Donald Trump will most likely be the last President of the United States to have been old enough for military service during the Vietnam War. Should that be the case, no President will have been a combat veteran of that war, though the American people have had a few chances to elect one. For what it's worth, John McCain and John Kerry are conspicuously absent as present-day talking heads in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's ten-part documentary, though they receive appropriate attention for their adventures during the conflict. The filmmakers focus more on the ordinary grunt experience of the war, though a disproportionate number of witnesses, American and Vietnamese, went on to write eloquently about the war. None of them becomes the sort of "Shelby Foote" character people may still expect in Burns's documentaries, but they more than compensate in lived experience for what Foote contributed in folksy oracular insight. The Vietnam War presents an admirably broad array of perspectives on the Vietnam ordeal, yet somehow, for me at least, President Trump loomed over the series like the gaping mouth of a new tunnel, if only because the controversy over whether or not athletes should stand for the national anthem escalated while the series rolled out on PBS. Especially once the war came home in the form of mass protests and conservative backlash, you could see the first sketches of the battle lines of Trump's America. It was fifty years ago, approximately, when Americans in large numbers first dared "break faith" with the troops by demanding an immediate end to the war the troops were fighting -- unless you count the 1863 Draft Riots, reviewed by Burns long ago, as the original moment or original sin. The country has been torn ever since by the conflicting imperatives of individual conscience and national solidarity, among other things, and the Burns/Novick Vietnam is probably most instructive by showing us how we started then on the road to today.
It's probably most infuriating, in a healthy way, in its relentless illustration of cynicism and moral cowardice on the part of American politicians. The Vietnam War makes clear that few if any American leaders ever believed that the war could be won through the elimination of the Viet Cong or the forcing of North Vietnamese acquiescence in the independence of the South. Yet successive leaders escalated American commitment to a South Vietnamese regime that apparently never was viable out of fear of losing elections for being "soft on Communism." Burns and Novick actually should have gone into more detail on the emotional and intellectual basis of American (and South Vietnamese) anti-communism, to account for the compulsive aspect of our involvement with Indochina, just as they should have told us more about Vietnamese culture before French colonialism, on my assumption that older history might tell us something about underlying class or regional conflicts in that old country. I don't think the filmmakers can be accused of being soft on communism themselves -- I recall such a charge being made against the 1980s Vietnam: A Television History, after which PBS aired a right-wing rebuttal documentary -- since the North Vietnamese leader Le Duan, something like the Stalin to Ho Chi Minh's Lenin, only without the cult of personality, is as much a villain in his harebrained wasting of lives, during the Tet offensive and other occasions, as Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. This series makes all too clear that there were no good options for the ordinary people of Vietnam, whose choices were Leninist terror, U.S. mass destruction, or a South Vietnamese ruling clique that too often seemed implacably hostile, on religious or other grounds, to their own constituents. On this last point the series undercuts somewhat its efforts to put across the tragic mood of veterans who regard our abandonment of South Vietnam after 1973 as treacherous, since the leaders of South Vietnam most likely surrendered viewers' sympathies long before then. It's hard to find any politician, American or Vietnamese, who emerges from the Burns/Novick narrative with honor, and that may be why the series has no time for veterans who became politicians.
The Vietnam War is Ken Burns documentary dependent entirely on living participants in actual events. As a result, it will look like a Ken Burns film to those whose expectations are still defined by The Civil War. Nor does it sound as a Burns show normally sounds; there's no "Ashokan Farewell" here to capture the national imagination, but the same old oldies trotted out for period pieces, interlarded with comparatively imperceptible incidental music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. You could have made up a Vietnam War drinking game for the occasion: create a list of 100 or so Sixties or early Seventies classics, distribute the titles at random to your buddies, and have each person drink when one of their songs is played. It would have given new meaning to binge-viewing. That carping aside, the key Burns strategy of a long-term cast of talking heads still helps structure an immense narrative while giving it a sort of subjective coherence. His cleverest trick this time was introducing "Mogie" Crocker of Saratoga Springs NY, a gung-ho kid determined to enlist over all family opposition . Since you never saw a 2017 Crocker talk to the camera you could guess that Mogie was doomed, and in fact he lived only long enough to grow profoundly disillusioned before getting KIA'd in 1966. But Mogie's story was really the means to introduce his sister Carol as a major character the series would follow through her collegiate involvement in the antiwar movement and her eventual pilgrimage to the memorial wall in Washington D.C. That sort of connection quite literally ties the foreign and domestic threads of the story together, but you get a similar effect when some of our POV soldiers come home and get involved in the antiwar movement themselves, sometimes very conflictedly. Overall, I think Burns and Novick did justice to the ambiguities of the U.S. "Vietnam experience," though I suppose some may still complain about the absence of anyone willing to say the war was a righteous cause and we deserved to win.
For me, the series hit its emotional climax in episode eight, which itself climaxed with the Kent State killings in 1970. Out of the whole "Vietnam experience," the shooting of four students by National Guardsmen may be the "loss of innocence" moment of no return for people still living today. Many of Burns's witnesses definitely portray it that way. For many observers it was awful enough to see college students breaking faith with the troops, but for many others there was a different kind of breaking faith when the troops started killing white college kids. If some today still find the echoes of student protest repugnant, others find the possibility of another Kent State all too plausible in the current sociopolitical environment. For me, again, The Vietnam War's treatment of Kent State was saddening in yet another way. I DVR'd the series and watched one episode every couple of days, between the other shows I record. By the time I got to episode eight, the Las Vegas massacre had happened. When I watched it, the really heartbreaking thing was how traumatized everyone in the U.S. of 1970 was by the deaths of only four people. If Kent State and the war experience as a whole was a loss of innocence, there was still plenty of innocence to lose afterward. The Vietnam War's great virtue is that it allows you to see and feel that original loss of innocence -- presuming that you presume America innocent at any time in its history -- almost as if it was happening live before your eyes.