It’s time to gather round the television as a community and witness together a vivid and thorough telling of our shared history in Vietnam. We don’t have many of these opportunities to learn about our country at the same time in a communal way; it’s the modern equivalent of the FDR fireside chats in World War II.
And at just the perfect time in our fast-changing and often conflicting ideas about our country, the master storyteller Ken Burns is here with a 10-part PBS series “The Vietnam War.” One writer called this “astounding and sobering” march through our recent history “required viewing” and I agree. It began on Sunday evening.
For me as a late-blooming history nut, television documentaries have communicated with a power like no other about the Civil War (Ken Burns again) and the extraordinary exploits of one company of U.S. paratroopers during World War II in “Band of Brothers.” Here’s how it goes for me: I watched “Band of Brothers” when it first aired. Then I read the Stephen Ambrose book of the same name that inspired it. What a great book that set the standard for giving individual faces to earthshaking events such as D-Day, Bastogne and victory in Europe. Eventually I had to watch the entire 10-part documentary series again when I finally felt I had a glimmer of what happened to U.S. soldiers in those important years of 1942-45.
If this series on Vietnam lives up to its reviews and the talents of its producers, it might instantly catapult millions of us — finally — into well-informed students of Vietnam. We need that and we need it now, while so many of the veterans who went to Vietnam are starting to tell their stories about a time that is almost unknown to their children and grandchildren.
The war was famously described as the first “living room war” because of its vivid, graphic and constant presence in people’s homes on their television sets in the nightly newscasts. This was before the myriad viewing choices today at a time when what three networks showed was what people watched. The documentary series uses enormous resources of home videos, news footage and the unforgettable popular music of the time. Of course, there is “Gimme Shelter” from the Rolling Stones and expected classics from Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Otis Redding. But surprise atmosphere comes from Vietnamese folk songs by the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma and gritty original compositions by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. The documentary features approximately 80 people who told their own stories about the war, including American soldiers, allied South Vietnamese and Viet Cong who fought against the U.S. and South Vietnam.
The journeys of specific soldiers and a re-telling of an early battle from every viewpoint through actual footage, maps and interviews are elements of the series’ power, according to critics, the ones who say it’s required viewing for all of us who want to understand a formative event of the last century that still echoes in impact.
The 10 parts of “The Vietnam War” run in the evenings on PBS from Sept. 17-21 and Sept. 24-28.