Discounting the bias built into Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary, it provides food for thought about the politics of war, hubris, and 20/20 hindsight.
Following Mr. Bookworm’s return from a business trip, we resumed watching Ken Burns’ documentary about the Vietnam War. We just finished Episode 4, which ends right before the Tet Offensive is to begin in early 1968.
All of my comments have to be understood in a specific context: I’ve never studied the war. I have childhood memories of watching Walter Cronkite discuss it on the nightly news; I remember hearing about it endlessly (always negatively) growing up; I have read about bits and pieces of it in some depth over the years, but never had a coherent history; and I am a student of history, so I have some perspective on war in general.
Here are my thoughts, in no particular order. As always, I would love to hear from those of you who are also watching; who have knowledge about the war, whether first hand or academic; or who just want to chime in on the subject. Also as always, my only request is that any comments be phrased in a civil way (something everyone has been doing so far).
1. I think Burns is trying to be even-handed. However, I feel there are a couple of missing points of view in terms of those he interviews who experienced the war and their absence is telling.
The Americans who talk about the war are those who were always opposed to the war or those who came to be opposed to the war. All of those interviewed feel that America shouldn’t have fought the war at all. It seems to me that we also ought to hear from people, and I know they exist, who will argue that it was a good war, although carried out stupidly, or that it was a good war and, at least once Nixon started fighting it in dead earnest, one we actually won. Those people have not been interviewed and I don’t anticipate seeing them show up any time soon.
The Vietnamese who talk about the war also represent two points of view, and two only: North Vietnamese who speak as victors; and South Vietnamese who talk about their corrupt government and about American failures. There are no voices talking about the horrors of communism, either in North Vietnam during the war or about all of Vietnam after the war. (And yes, I know we’re still at the end of 1967 in the show’s chronology, but the Americans interviewed certainly have been using 20/20 hindsight to castigate the war, so I don’t see why Vietnamese interviewees can’t do that to castigate the communists.)
Periodically Burns hints at communist tyranny and atrocities, but these quickly fade away. There are no photos and no personal narratives.
The history of the Vietnam War is incomplete without those missing voices. [Read more…]