Burns and Novick on Viet Nam: The Last Episode

Condensing what we refer to as “the Viet Nam War” into 18 hours must have been an epic editorial challenge — what to include, what to leave out. But the 18 hours carry a huge emotional impact, commensurate with the four presidencies and almost 20 years during which the war was fought. Perhaps that impact is greater for those of us who lived through the era. I remember the news flash announcing the assassination of Dr. King, and was watching TV when Robert Kennedy left the ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel, and then was shot in the head as he exited through the kitchen. I saw the iconic photos of the South VietNamese general shooting a Viet Cong soldier in the head, and the monks burning themselves to death on Saigon streets, and the little girl running naked with burns from napalm, and the Kent State shooting of unarmed students by the National Guard. I remember the draft lottery, and the soldiers shipping out, and the bodies coming home in silver caskets covered with flags. I remember My Lai, and wondering if we’d ever get the POW’s back, and seeing the Viet Nam vets throwing their medals onto the steps of Congress. I learned a whole new vocabulary: fragging… gooks…. rural pacification… “the plumbers”.

Many pundits believe that the disillusionment with government began with Viet Nam, when we learned that presidents lie, that generals demand their underlings make up body count numbers, that patriotism could be defined in entirely different ways. Those of us who believe that the United States is generally a force for good in the world have to contend with the reality that over 2M VietNamese civilians were killed, and approximately 1.35 million VietNamese soldiers on both sides — in addition to our 58,000. We destroyed large swathes of the countryside with Agent Orange, and left unexploded munitions buried in the ground that continued to cause casualties long after we were gone. All that, and we may have been fighting for the wrong side in the war.

We’re supposed to learn from history, and not make the same painful mistakes again.

We have a draft dodger president who makes fun of a genuine war hero, Senator John McCain. We’re saber rattling in the direction of North Korea, and doing our best to destabilize Iran. We’re sending more troops to Afghanistan — even though after 16 years we have to know this is another war we can’t “win”.

Wondering what, exactly, are the enduring lessons that anybody now in power may have learned?

2 thoughts on “Burns and Novick on Viet Nam: The Last Episode

  1. Good summary of what we learned and didn’t. I’ve skipped the last 2 segments, but watched last night. I’m glad they added the after period – the wall, the apology from the female protester, and the lingering effect on our relationships and political stances. Art has recorded it all….not sure how much more I’ll watch. One thing I noticed (with what I watched) – almost all the soldiers they interviewed throughout were white – when Blacks and Latinos disproportionally fought and died. I know there were side programs about the role of these groups, but was this evident in other segments of the series?

  2. for Phyllis: I think your observation is correct. Blog post including it tomorrow. I wonder if the PBS audience is majority white?

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