Tag Archives: Ken Burns

Nothing positive or ‘uplifting’ about PBS series on Vietnam

I can’t stop talking about “The Vietnam War.”

Everywhere I go as I circulate through Amarillo, Texas, I encounter friends with Vietnam experience or ties to those who have such experience. Our conversation turns inevitably to that landmark, epic PBS series on the Vietnam War produced and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Moreover, I am urging my fellow Vietnam veterans to watch the series if they haven’t seen it already. Buy it on DVD. Wait for it to be rebroadcast. Do what it takes. It’s worth your time.

One good friend of mine is married to a Vietnam War veteran. He served with the101st Airborne Division and suffered some serious wounds in the war. My friend has told me her husband suffers from serious post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his experience.

She has recorded the series for him and is urging him to see it. I gathered from a conversation we had recently that she hadn’t seen it yet, either.

“Is it uplifting?” my friend asked. My answer was direct: “Uh, no. There’s nothing positive about it. It’s pretty damn grim.”

She, too, was direct. “Well, it is what it is,” she said.

Yes. It’s also worth anyone’s time who wants to understand the nature of this conflict. Yes, we killed more of them than they did of us. It was a defeat that still pains the nation and many of those who answered their country ‘s call to duty.

As for PBS and its collaboration with Burns and Novick: The nation watched some first-rate documentary television. “The Vietnam War” was an epic production for the ages.

More bombs did not produce ‘victory’ in Vietnam

“The Vietnam War” is coming to a close this week. I refer, of course, to the landmark public television series, not the actual war.

What are the takeaways from this epic production directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and broadcast on PBS? I have so many of them, but I think I’ll focus briefly here on just one of them.

It is that the Vietnam War required us to redefine victory.

We fought the communists in Vietnam for more than a decade. We killed many more of the enemy than we lost so very tragically. We emerged victorious from many more battlefield encounters than the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese. As we have learned in the Burns-Novick epic, U.S. commanding Gen. William Westmoreland was obsessed with “body count”; he insisted that the media report that the enemy suffered far worse than our side did.

Merrill McPeak, a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War who later became Air Force chief of staff, noted correctly in the documentary that the United States dropped more ordnance on the enemy than we did in all the combat theaters of World War II. Think of that for a moment. American air power dropped more explosive tonnage on the Vietnam communists than we did against the Nazis, the Italians and the Japanese.

What we didn’t do and the reason we “lost” the war was because we lost our political will. The Vietnamese were fighting on their turf, defending their homeland, battling an enemy they considered to be “invaders.” They had more to lose — and to gain — than we ever did. Thus, it was their fight to win.

Are there lessons to carry forward as we continue to fight an even more elusive enemy, those terrorist organizations that have declared “death to America!”? Yes, certainly.

One profound lesson should be for U.S. politicians — or one in particular — to cease implying that defeating an enemy is “easy.”

We cannot just keep dropping bombs and sending young Americans into cities, killing enemy fighters and then expect the enemy simply to give up. We tried that in Vietnam. It didn’t work out well for us.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have provided a masterful piece of documentary television. Just as Vietnam was the first war to be fought “in our living rooms,” my hope is that the educational benefit that’s being delivered to us via PBS will assuage some of the pain we felt as the fighting raged.


Politico has provided a fascinating look at a conversation involving President Lyndon Johnson and U.S. Sen. Richard Russell. The Burns-Novick documentary doesn’t report on it.

Take a look at the story here.

PBS ‘Vietnam War’ episode misses a key element

I remain utterly transfixed by the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary series “The Vietnam War.”

It contains some of the most compelling television I’ve ever witnessed and I am so proud of PBS for its longstanding commitment to this type of educational broadcasting.

Having tossed out that bouquet, I want to offer this barb at what I witnessed tonight.

The series tonight focused on the Tet Offensive, which the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese launched against dozens of South Vietnamese cities on Jan. 31, 1968. “The Vietnam War” rightly points out that Tet likely was the political turning point, the singular event that turned American public opinion solidly against that bloody conflict.

Tet also produced what arguably was the most singularly graphic moment in that war. It was the photo of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s summary execution of a Viet Cong suspect.

Loan was head of South Vietnam’s police department when he found the suspect and shot him dead on a Saigon street. The picture would earn a Pulitzer Prize for Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams. It also would deliver a lifetime of misery for Gen. Loan, who was vilified because reporting of the incident at the time failed to the tell the whole story.

I wish the Burns-Novick documentary would have told us tonight about the media’s role in demonizing Loan.

You see, Loan shot the man dead because the suspect had been part of a VC hit squad that killed a colleague of the general — and his wife and six children. Loan knew about what had happened to his friend and his family. His men arrested the suspect. Loan ordered one of his officers to shoot the suspect; the officer balked.

So, Loan took out his pistol and shot the man in the head.

Nguyen Ngoc Loan had snapped. He proved to be a human being subject to human emotion,

“The Vietnam War” didn’t tell the whole story tonight, nor did it explain why — because of the lack of full reporting in the moment — that picture came to symbolize the absolute horror of war.

However, by golly, I am going to watch the rest of this utterly spell-binding television event.

I am hooked.

Memo to fellow Vietnam vets: go back to see it again

I caught up with the PBS series on the Vietnam War. I am riveted all over again by the tragedy that unfolded in that faraway land.

The Ken Burns-Lynn Novick directed documentary is going to be known as a landmark television event. The way I figure it, anything with Ken Burns’ name attached to it has that potential. This one will make the grade.


As I watched the first two segments, I was struck by something I’ve told Vietnam veterans over the course of the past 28 years: You need to go back; you need to see the country now; you need to see what that place you remember as a war-scarred nation has become since the shooting stopped.

I served there many years ago as an Army aircraft mechanic. But in 1989, I was granted an extraordinary opportunity. I returned to Vietnam two decades after I reported for duty at Marble Mountain, a secure Army aviation unit just south of Da Nang. I’ve shared with you already on this blog the emotion I experience upon returning to that spot.

When I came back home at the end of that three-week journey — along with other editorial writers and editors from around the country — I made an unofficial pact to encourage other Vietnam War veterans to do that very thing. They need to see that place.

I must make a point that Vietnam in 1989 wasn’t yet the country it has become in the years since then. The United States had no diplomatic relations with its former enemy when my colleagues and I went there. Those relations took root in the 1990s and the country has made huge economic development strides since then.

The reaction I’ve gotten from vets, though, has been muted. Few of them have embraced the notion. Most of them say, “No way, man. I’ve had enough of the place.”

I tend to back off when I get the “hell no!” response from vets. They have their reasons and I’m sure it has everything to do with the misery they experienced during their wartime tour of duty.

To those who waffle a bit, I tell them a couple of things.

First, the country still smells the same. I can’t describe the odor one whiffs — whether in cities or in rural settings. It’s not exactly pleasant. It’s just, um, unique.

Second, I like to tell my fellow vets that the Vietnamese are gracious, welcoming and quite anxious to greet Americans. I can recall setting foot for the first time in Saigon in 1989. I jumped off the van that had took us from the airport to our hotel. I was greeted by a Vietnamese gentleman who figured I was “of age” to have been there during the war.

“Did you serve here in the military?” he asked as he clasped my hand. Yes. I did. “Welcome back to my country,” he said.

I will concede this point, though, about why the Vietnamese are so welcoming: They won the war!

Returning to that place, though, is good for Americans’ soul. Trust me on that one. I went there believing I wasn’t packing an ounce of emotional baggage. I was wrong.

Others are likely to experience the same catharsis that gripped me.

Dear Vietnam vets: Return to that beautiful land


On the hunt for PBS signal

DURANGO, Colo. — I’m so mad I could spit.

We hauled our fifth wheel recreational vehicle into the Rocky Mountains for a long weekend, getting away from the hustle, bustle and some of the tussles of the world.

But surely — clearly, without a doubt — we could land in a spot that picked up the Public Broadcasting Service.

Oh, no. Didn’t happen.

We’re in Durango, cooling our jets until the morning arrives. I am missing the premiere episode of a landmark television event, PBS’s epic series “The Vietnam War,” put together by the great documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It’s going to run for 10 days.

I am sort of reminded of a comment the late pro football coach Bum Phillips once said of Orange, Texas, where he was born. “It’s not the end of the world,” Bum said in a Playboy magazine interview, “but if you get up on your tippy toes, you can see it from there.”

That’s kind of how I am feeling this evening as PBS is airing “The Vietnam War.”

I’ve published several posts on this blog commenting on the importance of the series to a generation of Americans, many of whom served in that war. I am one of those Americans.

I won’t let it depress me. We’re shoving off tomorrow for another location — in Albuquerque — where I am certain we’ll get PBS in our fifth wheel. I know this because we stayed there the other night en route to Durango. By golly, I watched some PBS programming while we were parked there.

I am going to pray that the weather doesn’t get in the way. You are welcome to wish me luck. Oh, and be sure to watch it yourself.

These heroes did not ‘die in vain’

Americans might be asking themselves once again a question that crops up as the nation examines its history of armed conflict.

The lingering question might present itself as PBS airs its landmark documentary series “The Vietnam War,” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which premieres on Sept. 17.

The question focuses on whether the 58,000 Americans whose names are etched on that black stone wall in Washington, D.C., died in vain. Was their sacrifice wasted?

I will not tolerate such a question. I won’t stand for it!

The Vietnam War did not end well for the United States of America. We lost our will because the enemy we were fighting in Vietnam kept up the fight despite the grievous losses they suffered on the battlefield throughout the southern portion of Vietnam.

The war shredded the nation’s emotions. It tore at our collective heart. We didn’t know how to lose. Indeed, the Vietnam War arguably redefined “winning” and “losing” in the minds of many Americans.

To my point about dying in vain …

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall contains the names of men — and a handful of women — who left behind a story. Their loved ones grieved and perhaps are still grieving their unspeakable loss. Did those Americans die in vain? Did they make the supreme sacrifice, pay the ultimate price for no good reason?

These heroes all died in service to their country. We never should measure the loss of brave Americans on faraway battlefields against the rightness or wrongness of the policy that sent them into harm’s way. These warriors did their duty as they were ordered to do. Their patriotism was unquestioned. Nor was their love of country.

I’ve been able to see the war memorial three times. The most recent time was just this past June. I defy anyone to walk along that wall, examine those names etched in the black stone and believe they are memorialized because they died in vain.

I am not going to engage in a debate over whether our enemies in all the wars this country has fought deserve to be honored in this manner. This blog post is about our men and women. It’s about our young service personnel who followed lawful orders.

The PBS special well might ignite this discussion once again. Fine. Let’s bring it to a full boil. I’ll stand forever by the notion that no one young American ever — not ever! — dies in vain when they are serving the nation that orders them into battle.


The first five episodes will air nightly on Panhandle PBS from Sunday, Sept. 17, through Thursday, Sept. 21, and the final five episodes will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 24, through Thursday, Sept. 28. Each episode will premiere at 7 p.m. with a repeat broadcast immediately following the premiere.

Vietnam vets still tend to talk about ‘their’ war

One of the traits one often hears about World War II veterans is that they don’t talk much about their combat experience.

They answered the call after Pearl Harbor; they shipped out to the Pacific Theater or to Europe and went about joining other Allied forces in defeating the forces of tyranny.

They came home after that great conflict, shed their uniforms and cobbled their lives together. They moved on.

The Korean War came a few years later. That one didn’t end with an all-out victory and unconditional surrender of our enemy. Indeed, Korea is still in a “state of war”; they only signed a cease-fire. Korean War veterans became part of what’s been called “the forgotten war.” They aren’t known either to talk much about their years in hell.

Then came Vietnam. The Vietnam War ended in a stinging political “defeat” for the United States. It still hurts. Those who feel the pain the most likely are those who served there. Roughly 3 million Americans suited up for that war. I was among them. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Vietnam veterans are more likely to talk about their experiences than those who remain from World War II or Korea. It must be a generational thing. It also must be a bit of a hangover of sorts from the crappy treatment many of those young Americans got when they returned home.

Thankfully, that treatment is receding farther into our national memory. Americans woke up to the reality that the young men who participated in that war did so solely out of duty. They were ordered to go. They went. They did their job. They came back.

Perhaps their willingness to talk about it is a function of their search for affirmation that they weren’t the villains that many of their countrymen and women perceived them to be in real time as they were coming home.

I have no particular need to discuss my service during the Vietnam War. My contribution to that effort was so insignificant, I don’t have the need that many Vietnam vets have — even as we all have advanced into “senior citizenhood.”

In one week, PBS is going to premiere the broadcast of a truly landmark television event. “The Vietnam War” will run over 10 days, covering 18 hours of what I am certain will be a riveting documentary on the nation’s most divisive and emotionally crippling conflict.

One of the outcomes of this documentary, assembled by the great documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, should be to spark more national conversation about Vietnam, the war, its aftermath and how we have made the journey from back then to the present day.


The first five episodes will air nightly on Panhandle PBS from Sunday, Sept. 17, through Thursday, Sept. 21, and the final five episodes will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 24, through Thursday, Sept. 28. Each episode will premiere at 7 p.m. with a repeat broadcast immediately following the premiere.

War is hell in all its grisly forms

Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once delivered a speech in 1880 in which he said the following: “Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all hell!”

It doesn’t get any more stark than that. The picture I included with this blog post illustrates the hell of war. It is pure and it is evil. There need be no further description needed.

In just a few days, PBS is going to begin airing a landmark series on the Vietnam War. It’s produced and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who teamed up on a project aimed at helping a nation come to grips with a conflict that tore at our soul. It ripped our hearts out.

Scenes such as the one depicted in the photo played out throughout Vietnam during that war. A photographer, Eddie Adams managed to capture this scene in all its horror.

Adams won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for the photo, but he would say later: “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?'”

The shooter in this picture was Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the head of South Vietnam’s police force. The fellow he shot was a Viet Cong officer. The moment was frozen for posterity. It’s gruesome, but as Adams said, it tells only part of the story.

The VC officer had just led a mission that had captured a colleague of Loan, along with his wife and six children. The VC officer, Nguyen Van Liem, ordered the execution of his prisoners. All of them had their throats cut.

Nguyen Ngoc Loan knew about the mission when he took Liem into custody. He was filled with rage in the moment. The Viet Cong had just launched its Tet Offensive in early 1968 and had brought havoc throughout South Vietnam.

Loan pulled his pistol out and executed his prisoner. As a result, he became the face of war’s cruelty. He became a human metaphor for the terror Americans were feeling at home about what was happening in a faraway land.

Loan would flee the communist victors at the end of the war. He came to the United States. He would die of cancer in 1998 while living in Florida. It’s been said over the years that Loan never recovered fully from the scorn and recrimination he suffered for acting in response to the most hellish circumstance imaginable.

Burns and Novick’s documentary likely will be able to shed some additional perspective on this act of horror, this moment when hell presented itself in a time of war.


The first five episodes of “The Vietnam War” will air nightly on Panhandle PBS from Sunday, Sept. 17, through Thursday, Sept. 21, and the final five episodes will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 24, through Thursday, Sept. 28. Each episode will premiere at 7 p.m. with a repeat broadcast immediately following the premiere.

Vietnam taught us tough, but needed lessons

The Vietnam War remains an open sore, a wound that’s still healing.

A landmark documentary is set to premier on PBS soon. I am anticipating its opening. “The Vietnam War” is a collaborative effort by the acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who isn’t as well-known as Burns, but likely will be once this series runs its course.

The series well might help us heal from those wounds of a long-ago war. That’s my hope, anyway.

I took part for a brief period in that conflict. I got my orders and reported for duty as an Army aircraft mechanic. I arrived at Marble Mountain, Da Nang, in the spring of 1969. I served my time and came home.

I’ve told you already about the emotional baggage I shed when I was able to return to that place in 1989. A lot of Vietnam vets have done much the same thing. Many of them had damn heavy loads to release; they were combat vets. I was not one of them, but the baggage was real.

The nation learned many valuable lessons about itself during that war and in its immediate aftermath. I want to look briefly at two of those lessons, which I hope the Burns-Novick film will discuss in detail beginning Sept. 17 (on Panhandle PBS).

We learned how to lose a war. The United States didn’t “lose” this conflict in the traditional sense. The enemy didn’t defeat us on the battlefield. Indeed, our armed forces were able to declare victory in virtually every major conflict we entered against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese military.

We inflicted more casualties on them than they did on our side. We captured more of their fighters than they did of ours. We won the fight on the field.

We lost the fight politically. We lacked the stomach to stay in the fight “for the duration.” The Vietnamese were fighting on their turf, fighting for their cities and villages. They were fighting to protect their land.

They had the will to keep fighting. And they did. We lost our will and came home in early 1973. Two years later, left to fend for themselves, the South Vietnamese armed forces were overrun by the North. On April 30, 1975, the shooting stopped.

We didn’t win that fight and it has stuck in our national craw ever since.

I’ve made peace with that fact over the years. I get how it went down. I trust “The Vietnam War” will explain it to those Americans who still wonder: How did we win all those battles but lose the war?

We mistreated our returning warriors. This might be the most shameful aspect of the war, at least in my mind.

I didn’t get spit on. No one called me names. I never once was disrespected outwardly and openly when I wore my uniform while at home upon my return. Too many of my colleagues, though, did receive such mistreatment. It was disgraceful in the extreme.

It is amazing today to listen to left-leaning commentators extol the heroism of our fighting men and women engaged in war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Think about that for a moment. Fifty years ago, those same leftish pundits might excoriate the returning warriors. There might be veiled references to the “atrocities” they committed. They likely would be treated with far less respect and dignity than they are today.

These days, I like wearing my Vietnam vet ball cap when I’m out and about and, yes, I welcome the occasional expressions of “thank your for your service” greetings I get from strangers. That would not have occurred in 1970.

We have turned an important corner in our national upbringing, and it warms my heart to know that we no longer condemn the fighting men and women for doing their duty to their country, just like we did during the Vietnam War.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have taken on a profoundly important project with this series on that long-ago, but never-forgotten war. It taught us many lessons about ourselves as a nation — and as individual Americans.

Their documentary is a landmark event in every meaningful sense of the term.


The first five episodes will air nightly on Panhandle PBS from Sunday, Sept. 17, through Thursday, Sept. 21, and the final five episodes will air nightly from Sunday, Sept. 24, through Thursday, Sept. 28. Each episode will premiere at 7 p.m. with a repeat broadcast immediately following the premiere.


Waiting anxiously for a landmark event

I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to call Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s upcoming PBS documentary special a “landmark television event.”

They’re going to chronicle an event that shaped a generation of Americans. It made a lot of young Americans grow up in a major hurry. “The Vietnam War” airs beginning Sept. 17 over 10 days; it comprises 18 hours of viewing.

Burns told AARP magazine: “We have a kind of historical amnesia about Vietnam.” He said it is “like an amputated limb that still itches, still aches. If we as Americans want to get over the divisions we feel today so prominently, it’s important to understand the place where they began.”

AARP calls Burns and Novick’s project a “doozy.” Boy, howdy. Is it ever.


Millions of Americans are going to watch this event with a special interest. These are those who reported for duty at some time during the Vietnam War. They were affected by it openly and viscerally. The war brought them pain, which many of them brought home with them.

I was fortunate in that regard. I didn’t suffer physical pain as a result of my service there. I’ve noted already that I was what grunts called a REMF, a “rear-echelon motherf*****.” I worked on Army airplanes and later scrambled missions at the I Corps Tactical Ops Center in Da Nang.

But in November 1989, I had the rare honor of returning to Vietnam, 20 years after I reported for duty at Marble Mountain. I went back to Marble Mountain at the tail end of a three-week fact-finding trip I took with 20 other journalists, members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. We toured Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. At the end of that “official” journey,” two colleagues and I flew north from Saigon to Da Nang as part of a personal sojourn.

We arrived in Da Nang and then took a car out to Marble Mountain. We strolled along the sandy terrain where I had walked as a young soldier. Our guide was explaining to us how the Vietnamese had absorbed our physical presence at Marble Mountain, how they had taken possession of all we had left behind. They put it to use for their own purposes, she said.

That’s when it happened. I broke down in tears. I began sobbing. I cried like a little child. Our guide, Mai, stopped talking. My friends backed away. I was alone with my emotions for, oh, just a few moments. Then it stopped. I wiped the tears off my face. Took a deep breath.

At that moment, I was cleansed of some unknown pain. I felt a sense of relief. I had shed a load of emotional baggage I never even knew I had been lugging around since my departure from the war zone two decades earlier.

I was a happy man. That “amputated limb” no longer “aches.”

I have told Vietnam veterans since my return from that marvelous journey that they, too, need to return. I get mixed reactions from them. I don’t press the issue; it’s for them to decide.

Ken Burns is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker with a huge body of work that’s been broadcast for decades on PBS. His collaboration with Novick is highly anticipated.

It will be a landmark event. I also am quite certain a lot of Vietnam vets will learn something about a critical chapter in their lives. They also might learn something about themselves.

Does it get any better than that?