To have this documentary come out now, when the divide between left and right is as stark as anything in recent memory, is a sobering reminder that it was much, much worse. Bi-partisanly worse. Economics, world politics, our entire culture was thrown into disarray because of a war that shouldn’t have started and went on for too long. If you haven’t seen this series, maybe you heard about the controversy surrounding one of the opening lines claiming that the war was started by good people with good intentions (an irony for many). But stopping there does this series a severe disservice. Because just like the subject it covers, the truth is very, very complicated.
The Vietnam War is as in depth as you can get with about 18 hours. It ranges from a short history of Vietnam’s colonial troubles with France, through the entirety of the war, and finally the reconciliation between our two countries in the nineties.
What’s inside that stretch is profoundly horrifying.
Like all great Ken Burns documentaries, the truth lies in experience. The men and the women who lived through it. And not just Americans, plenty of Vietnamese (north and south) get to share their lives. They laugh, they cry, they struggle through memories so horrible you will find yourself weeping along with them.
I felt a rage I rarely feel. A rage so deep it put all my current political crises to shame. How horrible was this time period? Both Kennedy and LBJ knew that the war was unwinnable. And yet, spurred by fears of communism they wasted American lives. Yes, I personally believe they were wasted. A generation of young men, cut down for a cause barely definable beyond stop communism. Supporting a regime that can barely be said was better than what the north would impose. Leaders knew this, and kept on playing the game.
It’s hard to call it a war for me. I’ve been referring to it as a genocide. A genocide of the poor and the minority. If rich kids can claim Trumped up cases of bone spurs, poor kids shouldn’t have to be drafted. And this doesn’t even consider the 2 million Vietnamese who died fighting.
Unlike our recent wars, Vietnam tore the fabric of our culture apart. Riots in the streets, vast demonstrations, mass draft dodging (although, more people fled to Canada during WW2 then Vietnam, look it up.) As my dad said, it quite literally looked like the United States was coming apart at the seams. It may have produced the best damn music on the planet, but the dividing lines were very clear. If you don’t support the war, you ain’t American. Two presidents from two parties, Johnson and Nixon, believed that the anti-war protests were being run from Moscow. The fact that we didn’t have another civil war is almost astounding.
Speaking of Nixon, I never knew this, but he sabotaged peace talks before the election to help himself get elected. That man should have been strung up for treason like the bastard he was. This was the era where America learned that their leaders lie to them. And they lie often. And only a healthy dose of skepticism and research can keep it from happening again. (go Mueller).
The Vietnam War is moving, heartbreaking, and soul crushingly honest. From the cruelties of soldiers, to the cruelties of protesters. Ken Burns, as he always does, masterfully balances every terrible aspect. Our past is a reckoning. It is a lesson. When you watch this documentary, you will hope that we all have learned it by now. But you know the sad truth.
4 out of 4 stars.
“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”
-William Tecumseh Sherman