The Vietnam War – A Documentary by Ken Burns

Last year, I watched Ken Burns’ documentary series on the American Civil War. Burns does in-depth, lengthy documentaries which require watching over several weeks, but still manage to grip you with detail, objectivity and historical context. The Civil War series was gripping; a horrifying recount of the first time humans used machines to kill each other methodically.

“The Vietnam War” is equally horrifying. For me it has extra relevance, as I am living in a city, Da Nang, which was a major American base during the war, and have visited cities such as Hue, which were devastated by American bombing.

I thought I knew a little bit about the Vietnam War. I was in my teens in the 60s when the anti-war movement was at its height. I remember some of the famous photographs: the naked girl running after a napalm attack; the Vietnamese soldier being shot in the head by a Vietnamese office But clearly I knew little, because I was constantly shocked by revelations in this series.

I hadn’t realised the length of the war – 20 years. Or the number of Vietnamese casualties: between 1 and 3 million depending on how you measure it. Vast numbers of casualties were innocent civilians. Or the fact that it became a civil war between North and South Vietnam, which might explain the lingering disconnect between people from Saigon and Hanoi. Or the extent to which the U.S.A. backed, South Vietnamese government was corrupt and repressive. Or the political machinations in the U.S.A. which extended the war and the casualties long after it was clear that the war was lost.

The interviews with retired soldiers on both sides are incredibly moving and insightful. The utter waste of lives on both sides, is shocking.

Today, young Vietnamese people show only superficial interest in the war. If you ask a student which historical person they most admire, most of them will reply with a rote answer: “Uncle Ho because he liberated our country”. But if you ask them which country they most admire, the U.S.A. is top of the list. They want to learn American English more than English English. There is certainly no inherited hatred towards the old enemy amongst the young, though the older generation may be more ambivalent.

There are several versions of the documentary available: abridged, expletives removed, and full length. It took me several weeks to get through the full length version: some 15+ hours of material over 10 episodes. Available to watch on the PBS website:

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018