The Vietnam War.

TV Despite having joined the human race a year or two before the end of the US involvement in the war in Vietnam, my knowledge of the period and of the conflict has inevitably been through pop culture, music, film and television.  The first time I probably heard some of the key strategic locations was through the authentically non-PC Robin Williams improv that made it into Good Morning Vietnam or more significantly its soundtrack album which I listened to enough that I can still quote my way through the snatches of routines running between Martha and the Vandellas and The Searchers (which is certainly the first time I heard the "slut" word but that's by the by).  Along with the titles you might expect, it's an entirely one-sided, Westernised "education", of madness piled upon madness, of tens of thousands dying to promote ideologies and defend geography.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War doesn't disprove that point but seeks to make it in a much more even handed way, including voices "from the ground up" of witnesses to the conflict from all side, from veterans not just of the US army but the Viet Cong and the North and South Vietnamese forces.  Civilians are here too, from the streets of Hanoi and Saigon, the families of those in combat and anti-war protesters in the US.  Oh and the politicians: as Burns says gleefully in the making of documentary included on the dvd, "We have tapes!" with both Presidents Johnson and Nixon represented by phone calls and infamously by meetings in the Oval Office.  Although there have been criticisms from those more knowledgeable than me that some voices are muted or ignored, others over amplified, this certainly feels like the richest televisual exploration of the war we've seen so far.

Crucially what many of us might assume to be the start of the war, when US troops first set foot on Vietnamese soil doesn't happen until a few hours in.  The series begins methodically with the initial occupation of the country by the French and how their colonial stifling of the country's natural development (even during and after the occupation of their country by the Nazis) led to emergence of the people who would eventually cause the splitting of the country in two and the conquest for re-unification.  From there, the series follows a hard chronological pathway, pausing now and then to magnify the key moments in the conflict (from Hamburger Hill to Hanoi Jane) in both countries while grasping the whole sweep of history, with the voices of witnesses as the connecting tissue, some skirmishes even described from either side of the line both in Vietnam and Washington.

Notably, although some historians were consulted through preview screenings in relation to how facts are portrayed none of them appear on screen.  A BBC version of this documentary would probably have included a couple of Phds as talking heads but the material instead is connected together through Peter Coyote's sober reading of Geoffrey C. Ward's script.  Somehow The Vietnam War manages to have a point of view - that the conflict was a disastrous mess with heroism and horror on all sides -- without significant editorialising in the voice over.  Again that's the difference from the BBC approach; we tend to favour a presenter led format which just sometimes can be a distraction from the narrative being reviewed.

From an outsider perspective, despite the comprehensive aims of the series there do seem to be omissions.  Although there's some talk of how Vietnam's economy became reliant on the US forces for providing resources and entertainment, with the exception of a single medic who became famous for criticising the war while she was on active duty, there's nothing of the voices of those outside the combat zone, who worked in ordinance and the effort of supplying the army and the fringes, those working for the US army but didn't pick up a weapon, the Adrian Cronauers.  Largely ignored too is how pop culture reacted to the war and the effect that had on public opinion before and since.  Often we're told that the public were turning against the war with the suggestion this was purely caused by the nightly news.  The reality is always more complex than that.

But most damagingly, despite the aim to bring voices from all sides to the screen, the bias is still expositionally in favour of those from the US.  American witnesses are given extensive back story, from birthplaces and family details to why they signed up either through volunteering or conscription.  Vietnamese participants on the other hand are barely provided with an historic footprint, no sense of where they came from, what led them to fight.  There are fragments, of a family split across factional lines and having to choose whether to stay in Saigon know a sibling is about to return home as part of the invading army.  But the emotional weight overall is definitely with the programme's country of origin.

The use of archive material is exhilarating but often confusing.  The section about the massacre at Kent State University benefits from footage unseen since it was shot during the protest, the bloodbath and the aftermath and we're absolutely clear of the timeline and what we're watching.  But during Vietnam skirmishes, which mix colour and monochrome footage, we're often unsure if the material we're seeing represents the military action being described or illustrative examples of the kinds of things which happened.  The credits also include a disclaimer indicating that some of the footage may be been restaged after the fact and it's often distracting to hear the description of an event and not knowing if the images are of that same event.

None of which should draw away from what is an impressive achievement.  As with similar exercises, The World at War springs to mind, it's impossible that I can now look at the film and television about the conflict without a new perspective and an appreciation for how authentic or not those filmmakers have been in presenting the conflict.  If nothing else, it demonstrates just how narrow in subject films about Vietnam have been, focusing on the military at the expense of civilians.   Now that we live again in a time when a pointless war in East Asia feels inevitable to promote ideologies and defend geography, this is the kind of document feels very relevant even if those involved are unlikely to ever watch it.

THE VIETNAM WAR is currently airing on PBS America (Freeview 94, Freesat 155, Virgin 276 and Sky 534). A complete boxed set is also available. Review copy supplied.

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