‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Eight: ‘The History of the World’

Now that I’ve watched all the episodes, it’s getting a little difficult to remember details from one a couple back. But here are some points, just as conversation starters:

  • There’s a lot about our experience in Vietnam that appalls me — and of course, many of them are not the same things that appall Doug or Bud. But My Lai is one where I think our disgust is in synch — even though I’m sure we extrapolate different lessons from it. That Calley served so little time — and in house arrest, the gentleman’s form of punishment administered to a monster — makes a mockery of all that’s holy. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but someone should have shot him in the act, and saved some of those people (and I deeply honor helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., who intervened to stop it, threatening to open fire on his fellow Americans if they did not cease the killing). Worse than Calley’s case is that no one else even served time — not Medina, not his NCOs, not anybody. Of course, neither of those things is the worst thing. The worst thing is the killing itself, all those innocents…
  • This episode also includes one of Nixon’s worst lies: When he said Thieu had told him the ARVN were doing such a great job that Vietnamization could proceed apace so we could start pulling out American combat troops — and Thieu had said no such thing. It’s one thing to start pulling Americans out — that, at least, was something Nixon had promised to do and we knew he was going to do, and by and large the country (this country that is) was behind him on that. But to claim that the ally you’re deserting had told you that was fine by him when he hadn’t is slimy.
  • The contrast between horrors of war and what was going on back stateside is often disturbing to me. A segment in which Marine Tom Vallely was engaged in particularly intense combat — an action for which his was awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry — after which he is talking about the things one’s grandchildren will never understand about what you did in the war… shifts jarringly to Country Joe and the Fish performing “Fixin’ to Die Rag” at Woodstock. It was two days after the battle we’d just been told about. The camera stops on the face of one long-haired kid after another in the audience grinning and smirking at the mocking lyrics, singing along to this hilarious song about dying in Vietnam. I’d never minded that song very much before, but seeing people so tickled by it just after looking at dead and dying men on a battlefield sickened me. And it should do the same to my antiwar friends. People think they’re so damned cute, don’t they? Give me cursing, angry, rock-throwing protesters in the street rather than this.
  • Kent State. I’ve always felt the loss of those kids keenly. I read Michener’s book about the shootings not long after it happened and learned a lot about each of them, felt that I got to know and care about them. What happened there was inexcusable, indefensible. To start with, why were those kids in the Guard uniforms issued live ammunition? Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s song about the tragedy gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. All of that said… I don’t feel exactly about the incident the way my antiwar friends do. As horrific as the shooting of those protesters was, I wish I could be like antiwar folk and applaud their protest with uncomplicated approval. But I’m not able to do that. To me, the tragedy of their deaths is compounded by the fact that their cause made no sense to me. Of course you go into Cambodia if that’s where the enemy is — especially when there’s a new government in that country that approves of your doing so. Anything that could be done to strengthen the position of the South Vietnamese when we’re preparing to pull out should quite naturally be done. That’s what I thought at the time, and I see no reason to think differently now. I wish I could. It would be nice to have the blessing of uncomplicated feelings.
  • There was one thing I can feel pretty good about, in an uncomplicated way, and that was the practice back here of five million Americans wearing bracelets to remember the POWs in Hanoi. As the narrator says, “Despite what their jailers had told them, the prisoners had not been forgotten by their country.” There’s nothing political about it. It’s neither approving nor protesting. It’s just remembering, caring. It’s good to be reminded of that.

Just two more episodes to discuss. Then we can go back to arguing about things happening in this century…


15 thoughts on “‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Eight: ‘The History of the World’

  1. bud

    Brad your take on the My Lai massacre just hideously misses the point. Calley wasn’t the big problem. The big problem was that we put men into the position of committing these atrocities in the first place. They’re inevitable in war. Blame it on racism, soldier training or what have you. But it will happen in war. So wars of this type must be avoided. The cost is just too high. That important point is so ridiculously obvious and critically important that it just drives me crazy that you won’t make it. Without making that connection we will continue to repeat the mistake. That is why Abu Ghraib happened as well. As a nation we MUST stop engaging in these imperialist misadventures. THAT is THE lesson we need to learn from Vietnam.

  2. Doug Ross

    Well, so much for finishing the Vietnam series. I went to watch Episode 5 and now PBS.ORG says I can only watch it if I have SCETV Passport which requires a minimum donation of $75. Hmmm… “public broadcasting” isn’t so public, is it? Why, one might even think they were using the profits from a widely viewed series like Vietnam to entice/extort/cajole people to pony up money to pay for all the “public” programs that few people actually want to watch or would pay for. How capitalistic of them…

    I guess I’ll wait for the DVD version and watch it for “free” using my tax funded local library.

    1. Doug Ross

      Or I can pay $50 to buy a digital copy of the series from Amazon… or $6.99! for each episode individually – which is more than it costs to rent any new blockbuster movie.

      Somebody is making some real cash money off this. God bless public broadcasting!

      1. Doug Ross

        I don’t care how much Burns makes off producing his documentaries… I just don’t think he (or any other entity) should be subsidized by the government to help him do that. Taxpayer support of anything in this area should be ZERO unless the content produced is free to all the public.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I don’t know what he got in the way of public funding. He got a LOT of private funding through foundations. Or at least, he got some funding from a lot of foundations. It’s kind of tedious to listen to them all at the start of each episode…

          1. Doug Ross

            Yeah, the beginning where they say “The Vietnam War was brought to you by… ” made me think “It sounds like you funded the war..”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Well, I watched it all, but I don’t think I’ll be rewatching it over the years the way I did “The Civil War.” I’ve seen a number of his series, and that one was far and away the best…

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              And last night, I was rewatching my DVD of “Gettysburg.”

              I watched through Little Round Top, which of course is the best part of the whole thing. That was at the end of the first of two disks…


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