Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Viewers Guide To Ken Burns' Vietnam

The latest in Ken Burns' series of PBS documentaries premieres on September 17.   The subject is the Vietnam War.

I participated in protests against the war, including the Washington DC event in November 1969, which drew an estimated 500,000 people, and at the University of Wisconsin in May 1970 in the wake of the invasion of Cambodia.

Burns' co-producer Lynn Nozick says of the documentary:

"I think the country is ready to have the conversation we never really had about the war . . . "
I find that a puzzling statement since we had an exhausting, more than decade long conversation about the war.  Does it really mean the film makers are dissatisfied with the outcome of that conversation?  Which, in turn, raises the question of whether the intent of the documentary is to generate what normal people would consider to be a conversation, or whether it is intended to meet the current progressive definition of a conversation which is "a one-sided dialogue in which you are instructed on what to think and say".

There actually is a rich opportunity to examine and re-examine all facets of the American experience in Vietnam and it can be done in a way that does not lead a viewer to any specific conclusion, whether they were, or are, pro or anti-war.  Here are some things to look for in judging whether the documentary intends to generate a real and open conversation:

Compare the documentary's comparative use of adjectives and adverbs regarding Americans, the South Vietnam government and its supporters, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnam government and its supporters.

In describing origins of the war, how are Viet Cong (VC), National Liberation Front (NLF), and the North Vietnam government portrayed?  Are they predominantly communist or nationalist?  Are the VC and NLF portrayed as independent actors or creatures of the North Vietnam government?

How is the interplay between LBJ's domestic and Vietnam policy in 1964-5 portrayed?  (For more on this and the point below see Dereliction of Duty).

Is there a distinction made between issues on which the Johnson administration misled or lied to Congress and the American public in 1964-5 (Gulf of Tonkin, costs of the war, whether Americans were in combat) and those on which it was telling the truth (the extent of North Vietnam communist infiltration into the South and its control of the VC and NLF)?

How are anti-war demonstrators portrayed?  Is the ideological component driving many of the leaders adequately explained?  My observation is that there were three main groups of protestors.  The first, and most numerous, were those who thought it the wrong war for America; the second actually thought the communists were the good guys and wanted them to win (John Kerry was in this group); and the third, and by far smallest, thought the communist revolution needed to be brought back to America (Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn fit in this category).

How is the role of African-Americans in Vietnam portrayed, and what statistics are used?

Regarding the Tet Offensive, how are the military, psychological and media aspects portrayed?

How are temporal aspects of the war portrayed?  Are distinctions made between the different strategic situations and options open to decision-makers in the mid-1950s, 1964-65, 1968, 1972 and 1975?

How is the aftermath of the war in Southeast Asia treated; Cambodia Year Zero, the boat people, South Vietnamese reeduction camps?

Who are the main talking heads for the series and what is their background?

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