By Chas Henry
NEW YORK — The documentary series The Vietnam War, which premieres September 17 on PBS, proves that things can become clearer with time.
Clearer 67 years after the first US military advisors showed up in French Indochina.
Clearer 42 years after the fall of Saigon.
Clearer, even, 10 years after filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick began researching a war over a divided Vietnam that divided America.
As a young Marine in the just-postwar mid-1970s, I gained ground truth about the Vietnam conflict from older Marines — many still in their 20s and 30s. I plowed through first-person tactical accounts: Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, and James Webb’s Fields of Fire. Continued reading over the years, and a lifetime of oral history conversations with vets of the conflict, filled in pieces of the Vietnam War story.
Having had the opportunity to binge on a review copy of the new documentary series, though, I’ve watched it all and it has boosted my understanding by orders of magnitude.
In large measure, this is because the producer’s approach blows up the simplistic notion that there are only two sides to a dispute whether it be among nations, politicians, military leaders, or parts of civil society.
The series includes intimate recollections from men and women who served in the US military, their family members, former North Vietnamese soldiers, South Vietnamese who fought for and against the government in that part of the divided nation, and Americans who actively opposed the war. All speak in the context of now more completely comprehending the various effects of their actions.
Watching The Vietnam War, one begins to understand the “disparate wars” experienced by Americans based on their branch of service, when they served, and where — and on prevailing cultural circumstances in the US at that time.
The complex political situation in Vietnam at the time of the war becomes clearer including impacts of the victors of World War II separating the nation in two, influences of a colonial past, and issues related to religious and class diversity in the nation. As importantly, the film series delves into the various views Americans held about the war — for and against it — and the impact of other cultural forces on those views.
Key to the documentary’s contribution to our understanding is its use of historical materials only recently available most importantly, audio recordings of telephone conversations of US presidents who began and grew the scale of military involvement in Vietnam. They make clear the degree to which presidential campaign politics determined decisions effectively extending the war — even after many top national leaders had determined that strategic success was unlikely. Their “politically pragmatic” conversations can be infuriating — in historical retrospect — when understanding the resultant death toll spikes.
A key historical epiphany for me was learning — from former North Vietnamese soldiers interviewed for the film — that the two men most Americans has long assumed were leading enemy forces — Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnamese Army General Võ Nguyên Giáp — had actually been politically marginalized during much of the war by an obstinant North Vietnamese communist leader named Lê Duẩn.
Watching The Vietnam War can be emotionally draining, particularly for those who lived through the conflict, experienced personal loss, and recall the social disruption of the period. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick say they hope their detailed, multi-voiced retelling of this war story can rekindle and revise conversation about the war — and that the discussion will be healing. The latter goal is a tall order, though its likelihood is increased by the historical clarity their production offers.