TV documentary brings long ago war into focus

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

While many have been alarmed by rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, others have been riveted by a history lesson played out on PBS in a 10-part documentary directed by Ken Burns and his long-time collaborator Lynn Novick.

“The Vietnam War” is the title of the 18-hour series that begins in reverse, a striking opening sequence in which “bombs fall up, riot police back away from protesters, and villages and draft cards reconstitute themselves out of flames.”

In a sense, it’s a symbolic way to treat a tragedy that still is fresh in the minds of many Americans who somehow and in some way served their country during a war that raged at home and abroad.

The story as told by Burns, whose film credits include a spellbinding look at “The Civil War,” begins with Ho Chi Minh, the Communist revolutionary leader who longed for Vietnamese independence from French colonists and then their U.S. successors in the Southeast Asian country. Fascinatingly, the opening episode casts Ho in a far different historical light, from his time as a pastry chef in a Boston hotel to his role in helping the U.S. repel the Japanese invaders from Vietnam during World War II.

The real pull of the documentary, however, is the breadth of its storytelling, of how a misunderstood war impacted the lives of millions of men, women, and children across the U.S. and Southeast Asia.

Now, some 42 years after the fall, Vietnam is a study in contrasts for tourists bent on acquiring a taste of the life and culture of the country that forever will be etched in the historical mind of America.

Capitalism in the midst of communism.

Faith in the face of religious persecution.

A Hanoi Hilton within minutes of the “Hanoi Hilton.”

April 30 marked the 42nd anniversary of the fall of Saigon, effectively ending a war that claimed nearly 60,000 American lives, exacting a death toll of more than 3 million Vietnamese from 1954 to 1975.

Today, however, Vietnam is doing its best to put a war-torn past to rest, welcoming westerners and their tourist dollars just as the communist-ruled country shows increasing signs of loosening its tyrannical grip.

In the past two years, several close friends and relatives have caught a firsthand glimpse of the land where guerilla-warfare once was a way of life. Fittingly, they began their journeys in the capital of Hanoi, staying in the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, a 268-room landmark located in the city’s French Quarter.

It, of course, stands in contrast to the notorious “Hanoi Hilton,” the POW compound where such Americans as Lt. Commander John McCain, longtime U.S. Senator from Arizona, spent years in captivity. McCain’s flight suit is on display there and the museum reportedly describes “how well” the prisoners were treated in terms of food and medical care.

The TV documentary, not surprisingly, portrays their captivity in a different light, offering first-hand testimony of the hunger, pain, isolation, and torture the American POWs were forced to endure.

Surprisingly, many visitors never sense any “anti-Americanism” or lasting residue from a war that scarred both countries. Two of my friends, in particular, were struck by the fact that “there were monuments to their war heroes, but there wasn’t any visible evidence of the destruction” caused by the tragic conflict.

“We were reminded that this was not the ‘Vietnam War,’” my friend said. “They viewed it as the ‘American War.’”

That Vietnamese perspective often has been lost in the murky story of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, just as we now grapple with how history will judge our embroilment in another far-distant war that shows no signs of ever ending.