusions (if only to themselves) about a bad war, fought too long for no good reason.

Perhaps this is one of those films that will be seen through the lens of the individual viewer. Some may tune in and see nothing but valor. But every turn, especially in the first week’s historical footing that led to the endless expansion of the war, it seems clear that there were so many points at which withdrawal was possible and even logical, starting when the French did so themselves in the 1950s.

So far, for me, there seems to be a revelation in every episode, and tonight’s excellent introduction begins in the 19th century with early colonization of the country by the West and follows the story of Ho Chi Mihn, presented as a philosopher, who visited the U.S., was once a baker in Boston and sent a letter to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles after World War I to end French colonial rule of Vietnam.

The release of recordings of LBJ and Robert McNamara are especially illuminating, as the realization hat there was no way to possibly win the war was instilled long before the ignominious withdrawal from Saigon in 1975.

Much of the 60s era music has a special resonance: Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall” portends to the long slog; there are a lot of songs from Pete Seeger; the Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn” rings especially true, and there is a fascinating way that some of Paul Simon’s songs, from “Sounds of Silence” to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” are extended in long and effective piano codas.

While Peter Coyote’s narrative style had rubbed me the wrong way previously — too shouty in his reading of Geoffrey Wolf’s declarative sentences in things like “The Roosevelts” and “The National Parks” — it seems just right here. These truths need to be shouted declaratively.

And though there needs to be some discussion of what seem to be added (or at least super-amplified) sound effects added to the reels of news footage at the time, the documentary style is straight-forward (though the battle by battle details get about as wearying as they must have been at the time).

There is a fascinating thing that happens early in tonight’s film, when every terrible image from Vietnam that’s been burned in our brains — the bombings, the burning of villages, the crashing of helicopters — are shown in reverse: bombs ascending up from the destruction, which folds up; people getting up after having been mowed over; bullets returning to barrels.

Would that it could happen like this. But going back and examining every wrong turn is one way to help our own reversal of such action to insure similar invasive wars don’t happen in the future (or if they do, soldiers spent a little time trying to understand the culture into which they are dropping).

I don’t think there will be a national moment of confronting history, as might have happened with “The Civil War” (or was it just me?). People are too scattered today. Attention spans are toast. The President will only look at reports that are one page long.

If people take the time to take it all in we may learn something about ourselves and our country that will be helpful in the future (interestingly, the online streaming version of the series will be available in Vietnamese in addition to English and Spanish).

But I’m afraid not that many people will. There are so many other distractions (tonight alone: football and the Emmys).

“The Vietnam War” will be around, though, long enough for generations of students to be required to study it. As homework.

 

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