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.