“I felt like I was hanging onto my honor by my fingernails, the whole time I was there.” This is the testimonial of former marine, John Musgraves, looking back on his time fighting in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War is a new series from Ken Burns, who takes his usual historian’s eye and looks at one of the most tumultuous times in history. And it is a comprehensive look. The series details not only the years of US involvement, but the century before, when Vietnam was ruled a French colony. It details the colonial years through World War 2, when it was occupied by Japan, and on through the forties and fifties when it became a pawn in the cold war between east and west, as the US tried desperately to keep it from being a domino that would fall to the communists.
The Vietnam War is written by Geoffrey C. Ward and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It unearths a great deal of history, both in historical documents and testimonials from the figures involved. And at every stage, the history is interspersed with video footage recorded from the front lines, and the soldiers who were in harm’s way. It never gets lost in stagey documentation, but stays grounded in the experiences of those who lived through it.
It aptly shows what a moral quandary the war was, and the forces that were unleashed at home against it. On the one hand we understand the brutal communist purges of the Viet Minh as they brought North Vietnam under their control and sought to overwhelm the south. But on the other hand, we see the corruption of the South Vietnam government, the abuses of its people, the coup that undercut the stability of the ostensible American allies. There are villains on every side, and it’s refreshing to see that acknowledged.
At the same time there is a great respect for the American soldiers who fought the war the best way they knew how, often given conflicting orders, with no easy way to know which locals they could trust. It’s no accident that this war is being explored at the same time the US in involved in another quagmire, this one in the desert, with no end in sight. Parallels are not explicitly made, but are impossible to ignore just the same.
Ken Burns has always believed that we can understand our present reality if we can get to know the past, and he’s chosen an apt subject. The Vietnam War is a staggering, brutal look at the many ways things can go wrong when the US tries to intervene in the affairs of other nations. And it is a study of heroism, of men and women pushed to the brink, sometimes failing, sometimes coming through. It’s a series that should not be ignored.
The Vietnam War airs: Sunday, September 17 – Thursday, September 21 & Sunday, September 24 – Thursday, September 28 at 8:00 p.m. on KIXE-TV.