I was pretty sure I would be in a state of funk after watching The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary premiering on Sunday on PBS. Because the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was one of the sponsors of a panel discussion hosted by WHYY Tuesday, I was permitted to watch all 18 hours of the 10-part series.
I steeled myself.
Whew! It was a depressing experience. The documentary heaps ineptness upon ignorance upon immorality by policymakers and the military brass — all guided by an archaic worldview shaped by the Cold War and the post-WWII can-do attitude. As a veteran and sometime student of the war, there were no major surprises, and I had long ago given up on making sense of the Vietnam morass. I don’t believe that was the intent of the series, though, and it does give a panorama of the war in a way that only a documentary can.
The series is broad in scope, ranging from the French colonial era starting in the mid-1800s to the fall of Saigon in 1975, including the shameful cut-and-run by Washington that left our South Vietnamese allies to slaughter from the North. There is little to celebrate during that period. For those who served or protested or watched from the sidelines, there is no cause for nostalgia.
Other strife-ridden periods of our past — the nobility of the Blue and Gray or the Greatest Generation, the subjects of previous Burns documentaries — could evoke sentimentality despite the terrible carnage they engendered. The Vietnam images are not still, black-and-white photographs or faded images, but sometimes vivid film, punctuated by interviews of all involved — communist soldiers, war protesters and, of course, members of the armed forces who fought there.
It’s more than just being too soon; it’s hard to take pride in a war that by any definition we lost.
There is one exception, and that’s the camaraderie and sense of brotherhood we all experienced in the common bond of service, whether you heard a bullet crack overhead or not. The series shows combat, to be sure, but the mellow compassion of men facing hardship together is hard to portray. It’s probably best left to fiction or a different kind of documentary.
You will get a sense of the courage of the airmen over Hanoi and the soldiers, sailors, and Marines who slogged through the rice paddies and jungles, many of whom were just a step or two removed from childhood. The hardest part for me was watching North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong talking about killing Marines and soldiers.
It is difficult to use a broad brush to describe how veterans will respond. They are no different in that regard than many who remember the war through their own prism. I suspect the footage of Jane Fonda will again dip into the well of resentment held by many, as will the hippie war protesters who many believed were having too good of a time enjoying free love and virtually free drugs.
In Fonda’s case, it’s not so much, as one veteran noted in the documentary, that servicemen felt betrayed by their fantasy, Barbarella, but probably that she was the embodiment of privilege. As I heard one veteran say when asked why he couldn’t forgive Fonda, “She’s rich, famous, and beautiful, all I can do is to never forgive her.” There were no consequences for the actress or virtually anyone else who opposed or evaded the war.
This raw and sometimes grainy account leaves me with a profound sense of sadness. The last episode is appropriately entitled “The Weight of Memory,” which we will carry for all our days. I didn’t need the series to remind me and wish in some ways that the documentary waited a decade or more, when I would have joined my comrades we left on the battlefield. Imagery is all powerful in the way we are affected; hence the reason some turn to film for their history lessons. For many of us, however, I suspect it’s all pain and little or no gain.
Terry Williamson of Glenside served as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam. He is president of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and author of “Rocks and Fists: Decimating the 141st NVA Regiment.” firstname.lastname@example.org