Thursday, October 19, 2017

'The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick' Episode Review: 'A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973)'



Episode Nine: A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973)

Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward

Directed by: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

South Vietnamese forces fighting on their own in Laos suffer a terrible defeat. Massive U.S. airpower makes the difference in halting an unprecedented North Vietnamese offensive. After being re-elected in a landslide, Nixon announces Hanoi has agreed to a peace deal. American prisoners of war will finally come home - to a bitterly divided country. - from The Vietnam War's Episode List


On September 27, 2017, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired "A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973), the ninth episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War. Produced by Burns, Novick, and Sarah Botstein, this 10-part documentary series is an attempt to explain, as best as possible, one of the most tragic and controversial events in American history. A decade in the making, The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick  features interviews of participants from all sides, including civilians and veterans from North and South Vietnam. (Hence the series’ tagline: “There is no single truth in war.”)
(C) 2017 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and Florentine Films

"The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country as it had probably not been polarized since the Civil War, and we've never recovered." - Phil Gioia, Army veteran, A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973)


John Filo's Pulitzer Prize-winning picture catches Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway from South Florida, as she screams in horror as Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller dies of a gunshot wound from a volley fired by Ohio National Guardsmen during an antiwar protest on May 4, 1970. (C) 1970 Valley News Dispatch

Spring 1970. As the antiwar movement gains momentum after President Richard M. Nixon orders U.S. and South Vietnamese troops to make an "incursion" into Communist sanctuaries in neighboring Cambodia, the fissures between America's liberals and conservatives become a wide gaping chasm. What began in the mid-1960s as a somewhat civil if somewhat vocal difference of opinions over the morality and necessity of America's war in Southeast Asia has morphed into a near-state of civil war that threatens to tear the nation apart. And as the levels of frustration and anger on both sides of the argument rise, violence erupts on the streets of American cities and in the once-peaceful grounds of colleges and universities such as Ohio's Kent State University.

"A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973)" picks up The Vietnam War's narrative where "The History of the World" left off. President Nixon and a national security staff led by Henry Kissinger know that America can't win the war in Vietnam and have doubts that South Vietnam's unpopular President, Nguyen Van Thieu, will prevail against the Communists in Hanoi once U.S. troops depart. Nevertheless, Nixon publicly claims that the policy of "Vietnamizing" the war  - that is, giving the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) responsibility for the actual fighting -  is working.

"A Disrespectful Loyalty" spends much time discussing the various antiwar movements, their different ideologies and methods, and "the Establishment's" efforts to discredit them all as being inspired, organized, and even supported by Moscow, Beijing, and Hanoi. Some groups, like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, were allowed to protest without heavy police presence or arrests; others, like the more militant Mad Dogs, were often portrayed as reflecting the philosophies and modus operandi of most of the other antiwar protesters. 

Though there were radicals and revolutionary-wannabes whose goals were to spark riots and cause mayhem, most of the protesters were motivated by a genuine desire to stop a war that they believed was unjust and immoral. As John Musgrave, a Marine who had been wounded in action in Vietnam, says about his involvement in the antiwar protests, "It finally dawned on me, and this was a painful process, that I wasn't helping anybody by keeping my mouth shut." 

Did his status as a protester clash with Musgrave's pride of being a Marine veteran? Was he turning his back on the principles he acquired in the Corps?

"Yes, I was a Marine," Musgraves says, "but I was first and foremost a citizen of the United States of America. And being a citizen, I had certain responsibilities. And the largest of these responsibilities is standing up to your government and saying no when it's doing something that you think is not in this nation's best interests. That is the most important job that every citizen has. I served my country as honorably when I was in Vietnam Veterans Against the War as I did as a United States Marine, and in fact I conducted myself as a Marine the whole time I was in VVAW - my whole life I've conducted myself as a Marine.'

 The episode also shows how the struggle between conservatives and liberals about the Vietnam War planted the seeds of today's culture wars. The Nixon Administration, which was supported by large numbers of conservative voters, tended to treat protesters as if they were enemies of the nation and did everything it could to exploit the fear and distaste that many Americans felt toward the more revolutionary, incendiary activists. 

For instance, "A Disrespectful Loyalty" includes a segment of a September 1970 "David Frost" interview in which student Eva Jefferson, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran debated with Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. (The clip below is not from The Vietnam War, but it was used in the episode.)




As Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns write in the companion volume, The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, Agnew "sought to paint the antiwar movement as dangerously radical" and accused Jefferson of encouraging her fellow antiwar activists to use violence to advance their cause.

She would have none of it. "What I attempted to do before the Scranton Committee, she said, "was to explain what could motivate someone to blow up a building. I did not say I endorse this, and if you read my testimony quite carefully, you'll know that I didn't. And it's this type of picking up on what I allegedly said instead of what I really said, that really disturbs me....You're making people afraid of their own children. Yet they're your children, they're my parents' children, they're children of this country.... There's an honest difference of agreement on issues, but when you make people afraid of each other, you isolate people. Maybe this is your goal. But I think this can only have a disastrous effect on the country.

"Let me say first that isolating people is not my goal," Agnew responded. "If that were true, I wouldn't be here tonight....Let me take exception to that oft-repeated rationale that violence is the only way to get results."

Jefferson did not back down: "I was trying to explain to you the rationale of some students who are openly revolutionary," she answered. "You're not listening to what I'm saying." 


Agnew wasn't interested in listening. "Dividing the American people has been my main contribution to the national political scene," he once boasted. "I not only plead guilty to this charge, but I am somewhat flattered."

The Nixon Administration's end game was to reap the political bounty of making liberals and antiwar demonstrators to be, as Jefferson tells Burns and Novick, "these scary, horrible people. We weren't. We were against the war. We thought the war was wrong. We thought we were lied to. And we were in the streets. America has always had a rich tradition of protests. We were founded by protesting England. So to make people afraid of their kids I think was wrong. But that's what they were about. They were fearmongers."

In Southeast Asia, as U.S. forces are gradually drawn down, the weaknesses of the South Vietnamese government and military become too apparent. The first crack in the façade of the ARVN as a viable fighting force is Operation Lam Son 719, a limited invasion of Laos by the South Vietnamese army intended to disrupt an expected North Vietnamese offensive in the South by attacking Tchepone, a supposed key Communist supply depot area. 

The U.S. and South Vietnamese planners estimate that only 20,000 Communist troops are in the target area; in reality, Hanoi has some 60,000 troops in the vicinity, equipped with tanks, armored vehicles, and heavy artillery provided by North Vietnam's sponsors, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.

Covering a nearly three-year-long period of the Vietnam War, "A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973) also discusses various events and topics, including:

  • The effects of Nixon's policies of détente with the Soviet Union and his 1972 overture to open a dialogue with the People's Republic of China on the Paris peace negotiations
  • The horrible conditions in which American POWs lived while in the custody of North Vietnam
  • The heatedly divided public reaction to Second Lieutenant William Calley's conviction in his court martial after the My Lai massacre was revealed
  • Nixon's reaction to the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and how his efforts to cover up his tampering with the peace negotiations in '68 led directly to the Watergate scandal in 1972
  • North Vietnam's Easter Offensive of March-April 1972 and Nixon's riposte
  • Nguyen Van Thieu's "one-man" presidential election and his refusal to cooperate with the negotiations
  • The peace negotiations in Paris and their role in Nixon's re-election in November of 1972
  • The "Christmas Bombing" campaign of late 1972
  • Why U.S. veterans can't forgive Jane Fonda for her ill-conceived trip to Hanoi in 1972 and participating openly in North Vietnam's propaganda efforts against the U.S.
South Vietnamese children flee from their village after a South Vietnamese Skyraider fighter-bomber dropped napalm on them in a tragic case of mistaken identity; the pilot thought the children was a group of escaping Communist troops. Photo credit: Nick Ut, (C) 1972 Associated Press 
It is, perhaps, a cliché, but if we are to understand why 21st Century America is so polarized and the gap between conservatives and liberals is seemingly so unbridgeable, it's important to look at the Vietnam War and its era. 

In "A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973), viewers who wonder how a man as undiplomatic and unsuited for the Presidency as Donald Trump can be elected  to the same office as JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon will see how the war planted the seeds for today's harvest of discord, anger, and sorrow.

A man like Trump - who avoided going to Vietnam thanks to various deferments and a high draft number in the lottery system Nixon instituted during his first term - doesn't get elected in a socio-cultural vacuum. His rise to political power and the fierceness of his supporters to keep him in office is the culmination of a struggle between America's two main political bands that began over 50 years ago.

If you look at the footage of the protests and counterdemonstrations that took place in America between 1970 and 1972, you'll see familiar scenes of scruffy looking youngsters - some violent agitators, most not - facing off against flag-waving construction workers, staid-looking women in sensible clothes, and middle-aged men (mostly white) holding signs that say "America Love It OR Leave It" and similar slogans. It's hard not to look at those images without seeing parallels - both visual and political - to the struggles between Trump supporters and their opponents.

Ken Burns has remarked in interviews - before, during, and after The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick that America is where it is in 2017 as a result of the war and the divisions it created in the society. 

As Army veteran  Phil Gioia says at the start of the episode,"The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country as it had probably not been polarized since the Civil War, and we've never recovered."

I've watched my fair share of movies (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers ) and documentaries (Vietnam: A Television History, Last Days in Vietnam) about this conflict, and they are all worth seeing. But Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and co-producer Sarah Botstein have brought the Vietnam conflict back into America's living rooms with an immediacy and sense of tragic loss unlike no other film project about the nation's "lost crusade" in Southeast Asia.

In The Vietnam War, Ward, Burns and Novack labored for 10 years to tell a multifaceted story with multiple points of view (American, North and South Vietnamese, civilian and military) in a moving and informative fashion.


Their endeavor is made possible by the skills of principal cinematographer Buddy Squires; editors Tricia Reidy, Paul Barnes, Erik Ewers, and Craig Mellish; composers Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and David Cieri (The Roosevelts: An Intimate History). Together with narrator Peter Coyote, the Florentine Films team make "A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973)"  a fascinating - and heart-breaking - window into one of America's most tragic periods. 


Source: Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, New York, 2017


Monday, October 16, 2017

'The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick' Episode Review: 'The History of the World (April 1969-May 1970)'


Episode Eight: The History of the World (April 1969-May 1970)

Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward


Directed by: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick



With morale plunging in Vietnam, President Nixon begins withdrawing American troops. As news breaks of an unthinkable massacre committed by American soldiers, the public debates the rectitude of the war. An incursion into Cambodia reignites antiwar protests with tragic consequences. - from The Vietnam War's Episode List


On September 26, 2017,  PBS premiered "The History of the World (April 1969-May 1970),” Episode Eight of The Vietnam War, a 10-part documentary series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (The War, Prohibition). Produced by Burns, Novick, and Sarah Botstein, this 18-hour exploration of one of the most divisive events in modern American history was 10 years in the making. It features interviews of participants from all sides, including civilians and veterans from North and South Vietnam. (Hence the series’ tagline: “There is no single truth in war.”)



(C) 2017 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and Florentine Films
"The History of the World" begins with a "present day" interview with Joan Furey, a former Army nurse who volunteered for duty in Vietnam after one of her high school classmates was killed during the Tet Offensive of 1968. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., young Joan had wanted to be a nurse "ever since she and her older sister watched a movie on television called So Proudly We Hail! which was about the nurses on Bataan and Corregidor during World War II." As Furey tells the interviewer, "It was probably the first time in my life that I realized women could do brave and courageous things." 

At first, Second Lieutenant Furey, now assigned to the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku in South Vietnam's Central Highlands, believed that the U.S. presence in Vietnam was there to do good. But in the spring of 1969, Furey's youthful idealism erodes as she and her fellow caregivers deal with a never-ending flow of U.S. and allied casualties.


One day, they brought in a young soldier who had a head injury. He had a large field dressing on the back of his head. They said, "He's expectant." I kind of freaked out and decided, "No, they're wrong." I was going to take care of this patient. I told the corpsman to get me blood. And he's saying, "Well, Lieutenant, this patient is expectant. You're not supposed to be using blood."  I said, "Get me the blood." He went and got it, and I hung the blood on the patient and I decided to change the dressing. I took off the dressing. The whole back of his head was gone and all the blood I had been giving him  came out. A friend of mine came over and said to me, "You just have to walk away. Come on, you can't just give him any more blood. We have all these other patients." And he just walked me out of there. We went out and had a cigarette. A few minutes later we walked right back in and got back to work. You had to learn to be detached, to push down those overwhelming emotions to get the job done. - Joan Furey, "The History of the World (April 1969-May 1970)" 





Three months into President Richard Nixon's new Administration, the war in Vietnam grinds on. The Republican chief executive had won the 1968 election by promising to restore law and order at home and end the increasingly unpopular war "with honor." Playing to his largely conservative base of supporters, Nixon refuses to publicly acknowledge the antiwar movement and conceals from the press that he knows that America can't win the war by force of arms. The only way to end America's involvement in South Vietnam is to, in essence, capitulate without publicly admitting we have capitulated.  



But like his Democratic predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon believes that America can't simply cut and run without losing prestige in the eyes of her allies - and her enemies. And just like LBJ, Nixon abhors the thought of becoming the first President to lose a war in U.S. history. Torn between the need to restore a modicum of law and order to a divided nation and trying to extricate U.S. forces from a war that he knows can't be won, Richard Nixon plays a strange political shell game that pits conservatives against liberals against each other - thus creating the polarized America that we live in today. 



"The History of the World" is, like the period of the war it covers, complex and encompasses many points of view. 

In Southeast Asia, over 500,000 American men and women in uniform are being asked to fight for a nebulous cause. Officially, as one veteran remembers, when new GIs ask what America's mission in Vietnam is all about, the reply is, "To stop the advance of international communism." But if the questioner shows any skepticism about that, then the next reply is "Well, it is to show to the world at large that the U.S. sticks to its commitments no matter what."

No nineteen-, twenty-year-old kid wants to die to maintain the credibility of Richard Nixon. And so, within a relatively short time, the guys were saying, "Look, we shouldn't be here, but we are. So my only function in life is to try and keep you alive, buddy; and to keep my precious ass from being killed; and then to go home, and forget about this." - Vincent Okamoto, "The History of the World."

The episode, with a running time of one hour and 48 minutes, delves into many diverse topics, including: 
  • The contrast between the Johnson Administration's policy of "quiet diplomacy" regarding U.S. prisoners of war held by Hanoi and its Viet Cong surrogates and the Nixon team's more public efforts that linked withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam with the release of the POWs
  • Nixon's canny strategies to take the edge off the growing antiwar movement, which included cancellation of two draft call-ups in late 1969 and the adoption of "Vietnamization - the policy of gradually bringing home U.S. troops and giving responsibility for the war to the South Vietnamese armed forces
  • Ho Chi Minh's death and the North Vietnamese leadership's refusal to give in under constant U.S. bombing of the North
  • The war from the North and South Vietnamese perspective
  • The growing radicalization of the antiwar movement and the emergence of domestic terrorist groups such as the Weathermen
  • The growing disillusion felt by U.S. veterans upon their return home from Vietnam
  • The impact on the home front created by such debacles as the revelation of the My Lai massacre, the pointless battle for Hill 937 (also known as "Hamburger Hill"), and Nixon's "incursion" into Cambodia in April 1970
  • The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam (October 15, 1970), the largest nationwide protest in American history
  • Campus unrest and violence in the spring of 1970, which culminates with the Kent State Shooting on May 4, 1970 


(C)1970 Valley News-Dispatch. Photo Credit: John Filo 
I was a young boy (six in April of 1969, seven in May 1970) and living in Colombia with my mom and older half-sister in the period depicted in "The History of the World (April 1969-May 1970)." And even though I was somewhat precocious and read the news accounts about Vietnam in local newspapers or watched grainy-looking black-and-white footage on Colombian TV, the war was a disturbing blot that stained my childhood. I didn't understand the conflict, and the images from both Southeast Asia and the protest-stricken U.S. were scary and unsettling.

I knew that I'd been born in Miami and was a U.S. citizen, and even though I was being raised in Colombia (a traditional U.S. ally), I was proud of being the only person in my family with an American passport. But considering that Latin American leftists - emboldened by the chaos in the U.S. and Western Europe caused by the world-wide youth revolts of the late Sixties - were inciting protests and aiding Marxist guerrillas in Colombia (and elsewhere), I had to keep that to myself.

As a result, I heard a lot of anti-American comments among my older cousins, many of whom were the same age as the soldiers fighting in Vietnam and the college kids who wanted to end the war and change the world - for the better, they thought. Most of them, especially those that spoke English and had traveled abroad, agreed with the anti-war movement and even mimicked some of their behavior. At least some of my male cousins grew beards and let their hair grow a bit long - not as long as the stereotypical hippies, mind, but longer than our conservative and very staid grandparents could tolerate.

And because the war in Vietnam lasted till the mid-1970s, it was still the dominant topic on the evening news when Mom and I returned to Miami in the late spring of 1972.  By then, Nixon's Vietnamization policy was well underway and U.S. forces were greatly reduced. Nevertheless, I arrived Stateside just in time for the tail end of North Vietnam's failed Spring Offensive and its consequences, as well as the beginning of the Watergate scandal. 

The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick has been a somewhat cathartic experience. I have known many of the main talking points related to the war for several decades now; I long ago gave up any notions I once held that we could have won on the battlefield if "those liberal politicians" had not "tied our hands behind our backs."


Also, I used to get angry at the protesters and the intellectuals who made up the antiwar movement, especially the cruder, crueler ones who called returning vets "baby killers" and "war criminals." But though I still think those individuals should not have said such hateful and hurtful things, I'm now more understanding about why they acted that way. 

I have always been in awe of America's veterans, and even though "The History of the World" reminds us that Americans lose the veneer of civilization on the battlefield and are capable of committing atrocities such as the My Lai massacre (which occurred in 1968 but became public a year later), I still feel profound respect for the men and women who serve our country. The stories of Joan Furey, Merrill McPeak, Roger Smith, Tim O'Brien, Vincent Okamoto, Thomas Varelly, John Musgrave, Bill Erhardt, Wayne Smith, and Hal Kushner are moving and powerful profiles in courage.  

I've watched my fair share of movies (Platoon, Apocalypse Now) and documentaries (Vietnam: A Television History, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War) about this conflict, and they are all worth seeing. But Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and co-producer Sarah Botstein have brought the Vietnam conflict back into America's living rooms with an intimacy and sense of tragic loss unlike no other film project about the nation's "lost crusade" in Southeast Asia.

In The Vietnam War, Ward, Burns and Novack labored for 10 years to tell a multifaceted story with multiple points of view (American, North and South Vietnamese, civilian and military) in a moving and informative fashion.

.
Their endeavor is made possible by the skills of principal cinematographer Buddy Squires; editors Tricia Reidy, Paul Barnes, Erik Ewers, and Craig Mellish; composers Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and David Cieri (The Roosevelts: An Intimate History). Together with narrator Peter Coyote, the Florentine Films team make "The History of the World (April 1969-May 1970)"  a fascinating - and heart-breaking - window into one of America's most tragic periods. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review: 'The Vietnam War: An Intimate History'

(C) 2017 Alfred A. Knopf  Books; Cover art by Public Broadcasting Service
On September 5, 2017, almost two weeks before The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick premiered on TV's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Alfred A. Knopf published the companion book, The Vietnam War: An Intimate History. Co-written by the series' writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, and producer-director Ken Burns, this 640-page volume brings the tragedy of the Vietnam War back to life on the printed page with the same sense of historical sweep as the 10-part documentary it complements.

The Vietnam War was more than a Cold War-era clash of arms fought mainly by the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies against the Communist-led government of North Vietnam and its guerrilla allies of the National Liberation Front - known by Washington and Saigon as the Viet Cong - in the South. It was that, of course, but the war was also the most divisive event in American history since the Civil War of the mid-19th Century. In the introduction, series directors Burns and Novick write:

It's been forty years now, and despite President (Gerald) Ford's optimism, we have been unable to put that war behind us. The deep wounds it inflicted on our nation, our communities, our families, and our politics have festered. As Army veteran Phil Gioia said in an interview for our documentary series, "The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country as it had probably not been polarized since the Civil War, and we've never recovered."

Although Gioia's comment might be dismissed by some individuals of the conservative persuasion as being "liberal hyperbole," it's worth noting that the ideological rift between right-wing Americans and left-wing Americans widened to a deep chasm in the tumultuous years between 1963 and 1973 - the period in which a long-simmering civil war in Southeast Asia became an American war to stop "Godless Communism" - and became a bloody, needless, and futile quagmire waged, above all things, to save the political faces of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. 


ABOUT THE VIETNAM WAR

From the award-winning historian and filmmakers of The Civil War, Baseball, The War, The Rooseveltsand others: a vivid, uniquely powerful history of the conflict that tore America apart–the companion volume to the major, multipart PBS film to be aired in September 2017.   - from the publisher's website

Writing this generously-illustrated  companion book, acclaimed historian Geoffrey C. Ward and producer Ken Burns deploy their creative talents in another literary collaboration in the same manner as a skilled and canny general plans and executes a brilliant military operation.  They do so by telling the many stories of the Vietnam War - from France's long struggle to "pacify" its unwilling colony in Indochina to the hasty - and humiliating -  helicopter evacuation from Saigon at the end of April 1975 - without being judgmental or casting unfair aspersions on any of the warring factions. 

The book is divided, like the series it complements, into 10 chapters. They are:


  • Chapter One: Déjà Vu (1858-1961); it is supplemented by the essay "Paths to Power" by Edward Miller
  •  Chapter Two: Riding the Tiger (1961-1963); it is supplemented by the essay "Kennedy and What Might Have Been" by Frederik Logevall
  • Chapter Three: The River Styx (January 1964-December 1965)
  • Chapter Four: Resolve (January 1966- June 1967)
  • Chapter Five: What We Do (July-December 1967)
  • Chapter Six: Things Fall Apart (January-June 1968)
  • Chapter Seven: The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-April 1969)
  • Chapter Eight: The History of the World (May 1969-December 1970); it is supplemented by the essay "Seeing Americans Again" by Bao Ninh
  • Chapter Nine: A Disrespectful Loyalty (January 1971-March 1973); it is supplemented by the essay "Vietnam and the Movement" by Todd Gitlin
  • Chapter Ten: The Weight of Memory (March 1973-April 1975); it is supplemented by the essay "Dust of Life, Dust of War" by Viet Thanh Nguyen
More than forty years after it ended, the Vietnam War continues to haunt our country. We still argue over why we were there, whether we could have won, and who was right and wrong in their response to the conflict. When the war divided the country, it created deep political fault lines that continue to divide us today. Now, continuing in the tradition of their critically acclaimed collaborations, the authors draw on dozens and dozens of interviews in America and Vietnam to give us the perspectives of people involved at all levels of the war: U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers and their families, high-level officials in America and Vietnam, antiwar protestors, POWs, and many more.  - from the publisher's website 


Readers who have watched the series will notice that though Ward and Burns often uses some of the same prose that Ward wrote for The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, this is not merely a lavishly-illustrated, nicely edited transcript of the television documentary. Much of the book's content is unique to The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, and many of the anecdotes that appear as moving images on the screen are often presented slightly differently or mixed in with other bits of history and stories that Ward and Burns chose to tell in the book but not in the documentary. (Sharp-eyed owners of the Blu-ray set  may note that the book's narrative includes vignettes that can only be seen on the Deleted Scenes section of Disc One's extra features.)

Though the book is definitely worth reading, it is definitely not flawless. As often happens when a book project is so complex and production deadlines loom, mistakes creep in. 

I have not caught any major mistakes in the main text, but on a two-page photo spread (pages 64-65), there is a caption that describes a napalm strike by South Vietnamese Air Force AD-1 Skyraiders thusly:

American jets drop napalm on communist positions, 1963. 

At first glance, misidentifying South Vietnamese aircraft for American ones is forgivable; the U.S.-built military aircraft used by the two allies bore national insignia  - star-and-bars roundels - that to the untrained eye looked identical. Close examination, however, reveals that the coloring inside the roundel's bars is yellow, which identifies that aircraft as South Vietnamese

But the AD-1 Skyraider was an inelegant, non-swept wing propeller-driven aircraft, not a jet-powered, swept-wing fighter like the F-4 Phantom II or the F-105 Thunderchiefs flown by the Americans. 

This is probably the worst editorial gaffe in the book; there may be a few more sprinkled here and there, and it probably wasn't even made by Burns or Ward. It's minor and many readers probably wouldn't have caught it. But it is there, and it pulled me out of the reading experience for a few moments. It's not a mortal sin of commission, mind you, but it is going to be noticed by readers who know about military aircraft and their history. 

On the whole, however. The Vietnam War: An Intimate History is a well-written and nicely presented book. Ward and Burns are, by now, two of the most respected historians/documentary makers/storytellers in contemporary America and they know their stuff. The authorial tone of the book is informative without bordering on the dry, often didactic style that some historians adopt when they write about Vietnam. 

And because 42 years have passed since the war ended, the book - like the documentary it complements - attempts to explain the tragedy of the war without pretending to have all the answers. It doesn't take sides; The Vietnam War: An Intimate History covers the events of the 30-year conflict as fairly as possible. Of course, its narrative describes how the policymakers in Congress, the White House (with Republican and Democratic Administrations in charge) and the Pentagon made a series of decisions which in retrospect should not have been made. It also exposes the sad realities of war's effects on the men and women who are asked to fight in one, and how easily the "veneer of civilization" wore away from even the most decent and kind individuals in that most unforgiving of arenas: the battlefield. 

Source: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/212340/the-vietnam-war-by-geoffrey-c-ward-and-ken-burns/

Book Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition (September 5, 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307700259
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307700254
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 1.6 x 11.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.5 pounds 

Monday, October 9, 2017

'The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick' Episode Review: 'The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-May 1969)'



Episode Seven: "The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-May 1969)


Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward

Directed by: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Public support for the war declines, and American men of draft age face difficult decisions and wrenching moral choices. After police battle with demonstrators in the streets of Chicago, Richard Nixon wins the presidency, promising law and order at home and peace overseas. In Vietnam the war goes on, and soldiers on all sides witness terrible savagery and unflinching courage. - from The Vietnam War's Episode List. 

On September 25, 2017, 300 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations aired "The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-May 1969)," Episode Seven of directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War. This epic 10-part documentary series is an in-depth exploration of one of the most divisive and controversial conflicts in American history. It is a "from the bottom-up" narrative told from the perspectives of Americans and Vietnamese - from North and South - who were involved in some way in it, either on the battlefields of Southeast Asia or in an America bitterly cleaved in two between those who supported the war and those who opposed it. As the series' tagline so aptly puts it: "There's no single truth in war."
(C) 2017 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and Florentine Films
  The seventh part of Burns and Novick's 18-hour-long series takes up the story where "Things Fall Apart (January 1968-July 1968)" left off: North Vietnam's "General Offensive, General Uprising' - the infamous Tet Offensive - has ended in a military failure for Communist Party secretary Le Duan, the de facto leader of Hanoi's government. But the North's ability to mount such an ambitious attack against South Vietnam's autocratic regime and its U.S. allies shock an American public that has been constantly told by President Lyndon B. Johnson and General William Westmoreland that the war is going well and that "there is light at the end of the tunnel." The Tet Offensive and the images beamed to American homes from the battlefields via network television broadcasts dispel these rosy statements and widen the "credibility gap" between the government and the American people.

Now, in the summer of 1968, the world is convulsed as a wave of youthful revolution spreads from America to Europe and beyond. Protests against the war and for civil rights, equality for women, other social and economic issues erupt not only in an America sharply divided against itself, but also in France, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, West Germany, and even some of the countries trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Having withdrawn from the 1968 Presidential race as a result of the growing dissent against the war, LBJ watches helplessly as his Democratic Party splits in two. His chosen successor, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, is seen by many in the anti-war movement as a Johnson loyalist and must fend off stiff competition from Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. After a fractious party convention in Chicago marred by violent clashes between baton-wielding police and college-age anti-war demonstrators, Humphrey wins the Democrats' Presidential nomination to run against Republican candidate Richard Nixon. He also alienates the lame duck President Johnson by saying he will stop the bombing of North Vietnam to ease the way for a negotiated solution to the war.   

Humphrey's poll numbers go up, and it looks as though he might win the general election - until Nixon engineers one of the dirtiest tricks in his long, controversial career as a Republican politician. Alarmed by Humphrey's improving popularity with voters and seeking to avenge his 1960 Presidential election loss to John F. Kennedy, Nixon authorizes his campaign staff to contact South Vietnam's President, Nguyen Van Thieu and ask him to withdraw from the peace negotiations in Paris.

Through the services of conservative hardliner Anna Chennault, the wealthy Republican widow of Gen. Claire Chennault, the famous commander of World War II's "Flying Tigers," Nixon insinuates to Thieu that Humphrey would be a weak President and would stop all U.S. aid to South Vietnam. Nixon, the consummate anti-Communist, would drive a harder bargain with Hanoi and prop up Thieu's vulnerable government and ensure its continued survival. Thieu, motivated both by fear of a Communist victory, agrees.

On Saturday, November 2, 1968, the day after LBJ announces a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, Thieu suddenly makes a speech in Saigon to inform the world that the South Vietnamese government will withdraw from the Paris peace talks.

Unbeknownst to Nixon, the FBI and CIA have tapped the phones of some of the participants in this conspiracy - and LBJ is aware of the Republican nominee's unethical and illegal maneuvers. But Johnson is reluctant to reveal how he received the information, and the American people is never told. Nixon wins the Presidency - but his fears that his secret will someday be discovered plant the seed for his eventual downfall.

Meanwhile, the war - which to the Americans is irretrievably lost - grinds on. Young men of military age, including Tim O'Brien, Karl Marlantes, and Robert Harrison, face painful moral and personal choices as they decide whether or not they will fight in a war that they believe is unjust and unnecessary. And as American aircraft bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail in a furious effort to stop the flow of men and materiel from the North to the South, North Vietnamese truck drivers and engineers, including Nguyen Nguyet Anh and Tran Cong Thang defy the odds - and U.S. bombs - to keep the Communist supply lines to the battle fronts open.

I was very young (between the ages of five and six) during the 11-month period covered in "The Veneer of Civilization." I also lived in Colombia with my mother and older half-sister. As a result, the war in Vietnam was a murky blot in the distance for me. The anti-Americanism it sometimes inspired in some social circles caused my mom to worry; I was born in Miami and was a U.S. citizen, but I was told to not tell anyone at school so I wouldn't be teased or bullied. And even though I was precocious enough to read newspapers and watch the news on TV, I was too young to understand why the land of my birth - which even then I idolized because of its role in helping win World War II - was fighting a war in far-off Vietnam.

This lack of understanding lasted even after we moved back to the States shortly after North Vietnam's Spring Offensive of 1972. I was nine then, and even though I didn't know much English yet, I understood graphics. I dimly remember seeing casualty tallies on the evening news, and I remember high school age boys sporting long hair and mustaches and carrying homemade anti-war signs that said "NIXON END THE WAR NOW."

As a result, I've had an almost lifelong need to know about this war that was in the background of my childhood. At first, my goal was to find out why we lost a war even though we had one of the most powerful military forces in the world at the time. Later, as I matured, I sought to understand why our government decided that Vietnam was the place to make "a stand against Godlesss Communism" - and lied to the American public about its policies, its goals, and its low chances for success.

Over the past four decades, I've watched my fair share of movies (Platoon, Apocalypse Now) and documentaries (Vietnam: A Television History, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War) about this conflict, and they are all worth seeing. But Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and co-producer Sarah Botstein have brought the Vietnam conflict back into America's living rooms with an intimacy and sense of tragic loss unlike no other film project about the nation's "lost crusade" in Southeast Asia.

In The Vietnam War, Ward, Burns and Novack labored for 10 years to tell a multifaceted story with multiple points of view (American, North and South Vietnamese, civilian and military) in a moving and informative way
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Their endeavor is made possible by the skills of principal cinematographer Buddy Squires; editors Tricia Reidy, Paul Barnes, Erik Ewers, and Craig Mellish; composers Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and David Cieri (The Roosevelts: An Intimate History). Together with narrator Peter Coyote, the Florentine Films team make "The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-May 1969" a fascinating - and heart-breaking - window into one of America's most tragic periods. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

'Star Wars: Power of the Jedi' Action Figure Review: Darth Vader - Emperor's Wrath


Although Darth Vader would perish without his body armor's life support system, he remains a powerful and imposing figure. His black suit and the dark side of the Force protect him from numerous opponents until he loses his cybernetic right hand in a fateful lightsaber duel with Luke Skywalker on the second Death Star.  -Jedi Fact File, Darth Vader (Emperor's Wrath) figure

Released in 2001 by Hasbro as part of its post-Episode I "Power of the Jedi" product line, Darth Vader (Emperor's Wrath) is yet another scene-specific action figure based on the central character of George Lucas' six-Episode Star Wars saga set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away."

 This almost spectral figure depicts Anakin Skywalker's Sith alter ego as he appears in the climactic "redemption" scene in which "Darth Vader" sacrifices his life by picking up his long-time Master Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine and enduring an onslaught of Force lightning before tossing Sidious into the Death Star's central core, thus saving his Jedi son Luke's life and regaining his former identity of Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knight.

The figure resembles many of Hasbro's post-Kenner re-releases of the basic Darth Vader figure, especially those with capes made of semi-rigid plastic materials, but in particular it seems to share many of the spectral-looking features of the previous year's Darth Vader (Dagobah) figure that reproduced the ghostly apparition Luke faces off against in "the magic tree" scene in The Empire Strikes Back.  That figure's rendition of Vader's suit is done in a way that the armor looks nearly transparent (because Vader is really an apparition on Dagobah), and while Emperor's Wrath Vader is a bit more "substantial," it's not rendered in the usual Vader-ish black-silver armored suit fashion, either.

Perhaps the most telling detail is the "customized" look of Vader's Nazi-styled helmet and skull-like breath mask; to reflect the devastating effects of Palpatine's fatal Force lightning strikes, the figure's entire head and "face" have been rendered in a blue-gray-green hue, with "electricity" effects painted on for good measure.  It's also - like Darth Vader (Dagobah) - molded of translucent plastic that lets some ambient light be absorbed in order to give the figure its "mortally wounded" look.

Also like Darth Vader (Dagobah), the redeemed Anakin's gloved hands appear translucent; the one on the right is closed slightly to hold a red-bladed Sith lightsaber and has a seam at the wrist, perhaps indicating the hand is detachable to recreate a "severed" look.

Speaking of the lightsaber, it's really pretty well done considering its small dimensions; the handle is black and silver - a darker version of Anakin's Jedi lightsaber, really - and sporting the now standard transparent blades that more accurately replicate the laser sword effects seen in all six Star Wars films. Made of red translucent plastic, Vader's sword "gleams" in a scarlet hue when held up to a bright light - a far more convincing effect that that of the 1978-1985 era figures' laser swords.

 All in all, while most figures of The Tragedy of Darth Vader's central figure are essentially subtly-different variations on a theme, this one is a compelling collectible, even though it shows a Vader seen on screen for a few seconds and perhaps a bit inaccurately, for when he does fulfill the prophecy of the Chosen One, his right hand has already been amputated by a dark side-driven Luke Skywalker's lightsaber stroke. But the unusual look of the figure more than makes up for this small quibble, and collectors would be shortchanging themselves if they pass on Darth Vader (Emperor's Wrath).

 All in all, while most figures of The Tragedy of Darth Vader's central figure are essentially subtly-different variations on a theme, this one is a compelling collectible, even though it shows a Vader seen on screen for a few seconds and perhaps a bit inaccurately, for when he does fulfill the prophecy of the Chosen One, his right hand has already been amputated by a dark side-driven Luke Skywalker's lightsaber stroke. But the unusual look of the figure more than makes up for this small quibble, and collectors would be shortchanging themselves if they pass on this figure.

Darth Vader (Emperor's Wrath) also comes with a small booklet called a Jedi Fact File with role-playing stats and basic data about the character. For example, Vader's life form designation is human, and his planet of origin is listed as Tatooine.

As with all Star Wars figures, Hasbro recommends this toy for children 4 and up since the small parts pose a clear and present choking hazard, especially for children under 3 years.

(C) 2001 Hasbro Toys and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: 'Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View'

(C) 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. & Penguin Random House. Cover art and design: Will Staehle
2017 is the 40th Anniversary year that commemorates the premiere of writer-director George Lucas's original 1977 Star Wars film. In honor of the occasion, the past 10 months have seen the release of the home media editions of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Season Three of Disney's animated series. Star Wars: Rebels, as well as a YT-1300's cargo hold's worth of 40th Anniversary action figures, posters, limited edition sculptures, and other collectible items.  

And in advance of the upcoming theatrical debut of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, many publishing companies licensed by Disney-owned Lucasfilm Ltd. are stocking bookstore shelves with novels, comic books, a seventh William Shakespeare's Star Wars book - this one based on The Force Awakens - and illustrated reference books such as DK Books' Star Wars: The Visual Encyclopedia.

On Tuesday. October 3, Penguin Random House's Del Rey Books imprint published Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, an anthology composed of 40 short stories by over 40 authors from around the world to celebrate 40 years of Star Wars. 

Several publishing companies, including Bantam Spectra and Del Rey have, of course, created a few Star Wars-themed short story anthologies over the years. In the 1990s, for instance, Kevin J. Anderson edited Star Wars: Tales of the Bounty Hunters and Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, each of which focused on minor characters from films in the original Star Wars trilogy.

Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View follows this tradition of retelling the familiar story of the film we now (officially) know as Episode IV: A New Hope - but with a twist.

Starting with Gary Whitta's Raymus and concluding with Tom Angleberger's Whills, Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View takes readers into the story of A New Hope through the eyes of  supporting characters from the film (Capt. Raymus Antilles of the Tantive IV; Beru Whitesun Lars. the stormtrooper who told Obi-Wan "these aren't the droids we're looking for," General Tagge, Admiral Motti, and various Rebel and Imperial soldiers, officers, and pilots. 


On May 25, 1977, the world was introduced to Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, and a galaxy full of possibilities. In honor of the fortieth anniversary, more than forty contributors lend their vision to this retelling of Star Wars. Each of the forty short stories reimagines a moment from the original film, but through the eyes of a supporting character. From a Certain Point of View features contributions by bestselling authors, trendsetting artists, and treasured voices from the literary history of Star Wars:

• Gary Whitta bridges the gap from Rogue One to A New Hope through the eyes of Captain Antilles.
• Aunt Beru finds her voice in an intimate character study by Meg Cabot.
• Nnedi Okorofor brings dignity and depth to a most unlikely character: the monster in the trash compactor.
• Pablo Hidalgo provides a chilling glimpse inside the mind of Grand Moff Tarkin.
• Pierce Brown chronicles Biggs Darklighter’s final flight during the Rebellion’s harrowing attack on the Death Star.
• Wil Wheaton spins a poignant tale of the rebels left behind on Yavin. 
Plus thirty-four more hilarious, heartbreaking, and astonishing tales from:
Ben Acker • Renée Ahdieh • Tom Angleberger • Ben Blacker • Jeffrey Brown • Rae Carson • Adam Christopher • Zoraida Córdova • Delilah S. Dawson • Kelly Sue DeConnick • Paul Dini • Ian Doescher • Ashley Eckstein • Matt Fraction • Alexander Freed • Jason Fry • Kieron Gillen • Christie Golden • Claudia Gray • E. K. Johnston • Paul S. Kemp • Mur Lafferty • Ken Liu • Griffin McElroy • John Jackson Miller • Daniel José Older • Mallory Ortberg • Beth Revis • Madeleine Roux • Greg Rucka • Gary D. Schmidt • Cavan Scott • Charles Soule • Sabaa Tahir • Elizabeth Wein • Glen Weldon • Chuck Wendig  - from the jacket flap blurb


In Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, we also hear from several of  the Star Wars saga's other major characters, including the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin and Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi.

 In Pablo Hidalgo's Verge of Greatness, we see the scheming Governor of the Imperial Outland Regions at the moment he orders the destruction of Alderaan with the cold-blooded phrase You may fire when ready, Tarkin also reflects on how he usurped control of the planet killing battle station from Director Orson Krennic, the antagonist from Rogue One. 

Cavan Scott's Time of Death is an unusual, almost Stephen King-like story that describes Obi-Wan's  transformation from flesh-bound mortal Jedi Master to immaterial but still conscious Force spirit from Kenobi's point of view. It's not a horror tale, exactly, but rather a "friendly ghost" story that reveals Obi-Wan's emotions during and after his final duel with his former friend and student, Darth Vader. 

The galaxy's other major Force wielders also make unusual cameos; in There is Another by Gary D. Schmitt, we get the untold story of Master Yoda's plans for the Skywalker twins at the time of the Battle of Yavin. And in Palpatine, Ian Doescher imagines the Emperor's reaction to the news that Vader has just killed Obi-Wan as a Shakespearean soliloquy. 

As the publisher's blurb promises, the anthology contains 40 stories told from different points of view and in different voices. Some of them are wryly humorous; Daniel José Older's Born in the Storm is a stormtrooper's darkly humorous incident report about the search for the droids on Tatooine; in Far Too Remote, Vader and Son author Jeffrey Brown contributes a sly-yet-hilarious cartoon depicting the Imperials' discovery of an abandoned Rebel base on Dantooine; and actor-blogger Wil Wheaton (Stand By Me, Star Trek: The Next Generation) tells a heartbreaking story about a Rebel soldier - a widowed father - who must send his infant daughter away from Yavin Four to an uncertain fate before the Death Star arrives.  

Interestingly, many fans who are upset that Disney-owned Lucasfilm relegated the Expanded Universe to the non-canon wilds of Star Wars Legends, many of the tales use familiar names from the old EU. Wuher still works at Chalmun's Cantina in Mos Eisley, Admiral Motti's first name is still Conan, and the Bith band still performs under its familiar name of Fingrin D'an and the Modal Nodes.

All in all, Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View is a fun and exciting read. The stories are well written, and even better, they reconcile George Lucas's original 1977 film with plot points and characters from the Prequel Trilogy and the various spinoffs, including Rogue One and Star Wars: Rebels. This is the book you're looking for!