September 28, 2017

Vietnam War on PBS

Count me among the many who have been riveted to our local PBS channel the past week or so, watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's opus on what we in the US call the Vietnam War.

My generation (born in 1961) did not really have a war. My father's Navy service straddled the Korean and Vietnam conflicts; rumor has it that my mom (Navy nurse) got pregnant with me to avoid going to Indochina. And by the time Desert Storm rolled around I was pushing 30. I did, however, grow up with Vietnam in the background; body counts on the evening news, Nixon (I don't remember Kennedy or Johnson) speaking to the American people. I've got one uncle who served in country and brought back both physical and emotional scars. But for all that, the Vietnam War has colored my world more than any other military conflict.

Social media has pulsed a bit about the documentary. Leftie-liberal friends are grousing about the short segment on Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers; more conservative have renewed their Jane Fonda noises. I'm watching our western privilege that makes this OUR war when the country and the people of Vietnam suffered so much more deeply and grievously in the Resistance War Against America. I don't really have a lot of strong emotion around it at this point, so I'm staying out of such conversations, and appreciating the film for what it is. And quite frankly, it's amazing.
I'm not going to go deep into it, but here are a few snippets that have moved, impressed, and informed me:
  • The French / Colonial background. Solid information that I did not really know or understand. 
  • The government and military aspects of the war from the North Vietnamese side. Ho Chi Minh as freedom fighter and inspirational figure long after he stepped back from military or political leadership; all of those offensives that were, in the short term, huge failures.
  • The government and military aspects of the war from the South Vietnamese side.  
  • The difference between the Viet Minh and the Viet Cong, and the ARVN vs. US forces, way these all interacted throughout the conflict. 
  • All that damn bombing.....understanding when and when and who ordered. 
  • The map, all those place names that have become code for VETERAN / WAR / PTSD in the culture (song, writing, poetry, reference) - understanding their place on the map, their place in the timeline of the war, the cost in lives. 
  • The scheming and dissembling of all of the US presidents - Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. I guess I always saw Nixon as someone who the presidency corrupted, and this film makes it clear he was an SOB from the get-go. 
  • Jane Fonda. I guess I never really knew just how problematic she was (not simply visiting, but the things she said) and how visceral the hatred. Amazing (and unsettling) footage of her time in Hanoi.  
  • Historical figures. John McCain and John Kerry are not interviewed, but their archival footage is there testifying to their experiences and historical significance. 
  • The music. It may not have been my war, per se, but it is my music, and hearing it in temporal context with the historic backdrop is very powerful. Both the context in which the music was written, and the way it was received, interpreted and claimed by those both in country and back home.
But mostly, it's the story of the men (and women) who fought (on all sides), those who had changes of heart, those who were captured, those who were wounded, those who were killed. Heart-breaking in so many ways. And such courage to sit before the camera 40 or 50 years later. 

One last night; I'll be sitting there, rapt. And I suspect I'll be back at it again in the near future - definitely too much here to digest in one viewing. 

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