Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Creator is Ken Burns and his magnificent 10-part documentary series, “The Vietnam War” (2017):
By Geoffrey C. Ward & Ken Burns 637 Pages Publisher: Knopf September 5, 2017
It seems to be ancient history now. But it’s only forty-four years since the fall of Saigan when the last Americans left. Ken Burns in his ten-part documentary and his book with Geoffrey Ward have parted the curtain that divides then and now. And America left behind a country and a war that costs the lives of over fifty-eight thousand Americans and three million Vietnamese. And countless others who were injured and crippled.
Unlike his other series, this is a series about a disaster. And Ken Burns reveals just how much of a disaster. A disaster that lasted for twenty years from 1955 – 1975. Why didn’t the United States just have the good sense to get the hell out?
First of all, it was over dominoes. President Eisenhower believed that if Vietnam fell to the communists of North Vietnam, it would be the first of a series of Southeast Asian countries–Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, maybe even India–to fall to communism like dominoes.
Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon knew that it was a no-win proposition. So why didn’t they just get out? Because they didn’t want to be the first Presidents to be straddled with losing a war. And the generals were like the generals of World War I. They didn’t have a strategy to win.
Without a strategy to win, their mantra became “More. More. More.” Give us more troops. More toys. More time. We’ve got this devil under control. Till we had a half million troops in Vietnam and had spent billions, almost bankrupting the country. And the American people said, “Enough is enough.”
If the American strategy was “More,” the South Vietnamese strategy was “leave us the hell alone.” Just give us the support we need to win what we see as a Civil War. For the North Vietnamese, it was a war of national liberation. They had kicked out the French. And they were intent on getting the “Yankees” to go home. Their strategy to accomplish this was “Adapt. Adapt. Adapt.”
Ken Burns begins his story with Ho Chi Minh. In 1919, before he was a communist, he went to the Paris Peace Conference, asking that Vietnam be independent. Mostly his request was ignored. Only the French commented and their comment was “No.”
From then on, he gives us a narrative filled with primary sources and interviews from all sides. From American diplomats and decision makers. From Americans who served in Vietnam. From the journalists who covered the War. From the anit-war protesters. From the South Vietnamese who lived and fought it. And from the North Vietnamese. And like Ken Burns’ document series of “The Civil War”, the viewer–and the reader—get a perspective of the War we may never have had if Burns had not tackled it.
I had not seen the series when it first appeared on PBS. I wasn’t ready to grasp the confusion, the horror, the divisions of the War. Recently I’ve been working on a Sixties project for work, and I thought it was time I made the effort.
In the past, I have only watched the Burns’s series. This time I thought it might be a good exercise to read the book while I watched the series. I am glad I did. Much of the book was the same as the documentary. But there were times when the documentary presented things that weren’t in the book and vice versa for the series.
For instance, the Tet Offensive was covered in depth in the documentary. But the narrative of the Offensive in the book made much more of an impact.
So I highly recommend that this exercise be tried. Not only for the Vietnam War, but also for other Burns series.
It was a process that took me a month. At the end of the whole process, I walked away from the War with four feelings. The first was I wanted to know more. The second was a feeling of tremendous sadness. A third, the impact of the Wall in Washington, DC, not only on the veterans and their families. But also on the anti-war protesters.
One of the lessons that came out of the series, for me, was the veterans from both sides who had forgiven their enemies. It made me realize that there is only one way forward. it is not hate that will save us all. It is friendship and forgiveness.