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Ken Burns' "Vietnam" Really Worth the Time & Effort


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#1 Bill Cross

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Posted 20 September 2017 - 08:11 PM

I have made it through the first three episodes of the Ken Burns new documentary on the Vietnam war. Naturally, air power played a MAJOR role in the conflict, both tactically with close air ground support and strategically with bombing in the North. Unlike many of his earlier series, this one is told primarily with movie images, and the quality of film is outstanding. There are many clips that I have never seen before, as well as EXTENSIVE footage from the other side.

 

The best part of the series, however, IMO is the access to voices from the North and the Viet Cong, as well as South Vietnamese who fought with the US (and sometimes complicated US efforts to defeat the Communists). Americans aren't so different from most people, tending to reduce the war to simple "we could have won/it was unwinnable" dichotomies that ignore the plain fact that IT WAS A CIVIL WAR. The lack of those voices at the time we decided to intervene (despite the failures of the French and against the advice of many) made us commit some egregious and serious blunders; without those voices now, any real or deep understanding the war is simply impossible.

One salient example is the attack known as LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley which was documented in the outstanding book We Were Soldiers Then... And Young by journalist Joe Galloway (who was present) and General Hal Moore, who commanded two battalions of the 7th Air Cav. Both the book and the subsequent movie with Mel Gibson focus on the American soldiers fighting for their lives against what turned out to be a much-stronger force of VC and NVA regulars than intelligence had indicated. It's a helluva story all right, but it is only part of what happened.

The show interviews several surviving soldiers from the other side who reveal how, despite a horrific 7-1 against casualty rate, they learned how to fight against America's superior firepower by "getting so close you can grab the other guy by his belt buckle." Never mentioned in Galloway's book or the movie is how a few days later, the NVA wiped out a force of US troops at LZ Baker nearby when they got in too close for close air support or artillery covering fire.

Without that information, the student of history thinks "it was an unwinnable war because we didn't DO the "right" things. Actually, the war was lost because we didn't understand what we had gotten into, the country's tortuous history, its long hatred of foreign invaders, and the conflicting goals of its various factions. As one Pentagon official put it at the time, the war was "70% to avoid a humiliating defeat, 20% to keep China from taking over the region, and 10% to help the Vietnamese people have a better life."

While it's true that Americans eventually sickened of the war because of its unrelenting carnage, we tend always as a nation to see things through the lens of our own experience and interests. The war was much larger than simply North vs. South or Communists vs. non-Communists, with many elements that didn't even concern us, such as the Buddhist monks self-immolating over what were issues that had little to do with the conflict. The series does a great service in that regard by teaching us some historical humility at a time when many voices in the land are forgetting that lesson.


Edited by Bill Cross, 20 September 2017 - 08:14 PM.

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#2 ringleheim

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Posted 20 September 2017 - 08:52 PM

Sounds interesting. I will watch this for sure.

 

On a related note tying in with some of Bill's comments above, and for those who have not seen it already, make a point to watch the documentary entitled "THE FOG OF WAR" about Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

 

It's on most good film critics' short lists as one of the best documentaries ever made; I found it riveting.

 

PS:  Just investigated how to watch the Ken Burns documentary; I didn't realize this was being televised "live" right now on PBS...

 

I noticed that all episodes are available for streaming at pbs.org, and that there is an "explicit language" version available online as opposed to the "broadcast" version.

 

I'll be catching up with the first 3 episodes of the explicit language version online!

 

Episode 4 debuts tonight at 8pm on PBS TV.


Edited by ringleheim, 20 September 2017 - 08:59 PM.

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#3 LSP_Typhoonattack

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Posted 20 September 2017 - 10:18 PM

It does look fascinating, and Burns does some really good stuff.


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#4 harvey

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Posted 20 September 2017 - 11:05 PM

Excellent ! Being a Viet Bam vet,im finding it very informative on what REALLY happened. My wife did buy it for me because we are on the road and can't watch all of it. I have seen 2 episodes so far. It's just brilliantly done....Harv
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#5 ssculptor

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Posted 20 September 2017 - 11:06 PM

Burn's series is well worth watching.

Has anyone noticed that after all of Vietnam was reunited under communism, all the other Asian countries did not fall into communism as was predicted by all the hawks in the U.S. gummint to justify our absolutely stupid involvement??

Hooman beings are sooooooo stupid.


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#6 Smitty44

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Posted 21 September 2017 - 12:01 AM

I do have to say there is one of the former Viet Cong guys on there who seems to really enjoy rehashing the killing of our boys over there which is kinda hard to stomach, but it is a really amazing series.


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#7 Bill Cross

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Posted 21 September 2017 - 01:59 PM

I do have to say there is one of the former Viet Cong guys on there who seems to really enjoy rehashing the killing of our boys over there which is kinda hard to stomach, but it is a really amazing series.

And then there's the bit about the newly-minted Looey arriving in country and asking what was adorning the belts of some riflemen.

 

"VC ears."

 

I recall a college friend who had just returned from the war showing me a photo of him and his friends posing with severed VC heads and strings of cut-off ears.

 

War is brutal; they hated us; we hated them and referred to ALL the Vietnamese as "gooks."

 

Both sides did unspeakable things. My Lai? Americans need to get over the idea that we're somehow better than everyone else in wartime.


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#8 LSP_Mike

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Posted 21 September 2017 - 02:45 PM

I'll look this one up.

 The book "About Face" by D. Hackworth is a pretty good read as well.


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#9 Smitty44

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Posted 21 September 2017 - 05:01 PM

And then there's the bit about the newly-minted Looey arriving in country and asking what was adorning the belts of some riflemen.

"VC ears."

I recall a college friend who had just returned from the war showing me a photo of him and his friends posing with severed VC heads and strings of cut-off ears.

War is brutal; they hated us; we hated them and referred to ALL the Vietnamese as "gooks."

Both sides did unspeakable things. My Lai? Americans need to get over the idea that we're somehow better than everyone else in wartime.

. Wow, really? Please tell me where I stated one life is more important than another! I have not seen anyone else on that show from either side who actually seemed to enjoy what they were doing like this guy.

Edited by Smitty44, 21 September 2017 - 05:04 PM.

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#10 Daniel460

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Posted 21 September 2017 - 05:16 PM

Looks like the same ones are on Youtube. I work nights so I have been missing them, started watching the first one after work last night. That war was a real mess. 



#11 Bill Cross

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Posted 21 September 2017 - 05:17 PM

. Wow, really? Please tell me where I stated one life is more important than another! I have not seen anyone else on that show from either side who actually seemed to enjoy what they were doing like this guy.

I did not say that, please re-read what I did say.

 

My point is that unspeakable acts were perpetrated on both sides. I recall several of the US soldiers interviewed saying they looked forward to "killing Commies" when they arrived in country. Have they mellowed over time or did Burns simply pick people to interview who have more nuanced thoughts about their experience? I have no way of knowing.

 

The war killed millions of Vietnamese, and the US was seen both in the North and South as controlling a puppet government. The Vietnamese would have every right to still hate us, though most Americans who travel there report finding the locals friendly and the war now a distant memory. If some of our former adversaries are unrepentant about their war record now, I get it. There were also interviews with former NVA and VC who said they learned to see Americans as very much like them: focused on their mates, distraught when someone was killed, human.

 

I should also point out that smiling in many Asian cultures is very complicated around things like "face" and dignity (I have spent some time in China, HK and Taiwan, and once spoke Mandarin tolerably). Did that fellow you reference enjoy killing Americans? Very likely. But we should be careful drawing a distinction that may be more complex than it appears on the surface.


Edited by Bill Cross, 21 September 2017 - 05:17 PM.

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#12 Smitty44

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Posted 21 September 2017 - 05:25 PM

I did not say that, please re-read what I did say.

My point is that unspeakable acts were perpetrated on both sides. I recall several of the US soldiers interviewed saying they looked forward to "killing Commies" when they arrived in country. Have they mellowed over time or did Burns simply pick people to interview who have more nuanced thoughts about their experience? I have no way of knowing.

The war killed millions of Vietnamese, and the US was seen both in the North and South as controlling a puppet government. The Vietnamese would have every right to still hate us, though most Americans who travel there report finding the locals friendly and the war now a distant memory. If some of our former adversaries are unrepentant about their war record now, I get it. There were also interviews with former NVA and VC who said they learned to see Americans as very much like them: focused on their mates, distraught when someone was killed, human.

I should also point out that smiling in many Asian cultures is very complicated around things like "face" and dignity (I have spent some time in China, HK and Taiwan, and once spoke Mandarin tolerably). Did that fellow you reference enjoy killing Americans? Very likely. But we should be careful drawing a distinction that may be more complex than it appears on the surface.

the only distinction I made though , Bill, is that the way he described killing Americans(and South Vietnamese) was hard to stomach. He conveyed those thoughts and expressions before a camera for the world to see. If he didn't want people to draw conclusions as I did he could have done different. I'm sure he doesn't care. I would feel the same way if that had been an American
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#13 Night Hog

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Posted 21 September 2017 - 06:54 PM

Your initial comments were well said Bill. I was there (in the Air over NVN) The problem was that our leadership (National) refused to recognize what it was all about. Vietnam was seeking independence and reunification. The Communist factor was a red herring, Uncle Ho would have adopted the philosophy of the dervishes if he thought it would help his cause.  As to the Air War, we were fighting to repatriate the POW's, all else was rubbish,


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#14 Big Texan

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Posted 21 September 2017 - 07:00 PM

As a Student in a Military college back in 1980, we studied the Vietnam War in great detail, especially the causes. The Ken Burns' series is the first time I've actually seen those causes displayed for the American people to see and understand. The sad thing about it, this war was wholly preventable. It should never have happened, or at least the way it did. So many miscues during, and immediately after WW II. Had FDR or Truman spoke with Ho Chi Minh, most likely we would have sided with the Vietnamese people and prevented France from re-acquiring Vietnam after WW II ended. We should have sided with them, had them recognized in the UN. Can you just imagine how things would have turned out? Vietnam could have been a close ally of ours in the Pacific during the cold war, instead of an enemy. To hear JFK's words that we should have pulled out, but he couldn't do it for fear of losing his re-election bid, was sickening. Charles de Gaulle was an ass, as far as I am concerned. A pompous, good for nothing, ass. They ask us to bail them out, threaten us to bail them out, so, we did. Then that twit dropped France out of NATO and kicked U.S. forces out of France. By the way, France was also fighting in Algeria at the time in a brutal conflict with the natives there.

 

Anyhow, this is an excellent series. The old series, Vietnam the 10,000 Day War, was also a very good series, and the one the History Channel presented a couple of years ago. But, they were not as in depth as this series by Mr. Burns.

I remember being 10 years old in 1972, and asking my Dad if I would have to go fight in Vietnam when I turned 18. My Dad's face grew sullen and sad when I asked him this. His answer, "I hope not, but you might if this keeps going on."  I wasn't afraid, I wanted to do my duty.  My Father and Mother married in July of 1961. My Dad had been out of the Navy for 2 years. After they married, the Navy sent a letter stating that he may be recalled back into the Navy. Of course, this shook my folks up. Fortunately for them, my Dad qualified for not being recalled and all that stress was put behind them. 


Edited by Big Texan, 21 September 2017 - 07:13 PM.

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#15 Bill Cross

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Posted 21 September 2017 - 08:58 PM

My father spent 13 months in Saigon from 1969-70 (the show mentions Marines stayed over there an extra month). When he came back, he told me "if they draft you, go to Canada."

 

This from a near 30-year veteran.

 

He said the war was unwinnable, that many of the officers he met there were only interested in "getting their ticket punched." His roommate was writing home asking his Mrs. to send anything that wasn't tied down so he could sell it on Saigon's black market. Dad's assessment is probably excessively harsh, as I believe at least early on we used up thousands and thousands of idealistic men & women over a war that we not only could not win, but which we couldn't even hand off to the country we were trying to help.

 

Those who say we fought the war with one hand tied behind our backs because we didn't bomb along the Chinese border or invade and occupy Laos forget (or don't know) that would have brought in China, who was at the height of the insanity and hysterical energy of the Cultural Revolution when everything was about purity and revolutionary fervor. Not sure that the Soviet Union would have let a client state go under, either.

 

In any case, start watching if you haven't yet. I look forward to each night's episode, though at times the stories break my heart.


Edited by Bill Cross, 21 September 2017 - 08:58 PM.

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