A bitter nation divided against itself. Bloody, chaotic battles that left thousands of Americans dead, splayed across pastoral farmlands and rural creeks. The monumental tug-of-war between slavery and freedom. Yup, in hindsight the acclaimed documentarians Ken Burns had it pretty easy when he made his name with his epic 1990 PBS series The Civil War.
This month, Burns and his longtime co-director Lynn Novick have elected to take on a much more touchy subject than the War Between the States with their sprawling, ambitious new production for PBS, The Vietnam War. Unlike the still-photographed, black-and-white 1861-65 conflict, the gunfire of the Mekong Delta still rings in the ears of millions of living Americas — the now-graying combat veterans, those who protested the war here on the home front, and a lot of folks (raises hand) whose views on America and the world were shaped watching the nightly carnage on our blurry newfangled color TV.
But history and memory is a complicated thing. The Civil War may have ended 152 years ago, but — as we saw this summer in a torch-lit Charlottesville, Va. — Americans are still brawling over what that war truly meant, even though the victor (the Union) and the nobleness of the cause (ending slavery) seem pretty clear. Compare that to the more recent Big Muddy of Vietnam, which not only wrenched 58,000 young lives out of America but launched cultural and political wars that still flare heatedly some 42 years after the fall of Saigon. The Vietnam War, which debuted Sunday, will run for some 18 hours — which is not nearly enough to make sense of that quagmire.
Mr. Burns’s films assume that it’s still possible for Americans to have an agreed-on baseline — on government, war, race, and culture — from which to go forward. In relatively peaceful times, this approach could seem banal, as if the films are arguing for pieties that everyone already agrees on. In — well, times like now — it can seem naïve to think that there’s any fact so unobjectionable it can’t be litigated by opposed camps. In the divides the war rended, you can see the swellings of today’s impenetrable political bubbles. The saddest thing about this elegiac documentary may be the credit it extends its audience. “The Vietnam War” still holds out hope that we might learn from history, after presenting 18 hours of evidence to the contrary.
It didn’t always seem this way. I’m old enough to remember the end of the conflict in 1975, and the American mood at the time. There was a lot of confidence — unfounded, it would turn out over time — that the nation had learned great lessons from the heartbreak and ultimate defeat in Vietnam, that a more humble America would shed the hubris that got us into the war, that future foreign policy would be guided by a new awareness of other cultures, by human rights, and by the folly of sending young troops to die for such an ill-defined purpose.
When Saigon fell in the spring of 1975, NBC newsman David Brinkley offered up a remarkable commentary (recently rerun on CNN’s The Seventies), standing amid rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. “When some future politician for some reason feels the need to drag this country into war, he might come out here to Arlington and stand right over there somewhere,” Brinkley said, gesturing toward a thicket of graves, “to make his announcement and tell what he has in mind. If he can attract public support speaking from a place like this, then his reasons for starting a new war would have to be good ones.”
That’s how a lot of people felt at the end of the Vietnam War. Spoiler alert: Nothing of that sort ever happened.
And, as much as I enjoyed Poniewozik’s review of the PBS series, I’m not really sure I agree with his conclusion that America learned nothing from the Vietnam War. Our leaders seem to have learned a lot — specifically, how to wage “forever war” around the globe with little political or public dissent. As the The Vietnam War flickered on your television screen, the Trump administration announced — with hardly any fanfare at all — that 3,000 more American troops are headed to Afghanistan. That war has been going on for 16 years — longer than Vietnam — and the current president has conceded that it will go on “indefinitely.”
Needless to say, neither President Trump nor Defense Secretary James Mattis were standing in Arlington National Cemetery when they made the announcement. Nor was George W. Bush when he attracted public support for invading Iraq in 2003, tapping the reservoir of public emotion over the 9/11 attacks that Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with. Rather, the Bush administration sold the Iraq War — tied, historically, with Vietnam in the category of “utter senselessness” — with slick public relations (“From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August,” Bush aide Andy Card said famously when asked about a lull in the war planning) and an ocean of lies about uranium cake and weapons of mass destruction that proved not to exist.
The lessons America learned from Vietnam, it turned out, had nothing to do with militaristic American hubris, or a foreign policy based on shared humanity. Instead, they were to a) abolish the draft, which caused so much opposition on college campuses during Vietnam, and rebuild our armed forces from military families or with economically motivated volunteers from struggling rural towns and rust-bitten cities; b) improve the technology to minimize American casualties, launching ruin on foreign nations from flying death robots instead of vulnerable combat troops; and c) create a permanent war machine that chugs along at a steady low hum, generating little or no news coverage or serious political debate.
Based on one resolution — called an Authorization of the Use of Military Force, or AUMF — that was passed after the 2001 attacks, the U.S. has waged war in South Asia, the Middle East, and even Africa against enemies who couldn’t possibly be connected to al-Qaeda or the attack on the World Trade Center, such as this year’s bombing of a Syrian airfield. When Democrats and Republicans began moving this year to finally repeal the 2001 AUMF, House Speaker Paul Ryan quickly and quietly killed their effort. Anything to keep the post-Vietnam “forever war” machine in forward drive. This, by the way, is the same Congress that just voted to sharply hike military spending while working to throw millions of Americans off health care because we couldn’t possibly afford that.
While the world frets — and with very good reason — over the president’s threats of “total destruction” of North Korea, a nation of 25 million souls, the Trump administration has, without notice, stepped up the actual ongoing killing of innocent civilians in those military conflicts that we barely pay attention to. When Barack Obama was president, according to the tracking site Airwars, some 80 civilians a month were killed by U.S. military strikes (a policy for which he was frequently criticized here at Attytood). Now that Donald Trump is president, the rate of civilian killing has more than quadrupled, to 360 a month, under more aggressive rules of military engagement. Just as the fall of Vietnam to communist forces posed no real threat to the United States, the current military policies in the Middle East and elsewhere aren’t making us safer — just creating a new generation of people who hate America and who may grow up to become terrorists against the nation that killed their dad or their aunt out of the clear blue sky.
But without a draft, or robust news coverage, or a political system that gives much voice to those who dare to imagine an American foreign policy that’s not based on drone strikes or special ops fighting the next Hundred Years War, nothing is likely to change. The irony is that more Americans are probably watching The Vietnam War on PBS than are paying attention to all the mini- and not-so-mini Vietnams we’re fighting in the 21st century. And you can blame that on the only real lesson America’s elites seemed to absorb from 1975 — that the next Vietnams wouldn’t need better guns or better strategy but simply better PR.