Years ago I read two of the best books ever written about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War – “The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam and “A Bright Shining Lie” by Neil Sheehan.
Both examined the decisions that led the United States into that dreadful conflict and the misguided conduct of the war at the highest levels. They both only reinforced my own long-held opposition to the war.
A veteran myself, I’ve always been mortified by the toll Vietnam took on young Americans, who were truly the best and the brightest; more than 55,000 of them are immortalized on a sacred wall in the nation’s capital.
This week I’ve been watching the most gripping and complete TV documentary about war, Ken Burns’ 10-part PBS series, “The Vietnam War.”
The series, which runs a total of 18 hours, took 10 years to make and cost about $30 million.
It includes interviews with several Vietnam veterans, on both sides, and some of the top generals and policy-makers on both sides. There is, as well, raw, rarely seen video of key battles.
Burns, in interviews given before the airing of the series, noted that the war’s polarizing impact on America had given us “a kind of historical amnesia about Vietnam” and compared the war to “an amputated limb that still itches, still aches.”
I haven’t seen the entire series – the final episode airs Sept. 28 – but so far I’ve been impressed with its even-handedness.
It shows atrocities on both sides and makes few judgments in a war that was so gruesomely violent.
And it gives a logic, often forgotten, to our entry into Vietnam – to protect democracy (and Christianity) in the South when the French abruptly departed after a disastrous defeat by the Communist North at Dien Bien Phu.
In the beginning, we sent civilian and military advisors but fears of the domino effect of a Communist victory ultimately gave American policy makers a rationale for sending in more and more Marines and soldiers.
The series points out often that while South Vietnam and the Americans fought for democracy, Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam fought more for independence than Communism.
A corrupt and intransigent South Vietnam did not help the cause – nor did the growing opposition to the war in the United States.
As one perceptive North Vietnamese speaker put it: “Clearly, South Vietnam was more democratic, but in such a violent struggle, the side whose soldiers had fewer doubts and asked fewer questions would win.”
In a New Yorker interview, Burns said he had no idea how the series would be received.
“After `The Vietnam War’ I’ll have to lie low,” he said. “A lot of people will think I’m a Commie pinko and a lot of people will think I’m a right-wing nutcase, and that’s sort of the way it goes.”
I hope he’s wrong about those two options.
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.