Last week, the first four episodes of “The Vietnam War,” the excellent documentary film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, aired from Sunday to Thursday.
Then we had an intermission on Friday and Saturday.
This week, the final four episodes followed the same schedule, with the series wrapping up on Thursday.
As somebody who was 6 years old when the war ended, I learned a lot.
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I remember during my ROTC days in college, there was one particular cadet – the guy with the shortest hair on campus – who would bring Jane Fonda posters and pin-up calendars on training exercises at Fort Campbell so he could blow them up with light explosives.
I thought that was a bit excessive. I mean, a lot of people protested the war, right?
But this week, after watching a laughing young Fonda sit behind a Viet Cong anti-aircraft gun during the war and say she thought American pilots who’d been shot down were not prisoners of war but war criminals who should be tried and probably executed, well, I found that shocking.
And I couldn’t believe that protesters on U.S. college campuses were waving North Vietnamese flags.
I understand why kids would protest their country’s involvement in a war, but to root for the enemy? What the hell were they thinking?
The documentary’s 18 hours contained many powerful moments, and I could spend several weeks of columns pointing out moving personal stories and previously hidden details and motivations.
Tapes of phone calls were particularly revealing. In one call, after a television broadcast in which he assures the American people that we’re winning the war, President Nixon tells Henry Kissinger that his performance had been better than that of any Hollywood actor.
Another time, after a veteran sent Nixon a letter detailing the atrocities of My Lai, Nixon called the man “a dirty rotten Jew from New York.”
After all these years, we get to hear what our presidents were really thinking. At least we don’t have to wait 45 years to know how President Trump really feels about things. Thanks, Twitter!
But back to the protestors. We all know by now about the negative reception that our troops, many of whom opposed the war themselves, received when they returned home.
In one of the documentary’s most powerful moments, a woman who protested as a student on college campuses apologizes for the way she treated soldiers. She and the other protesters were just kids, she said, and so were the soldiers. Nobody knew what was happening.
She begins to weep.
Today, America seems to have learned at least one lesson from Vietnam, which we’ve applied often during the Global War on Terror: many of our protesters now have the ability to hate the war and respect the troops.
As individuals, we still don’t agree with each other, but we value unity. This is not always the case, of course, but we see it more often than not, especially in our young people.
Which brings us to last weekend’s intermission in the middle of the Vietnam documentary. Call it halftime.
NFL teams stood, or kneeled and stood, or kneeled then stood. Some were protesting the treatment of black males by police, some were protesting Trump, others were protesting the protesting.
It was confusing.
But when episode five of “The Vietnam War” aired on Monday, we flashed back to what confusion really looked like.
Today we’re in a better place, for whatever that’s worth.