The Vietnam War. PBS. Sunday, September 17, 8 p.m.
Lt. Everett Alvarez was shot down near Ha Long Bay in North Vietnam in August 1964, flying a bombing raid in retaliation for an encounter between U.S. destroyers and North Vietnamese gunboats so confusing that it may not even have occurred. Alvarez, only the second American pilot shot down over North Vietnam, was quickly taken to military interrogators.
They, confusingly, began asking questions in Vietnamese; Alvarez, a third-generation American, confoundingly answered in Spanish. ("Don't ask me why," he shrugs. "It seemed like a good idea at the time.") But when the interrogation switched to English, it was no less bewildering. Alvarez refused to disclose anything but his name, rank and serial number, adding to his captors that he was not required to say anything more under the protections of the Geneva Convention.
"What does the Geneva Convention have to do with this?" the North Vietnamese replied. "Our countries have not declared war on one another." Alvarez gaped. "You know what?" he thought to himself. "They're right."
That anecdote, related by Alvarez, illustrates the best part of Ken Burns' massive 10-part, 18-hour documentary The Vietnam War, which starts airing on PBS Sunday: Firsthand accounts of how the men and women on the ground negotiated their way through a cockeyed, contradictory war that made little sense to either side.
In their account of a conflict that nearly tore America in two and continues to reverberate through politics and foreign policies around the world to this very day, there are a lot of things Burns and his co-producer/director Lynn Novick do very well: They trace the war back to its origins, long before the first American soldier set foot in Indochina. They introduce multiple Vietnamese points of view. They deconstruct political flim-flammery in both countries and place it in—mostly—a coherent chronology. They resist many of the easy myths about the war that the Baby Boomer chattering classes have established as God's received truth.
But for all the documentary's merits, it does its best work in ferreting out the bite-size experiences of the grunts, not just the ones in uniform but the CIA officers, junior diplomats, peasant farmer and family members back home—the people didn't make policy but were whipsawed by it. Their stories are poignant, confusing, heartbreaking, maddening, blackly funny, or cryptic, often all at once.
Sometimes they even seem like extensions of popular fiction. Which came first: a Marine's stark memory of a march in which an old Vietnamese man, certain Charles de Gaulle's army had returned to rid him of Viet Cong harassment, emerged from a hut to shout, "Vive la France"? Or the French planter haunting the jungle near the Cambodian border in Apocalypse Now like a vengeful ghost, warning Martin Sheen that the Americans are fighting for ''the biggest nothing in history"?
The old man lost in time is not the only character in The Vietnam War who might have stepped out of Apocalypse Now. With disarming candor, one former American officer recounts blundering into an ambush that killed several of his men and left the rest of them pinned down. He murmured a plea to God: If you need any more guys from my platoon, take me, don't take any more of my men. "As soon as I said it, I freaked myself out," the officer remembers. "I said, 'Holy shit, can I take that prayer back?' "
There is archival footage of senior South Vietnamese officers sitting on stage behind Robert McNamara, the whiz-kid American defense secretary, as he shouts in Vietnamese, several times, a popular Saigon slogan of the day, "Vietnam, a thousand years!" Except McNamara is speaking in the wrong intonations and saying, "The little duckie wants to lie down!"
Another South Vietnamese officer, without rancor, orders his American advisor not to stand next to him on battlefields because the man's 6-foot-plus frame is a magnet for snipers' bullets. Villagers invited to a military ceremony discover they're going to watch American planes drench a nearby mountainside in napalm while a U.S. military band plays "The Washington Post March."
An American soldier remembers watching an airstrike on a South Vietnamese village from which U.S. troops had taken some fire, while in the background the Armed Forces Radio Service broadcasts a speech by President Johnson about how Washington is winning Vietnamese hearts and minds with economic aid. As if reading the soldier's mind, Johnson observes: "This war is full of terrible ironies."
The central political thesis of The Vietnam War is hardly novel—that it was an ill-conceived part of Washington's Cold War containment strategy that quickly went off the rails but stayed in place another two decades because American policymakers were too embarrassed to admit they'd tragically miscalculated.
But Burns and Novick make the case with evidence rather than everybody-knows smugness, and they've assembled a horrifying amount of it with their unsurpassed skill at mining archives. There are countless slam-dunk moments of mendacity recorded in The Vietnam War, almost any one of which would prove the case against Washington by itself. Possibly the single most devastating is a taped phone call from Johnson to his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, in May 1964.
"The more I think about this, what in the hell, it looks to me like we're getting into another Korea. I don't think it's worth fighting for," Johnson says, then fatefully adds: "And I don't think we can get out." Four months later the president would use the fictive Gulf of Tonkin incident to win a congressional resolution that would serve as his legal authorization to pour U.S. troops into South Vietnam by the hundreds of thousands.
Holding the feet of Johnson and his successor Richard Nixon to the fire over Vietnam is like napalming ducks in a barrel, of course. But The Vietnam War is equally harsh on John F. Kennedy, who in recent conventional wisdom is said to have been planning to end the war when he was assassinated.
The documentary, however, totes up plenty of hawk-talk by Kennedy, going back to his time in the Senate in the 1950s, some of it brutally cynical. "I can't give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then get the people to re-elect me," he complained to an aide after a battlefield defeat the South Vietnamese army by Viet Cong guerrillas. It was Kennedy's tacit support for a military coup that killed South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, that deepened American involvement in the war to the point of inextricability.
That's not the only leftist fairytale to be challenged in The Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese regime is depicted not as armed agrarian reformers but a collection of murderous Stalinist thugs who cloaked their communism in anti-colonialist rhetoric that appealed to a population that had suffered much at the hands of Chinese, Japanese, and French invaders over the centuries.
Photo Credit: 'The Vietnam War,' PBS