What the 18 hours of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War were was exhausting. I kept wondering about the demographics of the viewers. How many young people were watching this? Was the audience only aging Baby Boomers? Somebody must know. As usual in Ken Burns’ projects it was as much human interest as history. Indeed, if you didn’t already know a lot about the history of the Vietnam war, you wouldn’t be able to fill in the roughshod way Burns and Novick raced through those years. But, unfortunately, their project will become history, since it will be watched by a generation that prefers watching over most anything else.
Here are some odd things it would be helpful for watchers to know: Speaking of the friction college students felt when they were “ranked”, grade-point averages implied, in order to retain student deferments. Ranking drew protests, but, unmentioned, it was the “Selective Service Qualification Test” that was administered widely and was given preference. I took it in the spring of 1966. If you scored high enough you didn’t lose your 2-S deferment.
Social scientists, then as now, worked with the military to arrange their own Darwinian methods for selecting soldiers to be. Now, it is torture that occupies them, then the draft.
The narration mentions that “banks” were bombed. It didn’t mention the radicals favorite targets were branches of the Bank of America, since it is one of the film’s major backers. The Weathermen were said to have blown up a statue of “six policeman.” It would be helpful to know that statue commemorated the Haymarket Riot, where seven, not six, policeman were killed, and the statue itself only featured one policeman, with his arm raised in an unfortunate position, presaging the Nazi salute some three decades down the road. The gathering at the Haymarket Square in Chicago was supporting the 40 hour week back in May of 1886. It eventually became the rallying point for May Day celebrations around the world, honoring workers, but not in the U.S.
In an early episode, Benjamin Spock is mentioned writing about children injured by napalm, but no mention of the Boston 5 trial in Boston in 1968 where he was a defendant because of anti-draft activity. There is, I suppose, a reason the series is called The Vietnam War. The war predominated and there was very little of the anti-war movement and its offshoots. There are other documentaries on the anti-war movement, but none got, or get, the play Burns and Novick’s has enjoyed.
There were other lapses. The documentary’s talking heads were barely identified. One of the most egregious was John Negroponte, notorious for his work in Central America. Wherever Negroponte went, death squads sprang up. To say the least, no one speaking was saddled with a full biographical notation. Most just were ID-ed by their affiliation: “Army”, “Air Force,” etc.
As was Tim O’Brien, who gets the documentary’s last word, which was “endured.” He was reading from his short story, “The Things They Carried.” Given all the horror that was covered, Burns and Novick seem to privilege endurance over all, the humanity of the ordinary person, despite all the evidence to the contrary. What was interesting was the coverage and the unstated linkage of that war with the present day. Especially, the foreign involvement presidents partook in: Nixon, primarily, getting the South Vietnamese to delay peace initiatives until after Nixon’s election. Reagan running against Carter did the same thing with the hostages in Iran, not released till after Reagan’s inauguration, though back channels, arranged by his old OSS and CIA buddy, Bill Casey. And, of course, The Donald and the Russians.
And, it was illuminating the difference between the Oval Office tapes of LBJ and Nixon. LBJ’s did seem to be used in the service of history, whereas Nixon’s were in the service of the prosecution and his removal. There was a lot that was illuminating. Such as the numbers. Over 300 thousand Chinese going to Hanoi to free up a like number of Vietnamese to carry on the war. The amount of war material supplied by the Soviets and the Chinese. Higher-up North Vietnamese sending their children to Europe for education during the war, avoiding their own sort of draft. Burns and Novick are after, it seems, all sorts of equivalencies. The Americans were heroes, the North Vietnamese were heroes. Its their kind of history, remaining sunny even during the slaughter.
Almost no one seems to think the war was a good idea, though there are some who seem to think we could have done it better. When we cut and ran out of Saigon is portrayed as a stain of sorts, how the South Vietnamese were better allies than we were and there is a tinge of regret, as if we somehow should have found a way to “win”. There was no winning, though it is implied the hope was always for some sort of South Korea solution. Yes, we should have remained in South Vietnam forever, as we seem to be heading to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan forever, is the import. The plea heard occasionally in the series was that they – the South Vietnamese – would tell us to leave. And that would have been peace with honor. Ah, yes, it is pretty to think so.
Back in the day, I thought the war was fought for all the usual reasons, natural resources, strategic location, Cold War ideology, etc. But, it is most ironic, and not covered by the film makers, that nearly 60 thousand Americans were killed, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, so Ralph Lauren and Nike and other apparel and shoe manufacturers could have access to cheap labor. No one in the anti-war movement, no matter how cynical, ever offered that as a reason for the war. The only other thing, the only positive thing, it seems to have created was the growth of Vietnamese immigrants, and the younger generation of Vietnamese-Americans. But it is still impossible to be thankful for that war for any reason.