Burns and Novick on VietNam

I recorded the documentary, which began on Sunday night while I was traveling back to Seattle, and I’m a little behind in watching. I’ve just seen the first episode, which talks about the long history of foreign colonial domination in VietNam, the rise of Ho Chi Minh, and the very early strategic decisions by Truman, Eisenhower, and then Senator Kennedy that placed the U.S. on the wrong side of history.

I lived through the VietNam war. I didn’t have brothers subject to the draft, but I had friends, cousins, boyfriends. I remember the monthly lottery draw, and the angst over whether a young man’s number was high enough so he wouldn’t likely be called, at least that month. I remember the dilemma young men felt over whether to go to Canada, or try and get an exemption. I remember the war footage that dominated nightly news, the campus unrest, the spectacle of Johnson and McNamara telling us the war was being won when it didn’t look like that at all.

The first episode of Burns and Novick’s documentary reminds me how hard it is for Americans to get out of our own way and see things as they are in other cultures. Few Americans are multi-lingual, even diplomats who are supposedly experts on the countries they serve. We travel in a cocoon-like bubble of American branded hotels, cruise lines, tour groups. We’re bad at geography and history. We had very little understanding of VietNam’s long suffering under colonial domination, of who Ho Chi Minh was, of how the passion and resilience of a people determined to overthrow foreign invaders could stand up against overwhelmingly superior fire power. Our intervention in what the Vietnamese call “the American war” was tragic for that country, bathing its lush green countryside in napalm and bombs. The war was tragic for us, with wounds that seemingly are yet unhealed.

The timing of the documentary is interesting, as Trump’s bellicose rhetoric celebrates American ignorance of the rest of the world and proclaims our self-centeredness a value. Am I wrong to sense that we’re on the cusp of going down the same destructive path with Iran and North Korea as we did all those years ago in Viet Nam, and for many of the same reasons?


6 thoughts on “Burns and Novick on VietNam

  1. I’ve watched this in parts. Good on history and a vary balanced view, including the Vietnamese perspective. Most telling for me were the interviews with adult men who were young soldiers then. To your point about Americans not having a world view and experience, one man said “I had never traveled before….I saw all the funny-looking people speaking a strange language, eating strange foods….and thought who are all these foreigners.”
    Last night Burns and Novick were on Charlie Rose….catch that show if you

  2. for Phyllis: Will do. Dan Singal has recommended Charlie Rose to me. We Americans so easily slide into assuming that our culture is the norm, and anything else is “less than” and foreign. I read this morning about our ramp up in Afghanistan — sounds pretty familiar. I don’t expect draft-dodger Trump to have any sense of the history, but Mattis and McMaster and Dunford should. What is the matter with these people?

  3. I’ve been watching each night. The first, I was caught off-guard, not realizing how raw many of my own emotions were. I identify very much with the high-school girl, the younger sister of the Mogie who went off to war. My brother, 4 years my senior, enlisted in the Marines at 19 and was probably part of the first wave in Da Nang. I kept finding myself seeing his profile, his carriage in the various movie clips. He was one who came home, but never the same and as so many, never spoke of what he did or saw over there, other than the kitten he adopted and fed. I watched the second episode with my friend Susan. When I heard a voice I recognized, there was her husband, who had died several years ago not long after he was filmed. I believe you’ve met Bob Rheault — Colonel Rheault who had been the head of Special Forces for a period in the late 60’s. I knew he had been interviewed for the production, and we’ve talked at length about his experiences, but more than that, about his work with veterans ever since then, helping men, mostly, come to terms with their experiences. This is powerful but hard to watch and re-live.

  4. I’ve been a Charlie Rose fan for a long time. (He’s a North Carolina boy!) He comes on here at midnight on PBS. Programs are also re-run on Bloomburg channel earlier in the evening – usually 1-2 days after the initial PBS showing. Friday nights are best-of segments from the week. I think you would like him – good, literate discussions, interesting mix of people/guests. He may have one guest for the whole evening or 2-3 segments with a mix of people. Several nights ago he did another excellent interview with Judy Dench about her latest movie on Queen Victoria, along with the film’s director.
    My only complaint is that he’s prone to interrupting too much. If he’s on in Seattle past your bedtime, tape it for daytime watching.

  5. for Jeannie: I was surprised to see Bob Rheault in the first two episodes — would have loved to hear him talk about his take on the war. He bore the brunt of a lot of harsh criticism of Green Beret behavior, and I wonder how he felt about it. I didn’t know your brother was a Marine — which one, Al or Jeff?

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