I was late getting to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series, “The Vietnam War.” But, what a discovery when I got there. It is a work of art.
The 10-part series holds nothing back. The writing is razor sharp. The hours of historic film and photographs are so real and so plentiful that the whole package is living history at its finest.
For baby boomers, this series is a look back to a time when a generation learned real freedom had to mean something concrete. More and more young people believed freedom of thought and freedom of speech could lead to the ultimate freedom: to stand up and say “No.” It was a time when authority figures everywhere started to lose their grip.
Although the footage wasn’t being seen for the first time, Burns’ depiction of uniformed American soldiers in Vietnam, in broad daylight, smoking drugs, using the barrel of a machine gun as a delivery system, says all you need to know about the breakdown in discipline. But, before you think it can’t get worse, think again.
An American solider is on film in uniform telling an interviewer how soon after his arrival in Vietnam he was approached about scoring heroin. The documentary lays it out raw and plain: 20 per cent of American military personnel serving in Vietnam became hooked on heroin.
Both the military personnel and civilians Burns interviews are so human, and so emotional. Regardless of which side anyone was on, there is no escaping the intensity of remembered feelings as we recall living through them a half-century ago.
Many draft dodgers and deserters escaped to Canada and there are references to Montreal in some of their stories. Although not part of the documentary, it is worth recalling how we can always be proud that Lester Pearson, our prime minister then, got a volcanic president Lyndon Johnson all riled up as he frequently railed against the war in Vietnam. It was no accident that Canada became a haven for deserters and draft dodgers.
Burns gets us to see and feel so much. The visuals and narration of when four students at Kent State University were shot dead by panicked National Guardsmen at an anti-war protest is a stark reminder of the day baby boomers realized civilization as they knew it was over.
It was a crazy time when nothing made sense because nothing could make sense. Sense was not possible when it came to Vietnam because the official story had always been based on big fat lies. Donald Trump is not the first liar in the White House. The Vietnam War turned all the presidents connected to it into certified liars.
John F. Kennedy, Johnson, and Richard Nixon – especially Johnson and Nixon – lied repeatedly. They lied to the U.S. Congress, they lied to the troops, and they lied to the people. They could not tell the truth because the truth was that Americans were getting their asses kicked in the jungles of Vietnam.
The documentary outlines how the U.S. got into Vietnam and couldn’t get out. It shows how Americans became killers when they dropped so many bombs on North Vietnam and Cambodia because nothing else was working.
Burns does such a wonderful job weaving the importance of the leaked Pentagon Papers into his storytelling. The Pentagon Papers outlined, detailed and documented every administration’s lies about the war. Both Republicans and Democrats had the same frame of mind: there was no way the Americans could ever lose a war, even if they were actually losing.
The reality that bald-faced lies were the way three presidents dealt with their Vietnam failures made the protesters angrier, more confrontational, and in many instances, more violent, as they hit the streets to say “no” to the war. Nixon’s silent majority was said to support the war. They were the ones who went berserk when they saw protesters burn draft cards and American flags.
It was such an incredible time and Burns nimbly reminds us how the evils of Watergate and Nixon’s plumbers had their roots in his reaction to anti-war protests. Vietnam was a game changer that cost Johnson and Nixon their jobs.
And Vietnam was a game changer that taught baby boomers what freedom was.