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Editor's Choice: 'The Vietnam War: An Intimate History' by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

“The Vietnam War: An Intimate History” by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Knopf, 613 pages, $60

This, from the introduction to this predictably exceptional book, is inarguable: “It’s been more than forty years now, and despite President [Gerald] Ford’s optimism we have never been able to put [The Vietnam] War behind us. The deep wounds it inflicted on our nation, our communities, our families and politics have festered. As Army veteran Phil Gioia said in an interview in our documentary series "the Vietnam War" drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized our country as it has probably never been polarized since before the Civil War, and we’ve never recovered.”

The book proper, begins this way: “America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended thirty years later in failure witnessed by the entire world. It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American over-confidence and cold-war miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than to admit it had been caused by tragic decisions made by five American presidents belonging to both political parties.” Before the war was over, more than 58,000 Americans would be dead. At least 250,000 South Vietnamese troops died in the country as well. A million Vietnamese perished in all.

Ken Burns’ newest mammoth contribution to the form he all-but-invented for our time--the masterful, intimate PBS epic documentary television series--begins this Sunday at 8 p.m. But, as always, Burns’ epochal creations are more than just huge and hugely distinguished creations for television, they are, as well, large multi-media events.

As always, there is an extraordinary accompanying book (it was the British, long ago, who invented that combination with Jacob Bronowski.) The books are always more than just large illustrated “coffee table books” but also superb pop cultural histories of America by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward. When it was their incredible history of jazz, it included an invaluable series of recordings to go with it. So here, what Burns once did with baseball, The Civil War, and World War II, he now does with Vietnam, for our sakes as well as television’s.

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