Recently, I attended a premier of Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “The Vietnam War”, at the Ace Hotel Theater in downtown Los Angeles. The theater’s 1,600 seats were about 95% full. The “premier” was actually a forty-eight minute preview of the eighteen hour, ten-part series that will air on the Public Broadcasting Service stations nationwide on Sunday, 17 September.
After the showing, there was a 30-45 minute discussion with a panel of six persons: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, makers of the film; Merrill McPeak, retired 4-star General and former Air Force Chief of Staff with 269 combat missions in Vietnam; Duong Van Mai Elliott, former Saigon interpreter for the Rand Corporation and author who left with her American husband in 1975; Bill Zimmerman, anti-war activist, 1961- 1975; and moderator Pat Morrison of PBS SoCal.
Towards the end of the discussion General McPeak made a statement that Burns’ documentary will become the defining history of the Vietnam War because today’s highly visual society rarely reads books, that its excellent craftsmanship will make it the accepted History of the War.
I beg to differ.
I served in Viet Nam with the 29th Civil Affairs Company, 12 December 1969 – 30 October 1970, primarily as the Refugee Liaison Officer throughout I Corps – DMZ to Quang Ngai. Upon my return to the United States – “The World” – I served as a Press Officer for the My Lai Trials at Fort McPherson, GA, and also as a Survivor Assistance Officer to U.S. military dead, see my short documentary on YouTube, Memories of War – Memorial Day.
Before the screening I hoped there would be a balanced showing including the bravery and sacrifices made by the South Vietnamese people, especially their military. I expected Burns’s documentary would focus on the plight and destruction of the Vietnamese society in war, the bravery and sacrifices of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, and the bravery and dysfunction of the U.S. military and the anti-war movement.
I was disappointed but not surprised.
Of the 48 minutes preview, approximately thirty-five percent was devoted to the bravery and sacrifices of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, thirty percent to the U.S. military and anti-war protests, and the balance to the plight and destruction of Vietnamese society. To their credit the filmmakers did give some valid data as to the human costs of the war: 58,000 + American military deaths; 250,000 South Vietnamese military deaths; 1,000,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese military deaths; and 2,000,000 Vietnamese civilian deaths, both North and South.
My hope is the entire 18-hour series will be more balanced than this preview. History, especially for today’s Baby Boomers and the brave South Vietnamese who fought for their freedom and independence for thirty years, demands it. Just ask the Vietnamese “boat people” who by the tens of thousands risked their lives to flee Viet Nam after the Communist takeover in 1975.
The controversy about the Viet Nam war will only subside when we Baby Boomers – The Vietnam Generation – are long gone and buried. Just like the continuing controversy about the American Civil War, it will never end, e.g., see Michael Lind’s “Vietnam: The Necessary War”.
To all my fellow Viet Nam Veterans – WELCOME HOME.
John Medlin is a Santa Monica resident