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Saturday, October 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Outside View: Documentary revisits Vietnam tragedy

The following editorial is from the Chicago Tribune.

Is there a more painful game of “What if?” that Americans could play than to wonder what the 1960s, and today, would look like if the United States had avoided military catastrophe in Vietnam?

The pivotal moment may have been in early 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson realized he was trapped in the early days of an escalating war the United States probably couldn’t win. He knew the intensifying conflict would distract him from his prized agenda of creating “the Great Society” at home. But he also felt he had no choice but to proceed, because he’d won election in 1964 to a full term as president by promising to lick the North. “I feel like a jackass caught in a Texas hailstorm. I can’t run, I can’t hide and I can’t make it stop,” he’s quoted as saying in Ken Burns’ gripping new documentary series, “The Vietnam War.”

Oh, the power of hindsight, and the tragedy of hubris. Both are powerfully demonstrated in the 10-part, 18-hour PBS documentary series that begins airing Sunday. Burns, co-director Lynn Novick and their team worked for 10 years to tell the story, interviewing dozens of witnesses, including combatants on both sides. It was worth the effort.

One of the most important points the series makes is that Johnson clearly understood the risk of beginning a major bombing campaign in the North and committing U.S. ground troops to the conflict. If only he’d listened to his own taped telephone conversations, which Burns uses to strong effect. Ever eavesdrop on someone making a terrible decision? That’s what watching “The Vietnam War” feels like.

Burns, who with Novick recently visited the Chicago Tribune editorial board, said the purpose of their documentary wasn’t to pass judgment or play the “What if?” parlor game, but to put the passage of time to his advantage as a documentary maker. After 40 years, the consequences are better understood, and once-hidden details have been uncovered and studied. Also, with the U.S. and Vietnam now friendly, the filmmakers could interview some of the victors – former Vietnamese soldiers who seemed comfortable telling their stories. Many Americans also participated.

The Vietnam era was polarizing and it was agonizing, spawning political upheaval and a cultural revolution in the U.S. Burns believes the war unleashed an era of partisanship the nation reckons with today. In all, the Vietnam War provides enduring lessons, but also puzzles. How is it that four decades after the morass of Vietnam, America is 16 years into another long-running, problematic war, this one in Afghanistan? What does that say about the significance of studying history?

“War is revealing” and “human nature doesn’t change” are how Burns answers those questions. “Human nature superimposes itself on the seemingly random chaos of events that take place. By having historical awareness, you can probably have a better perspective on the moment.”

For that reason among others, “Vietnam” is worth watching.

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