The Vietnam War in 18 Hours

If you did not watch Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War on PBS, forget what you are watching and start watching this documentary film. Now.

I found The Vietnam War to be comprehensive and detailed.  Even if you were in Vietnam, you may be surprised by some of the revelations of this film. It is hard to believe how little I know about the Vietnam conflict even though I lived through that time (as a preteen, teen, and young adult).

The film moves along in chronological order and I remember some things: John Kennedy’s assassination, Madam Nu, Ali refusing army induction (and losing his titles and boxing license), the ML King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, Nixon declaring the war over. I watched it as it was being broadcast, and I taped it as well. Sometimes I watched an episode again as soon as it was finished. This film is that riveting and revelatory.

A friend whose ex was a military engineer during the Vietnam War feels the film’s scope is too limited in that it does not mention those who provided support and infrastructure for the soldiers. She mentioned that engineering and construction projects such as the building of barracks and officers’ clubs had been left out. She’s right, but their omission didn’t occur to me, and even after she shared her disappointment with me, I admit that I was unconvinced that these were important oversights. What concerned me more was how few African-American faces appeared in the archival footage and the number of my friends and relatives who did not bother to watch the documentary.

In contrast to my friend, I guess I was more interested in those who prosecuted the war itself – the “grunts” and officers in combat situations and the suits in Washington, and that’s what Burns and Novick show us in 18 hours of archival and contemporary film.

As an ordinary citizen who knew little about the war, I learned much that I was curious about: How did the US get into Vietnam in the first place? Why did we stay as long as we did? Why did we support a series of puppet regimes? How could I know so little about the war when I had lived through that time? This last question has provoked pondering on my part because the film really could not answer it for me.

If you’re interested in the Vietnam War at all, I recommend Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War oversights and all. I think you’ll come away with more knowledge than you have now. If you are a member of your local PBS television or radio station you can watch all ten episodes of the film at pbs.org/vietnamwar. Let me know what you think!

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