Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s stunning 18-hour exploration of the Vietnam War, aired on PBS and KCPT, has come to an end.
The film was brilliant, substantial, uplifting and, like the war itself, often disturbing.
The stories of heroism and service by those who fought the war take your breath away (John Musgrave, a local vet, plays a large and eloquent role in the film.) From different backgrounds, for different reasons, young Americans found themselves in strange jungles 50 years ago, fighting first for their country, then for each other, and finally just to stay alive.
The stories of prisoners of war were particularly harrowing. The cruelty of their confinement is almost impossible to fully comprehend.
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The film does not blink when exploring atrocity on both sides. But it necessarily re-centers our view of soldiers, sailors and airmen as honorable Americans who did their best to extract some meaning from their service, both during the war and after it ended.
The film explores opposition to the war, too.
No Burns history film is just about history, and this latest work is no exception. Today’s cultural divisions, the series suggests, began during the Vietnam era.
It’s an obvious point to make. You can easily draw a straight line from Kent State and the “silent majority” to this week’s fierce battle over kneeling football players during the national anthem.
The war forced to us take sides, Burns and Novick are telling us, and we’ve been arguing ever since.
For me, though, the most important revelation in the film is the clear evidence, shown repeatedly, that America’s leaders knew the war was a disaster, and unwinnable, from its earliest days but lied about it anyway, sending more young people to die.
The lying was atrocious, routine and bipartisan. White House tapes, played during the film, reveal President Lyndon Johnson agonized over the worsening situation in Vietnam, yet could not find a way to simply bring everyone home.
President Richard Nixon’s approach seems much more cynical and upsetting. His tapes reveal a president obsessed with his own performances, his own political fortunes and realpolitik. The thought of unnecessary death seems to have never crossed his mind.
But it wasn’t just presidents. Military leaders, diplomats, senators all watched in secret horror as the war grew more untenable, the film shows. They were smart. They knew it had to end. They couldn’t figure out a way to do it.
Meanwhile, on the ground, the grunts increasingly understood they were being asked to fight for a lie. Not surprisingly, enthusiasm for the mission waned.
Routine lying by government officials was bad enough in practical terms — it extended the war unnecessarily and made it harder for the troops who were there. But it also sharply corroded the nation’s faith in its elected leadership and its belief in objective fact.
Self-government is hard under any circumstance. Self-government without facts, or a belief in facts, makes it nearly impossible.
John Musgrave spoke with us about the film on Facebook Live this week — a riveting conversation every Kansas Citian should watch at facebook.com/
“That wall in Washington D.C. isn’t just a collection of names,” he said. “It’s a collection of faces, and voices, and laughter, and tears.”
Tears were shed again this week over those names, and for the country they served.
Dave Helling is a columnist and member of The Kansas City Star's Editorial Board.