The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

There are over 6.6 million living veterans in the United States from the Vietnam war era. That constitutes about 36% of all US vets, according to the 2016 American Community Survey, the largest contingent in the country.

And of course, it was the war I grew up with. So I just HAD to watch the series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, all 10 segments, all 18 hours of it, though it took almost a month. It did not lend itself to binge-watching.

I knew quite a bit about the war from my time protesting it. Names, dates. 1954: the French fall at Dien Bien Phu. But I never felt how brutal the battle was. How the the United States, first little by little, then in a big way after the Tonkin Gulf resolution, expanded the war, were facts I knew.

But of course I had not been privy to the thoughts of the American Presidents and their administrations as they struggled with their decisions as events on the ground did not go as planned.

The real value of the documentary, though, was the story telling: the soldiers that were there taking this hill or that, only to abandon it a few days later. The sister of one soldier killed in Vietnam who became an antiwar activist.

And while the segments prior to my political awareness were interesting, seeing the parts I lived through had the greater impact. It managed to reflect all sides of the war: Vietcong soldier to disillusioned American vet.

The evolution of the antiwar movement was of particular interest to me. The killings of four students at Kent State in 1970, for instance, which I was well aware of, nevertheless became deeply personal.

One of the odd takeaways I got was that Hillary Clinton was Lyndon Johnson were the policy wonks who arguably the most qualified in 2016/1960, but that the more TV/media-savvy candidate got the nomination (John Kennedy) or won the election, even though Trump had claimed his sex life was his personal Vietnam.

I saw the criticism of the Burns/Novick work, that “Vietnam was not a ‘tragic misunderstanding’ but a campaign of ‘imperial aggression.'” Surely it was the latter, but I leave room for the possibility that it was the former as well.

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