Skip to Content

The Vietnam War As Public Spectacle

Bottom-up Collective Drama or Top-Down Atrocity?

Meanwhile, Herman Melville writes Moby Dick without making concessions and narrative compromises for the sake of popularity and success. What is now considered the greatest America novel ever written was a total flop during Melville’s life; he had to work as a customs official in New York to support his family. To put the theme in more modern dress, consider Clint Eastwood’s great western The Unforgiven, a tale that seeks to debunk many of the myths of western dime novels and western movies. An aging killer somewhat redeems himself by standing up for abused whores. The man who played Dirty Harry has a masterpiece going here. Then, at the very end, pal Morgan Freeman is murdered by rotten sheriff Gene Hackman. Vengeance shall be mine. Does the tired, old killer shoot the miserable sonuvabitch in the back? No. The director calls up a B-movie thunderstorm and, now dressed as the spaghetti western Man-With-No-Name in an imposing rain slicker, our hero rides into town and guns down Hackman and a dozen other men with a six shot revolver.

The Vietnam War is a compelling assemblage of stories; watching the first five episodes certainly took me back in time 50 years. I could not get enough of it, and looked forward to the next episode. But the film does seem to go soft on some of the kinds of truth Melville would have hung in for. The fact is you can’t make something of the order of the Burns/Novick film without money; and money means influence over historic and artistic choices. The money that makes such a film possible also channels and constrains it. It’s a fundamental American reality. Everytime I see the credits touting major funding from David Koch and BankAmerica, I would think of Citizens United and feel a twinge of nausea.

It was hard to keep current politics out of my mind as I watched the film on Vietnam. I was constantly reminded of the belligerent phony currently in the White House and all the other absurdities of current Washington DC. What Donald Trump is is a brutally honest, cartoon version of everything that got us into Vietnam and kept us there -- the arrogance, the dishonesty, the cruelty. That he avoided the draft makes him that much obnoxious. As Leonard Cohen sang, “Everybody knows the ship is sinking/ Everybody knows the captain lied.” These days, if they don't already, everybody should know how morally bankrupt the driving forces that gave us Vietnam were. All this is actually in the film. One of the major themes of the first five segments is the honorable young American male under the delusions of WWII volunteering to go to Vietnam to keep the WWII legacy alive. These men are betrayed by the political classes, which includes leaders of both sides. According to the film, honor can still reside among these soldiers. This is the conceit that drives the US government's 50th Commemoration project; the major difference is that PBS adds the betrayal theme. Personally, I don't see my service in Vietnam as "honorable." Any innocence, ignorance or good intentions I might have had were betrayed by my leaders, whose bidding I was doing. If the war was immoral, as I believe it was, it feels delusional to suggest my service in it could somehow be honorable. This is why so many men threw their medals back at the capitol. I should be let off the hook of any responsibility because I was young and clueless? It's the same as the issue with cops domestically: A police officer is not culpable for killing an innocent black man because he was scared shitless? Complicity is unavoidable.



story | by Dr. Radut