Strolling down a street in the city of Da Nang, Vietnam last month, I came upon a sidewalk shop selling shiny wood caskets. When I stopped to take some pictures, the elderly owner came out, smiling, and asked where I was from.
“America,” I told him, and he broke into a wide grin. Was I here during the war? he asked. I was, I said, in the Army. Then he raised his arms like he was firing a rifle. “I fought for Ho Chi Minh!” he exclaimed. I chuckled, struggling for an appropriate response. “Well,” I finally said, “I fought to stay alive.”
Nearly 50 after the war’s end, Americans, including Vietnam veterans, are still struggling to explain how we got involved in that disastrous, and ultimately futile, war. And that goes for Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, directors of The Vietnam War, a much-heralded 10-part, 18-hour epic series that debuts Sunday night on PBS.
Burns says he began thinking about revisiting the Vietnam War decades ago, but decided the national psyche wasn’t ready for it. A previous major PBS series on the conflict in 1983, based on a book by a veteran Vietnam correspondent suggesting that the war was less than honorable, provoked a loud right-wing backlash. So he decided to wait.
Now, Burns says, it’s time to talk—and get over it. “With knowledge comes healing,” he told Vanity Fair. “The seeds of disunion we experience today, the polarization, the lack of civil discourse all had their seeds in Vietnam,” Burns told The New York Times. “I can’t imagine a better way to help pull out some of the fuel rods that create this radioactive atmosphere than to talk about Vietnam in a calm way.”
Good luck with that, as we said in ‘Nam. While the TV critics have been agog with praise and wonder over the series’s cinematic mastery, depth of research (some 80 interviews of participants on all sides) historical sweep and emotional punch, some veterans and longtime students of the war are already taking critical aim at the series’s fuzzy treatment of the war’s central question: Why did we get involved in the first place? Who thought that was a good idea?
Burns strives to give everyone’s strongly held, divergent views equal weight, but before long, he’s waist deep in a historical big muddy, wandering among competing…