Tag Archives: PBS

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.

‘Vietnam War’ finally brings a lump to the throat

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick did it. Finally.

On the second to last night of their epic PBS documentary film, “The Vietnam War,” they brought a lump to my throat. They made me swallow hard. As in swallow real hard.

The moment struck me as I listened to a former Vietnam War prisoner tell of his release from captivity by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.

His name is Hal Kushner. He was an Army physician who was taken captive by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. He then was taken to Hanoi.

Kushner would be released in March 1973, two months after President Nixon announced the signing of the ceasefire that ended our combat involvement in the Vietnam War.

Kushner told of being greeted at Clark Air Force Base, The Philippines by an Air Force officer who said, “Welcome home, doctor.”

Kushner’s voice choked up as he remembered looking at the jet transport that would fly him and his fellow former POWs across the Pacific Ocean. He saw the letters “USAF” painted on the plane. “I saw this big C-141, this beautiful white bird, with the American flag emblazoned on the tail,” he said. They were going home.

The sight of those men hugging each other, toasting each other and kissing the flight nurses aboard the aircraft made my eyes well up as I watched this landmark series march toward its conclusion.

“The Vietnam War” has filled me with many emotions. Some nostalgia over my own meager involvement in that war; some anger at the way our returning warriors were treated when they came “home”; more anger at the sight of Jane Fonda yukking it up with North Vietnamese soldiers while sitting in an anti-aircraft weapon they used to shoot down our aviators; revulsion at the sight of all the carnage that occurred throughout the war.

The sight of those POWs coming home? That evoked another feeling altogether. I’m prone to sappy reactions at times, even when I watch actors portraying human emotion. I tend to forget that they’re pretending.

Not this time. What we saw was real. Man, it was good.

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.

Now the ‘Vietnam’ series is getting serious

PBS is taking a couple of days off leading us down the trail of tragedy that was the Vietnam War.

Episode Four aired tonight and I was gripped by a brief segment contained within it. I’ll need a couple of days to catch my breath before the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary special returns Sunday night.

“The Vietnam War” is walking us through the war year by year. Tonight it took us to the end of 1967. In January of the following year, the Tet Offensive erupted — and it changed everything.

Tonight, though, we saw a brief segment of a young Navy aviator being questioned by his captors in Hanoi. The aviator was lying on a bed, telling the world that he loved his wife. He was in great pain, having been injured when he parachuted from his stricken jet fighter into a Hanoi lake.

John McCain III would spend more than five years as a prisoner of war. He would be tortured, beaten to within an inch of his life. He would be put in solitary confinement. He would be offered an early release, but would refuse it because he didn’t want to give the enemy a propaganda tool, given that his father, Adm. John McCain Jr., was a senior Navy officer. Nor did he want to dishonor himself in the presence of his POW brethren. He would be tortured anew for his refusal to be released early.

And, yes … I thought of how the current president of the United States disparaged McCain’s heroic Vietnam War service while he was running for the presidency. Donald John Trump Sr. didn’t serve in the military during that terrible conflict, yet he blurted out that McCain was a “hero only because he was captured; I like people who aren’t captured, OK?”

I am reminded of a brief segment at the 2008 Al Smith Memorial Dinner featured Sens. McCain and Barack Obama, who were in the middle of a tough campaign for the presidency. The event is done in good fun and it raises money for the Roman Catholic Diocese in New York in memory of the late New York Gov. Al Smith.

Near the end of his hilarious comic riff, Sen. Obama took a moment to tell the audience that “few Americans have served their country with the distinction and honor” that John McCain has demonstrated.

The PBS documentary and the segment with Sen. McCain lying on that Hanoi bed was tough to watch. It simply reminded me, though, of what heroism looks like.

Recalling a chance meeting with an architect of tragedy

Watching the PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War” brings to mind a chance meeting I had in late 1995 with one of the villains of that national tragedy … Robert McNamara.

I like telling the story, so I’ll provide it here knowing, of course, that it involves only two people — and one of them is dead.

Morris Communications Corp. had convened a meeting of newspaper editors and publishers in Washington, D.C., to discuss how the group had planned to cover the upcoming 1996 presidential election. I was editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News, so I got to attend the meeting.

One Sunday morning right after we arrived, we had a day off. I took the time to walk from the hotel to Arlington National Cemetery. The morning was quiet. Traffic was light. Streets had few pedestrians.

I waited at a corner for the light to turn green so I could cross. I noticed an elderly gentleman walking toward me from another corner. He was carrying a shopping bag full of groceries.

I looked and then looked more intently at the gentleman. It was Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He had just published a book, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.”

In the book, McNamara acknowledged that he knew as early as 1963 that the Vietnam War was a lost cause. He also admitted that he kept quiet about what he believed at the time. He continued to advise Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to keep sending young men to die in Vietnam.

I was one of the young men he allowed to go to Vietnam; I got my orders in the spring of 1969 and reported for duty at Marble Mountain, Da Nang, to work on Army surveillance aircraft.

I was filled at the time of the book’s publication with anger that McNamara would have kept those thoughts so damn private, that he wouldn’t have spoken out in real time about what he believed about the future of that tragic conflict.

He approached me on that quite D.C. street that Sunday morning. “Mr. Secretary,” I said, “I want to introduce myself. My name is John Kanelis. I live in Amarillo,Texas and I just want to tell you how pissed off I am at you after learning about what you wrote in that book you just published. I was one of those men you sent to Vietnam.”

McNamara smiled and said, simply, “You are a very observant young man.” I smiled back at him and offered a conciliatory follow-up. “I am glad that you finally came clean,” I said.

He thanked me. We shook hands and he walked away.

I continued on to Arlington National Cemetery and paid my respects to President Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy.

And I felt better for getting those thoughts off my chest.

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.