Ken Burns’ manages to be mostly honest in a stunning look at the Tet Offensive, but what he leaves out is as important as what he includes.
Here in the Bookworm home, we’re still working our way through Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary. Last night, we got to the part about the Tet Offensive. Having recently been in both Hue and Saigon, the footage of the running battles really resonated with me.
I don’t know why it is, but I find that wars are always more real to me when I see the actual ground on which they took place. When I travel, I visit battlefields, and that’s despite the fact that I’m stunningly unversed in battlefield tactics. Over the years, I’ve visited Carthage, Waterloo, Ypres, the Somme, the Ardennes, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Yorktown, and others I can’t remember now. After seeing the footage of the Tet Offensive, and combining it with my personal visual reference points, I have a better sense of the battle that raged then.
Overall, Burns did an extremely good job of explaining the larger outlines of the lead-up to the Tet Offensive and the offensive itself. He explained the North Vietnamese thinking about a major assault that would cause South Vietnamese troops to defect and the populace to side with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars.
Of the battles themselves, Burns uses footage that helps explain why almost 80 journalists lost their lives in Vietnam. These journalists were right there with the US troops filming away. I got breathless watching because the sense of immediacy was overwhelming. This was Call of Duty, except with real Americans shooting real guns at real enemies, with the enemies shooting back.
Burns makes it plain that the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the North Vietnamese. Not a single South Vietnamese soldier defected; civilians just hid from the fury, fearing the communists even more than their own government; the North Vietnamese lost almost as many fighters in the Tet Offensive as America did over the course of the entire Vietnam war; and the American military proved itself in battle to superb in terms of courage, strategy, and tactics.