Posts Tagged Vietnam War

Thoughts on Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, particularly episode 7: The Veneer of Civilization

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017 | Permalink

Much has been said in the media and elsewhere about Ken Burns’ epic “The Vietnam War” during its first week. Some find it controversial, some find it revealing. Many find it informative, others find it excruciating and don’t view it at all.

One theme among all the others presented in the course of this sweeping depiction of 1960s America is the moral compromise the War inflicted upon most Americans. Burns is adept as always in condensing the impact of macro-historical events upon individual lives. The anguish and guilt people felt appears in the voices, faces, and covert gestures of individuals directly and indirectly involved with the prosecution of the war. From President Lyndon Johnson to the lowliest draftee or private citizen, the sense of moral conflict is painfully palpable.

One of the most articulate of these is native Minnesotan, Tim O’Brien. author of “The Things They Carried” and other stories and novels about the war. Throughout the episode O’Brien tries to come to terms with what he considers the “failure of courage” by participating in the war effort to please the people back home in Worthington. Even 50 years after the fact, he still feels the shame of not heeding the directives of his own inner moral voice.

While hardly unexpected for an artist of O’Brien’s stature, this sense of moral equivocality and compromise pervades the accounts of all the people who speak during the episode. One faction whose post-war reactions are not vocalized is the anti-war demonstrators. Though we’re shown contemporary interviews with Rennie Davis and others, we’re not given post-hoc reflections upon the War by anyone in the peace movement.

More to the point, what are the feelings and reactions of those who prosecuted the anti-war demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience? And what about the people who fled to Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere? Are they satisfied with what they did? Do they maintain the same sense of moral conviction that O’Brien wishes he’d have had? Do they have any regrets?

All we do have is the example of Bob Harrison who fled to Canada rather than help the military prosecute the war. And like the morally conflicted protagonists of Hollywood movies in the 1930s and 40s, it’s reported that he suffered a sad and tawdry fate like those film anti-heroes and heroines whose behavior subverted society’s strictures: death by drug overdose.

It may well be that an endeavor so sweeping as depicting the influence of war upon an entire generation hasn’t the time to study its impact upon a minor and marginalized subgroup of those who rebelled against the war. It also may be that Burns will address their perspective during the rest of his presentation and its conclusion. Aside from my first novel, Penal Fires, and several others, few people have. But it seems to me that the voices of those whose convictions were strong enough to take some action against the war whether through civil disobedience, draft-dodging, conscientious objection, or in some cases, bomb-throwing remain to be heard. And should be.