Is it possible to watch a television series and to be very impressed while being profoundly disappointed?
The answer is yes. The Vietnam War, a 10-episode production on PBS, fits this description quite well.
This conclusion leads to the next question: Should I spend 18 hours of my valuable time watching this special? My answer is no. If you wish to learn about the Vietnam War and draw lessons for this sad period, you might want to read some books on the subject.
Ken Burns, who has produced many fine television documentaries for PBS, was unable to provide either objectivity or balance to this enterprise. Burns’ heart may have been in the right place, but his failure was profound. The Vietnam War may cost him his well-deserved reputation for excellence in television documentaries.
Soon after the full series was released, a panel of distinguished historians commented on the series. With one exception – someone who appeared in the series – the disappointment and criticism was strong.
Examples: 1. Highlighting My Lai while downplaying the tens of thousands of women and children massacred by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. 2. Use on camera of a disproportionate number of members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. 3. Making Ho Chi Minh appear to be a kind man.
After watching every minute of all 10 episodes – and some episodes more than once – I feel compelled to make some written comments on The Vietnam War.
First, these are some of the excellent parts:
1. The criticism of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara is valid. In fact, the criticism of Secretary of Defense McNamara should have been even harsher.
2. The combat footage was remarkable.
3. The interviews of combatants on all sides were, at times, compelling.
4. The taped conversations in the 1960s and 1970s of key American officials were disturbing.
5. The strong criticism of both Nixon and Kissinger rings true. In fact, Richard Nixon’s activities just prior to the 1968 presidential election can best be described as treasonous.
6. The criticism of Gen. William Westmoreland is valid. He deserves his position as one of the 10 worst generals – No. 9 – in American history.
Burns had a wonderful opportunity to tell a powerful story. Unfortunately, he spent too much time examining activities taking place in the United States. Much that was important that occurred in Southeast Asia was either left out or given very little attention.
Here are some examples:
1. The heroic acts of Medal of Honor recipients. Not one recipient was highlighted. Missing were the uplifting stories of Sammy Davis, Jack Jacobs, Bud Day, Leo Thorsness and Roger Donlon, as well as the Mike Thornton/Tommy Norris story and so many more. It is hard to imagine an 18-hour TV series on World War II with no mention of Jimmy Doolittle, Audie Murphy or Pappy Boyington.
2. The extremely restrictive rules of engagement for everyone involved in the various air campaigns. Those who flew over North Vietnam from 1965 to 1972 were not permitted to attack military airfields, the railroad from China to Hanoi, the port of Haiphong, and the ships unloading military supplies at the various North Vietnamese ports.
3. The impact of Spooky and Spectre gunships – especially during the Easter Offensive of 1972.
4. The heroism of Army “dust off “and Air Force Jolly Green helicopter crews and their total dedication to saving lives.
5. The role of airborne forward air controllers – in light aircraft and in the fast movers.
6. CIA operations in Laos.
7. The role of the special forces units of the SOG who conducted hundreds of missions behind enemy lines – one example: Operation Tailwind in Laos in 1970 (see the Mike Rose story below).
8. The valor of the Wild Weasel aircraft as they attacked radar and missile sites.
9. The many contributions that Medal of Honor recipients have made in the past 40 years – such as Sammy Davis’s speaking to and motivating more than 2 million school children since the early 1970s. In Augusta, Sammy has spoken to Augusta Prep, Westminster Schools, Episcopal Day School and Georgia Military College.
10. Recommendations on the best books on the war.
If you have not already watched this series, here are two recommendations.
1. Rather than turning on your TV, spend the 18 hours reading two or three books on the Vietnam War. Here are some suggestions.
We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, by Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway.
Summons of the Trumpet, by Dave Palmer.
Dereliction of Duty, by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
A Better War, by Lewis Sorley.
Fields of Fire, by James Webb.
One book to avoid: A Bright Shining Lie, by Neil Sheehan; 790 pages not worth your time. Totally undeserving of a Pulitzer.
2. If you choose to sample the series, watch all of Episode 1; Episode 3 from 1:25 to 1:43; Episode 9 from 1:40 until the end; and Episode 10 from 1:42 until the end.
Three final points.
1. Why is the lack of Medal of Honor recipients in this TV series so disappointing? There was a great deal of heroism, altruism and compassion in this war. These recipients demonstrated these qualities so vividly and powerfully – yet none of these stories were told.
2. Just this week I received a phone call from Mike Rose of Huntsville, Ala. I had been hoping to hear from him for many years. Mike told me that he will receive the Medal of Honor on Oct. 23. It was wonderful news. Mike was a medic in Operation Tailwind in September, 1970. Despite being wounded on many occasions, he saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers. Mike received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in that four-day battle deep behind enemy lines – but he clearly deserved the Medal of Honor. Thanks to the dogged efforts of some patriotic citizens, the right decision was finally made. You may wish to watch the ceremony on TV when it takes place.
3. Ken Burns was asked recently, “What were the lessons of the war?” He said the most important lesson was, “Don’t blame the soldiers.” On this point, Burns is correct. Happily, blaming the warriors is no longer a part of the American culture. Thanking them is now the norm.
Perry Smith flew 180 combat sorties over North Vietnam and Laos with the 555th Fighter Squadron in 1968 and 1969. He stays in contact with this squadron, which is on duty in Afghanistan. His website is genpsmith.com.