|It is ironic how the most anti-war piece of propaganda is simply footage of war itself.
And that's what Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's newest nearly 20-hour long documentary seeks to showcase. That, along with every other conceivable facet, aspect, view, and fresh horror of the war. Never before has a filmmaking opportunity as monumental as "The Vietnam War" arisen. That is a pretty bold statement, but it's true. Journalists and soldiers often under fire themselves, captured hours upon hours of active combat, from the perspective of mostly the United States, but also, and perhaps surprising to some degree, the ARVN (the South Vietnamese army) and the Viet Cong.
The result, collected here by Ken Burns and co, is undoubtedly some of the most visceral and terrifyingly brutal images ever to be captured. Some select few which have been burned into the surface of my brain, I will assuredly never be able to forget. The now infamous photo of an unarmed Viet Cong officer's face, twisted in death as the bullet from the revolver of an ARVN general enters his brain. Or the Buddhist monk having lit himself on fire in the middle of a crowded intersection, who sits, complacent, in his own death but also in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the predominantly Roman Catholic South Vietnamese government. The lifeless body of a boy, blood pooled around his head who died at Kent State protesting the war. Perhaps most startling and eerie of all though, a little girl, completely naked, running down a country road from the black smoke of the bombs that just moments before stripped and melted the skin off of her back.
The tale of Vietnam plays out with the scale and cold brutality of a Shakespearean tragedy. The cast of characters - idealistic communist leaders with nothing to lose, idealistic United States Presidents with everything to lose, and a seemingly endless supply of corrupt South Vietnamese officials - is sprawling and ever-changing. Watching the war play out; It can only be described as seeing a bomb go off in slow motion. The impact of which is all consuming and permanent. The Vietnam War changed everything, and it is strange to hear its combatants reflect on it. You hear the phrase "It was pointless" echoed by perhaps everyone in the documentary at least once, regardless of their allegiance. And they are certainly right. The United States involvement in Vietnam and the conflict that ensued was ultimately pointless, but it was something worse than that. It was purposeful, even measured pointlessness. Hellbent on snuffing out communism before it could reach the people of Vietnam, the United States viewed the war as a mathematical equation that they could solve if they just plugged in the right numbers. If only they could kill more communists than the Viet Cong could replace, than the war would be won quickly and the spread of communism could be halted.
On the other hand, all the Viet Cong want is independence, ironically the same exact thing the United States fought for itself two hundred years prior. It all culminates in one of the greatest military disasters of all time, and the corruption of patriotism as it was known in the United States up until that point. This as well as the death of an unconditional trust in and respect for the United States government by its citizens.
The documentary goes so far beyond the age-old adage of "war is hell" though. For every image of dead North Vietnamese farmers, often women, children, and infants left in a ditch by US soldiers to bump up the body count to make their mission look like more of a success than it was, or of bombs pouring out the side of a B-52, is someone who was there, giving their own context to what they saw, and what it meant for the war. It isn't just US veterans either, but Viet Cong veterans, ARVN veterans, anti-war activists, POWs, draft dodgers, government officials, Americans who lost someone, and the Vietnamese civilians who lived through the war and the destruction of their homes and families as well. They interviewed everyone they could. It's a "360-degree documentary". This is what makes the story so unique, but equally so powerful.
The war is one of the most complex and confusing of all time, and there are so many veterans who are still trying to process what they did in the name of their country forty years ago. Ken Burns' team was able to give those who made history, a platform to talk about what it was like to make history. This makes for some incredible moments that the documentary appropriately does not call too much attention to, where for instance, a US veteran describes what it was like to try and capture a Viet Cong held position, before it cuts to a Viet Cong veteran giving a first-hand account of what it was like to try and hold off the US military from capturing the same hill, all the while showing footage of both individuals doing just that.
It is a little funny to me that Netflix offers all of these originals and comedies that try to reach as wide an audience as possible, but also tucked away in its catalog is Ken Burns' uncompromising NC-17 look at murder and death. It goes without saying, it is not an easy watch. On one hand, because it is nearly 20 hours of hardcore history and politics. But also, the depiction of a complete lack of humanity and compassion for other humans and their ideas on such a massive scale is undeniably disgusting and altogether frustrating to watch. So often I was left asking why someone would go through such lengths of cruelty and disregard for human life to achieve their political goals, and there is no real answer.
My high school education unsurprisingly skimmed over the Vietnam War, probably out of a lingering embarrassment and sense of failure, trading it instead for a lengthy section on the Native American genocide, which is only ok to talk about because it happened a long time ago. The Vietnam War was real though, it really happened, people, usually kids just out of high school, really died in horrific ways, oftentimes for no good reason. It's part of our history, not just American and Vietnamese history, but the history of the world of humans, and how we treat each other. After watching the documentary and obtaining my PhD in "The Study of the Vietnam War" in the mail from Ken Burns himself, I can safely say it is a stunning film. It does not shy away at all from footage of people dying, of bodies and limbs ripped apart by grenades and other explosives, of parents crying over their dead infants, or from reality. However, if you can stand it, then I think it is certainly an important film that as many people as possible should see. If ever there was a documentary that deserved to be called an "epic", this would be it.
Yeah so that's the soup or the tea, or whatever the kids say these days.
I suppose I will leave you all with a quote. This time from Karl Marlantes, who is a Vietnam veteran featured pretty prominently in the documentary. To hear what he says is, to me at least, more terrible and disheartening than to see any of the countless images of death.
"One of the things that I learned in the war is that we're not the top species on the planet because we're nice. ... People talk a lot about how well the military turns kids into killing machines, and I'll always argue that it's just finishing school."