September 21st, 2017

Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Have you watched the series so far?

I haven’t. I’ve actually heard good things about it. But I can’t bring myself to watch it. Maybe someday.

I’ve read many books about Vietnam, and countless articles. I’ve written a lot about it, too (I can count that number: 86 posts, and with this one it’ll be 87).

So it’s not as though I’ve ignored Vietnam. But I’ve avoided the series for two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to see something one-sided (although I’ve heard it’s pretty fair). The second is that my own memories of the time are so upsetting, even all these years later. I’ve written a little bit about my story here, but the truth is that the year that my boyfriend was in Vietnam in 1968-1969 as a Medevac helicopter door gunner was one of the most stressful of my life.

The trauma was all emotional for me. After all, it’s not as though I was in any physical danger. But he was. And in those days, the only way to reach a loved one in Vietnam was through letters. No email. No internet. No support groups. I was in college and didn’t know one single person (except me) with a loved one in Vietnam, much less in combat in Vietnam. I felt profoundly alone.

I only spoke to my boyfriend once during that year, when he was on R&R in Australia (or was it New Zealand?). The cost was so exorbitant that we only talked for ten minutes or so. Letters came to me in bunches sometimes, but sometimes there were weeks without them because the mail was very unreliable.

How does this relate to the Ken Burns program? It’s just that I have tremendous difficulty watching any footage of Vietnam. It brings back that year of high anxiety, and the mixed feelings of being drawn to watching the news on TV at the same time I was trying to avoid it. All the soldiers looked like my boyfriend—young and handsome and vulnerable.

I wasn’t a wife. I wasn’t a relative of any kind. But I was a young girl in love and the stress was almost unbearable.

So I’ll skip the visuals this time around.

39 Responses to “Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War””

  1. Pandora Says:

    I imagine he starts taking shots at Trump and conservatives in episode 1, as per your column the other day.

  2. huxley Says:

    I liked “The Civil War” but after I turned conservative I noticed how often Burns was shilling for progressive points of view.

    Burns completely lost me with his “Jazz” documentary, which under the guidance of Wynton Marsalis airbrushed out all whites from jazz except Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck.

    Fusion jazz of the late-sixties/seventies, a vibrant form founded in part by Miles Davis, was similarly deleted and those years were mentioned only as a dark age before Wynton Marsalis et al. arrived to restore the temple of jazz as a black artform.

    There has actually been a ferocious, long-running, civil war in jazz over Wynton Marsalis’s heavy hand in Jazz at Lincoln Center. That civil war may still be going on. I haven’t checked.

  3. Griffin Says:

    Decided to pass on this one. Burns has become more and more transparent in his leftism as the years have gone by and I imagine this will be on full display with this series especially in the later episodes.

    This is going to a real problem for history buffs going forward as like everything else it will be filtered through the leftist worldview more and more. Eventually they ruin everything they touch.

  4. Oldflyer Says:

    I don’t intend to watch Burns treatment of Vietnam. For one thing, I don’t trust him. I have seen one preview from a trusted source that is not encouraging. For another I have seen enough analysis of the war.

    I have mentioned before that among the large Vietnamese emigre community in Orange County, Ca., a number of them work as medical technicians or nurses at the medical facility that takes care of me. I have had the opportunity to get perspective from several of them. Then, too, as an active duty aviator I had that perspective. Sufficient.

    I did see a great documentary the other evening on PBS. A correspondent who flew on a Medevac helicopter went back and searched out the crew; then they found a couple of the wounded who had been picked up, and arranged a meeting. Powerful stuff.

    Neo, I can relate to some extent; although certainly not with the intensity. My father, older cousins, and neighbors were in WWII. Although I was young and somewhat oblivious, the strain on the wives and mothers who waited and worried could not be missed. We lost the young man next door, and the one across the street–both were fighter pilots. I well remember the absolute hysterics of one mother when the news came. I don’t think she ever recovered.

    During Vietnam, in the periods when I was home and surrounded by the families of deployed squadrons the tension, while mostly controlled in public, was palpable. Those who are left behind pay a steep price.

  5. huxley Says:

    According to this NY Post opinion piece:

    …Burns and his co-author Geoffrey C. Ward conclude their script by writing, “The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories . . .”

    I understand the individual stories Burns tells are true, but within that overall frame I don’t imagine the documentary strays from the anti-war narrative.

  6. Cap'n Rusty Says:

    I’ve watched the first two episodes, which dealt with events up to the time of Kennedy’s assassination. They were quite good, not overtly anti-war or ideological, and filled in a lot of history of which I was not aware. I’d recommend them.

  7. kevino Says:

    Neo: Thanks for sharing your personal story. Situations like that are very tough for loved ones when you don’t have “official” status. I’ve seen families dealing with tragedies involving young people. Some made accommodations for boy friends or girl friends, and some didn’t.

  8. Tim W Says:

    I like it so far, but it’s the lack of context that is starting to bug me. It depicts events that occurred, but without context they seem pointless or even absurd–those of us with historical knowledge of the war are taken aback by how things are left hanging. For example, yes, the RVN had serious internal problems–almost catastrophic. But we don’t hear about the North not having them because they were basically a Soviet-style dictatorship in which all opposition had been killed or imprisoned. A not so minor thing. Similarly, the after effects of a US airstrike are graphically on display…with no explanation of why the attack was made. We are simply left to marvel at “the horror…the horror.”

  9. Dennis Says:

    Vietnam was “my war”. I lived it as a Marine corporal. A grunt. I have no faith that the likes of Ken Burns will tell that story truthfully and objectively. I’ll take a pass.

    Perhaps off topic, I was struck by that quote by Ward: “The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories . . .”

    I believe that that is exactly what southerners see in the Confederate flag and the many statues in public places. They still revere those in the past that fought beyond courage in a hopeless cause (and for the grunts of that war the cause was the war itself, not necessarily slavery) and damned near pulled it out against a vastly superior foe in terms of numbers and wealth. In the Burns treatment of the Civil War he has a vignette with Shelby Foote who recounts the story of a Union soldier who asks a Reb why they fight so hard and the reply was “because you’re here”.
    Two of my Mother’s great uncles were wounded in that war and another died in Andersonville Prison so I have no love lost for the war but I can easily understand and support how the South feels about it.
    With luck an objective truth will come out about Vietnam. At 73, I doubt I’ll be alive to see it.

  10. Griffin Says:

    Can you imagine what Ken Burns ‘Civil War’ would be like if he made it today? Just go back and listen to all the florid commentary from Foote about Lee and Stonewall and the boys of the Confederate Army.

    Very, very bad. Shame.

  11. Bilwick Says:

    I loved his Civil War series; but Burns is a girly-man for statism and a member of the “liberal” Hive: i.e., the Gang That’s Wrong About Nearly Everything. (I’m including the “Nearly” just our of fairness.) And remember the old Leftist motto that “There is no truth but Socialist Truth.” Then proceed accordingly.

  12. Ray Says:

    I think I’ll pass on watching this. I was on a destroyer home ported at Pearl Harbor and I joke that I spent the Vietnam war cruising around the Pacific on my rich uncles yacht. I didn’t spend any time in country but we did go into the ports of Danang and Vung Tau.

  13. Alan F Says:

    I was ready to be disappointed because it was Ken Burns and PBS, which of course have liberal social visions, which easily create biased interpretations. But, after the first two episodes, I am fascinated and encouraged about getting a very thorough treatment of the Vietnam War.
    One of my perceptions is that almost every decision maker (both US and Vietnamese up to 1964) was making reasonable decisions at the time he was making them.
    I notice is that the narrator often mentions the emotions of rage or enduring hatred that motivate many segments on the several sides involved.
    I have yet to watch episodes of the escalation of the anti-war movement from 1964 on. I could certainly be frustrated by liberal bias, but have not been so far.

    Now in 2017, I see the Vietnam War as more significant in my own life than I once thought.
    My own experience, which has two phases (the second began September 11, 2001:

    First, in 1966 at age 20 I volunteered to be a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne and fully expected to go to Vietnam to be in ground combat. I was motivated by wanting to do dangerous things that would help make a man out of me, not by fighting communism. I knew that I didn’t know enough to have an informed opinion on the war itself. For two years, in the 101st (and later 82nd Airborne), I trained for ground combat with all kinds of weapons. I made 20 parachute jumps as we practiced ground combat. Many of my comrades had already seen action in Vietnam in the 101st and 173rd Airborne Divisions and the 1st Cavalry Division.
    By a fluke I never got sent to Vietnam. My two years were almost up when my brigade got orders to join the 1st Brigade, which had been seeing a lot of action for a year. The 101st also got deployed to the Detroit Riot and the Washington Peace March, both in 1967. So, we had to contend with not just the war, but racial unrest and civil unrest, too.

    In September 2001, after the spectacularly outrageous World Trade Center attacks, I became disturbingly aware that my many liberal friends had no instinctive outrage followed by support for the Bush Administration’s early response. That was very disturbing to me. So, began my own conversion away from the liberal social vision.

    For me, this documentary is fascinating and making it more clear why I see the world so differently from my liberal friends. And, Neo’s experience with her boyfriend may have kept her from seeing things like the many liberals who did not have a loved involved in direct combat like her door gunner.

    In my fifty years in liberal San Francisco Bay Area I have met very few who were in actual combat in Vietnam. Much of the actual fighting in Vietnam, probably most, involved soldiers who volunteered. The Marine Corp and Army Airborne did most of the ground combat. Most Marines volunteered to be Marines, even if drafted. And, all Army paratroopers volunteered to become paratroopers.

    I suspect that confirmation bias will enable liberals to see their preconceived notions upheld. That might work for diehard Vietnam War supporters, too. For myself, I think it will help me see how several sides came to see things like they do.

  14. kaba Says:

    I’ve watched the first four episodes thus far. My impression is that it gives too much attention to the war protesters and only mentions in passing that the war enjoyed a great deal of public support until January 1968.

    Full disclosure: I served 18 months with the US Army in Vietnam from 2/69 until 9/70. I was stationed on some very remote mountaintops south and west of DaNang. I volunteered for the Army; volunteered to go to Vietnam, (I had a brother there at the time); and volunteered to extends my stay. I believed very much in our mission there. And to the limited extent that I had an opportunity to meet the South Vietnamese I truly loved and respected them.

    What I don’t expect to hear from Ken Burns is that by the time I left Vietnam in September 1970 we had largely won the war on the ground.

  15. Oldflyer Says:

    I would not put too much stock in Burn’s first two episodes if they only cover the JFK era. I would expect them to be balanced, if not downright fawning. Liberals, and I would be surprised if Burns didn’t follow the narrative, always say that JFK would never have gone down the disastrous road that LBJ did.

    That is an odd thing to claim. It is even more odd if anyone believes it. At the core, where strategic decisions were made, Johnson’s team was JFK’s team; McNamara, Rusk, Bundy–right down the line. Wouldn’t you think that at least some of those JFK insiders would have quit if LBJ were departing from his legacy? No, they were the “brains” behind the Johnson strategy. (I use the quotes deliberately)

  16. Bumsrush Says:

    Like you, I have not watched. Yes I was there 67-68.
    Huey gunship pilot. Nine months Vietnam, 3 months NKP Thailand. Secret Mission over Laos (Steal Tiger). If you were there you probably knew about it, if not, you probably never heard of it.

    Hanoi 140 miles north.

    As for your boyfriend being a Medevac helicopter door gunner… I always thought Medevac helicopters were unarmed. Whether they were or not my hat is off to those guys.

  17. parker Says:

    Burns-Zim-Burns-Zim… we have all been here before.

  18. parker Says:

    The powers in charge were not in it to win…. Korea, Nam, Afghanistan, and iraq thank you bho. Until we are willing to conduct total war, including detroying ‘civilans’ such as in WW2, I vote stay at home and save blood and treasure. Impose our will, and if not willing to do so STFU.

  19. Cornhead Says:

    Interesting comments per usual.

    I recently read The Winds of War and was so taken by the methods of communication and transportation. Letters are so last century. International phone calls are so cheap now. And, of course, the NYT and CBS called the media shots. No blogs. No cable.

  20. Frog Says:

    I was the only one in my family who was pro-war. In the doctor draft of 1968 I was happy to go but was rejected by the Navy because of Type I diabetes…which I of course still have. The verbal decision concluded with “This decision is NOT subject to appeal”, a phrase I have since used in terminating non-performing employees.
    Go Navy!!

  21. Gringo Says:

    Tim W

    For example, yes, the RVN had serious internal problems–almost catastrophic. But we don’t hear about the North not having them because they were basically a Soviet-style dictatorship in which all opposition had been killed or imprisoned. A not so minor thing.

    Before I see a documentary on Vietnam, I will read a book or two about Vietnam on my bookshelves. I prefer getting my information from print. Documentaries often tend towards slanted points of view- slants which are often more difficult to detect on screen than in print. For my response to a recommendation that I see a TV show about Dalton Trumbo, go to the link.

  22. J.J. Says:

    Like Neo, I do not want to watch and open up old wounds.

    What is so often missed is that those who have loved ones in the fight have to deal with anguish on a daily basis. My wife was astounding. She gathered the squadron wives to her and kept them in constant touch – all supporting one another. It was group therapy although she didn’t know of such at the time. It just made her and the other wives feel better to support one another in anyway that made sense. The darkest moments came when we lost four pilots and war protestors kept calling the bereaved wives and harassing them. There is no punishment equal to that kind depravity. I want to believe the best of my fellow humans but scum who would do such things are beyond redemption.

    For many years after the Congress voted to cut all aid to the ARVN, I harbored a smoldering rage that was eating at my guts. In 1986 I had a breakdown of sorts. I was just one super angry dude. Finally met a therapist who specialized in helping people deal with anger. It took some violent sessions where I got in touch with, and let out, my rage. He saved me and our marriage.
    That anger is still there, but I now know how to get in touch with it and work it out – focusing my anger on a barbell and doing dead lifts or bench presses is my medicine of preference.

    The reasons why we failed to win the war is covered in great detail by H. R. McMaster in his book, “Dereliction of Duty.” Belief in gradually increasing the pressure as a winning strategy, believing that Ho Chi Minh had a regard for the lives of his people, concern for collateral damage, worry about “world opinion,” constant bombing pauses to pursue negotiations, micro-managing the war from the White House, not listening to the Joint Chiefs, and more are all covered.

    We prevailed on the battlefield in spite of all the above, but the war was lost in the halls of a Democrat controlled Congress. I don’t need to see a left wing view of the war. They are the SOBs that sold out the South Vietnamese.

  23. neo-neocon Says:


    I have no idea whether all the Medevac helicopters in Vietnam were armed, but some certainly were, plus there were other helicopters that sometimes evacuated the wounded, and those were armed as well.

    Here you can find a discussion where some of the people mention having been gunners on Medevac helicopters in Vietnam.

    And here’s a discussion where some say Medevacs were armed and some say they don’t remember that. I certainly remember, and I also have a photo of my boyfriend standing in front of the helicopter with the big red crosses. It looks exactly like the photos of Medevac helicopters in Vietnam when I do a Google search.

    And here’s a Vietnam memoir where someone talks about having been a doorgunner on a Medevac.

    Here’s a bit more:

    The incident began when three wounded members of the 25th Infantry Division’s 91-A element were being extracted from the Jungle near the Song Be Bridge in Binh Duong Province. Before they could be pulled out, however, intense enemy fire brought down the “DUSTOFF” Bird, a craft supporting the 25th. While 25th. Infantry Division Cobras circled high above, a Medevac bird from the 1st. Air Cavalry Division’s 15th Medical Battalion answered the “Mayday” call from the stricken aircraft.

    Warrant Officer Joel Morris, ‘Medevac 26″ Commander, rushed to the crash site and , communicating with ground units, found the crew of the downed bird had been rescued. However, there were still three critically wounded men on the ground who needed immediate evacuation. Morris briefed his crew on their individual responsibilities, then called the ground unit for approach instructions. As the bird came in low over the high jungle canopy and prepared to drop the semi-rigid litter by cable, muzzle flashes were spotted from enemy gun emplacements. The door gunners, Specialist 5 Robert Valencia and Specialist 4 Daniel Weaver, opened up Hot and Heavy with their machineguns in an attempt to suppress the enemy fire. After quickly taking the craft out of range Morris and Warrant Officer Barry Brown, the Co-Pilot, came in for another approach from a different route. As the bird hovered over the jungle, Specialist 4 Gregory Shafer, the Medic, and Crew Chief Jonathan Hodges lowered the hoisting cable and the litter through the treetops…

    I think that in recent years the rules have changed, but I’m not sure. In Vietnam, Medevac crews had very high casualty rates.

  24. Ymar Sakar Says:

    The powers that be, which includes the factions behind and in front of the Deep State, were in it to win. For them and their allies. Most of the time, that did not include most of the normals in the US.

    So long as Americans refuse to purge and kill the traitors in their own country, don’t expect to win as many wars as the exceptionalism would entail.

  25. groundhog Says:

    I would not put too much stock in Burn’s first two episodes if they only cover the JFK era.

    French occupation through JFK in first two episodes.

    Some broader history as well.

  26. Yankee Says:

    On a lighter note, it’s only right to mention the soldier’s nemesis, Jody. You could be sweating it out in the field, sleeping in the mud, and swatting mosquitoes. But Jody is back home, working a soft and easy civilian job. You could be crammed onto a Navy ship, scraping paint and oiling machinery. But Jody is back home, riding around in a fancy car. And all the time you’re there, and you’re tired or hungry or bored or homesick or stressed-out, you’re also reminded that Jody has got your girl, too!

    So it’s nice to see this recollection of the Vietnam War from Neo’s viewpoint, and how she felt as a young woman, with her boyfriend over there and her worry and concern.

  27. Oldflyer Says:

    groundhog, I assume that Burns covers the fact that Ike refused to go into Indo-China to help preserve the French Empire. We did provide some aid. I don’t know how much, but my first XO served an exchange with the French Navy as the Landing Signal Officer on a carrier.

  28. The Other Chuck Says:

    I’m with you Neo. Can’t watch any of the footage or even movies made about that dreadful war. Living through it once was enough.

  29. huxley Says:

    I thank all here who served. It feels trite to say but I don’t think it gets said enough.

    And those who waited for those who served.

  30. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Youtube has a section of music you can get if you enter “vietnam songs” Takes you back.
    I was on orders to MACV–advisor–due in country early ’71. My brother was killed in October ’70, so I got off orders.
    My father didn’t tell me for forty years. After my brother’s notice was in the papers, the left called my parents to taunt them. When I think of my poor, sweet mother…… Jesus, I’m glad my father waited so long. I think.
    We weren’t alone. Wonder if Burns will cover that sort of thing.

  31. J.J. Says:

    huxley: “I thank all here who served. It feels trite to say but I don’t think it gets said enough.”

    IMO, it is being said too often. Almost like, “Have a good day.” It is trite. What counted for Nam vets was when we got back we were insulted, spit upon, and worse. There’s really no way to make that right. Now when someone says, “Thank you for your service,” I swant to say, “Where were you in the 60s?” But I don’t. Instead I say, “Thank you, but no thanks are needed. It was my privilege to serve my country in the company of fine men.” That was the real payoff I got from serving.

    Huxley: “And those who waited for those who served.” Hear, hear! That doesn’t get said nearly often enough.

  32. Pervy Grin Says:

    oldflyer, Burns did indeed cover the fact that Ike refused to go into Indo-China to help preserve the French Empire. I’ve only seen the first episode so far but I was surprised at how even-handed it was. Communist atrocities were discussed and the fact that presidents from both parties was explicitly mentioned.

  33. Richard Aubrey Says:

    There’s a book which just barely presages the war in Viet Nam.
    “This Kind of War” by Fehrenbach is a bang-up history of the Korean War, with history, context, and up close and personal fightiing.
    It also discusses the place of a military in a liberal democracy.
    Part of the theme of the book is the bilateral cold war with nukes.
    We can afford to lose a place here or there. But when we lose enough for the Russians to think they have a chance in Europe, we have to choose major fighting or acquiescence.
    So if Iceland is taken out of the equation for guarding the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap keeping Sovs in the Norwegian Sea. And serious Russian combat power is in Cuba threatening shipments from the Gulf Coast ports to Europe…. Even more technical, what it takes to close the Strait of Florida is not much use in the North Atlantic, so that’s no loss to the Russians. But what it takes to fight the convoys through is useful in the North Atlantic, so besides losses there, we have reduced combat power to get the remainders to Europe.
    Chess is excerpted from war. Fehrenback suggests that if one side loses too many pawns and knights, the result is checkmate, or kicking over the board.
    So the borders have to be guarded. Held.
    Separately, I ran into some Luftwaffe guys who thought, metaphorically, that we were fighting the battle of the Fulda Gap without inconveniencing the Germans. If we’d do this for crap-stinking padi fields half way around the world….

    Also keep in mind that–as I know from my OCS training–we had one eye behind us on the InterGerman border. We trained for that, and we trained for Viet Nam.

    The guys in the Reserve component had a pretty good gig, unless the balloon went up in Europe. Then they were in the crapper. To be fair, so was everybody else. Nobody knew, with the benefit of hindsight, that it wouldn’t happen.

  34. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Oh, yeah. If the French wanted to preserve their empire, so what? The result would be holding the border, whatever the motivation of the parties.

  35. Ymar Sakar Says:

    I suppose this can be classified as Book watching the show so we don’t have to.

    Vietnam is still unresolved in the American psyche. The blowback is still happening. OIF and Afghanistan being unresolved, will contribute to the next US Civil War.

    By not resolving the foreign entanglements, the domestic factionalism cannot be resolved either. It’s check mate.

  36. jim Says:

    With all due respect to Neo, who I know suffered emotionally over the involvement of a loved one, and to the many righteous vets who responded to this blog, I am disheartened to hear so many responders dismiss the film out of hand, then label it simply leftist propaganda.

    I became involved with the peace movement back in ’65 while still in high school (later losing a friend to the war in ’67) and bookended that experience with a visit to Ho Chi Minh city in 2007, where I fell in love with the people and shuttered at the images in their War Memorial Museum. Watching Burns’ account is difficult for me, as well. More difficult, perhaps, is my perception that so many still cling to the “Red Scare” and refuse to give up their dominoes.

    By refusing to even consider his thorough and well-rounded version of events, conservatives seem to be repeating the same kind of shared reluctance to recognize – as in the mid-60s moving forward – when their country is consumed by lies, thereby costing the lives of its best and brightest.

    And no conservative has yet provided me, at least, a heartfelt reason that war was either winable or principled.

  37. Irv Says:

    I was going to record and watch the whole series. I watched 10 minutes of the first episode and then cancelled the rest of the recordings.

    The vast majority of examinations of the war that I have read have been very shallow and politically correct. They mostly parrot conventional wisdom and rarely point to the real causes of the war, the conduct of it and the reasons for the loss.

    I flew AC-119K “Stinger” gunships in Vietnam and have no need to endure another politically correct look at it. It will probably be at least another 50 years or so before historians do a serious unbiased analysis of it. At the very least all of the current crop of historians will have to pass the mantle to others….if we last that long.

  38. Tim W Says:

    I’m hanging in there, but have been disappointed (again) at the lack of context. Every battle the US is in is “pointless” and results in losses for no gain. In contrast, credit for pointing out what a disaster Tet was for the NVA/VC but not going as much into the role the media played afterward. I was disappointed about how Hue was covered–the VC/NVA went in with orders to liquidate ‘enemies,’ but the program uses the low-ball estimate of deaths and makes it sound like it was not part of a carefully prepared plan on the part of the north. And, the infamous Saigon police chief shooting a VC terrorist is left without significant context–the man had just wiped out the chief’s close friend and family as part of a VC hit squad.

  39. Tim W Says:

    “I flew AC-119K “Stinger” gunships in Vietnam and have no need to endure another politically correct look at it. It will probably be at least another 50 years or so before historians do a serious unbiased analysis of it. At the very least all of the current crop of historians will have to pass the mantle to others….if we last that long.”

    I salute you, sir. Given the state of academia (I escaped after getting my history PhD), don’t hold your breath on them doing a good job anytime soon. They are beyond corrupted and mired in lefty groupthink.

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