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A riveting return to 'The Vietnam War' from Ken Burns

I know nothing. That was the best lesson I learned as a naïve college freshman who believed the government didn't mislead or lie to its citizens a half century ago at SUNY-Stony Brook.

I sat down with a 15 or 16-year-old fellow freshman from New York City for two or three hours in 1966 as he educated me about the history of Vietnam, starting with the involvement of the French.

Mark explained to me the folly of the United States' decision to repeat the mistakes of the French in fighting an unwinnable war.

I was reminded of Mark's history lesson while watching Sunday's first episode of "The Vietnam War," an 18-hour PBS series from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that will be carried on WNED-TV. Narrated by actor Peter Coyote and featuring a soundtrack of the 1960s, the 10 episodes air from Sunday through Thursday over the next two weeks.

I was as riveted watching the first three episodes as I was listening to Mark. It was like reading a page-turning book.

Soldiers on patrol during the Vietnam War. Documentariand Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a 10-part film, "The Vietnam War," premiering on Sept 17 on PBS. (Handout/TNS)

With historical war footage, tapes of presidential recordings, poignant letters from and interviews with American veterans, government officials and award-winning journalists, as well as subtitled interviews with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese veterans, the debate will be over if this is Burns' best work ever.

Sunday's opening episode, "Déjà Vu," deals with the end of the French colonial occupation and the power of Ho Chi Minh leading Vietnam revolutionaries in the north while trying to unify the country when America placed its bet on the regime of a detested Ngo Dinh Diem in the south.

Monday's episode 2, "Riding the Tiger," details President Kennedy's difficulty trying to get a handle on America's role in the war and the inability to keep Diem in check.

Tuesday's episode 3, "The River Styx," deals with President Lyndon B. Johnson's reluctant escalation of American troops on the ground even as he privately acknowledged the war may be unwinnable.

A picture emerges of countless American misjudgments of the will of the enemy and a misunderstanding of their country, bad intelligence and the Viet Cong's advantage of fighting in the jungle for something they believed in.

Worst of all, the three episodes reveal the countless lies told by American officials as the country moved from advising the South Vietnamese to fighting their battles.

As usual with a Burns documentary, "The Vietnam War" is best when it focuses on the human toll and reveals the innermost thoughts of those battling on both sides.

One Vietnam veteran notes that he still sleeps with the lights on because of the continuing trauma from fighting in the war.

A Marine veteran says he isn't as angry about the mistakes political leaders made as he is by the lies being told about troop buildups and supposed American successes.

A teenage American who couldn't wait to fight returned home briefly to shock his family by telling them "if I were a Vietnamese, I'd be on the side of the Viet Cong."

The Viet Cong veterans talk about how motivated they were by America's false belief that might is right and its inability to fully understand what the North Vietnamese were fighting for.

Ken Burns (Justin Altman)

An American mother discusses how badly her teenage son wanted to go to Vietnam because he naively believed everything the government was saying about the need to go to war to protect American interests and keep Southeast Asia out of communist control.

The first three episodes illustrate the importance of journalists like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, who were on the scene to document the false picture the government was portraying of American success. In episode 3, Sheehan says he views the Americans fighting in Vietnam were just as great as the those considered "The Greatest Generation" for fighting in World War II.

Eventually more than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam.

When American Gen. William Westmoreland boasted of the 10-1 ratio of North Vietnamese being killed to Americans, Sen. Fritz Hollings responded "the American people don't care about the 10, they care about the one."

Based on the first four and a half hours, I imagine many American viewers who care enough to watch this painful chapter of history may again become angry about the lies they were told. They may also be as surprised by their feelings about the North Vietnamese, illustrated by the American who told his family he would have been on their side if he were Vietnamese.

I also imagine many viewers might immediately feel "I knew nothing" even if they have watched previous Vietnam documentaries.

At a news conference in Los Angeles in January, Burns acknowledged it was important to raise the question whether President Kennedy would have gotten America out of the war if he had lived.

"In point of fact, LBJ inherited all of his foreign policy people and said, 'I need you more than he needed you,' because he was more interested in his domestic agenda," said Burns. "And those same men led into the greater involvement. But when Kennedy began, there were only a few hundred advisers. When he was shot and assassinated, there were 17,000 advisors. So we’re talking about an extraordinary degree of escalation that only just continued under Johnson.

"From the very beginning, the Vietnamese are hoping that our interest in colonial peoples deciding for themselves how they should be governed will put the United States on the side of independence movements. And that, for a while, is exactly what happens. But then the Cold War intervenes, and Vietnam doesn’t become a thing. It becomes the idea of a thing, which is a proxy war with the Soviet Union and Communist China."

The media's general supportive role of the war is addressed before Sheehan and others reported the truth.

"And almost from the very beginning, I mean, this could also be called, 'Secrets and Lies,' " said Burns. "For so much of the Vietnam story, this is about our government not telling us the full effect."

"But all war is about lies," added Burns.  "And Vietnam, of course, because it lacks the redeeming outcomes of, say, the Civil War, the liberating 4 million American citizens and, most importantly, their descendants from bondage, or liberating the world from the tyranny of fascism and militarism, it becomes even more a part of the fabric of our film to go at that and many other themes."

"You can go back to Greek tragedies and find exactly what happened in Vietnam. And you can go back to the Civil War and see correspondents in World War II, and then, of course, there is the uniqueness of every war, and it’s a usually unique in a very horrible way, as is certainly the case here."

Burns believes he had an advantage over previous Vietnam projects of having 10 years to make the film.

"There will always be someone who said, 'I knew this.' But there are thousands of things in this film that most people, 99.9 percent of people, don’t even know."


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