Paul Cox:

If I may rant for a moment.  Karl Marlantes is a good enough guy and wrote the best battle book he was capable of in The Matterhorn, but he ain’t no expert on Vietnam (or on humans and war, as a quick read of his What It Is Like To Go To War will reveal).  He was a young LT in the mountain jungles just south of the DMZ fighting NVA exclusively.  He knows nothing of the war against the South Vietnamese down in the paddies, nor is he particularly well read on the Vietnam War.  But his world view fits nicely with Burns’ “O’ twasn’t it awwwful…and sad?”  “Finishing school” indeed.


This is going to be a long two weeks…

Becky Luening:

Did anyone else notice how the soundtrack often went weirdly eerie when Peter Coyote was discussing the activities of the communists?

Another thing that grated was the way things just seemed to happen. I guess that’s what history is,  a chronological list of  happenings. The French had napalm. America was drawn into the war by forces beyond our control,  like a victim almost. Diem seemed to magically appear just in time to lead South Vietnam. The Korean war ended (but wait! did it?!)

I would have hoped that Florentine Films was more sophisticated than this; despite a good effort to include diverse voices and multiple “truths,” or at least perspectives (personally I was a bit creeped out by the guy who thinks humans are designed to be brutal killers, that war is just our finishing school), it reads so much like a fifties propaganda film about the red menace, and all those dominoes falling. They cover a lot of history, but the telling feels somewhat jumbled, and it’s jarring how they jump around time-wise. I found myself not trusting their telling, wondering what they’re leaving out.

I do like the part where Donald Gregg of the CIA explains, and clearly regrets, how we misread a pivotal moment — the end of the colonial era in SE Asia — and how this “cost us very dearly.” Imagine if America had had the guts to support Vietnam in their shining moment… (Oh, but freedom isn’t free, is it now? or could it be that freedom isn’t freedom?)

At one point in this episode, a Pentagon guy named Leslie Gelb says, “Everyone understood that Vietnam, in and of itself, didn’t mean very much.” I hope I’m wrong, but I worry that this, in the end, will be the main tenor of this movie.

Don’t know if I have the heart to watch the whole thing.

Tarak Kauff:

From my watching of the first episode, it was clear, this documentary, which I watched last night is a sham, a total sham. There was so much that was off. It was all over the place. And you could see how the focus kept coming back to the “communists” kept using that as the rational why America, with it’s good intentions, read noble cause bullshit, “It was begun in good faith, by decent people” why America got involved – to stop the evil tide of world-wide communism. That was the rationale and if you don’t know better, it works.

Yes, there was some of the anti-war perspective and of course there will be throughout the series but the theme, the predominant theme was set and will probably carry through the series, that of America, “It was begun in good faith, by decent people” and how it went all wrong. Just a mistake. Right. A country destroyed, millions killed, millions more wounded, a crippling legacy of Agent Orange that will go on for generations both here and there. More U.S.vets dying by suicide than in the war, and they want to call that a mistake or a miscalculation.

I noticed how many CIA personnel commented, as if they were experts because they are CIA. Bullshit, their philosophy is wanting, very wanting. They still believe in the basic goodness, the boy scout version of Americana, another underlying theme of this documentary. Sorry, America historically, has not actually been so good. Our unsustainable way of life has from the beginning been extremely violent and has only gotten more so and more dangerous. Time past, we could only destroy the Indians. (That was and is bad enough)But now we have nuclear bombs. Now we can destroy the whole world. Maybe us white folks, who are privileged, we have it good, some of us, but the black, red and brown people, not only here but all over the world, many of them have seen that America and our way of life is not all that good. In fact it is doomed and lets hope not all of us with it. Ken Burns doesn’t seem to get that – at all.

Howie Machtinger:

Watching Episode 1 for the first time, I am struck at how slippery Burns/Novick are.  They do mention that no 1956 election was held, but it would be easy to miss the significance of that move (or the US role in it) if you’re not paying attention.  Diem appears all of a sudden and no mention of his stay in the US.  Similarly they make it sound like Diem was running circles around the US although he was dependent on the US in multiple ways.  And they imply an equivalence between Diem and Ho–both dedicated, single-minded pressured by outside forces, monastic (Diem was supposed to become a priest).

And the false equivalences; both equally brutal despite the difference in firepower and in the justice of the cause.

Will this documentary lead one to think “if only had the war been fought more smartly” or will it lead one to think “this was was morally wrong and should never have been fought”?

Still it is amply clear that in 1919,  1945, 1954, 1956 (and later in 1960 and 1965) disaster could have been averted i the US wasn’t bent on siding with colonial forces at every turn; and after WW Ii defining itself as the world’s counterrevolutionary policeman.  Of course the last part about US intentions is intentionally blurred.  But the fact of opportunity to pursue a different course is evident.

I guess they thought that Americans wouldn’t pay attention to anything not involving them so they threw in American war scenes without obvious relevance.

Doug Rawlings:



I began the evening in a funk.  Shut down and somewhat angry.  Here comes THE DOCUMENTARY. It was something like how I felt when I first heard in the late seventies that somebody was going to build a memorial to “my war.”  Fuck them.  What do they know?  Hell, what do I know?  I have since become enamored with Maya Lin’s magnificent Wall, so I thought, what the fuck, maybe I could become captivated, elevated, “cured,” even “healed,” by this documentary. After watching Episode One, I have become disabused of that notion.

First off, it has been 47 years since I ended my 411 day journey through that war, so I have survived what I first characterized as a “surreal” trip through stupefying violence, dread, and, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, an evil made even more crippling through its daily banality. I came home, compartmentalized my experiences, got an education, got a job, and raised a family. I was in control. Maybe.

Now Burns and Novicks have stirred up the pot.  Now, after watching their bizarre cinematic flashback PTSD-infused jumble of images, I feel like I am looking back at my year in Vietnam through a kaleidoscope.  Nothing makes sense. Maybe it shouldn’t, but, damn it, I thought I had fixed up a comfortable narrative to rest in as I slide toward oblivion. Spirits have been awakened. Now, what to do with them?

I have joined many of my comrades in Veterans For Peace for a decade-long mission we have entitled “Full Disclosure” as a means to counter the revisionist history of the American War in Viet Nam spun out by the Pentagon and their minions. So I am committed to using my experiences to question cultural artifacts such as this documentary.  First and foremost, why doesn’t Burns frame the war as an exercise in hubris, cultural ignorance, and mendacious colonialism?  There was no nobility in our government’s motives nor in its policies. None.  And why should we believe wholesale the comments of South Vietnamese quislings who portray the war as a struggle against communism? And where does this guy Marlantes get off referring to the violence we had to dish out in order to survive as some kind of “finishing school”? Of course there are some saving graces, like Tim O’Brien’s philosophical musings on the “heroism” involved in just taking one more step down the trail. And the unflinching portrayal of the misguided “pacification” program with its feudal “strategic hamlets,” another perfect example of our tone-deaf clumsiness — removing villagers from their sacred villages to “protect them” behind barbed wire and sand bagged bunkers. Seriously?

So what did I expect anyways from an exercise in documentation that calls itself “a story”?  A series of stories, actually, that loop back on to themselves, making the viewer question which one is true and which one isn’t. Or are they both true at the same time? This kind of a narrative is a slippery slope that is greased by moral ambiguity, leaving the audience crumpled down at the bottom of the hill in a bit of a daze.  Maybe that’s it. Maybe we should just give up and accept the filmmakers’ imagistic metaphor of a red plague creeping down Indochina that we brave band of lads were sent to dam up. But I can’t. And I won’t.

Paul Cox:

Like Doug, the backwards-film-backwards-in-time imagery at the beginning, the constant jumps from the critically important historical record to random scenes of the American War On Vietnam, and the non-contextual snippets of interviews was off putting to me.   It took valuable time away from the complex history lesson that is so important to understanding the war.  Now, having squandered about 25% of the history lesson on gut-check footage, we can move to the All-Gut-Check-All-The-Time portion of our story.  Brought to you by Bank of America and David Koch.


Daniel Shea:

“Watched the first episode of the Ken Burns, Lynn Novick Vietnam Documentary on OPB

I had seen a preview screening of partial clips of episodes on July 24th 2017 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, General Merrill McPeak and moderator David Miller of Think Out Loud.

I was concerned then that much of the historical context of the French, Japanese occupations where missing but this first Episode to my welcome surprise covered much of it.

I thought it was in this episode when in the previews I was triggered by a scene of someone being medivaced out by helicopter lifted up in a stretcher basket.

It was nowhere to be seen in this episode that I was so sure it would be, it caused me to wonder if it was ever there and my PTSD had been triggered by something else.

Maybe that scene will appear in another episode but in either case it transported me back and I was reliving that tramatic event.

I was less trouble by this episode except that by some preceptions that some expressed or was apart of the narrative.

For instance one John M. said his hatered for them (the North Vietnamese Army/Communists) was pure and grew stronger as his fear did.

I for one never entered the Marines with a hate for the Vietnamese even though boot camp tried to instill hate and many of my peers too often were loose with their racist talk.

I can’t account for why I seemed immune to this kind of hate even when a sniper almost took my life, or when others in my platoon died from booby traps explosions never to return with us.

There are a number of things that disturbed me in this first episode but would take some time to put to words.

Karl Marlantes says one of the stupid of things about human nature I find despicable. He says “people talk about how the military turns kids into killing machine and stuff, I argue that it is finishing school.”

If he believes we are inherently cruel, racist and merciless killers and military training just aids us in doing a better more efficient job in murdering people with more advanced weapons.

Then there is something terribly wrong with Marlantes something I have suspected for some time after reading a couple of his books.

I don’t believe for an instant that is our nature and not just the military but the constant barrage of war movies, war news or just crime news that depicts people of color as criminals, always the white hope coming to save the day or everything we had been taught about our American Exceptionalism has as much to do with shaping the killing machine as the military.

There are also a lot of important history being shared not only from our perspective but from that of the Vietnamese and that is something positive about this film.

I don’t know what next could trigger unwanted memories but I am determined to watch the whole series.

All veterans please have a support network available to you as this may trigger unwanted memories and feelings.