A clear-eyed look at the Vietnam War

Soldiers on patrol during the Vietnam War. Documentariand Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a 10-part film, "The Vietnam War," premiering on Sept 17 on PBS.
Soldiers on patrol during the Vietnam War. Documentariand Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a 10-part film, "The Vietnam War," premiering on Sept 17 on PBS. TNS

The late John Keegan, who wrote classic books on warfare, announced in his first best-seller that he’d had “a good war.” The phrase was common in England of and about those who fought well in World War II. For Keegan it had a wry meaning. He had been born too late for that war and had been impaired in childhood by a rare form of TB that left him with a pronounced limp. His “good war” was necessarily, then, an inactive war of masterly historical learning and writing, some of which revolutionized the analysis of battle and battlefields.”

I thought of Keegan, whom I was privileged to know, when recalling my own desk-bound war, for which I was born too early. When I shed my Air Force reservist’s uniform in 1964, Vietnam was a small, if ominous, cloud on the horizon and U.S. participation was limited to 19,000 “advisers” – worrisome but still avoidable. When American intervention ended a decade later millions of young Americans had served, and more than 50,000 had died.

Ken Burns, a master television storyteller, has now given us a fabulous reprise of that tragic folly – fabulous in the literal sense as a fable pointing a moral. His brilliant Public Broadcasting series on the war tackles a struggle as bitterly divisive as any since Appomattox. There were glimmerings of anti-imperialist sentiment during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and tough strategic arguments over Korea between 1950 and 1953, but no dispute that matched the divisions generated by Vietnam: a decade that shattered cakes of custom and left the U.S. transformed – not altogether for the better. It is a miracle that Burns and his associates have reframed the Vietnam fable in all its violence, glory and tragedy without reviving – for me – the dismay I came to feel as a young newspaper editorialist in those years.

Burns’s secret, I believe, is that he avoids editorializing, what Dr. Samuel Johnson called “attitudinizing.” There are many examples, but here is one: In the penultimate chapter he tells of the Vietnam Veterans against The War, a protest group of hundreds who had fought, many with heroic distinction, who marched on the Nixon White House and in anger and vexation threw their ribbons and medals over the wire fence Nixon had erected to contain their march.

Their leader John Kerry’s connected testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is shown at length, as is his incautious recitation of inhuman atrocities he had not personally witnessed – such as the mutilation of enemy soldiers. Other military figures, some otherwise sympathetic, protested that these extreme acts were not typical and certainly not the result of military training. Burns reports both points of view without facile judgment – here as elsewhere allowing his series to tell its story. There are no chatterbox “suits” telling us how to react. Even My Lai, an undoubted atrocity in which scores of Vietnamese civilians were wantonly slaughtered, is handled with detachment.

For me this is remarkable, recalling as I do my own anger – from early 1966, when I wrote a lead editorial in the Greensboro Daily News captioned “An American Dien Bien Phu,” foretelling that our war could end in frustration, like the French war before it. I was preceded by wiser historians, including my own father and the columnist Walter Lippmann; and then and now I could claim no powers of prophecy.

I did, however, know a bit of relevant history.

From 1919, when Ho Chi Minh, then a Paris waiter, tried to get the attention of the western powers, through WWII, when his forces helped rescue downed U.S. fighter pilots from the Japanese, his was a nationalist struggle: A gifted Asian people sought to shape an independent destiny without Western interference. That was the essence, however obscured or distorted by alleged “communist” influence and the attendant, and bogus, “falling dominos” argument for American “prestige” and credibility popularized by Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon and the Washington journalist Joseph Alsop.

All this is clearly apparent in hindsight. It is never comforting to be wise after the fact – less so when wisdom has cost heavily in life and treasure.

But better late than never – and congratulations to Ken Burns for a magisterial exercise in storytelling that shows the potential of a often vulgarized and abused medium and explores the highest potential of television. His “The Vietnam War” is great storytelling and, again, a true fable.

Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.

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