The Vietnam War (documentary)

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The Vietnam War is a ten-episode series created by Ken Burns, about the Vietnam War, broadcast on PBS over 12 days from Sunday, September 17, to Thursday, September 28, 2017. The episodes were narrated by Peter Coyote.

Episode 1: Déjà Vu (1858-1961)[edit]

Karl Marlantes: (opening lines) Coming home from Vietnam, was almost as traumatic as the war itself. For years, no one mentioned Vietnam. We were friends with a young couple, it was only after 12 years that the two wives were talking, found out we had both been Marines in Vietnam. Never said a word about it. And the whole country was like that. It was so divisive. It's like living in a family with an alcoholic father, "Shh, we don't talk about that." Our country did that with Vietnam, and it's only been recently that the Baby Boomers have been asking, "What happened? What happened?"

Narrator: America's involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended, thirty years later, in failure, witnessed by the entire world. It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American over-confidence, and Cold War miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than to admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American presidents, belonging to both political parties.

Narrator: Vietnam seemed to call everything into question: The value of honor and gallantry; the qualities of cruelty and mercy; the candor of the American government, and what it means to be a patriot. And those who lived through it have never been able to erase its memory, have never stopped arguing about what really happened, and who was to blame, why everything went so badly wrong-and whether it was all worth it.

Episode 2: Riding the Tiger (1961-1963)[edit]

John Musgrave: I was assigned a listening post at Con Thien in the fall. That's like getting a death sentence at a trial. Because it's just three Marines out there with a radio at night. You're listening for the enemy. They call you on the radio every hour, "Delta Lima, Papa 3 Bravo, Delta Lima, Papa 3 Bravo, this is Delta 3. If your sit rep is Alpha Secure, key your handset twice. If your situation report is all secure, break squelch twice on the handset." And if it's not, they think you're asleep, so they keeping asking you until it finally dawns on home that maybe there's somebody too close for you to say anything. So then they say, "If your sit rep is negative, Alpha Sierra, key your handset once," and you damn near squeeze the handle off, because they're so close you can hear them whispering to one another. (beat) And that's real scary stuff. I'm scared of the dark still. I still got a nightlight. When my kids were growing up, that's when they really found out that Daddy had been in a war, when they said, "Well, why do we need to outgrow our nightlights? Daddy's still got one."

Bill Zimmerman: I first became aware of Vietnam because of a burning monk. We had watched the civil rights movement in the South, and it had set the standard for us to stand up against injustice. Allow yourself to be beaten up, allow yourself to be attacked by a dog or hit by a police truncheon. We had enormous respect for people who were willing to go that far. And then one day in 1963, we saw on television a picture of a monk in Saigon. This was an extraordinary act. Why was a Buddhist monk burning himself on the streets of Saigon?

Neil Sheehan: We thought we were the exceptions to history, we Americans. History didn't apply to us. We could never fight a bad war, we could never represent the wrong cause - we were Americans. Well, in Vietnam it proved that we were not an exception to history.

Episode 3: The River Styx (PBS Broadcast) / Hell Come To Earth (BBC Broadcast) (January 1964 to December 1965)[edit]

Joe Galloway: You can't just be a neutral witness to something like war. It crawls down your throat, it eats you alive from the inside and the out. It's not something that you can stand back and be neutral and objective, and all those things we try to be as reporters, journalists, photographers. It doesn't work that way.

Neil Sheehan: I saw them fight at Ia Drang. It always galls me when I hear the World War II generation called, "The Greatest Generation." These kids were just as gallant and courageous as anybody who fought in World War II.

Episode 4: Resolve (PBS Broadcast) / Doubt (BBC Broadcast) (January 1966 to June 1967)[edit]

(on the subject of body counts)
James Willbanks: The problem with the war, as it often is, are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can't count what's important, you make what you can count important. So, in this particular case what you could count was dead enemy bodies.
Joe Galloway: You don't get details with a body count, you get numbers. And the numbers are lies - most of 'em. If body count is your success mark, then you're pushing otherwise honorable men, warriors, to become liars.
Robert Gard: If body count is the measure of success, then there's a tendency to count every body as an enemy soldier. There's a tendency to want to pile up dead bodies, and perhaps to use less discriminate firepower than you otherwise might in order to achieve the result that you're charged with trying to obtain

Episode 5: This is What We Do (July to December 1967)[edit]

Roger Harris: Soldiers adapt. You go over there with one mind-set, and then you adapt. You adapt to the atrocities of war. You adapt to killing and dying. After a while, it doesn't bother you. Well, it doesn't bother you as much. When I first arrived in Vietnam, there were some interesting things that happened and I questioned some of the Marines. I was made to realize that this is war, and this is what we do. And after a while you embrace that: This is war. This is what we do

John Musgrave: I only killed one human being in Vietnam, and that was the first man that I ever killed. I was sick with guilt about killing that guy and thinking "I'm going to have to do this for the next 13 months? I'm-I'm going to go crazy." And I saw a Marine step on a Bouncing Betty mine, and that's when I made my deal with the devil, and that I said, "I will never kill another human being as long as I'm in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find. I'll wax as many dinks as I can find. I'll smoke as many zips as I can find. But I ain't gonna kill anybody, you know?" Turn a subject into an object. It's racism 101. It turns out to be a very necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars, for them to stay sane doing their work.

Karl Marlantes: One of the things that I learned in the war is that we're not the top species on the planet because we're nice. We are a very aggressive species; it is in us. People talk a lot about how well the military turns kids into killing machines, and I'll always argue that it's just finishing school. What we do with civilization is that we learn to inhibit and rope in these aggressive tendencies, and we have to recognize them. I worry about a whole country that doesn't recognize them, because think of how many times we get ourselves into scrapes as a nation because we're always the 'good guys'. Sometimes, I think if we thought we weren't always the good guys, we might actually get into less wars.

Roger Harris: I had the opportunity to call my mother. And I told you she shouldn't believe what's she seeing on TV because we're losing the war. "You'll probably never see me again because we're the most northern outpost the Marines have. We can literally look right into North Vietnam. We can see the sparks when the guns fire on us." And I said, "Everybody in my unit is dying and I probably won't be coming back." Ma said, "No, you're coming back." She said, "I talk to God every day, and you're special. You're coming back." I said, "Ma, everybody's mother thinks they're special. I'm putting pieces of special people in bags."

Episode 6: Things Fall Apart (January to July 1968)[edit]

Hal Kushner: (on his Viet Cong captor) He had a little reel-to-reel battery-powered tape recorder. And he asked me to record a message to my family to let them know that I was safe. I said I could do that if I would make a statement against the war. And I told with with great bravado that I would rather die than make a statement against my country. And he said to me, "You will find dying is very easy. Living, living is the difficult thing."

Episode 7: The Veneer of Civilization (PBS Broadcast) / Chasing Ghosts (BBC Broadcast) (June 1968 to May 1969)[edit]

Vincent Okamoto: You know what? The real heroes are the men that died. 19-20 year old drop outs from high school. They didn't have any of the escape routes that the elite and the wealthy and the privileged had. But to see these kids, who had the least to gain-they weren't going to be rewarded for their service in Vietnam, they looked upon it as the weather. And yet, their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal. And you'd ask yourself, "How does American produce young men like this?"

Karl Marlantes: Combat is like crack cocaine. It's an enormous high, but it has enormous costs. Any sane person would never do crack. Combat is like that. You're scared, you're terrified, you're miserable, but then the fighting starts, and suddenly everything is at stake, your life, your friend's lives. It's almost transcendence because you're no longer a person. You lose that sense, you're just the platoon, and the platoon can't be beat. And not to mention there's a savage joy in overcoming your enemy, just a savage joy. And I think we make a big mistake if we say, 'oh war is hell'. We all know the 'war is hell' story—it is—but there's an enormously exhilarating part of it.

Episode 8: The History of the World (PBS Broadcast) / A Sea of Fire (BBC Broadcast) (April 1969 to May 1970)[edit]

Episode 9: A Disrespectful Loyalty (PBS Broadcast) / Fratricide (BBC Broadcast) (May 1970 to March 1973)[edit]

Phil Gioa: I think you could say the Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country in a way that it had never been polarized since before the Civil War, and unfortunately, we've never really moved past that.

Bao Ninh: From 1970 onward, our enemy on the battlefield was the Army of South Vietnam. They were Vietnamese. That's the tragedy. The tragedy of the war is that Vietnamese killed each other. American firepower, Vietnamese flesh and blood.

Episode 10: The Weight of Memory (March 1973 to Present)[edit]

Nguyen Ngoc: I think you could say that the Vietnam War was a heroic song, but it was also a great tragedy. Now, in Vietnam, we are starting to rethink the war, to ask the questions-Was the war necessary to achieve justice? Was it right? The war is over. Now we need to focus on living. What is most important now is that we find some meaning, some lessons in the war for our lives.

Narrator: More than four decades after the war ended, the divisions it created between Americans have not yet wholly helped. Lessons were learned-and then forgotten. Divides were bridged-and then widened. Old secrets were revealed-and new secrets were locked away. The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it, stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.

Tim O'Brien:(Last lines, reading from The Things They Carried) "They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, they made their legs move. They endured."