I'm already exhausted after two episodes of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's "Vietnam."
Three hours gone, 15 to go. The show will grow even more grueling. John F. Kennedy's assassination and the photo of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office on the plane in Dallas ended the second part Monday night.
Johnson's escalation of the war, including bombing Vietnam "to the stone age," will take up much of the remaining eight episodes, along with Richard's Nixon's and Henry Kissinger's brutal and deceitful ending of the war. I'll have to keep fighting off the impulse to yell at the screen, "Stop, don't do it." Of course, they did it.
My first impulse was to avoid the series. I lived through all of that pain, and was reluctant to wallow through it again. But with some masochistic sense of obligation, I began watching. Bob Dylan started the first night. Myles Davis, the second. What next, Frank Zappa? Country Joe and the Fish?
So far, I've found the series worthwhile, while feeling pummeled by the barrage of facts, which all too often fly by without sufficient exploration. I was enlightened by the first episode's history of the French involvement in Vietnam. I'd never heard of Dewey, the CIA man killed in Vietnam before significant U.S. involvement, and learned that America's Vietnam adventure dates back to the Truman administration. I thought Eisenhower had been the first president pulled into the war.
Like others who opposed the war, I shook my head at the assertion in the first episode that the war "was begun in good faith, by decent people." That seemed a falsely benign way to express the U.S. involvement. I suppose Burns/Nozick and writer Geoffrey Ward were trying to say that the United States was driven by the idealistic aim of stopping communism, rather than France's disreputable mission to keep Vietnam as a colony. But the statement is an Orwellian distortion of language.
I've found compelling the comments by North Vietnamese citizens and veterans. While their humanity is revealed, North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh are shown accurately as brutal, totalitarian thugs rather than the romantic freedom fighters imagined by many American leftists.
Familiar voices like the UPI/New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan and another Times stalwart, Leslie Gelb, have been interesting, although at times I've found my attention wavering. After reporting on the war, Sheehan later played a major part in the Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers, which likely will receive much attention in the episodes on the Nixon administration. The articulate Sheehan looks destined to match the celebrity that Shelby Foote reached with Burns' "The Civil War."
Familiar names arise: John Paul Vann, the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Sheehan, and the other great Vietnam correspondents, AP and later Timesman Malcolm Browne and the great New York Times reporter David Halberstam, whose "best and brightest" description of Kennedy's cabinet in a best=selling bookis evoked a few times without credit.
With the appalling saga of the South Vietnamese dictator Diem, pronounced Ziem, regime, I was darkly amused by the scenes of Diem's sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, one of the era's most evil dragon ladies.
The testimony of Americans who served as common soldiers left me near tears. Later, I assume equal weight will be given to those from the anti-war movement.
The show's first episode began with some of the war's most famous and brutal scenes reversed. The little girl left nude by napalm. The man shot with the pistol held to his temple. The Buddhist monk setting himself on fire. Reversing the film was clever, but manipulative. What was the point? That history didn't have to play out the way it did? That Burns will give a new understanding of the past?
Burns recorded audio of gunfire for battle scenes, making me wonder if that was the case for the involved recollection of the battle of Ap Bac. While the battle photos seemed authentic, the doubts about the sounds of gunfire made me wonder. Burns should give a disclaimer that the gunfire sounds are not from the battle itself.
One of the corporate funders, Bank of America, said at the start of the show that it wished to foster debate and make a "more connected" society. That well-known connector of society, David Koch, was listed as another benefactor. He and his brother Charles spend billions seeking to undermine American democracy, discredit proponents of climate change and push the interests of their carbon-based businesses.
Perhaps Koch had good intentions in funding the program. He gives money to the ballet and the theater as well, even having venues named for him. If Trump slashes PBS as he wishes, perhaps Koch will keep "public" broadcasting afloat.
With his libertarian views, Koch is opposed to the kind of American foreign intervention marked by Vietnam and repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most likely Kohh has darker aims, hoping in supporting Burns' centrist philosophy to soften opposition to his campaign to control American politics.
For me, the most heartbreaking scenes weren't the battles and Vietnamese brutality, but the shots of Kennedy and his family on vacation. The young president would have only a couple of months to live. The shots of JFK and Jacqueline and their small children at leisure show America at a high point, from which it has declined ever since.