Thank you, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, for this fine documentary. Like Burns’ other work, “The Vietnam War” is thorough, balanced, personal, “true.” Ten episodes, 10 hours in all. It required a commitment. It wasn’t easy, but it was important. No glib explanations here, no cheap interpretations; just the human experience in all its complexity and ambiguity. At some point, one realizes how different an experience this is from most of our consuming habits today.
There is much to learn here about this war, its context, and how it became part of our American identity. In hindsight, we see here how a Cold War mentality blinded our leaders into making of Vietnam a last stand against Communism in southeast Asia, instead of seeing it as a national movement for independence at the end of a colonial era.
Beginning with this fundamental mis-judgement, we watch then as more mundane human weaknesses comes into play again and again. Viewers are made to take a hard look at this, as if to make a study of human bias and what it can cost. Long after they realized the war was unwinnable, our political and military leaders continued to gave way to American hubris, the determination to retain power, the perceived need to save face, and to war’s own blind momentum. Repeatedly they deceived themselves and the American people.
Sadly there are many resonances for us today — the mess we made in Iraq, the seemingly unending conflict in Afghanistan; again a nation deeply divided and protests in the streets. And beyond this, our ideologically-driven missing and dismissing of one another, the hardening of political positions, an isolated presidency, lack of awareness and self-serving deception, and the cycle of dysfunction and cynicism we seem stuck in. And the way all this can become the focus, suck up so much attention and energy, undercutting progress on the issues at hand.
But there were then and are now signs of awakening, too. Among us today, a new discovering of the cost and responsibility of democracy? And the imperative of a new relationship with the planet? As poets, artists, prophets and teachers have always told us, this will depend on how we pay attention, how truly we think and choose, and whether we love.
This documentary is an exercise in sustained attention, in balanced, honest reflection. It leaves us with questions ... 58,000 Americans and some 3 million Vietnamese killed, many thousands more wounded, 17 years of national entanglement. And what accomplished?
Finally, we are left with human stories, individuals and groups of individuals determined to make meaning from what happened. Can we do the same? Make meaning from this part of our American experience? And in our own dark time, individually and collectively, make meaning?
One of the meanings surely is the terrible, terrible cost of war. And it’s so fitting that the documentary was aired during the just completed Ten Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the annual Jewish festival of introspection and atonement. And now we have the victims of a Las Vegas shooting. For war and for the violence we are any way complicit in, God forgive us and help us find our way forward.
Steve Bullington is a resident of Adrian.