Vietnam Story at Last

  • Posted on Sep 24, 2017

Here's this morning's (Sun. 9-24) column on Ken Burns's documentary 'The Vietnam War" which deserves serious attention and discussion.  Our national trauma from that horror of a war continues, and the truths contained in this film may help move us toward reconciliation.   That was Burns and Novick's purpose in making it.  

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Over the years I’ve taught three Vietnam War films— “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and “Apocalypse Now.”  All led to energetic classroom discussions about the purpose and meaning of that terrible war.   

Yet those films, and many others I’ve viewed, were missing aspects that needed telling.   I’ve been waiting decades for a film that would get closer to the complete story. That story had to include the North Vietnamese’s version, and a clear-eyed look at America’s involvment from the beginning. In other words, ignored facts.   

That film arrived on PBS last Sunday night.  

“The Vietnam War,” Ken Burns/Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary is available free on PBS’ website and in segments on Iowa Public Television during the last two weeks of September.  It was my generation’s defining event, and deserves respect and discussion.   

I watched the first four episodes last week and can’t stop thinking and feeling about them.  Like any great film, it affects you in the head, heart, and gut, often all at once. 

For the head, there’s information that few Americans knew, and certainly none really wanted to know:  Ho Chi Minh, far from being an enemy, began his political career trying to free his country from all external powers, especially the French.  He believed our American Declaration of Independence and Constitution got it right.  

He tried to tell both Presidents FDR and Truman, that all he wanted was independence, but got nowhere.  The U.S. supported the French, who occupied Indochina as part of their colonial empire.  Ho Chi Minh was far more a believer in his own country’s autonomy than in Russian or Chinese Communism.   

Even more disturbing, we were lied to from the beginning, beginning with the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” which justified retaliation when we had been the attackers.  I had read about that phony attack in 1968 and realized then that we couldn’t trust our government.   

Both President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara knew we couldn’t “win” as early as 1965. As LBJ tells Defense Secretary McNamara, “There’s no light at the end of that tunnel.”  Yet they knowingly went on to escalate our involvement, sending thousands more U.S. Troops to fight in what was essentially a civil war.  That knowledge hits the gut.  

No wonder citizens were protesting, loudly and en masse, during that whole conflict.  Had our soldiers left Vietnam when leaders knew we couldn’t win, we would have been spared a decade of slaughter and destruction that haunts us still.  

Throughout the documentary, because our war destroyed so many lives on both sides,  individual stories get told in sharp detail. Young Denton Crocker’s story gets told throughout the third and fourth episodes, and left me choked up, thanks to current interviews with his still-traumatized mother and sister.  Denton’s story stands for thousands of other young men who left broken-hearted families. 

Ken Burns hopes “The Vietnam War” will start a national conversation about that awful war. Our leadership went horribly awry, and we need to admit that openly.   
Reconciliation must begin with truth.  


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