Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was of a generation of American kids that was not taught about Vietnam. Sure, some kids had fathers that fought or even died there. Some of our classmates were refugees from the war, who showed up in our elementary school classrooms to start over in a new culture, in a new life. But the war was never discussed. It seems Americans just wanted to put it all behind our collective consciousness. When we took World History classes, we conveniently ran out of time at the end of the semester around World War II. Any rudimentary knowledge of the Vietnam War was gleaned through Hollywood: We knew of heroism, of madness, of broken veterans trying to go back and make things right again, to change the narrative (thanks, Rambo).
So it was of great interest that I dove into Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest epic, exhaustive documentary series The Vietnam War. Seemingly leaving no stone unturned, we start at the beginning of what could be said to be modern times, the colonization of Indochina by the French over 150 years ago. This occupation by Europeans laid the base for much political tug of war over the years, with the modern war starting in the 1940s, long before the Americans got involved.
Over 18 hours, The Vietnam War is presented from yes, American eyes, but also through interviews with soldiers and citizens from both communist North Vietnam and the U.S.-supported South Vietnam. Chronologically we see bad decision after bad decision, with a war that was passed down through multiple presidents. We see the desperation of the Vietnamese. We see the deteriorating morale of the U.S. soldiers who were losing faith in the cause. We hear from family members of fallen soldiers, active duty men who returned and became protesters, nurses who had a seemingly losing battle with the amount of casualties, men who were prisoners of war, and young men who were deserters who fled to Canada. All of it is heartbreaking. Some choke up when revisiting their memories and feelings about the war.
Even if you don’t know much about the war, you know many of the images. The stories behind some of the most famous media moments are given full, revealing narratives–like the burned, naked girl fleeing a Napalm blast, the body of a shot student lying face down on the pavement at Kent State, and the helicopter picking up the last evacuees from a rooftop–making the familiar images come alive with new meaning.
The Vietnam War is more filmatic than some of Burns’ other series. He and Novick don’t need to rely on the pan and scan of still photos overlaid with narrative (Peter Coyote again provides the narration). Vietnam was a war that played out on the news. The moving images are gripping, and the soundtrack of rebellious rock is vibrant, linking the war to the tension and conflict back home. Additionally, a haunting score is provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma.
You already know that The Vietnam War will have a sad, unfinished ending. And yes, it made me cry. I don’t know how much healing will be provided from this film, but it will allow for a depth of conversation and learning, especially when learning about the conflict from multiple sides. It is a tragic story all around, but it is definitely a worthy viewing.