We finally made it through the 10-part, 18-hour Burns-Novick "The Vietnam War" series on PBS on Sunday. A sprawling but deeply emotional experience. Heartbreaking. Elucidating. And overall, superb
Some criticism of the series is valid, but most is not. (People just gotta push their own agendas because they're more important than everyone else's, ya know?) Burns and Novick were evenhanded to a fault, although they could have done a better job of placing the war in the context of a century of American imperialist aggression. That the U.S. is not always a force for good was something merely hinted at, although the harshest critics shortsightedly say Burns' entire 30-film career is an advertisement for American Exceptionalism.
Yet if the primary job of public television is to educate, and in this instance educate people who did not understand or even know about the war, the series answered that call well above and beyond the usual mile wide-inch deep TV treatments of watershed historical events. And for those of us who thought we knew the war, the documentary provides a newfound perspective.
I passed through Vietnam as a journalist. It had pretty much been rubbled by the time I arrived in 1970, and there were only hints of Saigon’s past splendor amongs the craters, bombed out buildings and everywhere debris. I have read extensively about the war since, but until recent years knew little from the Vietnamese perspective. Burns and Novick determinedly provided many Vietnamese voices — North, South, army regulars, guerillas and civilians — who were deeply moving and much needed counterpoints to the American voices.
Oh, and the soundtrack of the series -- ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Bob Dylan to The Animals to Marvin Gaye -- is riveting and a reminder that it was music that sometimes got us through the night.
The war at home -- the marches, moratoriums, escalating civil disobedience and violence, Kent State and Jackson State, the few brave voices of opposition in Washington -- is adeptly woven into the larger narrative, and the inescapable conclusion is that the war ended not because the politicians wised up, but because Americans people did.
In the end, there was unanimity on all sides that the war was a tragedy for which American politicians -- notably the well meaning, conflicted and overwhelmed LBJ and the malevolent and traitorous Nixon -- must bear the blame.
And then there is the enduring and perhaps most frightening lesson of Vietnam:
Succeeding generations of those politicians have learned nothing from the errors in judgment, duplicity and outright criminality of that war and that time.