Uncle Bardie’s Creator Spotlight: Ken Burns & The Vietnam War

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):

The Vietnam War

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.

Near 500 words: The Eye of the Needle

 

For a thriller to be successful, it must have three things: great writing, great characters and high stakes. Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle delivers on all three.

In his Ten Rules for Writing, Elmore Leonard’s number one no-no is “Never open a book with weather.” Yet that is exactly what Ken Follett does with his spy thriller.

In paragraphs that Hemingway would have been proud of, Follett opens with some really cold weather.

“It was the coldest winter for forty-five years. Villages in the English countryside were cut off by the snow and the Thames froze over. One day in January the Glasgow-London train arrived at Euston twenty-four hours late. The snow and the blackout combined to make motoring perilous; road accidents doubled, and people told jokes about how it was more risky to drive an Austin Seven along Piccadilly at night than to take a tank across the Siegfried Line.

“Then, when spring came, it was glorious. Barrage balloons floated majestically in bright blue skies, and soldiers on leave flirted with girls in sleeveless dresses on the streets of London.

“The city did not much look like the capital of a nation at war. There were signs, of course; and Henry Faber, cycling from Waterloo Station toward Highgate, noted them…”

With those paragraphs that remind the reader of the opening paragraphs in A Farewell to Arms, Follett introduces the reader to Henry Faber. Henry is a German spy, living in England at the start of World War II. He is known by the alias “Die Nadel”, The Needle. From his vantage point, he counts troop movements and other items and transmits them back to Berlin. And Die Nadel is good at his job. Very good.

Professor Percival Godliman is a medievalist. And it is going to take more than a war to get the good professor away from his Middle Ages. Though his uncle is trying to pull him away from his solitary studies and recruit him to help catch spies. Then Percival finds himself in an air raid shelter, huddling with others. He realizes he misses the comradery of being involved in a great cause. So he joins up to become the spy catcher to take Die Nadel down.

Lucy and David Rose are newly weds, heading off for their one-night honeymoon. David is a pilot for the RAF. Then their car crashes into a truck. Rose is fine but David can never walk again. So they retreat to Storm Island off the coast of Scotland. There they can hide away from the world and the war with Jo, their son.

Four years pass with Die Nadle on the run, collecting information for Hitler. Finally he comes upon some information that could change the direction of the war. With Godliman and his people on his tail, Faber and his information must reach a submarine that will take him back to Germany. He steals a boat and runs into a storm and ends up on Storm Island.

Dropping half dead at her doorstep on Storm Island, he finds Rose irresistible. So he lets down his guard. Big mistake. Very big mistake. It will be this housewife who faces down the greatest German spy of the war. The fate of civilization depends on it. And at the end of the novel, we discover an afterward that is quite logical, yet surprising. And not included in the movie.

Though I had seen the movie several times and enjoyed it immensely, the novel went deeper and gave me a fuller picture of how essential it was to catch Faber. I give the novel, and Ken Follett, a big thumbs up.

Not your same old dystopia

the The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood.
320 pages. Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition (March 16, 1998)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel. A good definition of dystopian is a utopia that backfires, thanks to humanity’s ability to screw up any dream. In other words, the more that a group of human beings try to create the perfect society the more they create an imperfect society.

Atwood’s novel is not the first nor will it be the last dystopia. Before her novel, there was 1984Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange. Recently we’ve been given updated reports from the Continent of Dystopia in the form of The Hunger Games and Divergent. I’d say that, if you are looking for a good dystopian novel, Atwood gives us about the best of what can be done with the genre.

And since the novel was published, there have been a movie and a tv series based on the book. I’d advise reading the book before seeing either because there’s so much to be missed that appears as subtext in the novel.

Labels can keep a reader away from a novel that should have a wider audience. And this is true of Atwood’s book. Yes, it can be said that the novel is feminist. Yes, it can be said that it is an attack on the patriarchal system. And yes, it can be said that it is an expose’ of certain fundamentalist religions. The problem is that, when we label a novel these things, we limit the audience for its story.

Offred is not the protagonist’s real name. She was given that name by the theocracy. We never discover her real name. Once upon a time, she lived with her husband, Luke, and her young daughter. Then the United States was overthrown by a theocracy. When the family tried to escape the new order, they were caught. Offred never discovers what happened to Luke or her daughter.

In the society this new theocracy has created, most women cannot have children. Those who have the potential to give birth are set aside as handmaidens (or concubines) for the upper classes. Offred is one of these women.

First she was taken to a re-education school, then she was placed in the Commander’s home. During her most fertile period, the Commander has ritualized sex with her to produce a child.

Atwood has used Orwellian elements in the society. The Eyes are reminders of Big Brother. The taboo against reading and words like grace and freedom are forbidden.

I was struck by how much the society paralleled certain societies these days with their religious police searching for any infraction of the rules. The society of Handmaid’s Tale has ritualized all relationships, using the rituals to prevent relationships. And infractions there are.

It seems that everyone at every level is bending or breaking the rules. The Commander breaks them by having private meetings with Offred and playing Scrabble with her. The Commander’s wife breaks the rules by offering to set Offred up with a sex partner who will make her pregnant because Big C is not up to the task.

It seemed to me that one of the major themes, if not the major theme, of the novel was the loss of intimacy. Women are not allowed to talk to each other, to create friendships. And men are locked into their roles as Commanders, Angels and Guardians. No touching allowed.

With the help of the Commander’s wife, Offred ends up having an affair with Nick, the chauffeur. If they are caught, they will both be punished. Appearing close to the end of the novel, she visits Nick. These lines gave me a sense of this lack of intimacy:

With the Commander, I close my eyes, even when I am only kissing him good-night. I do not want to see him up close. But now, here, each time, I keep my eyes open. I would like a light on somewhere, a candle perhaps…

The people in the society infringe on the rules because they are longing for intimacy, the intimacy of love and the intimacy of friendship. Maybe the loss of intimacy is the real reason behind the society’s sterility.

Atwood’s novel continues to be relevant. These days it is not some religious police that intervenes to prevent intimacy. It is technology. In this sense, Atwood has seen into the future and written a very prophetic novel, as prophetic as 1984, and maybe more so.