Skip to content

[USIH X-post] The Truth About Documentaries: Burns, Novick, Bacevich, and Vietnam

Documentaries are, always and everywhere, histories. The connotation of social science, or at least of “objective fact,” around the term “document” can, however, fool one into thinking otherwise. The method of delivery, or the form, adds an additional layer of confusion. The visuals—vivid colors and sounds, and their penchant for capturing our emotions—cause one to place documentaries in a different conceptual category. They seem different and novel rather than familiar.

Andrew Bacevich has fallen victim to these kinds of confusion in his recent review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. Bacevich denies the series placement in the genre of history, stating that it “is not history, but rather story-telling and remembrance.” He adds that “it glides along the surface of things, even when that surface is crowded with arrogance, miscalculation, deceit, and bloodletting on an epic scale.”

See my #USIH post for the rest. – TL


#VietnamWarPBS: Select Notes on Episode 8, “The History of the World”

Below are select notes on Episode 8, “The History of the World” (4/1969-5/1970)

– Big theme of episode: Antiwar movement and protests.

– James Gillam (African American) – “The other casualty [of the war] was the civilized version of me.”
– Hamburger Hill, April 1969, 1 week later abandoned hill
– Marlantes – Problem – Success measured in kill ratios. Attrition strategy can’t last.

– Racism – Behind the lines. Haircuts.
Read more…

#VietnamWarPBS: Rough Notes on Episode 7, The Veneer of Civilization

Episode #7 was a two-hour installment focused on late 1968 and early 1969. The rought notes below were typed on my phone, with thumbs, while viewing. I know that seems crazy, and my thumbs are crying. But it actually helped me pay attention.
Read more…

#VietnamWarPBS: Random Reflections on Episode 6

I was pleased with Episode 6, “Things Fall Apart.” Here are some random reflections and observations:

– A note: My mother-in-law, who is in her seventies and who lived through the 1960s as a college student and young mother, confessed that she is enjoying the series immensely. She said most of her attention was on the CRM in the late 1960s, so the series has been enlightening.
Read more…

#VietnamWarPBS: Thoughts on “Riding The Tiger” – Episode 2

As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, the word I most associated with the Vietnam War was “quagmire.” In my adolescent mental catalogue of terms, it existed next to quicksand, swamp, and mud. I came to understand the war as a place where soldiers and generals had been locked in an muddy, unending, unwinnable combat. They had become ensnared in a problem of military tactics, landscape, and geography.

When I became an established graduate student in history, in the early 2000s, like many developing professionals I decided to teach a survey course. It garnered extra cash and a line for the CV. Even though my U.S. history specialties were cultural and intellectual history, and the history of education, the survey forced me to think about many areas outside of comfort zone. One of those was war history. While my chronological focus was post-Civil War history, and while I had taken a courses on 1960s history, I had given little thought to the political and military history of the Vietnam War. Read more…

The Burns-Novick Vietnam Narrative: Early Strengths and Weaknesses

While my day job involves tasks outside of history proper, I’m always thinking historically about matters before me. This is a welcome hazard of possessing a master’s and doctorate in history. Years spent studying U.S. history means that I see the world through the lens of history.  This inclination to see and think historically is accompanied by a great deal of history consumption. Of the 30-40 books I read annually, about 15-20 are history-related. So while my day job as a higher ed staffer means I can’t produce as much history as I like, I stay sharp professionally as a consumer.

About a month ago I decided to dedicate some of my consumption energy to The Vietnam War on PBS. Created by Ken Burns and his partner Lynn Novick, the series began last night with Episode One. The entire thing is 18 hours long, and last night’s entry consisted of 1.5 hours total. Apparently there will be 10 episodes total. Installment one was titled “Déjà Vu,” and covered the years 1858 to 1961. Due to chores at home, I missed the first twenty minutes of the first entry (i.e. broadcast 9/17, 7 pm central in Chicago), but watched the balance through the credits (and reviewed the missed opening after). I mention this missed opening because I am aware of how powerful beginnings color one’s view of what follows. Read more…

The Totality Index: Notes from Our 2017 Eclipse Adventure

These are my observations of what, I believe, will live in our collective memories as one of the signature events for the summer of 2017: the travels of a large number of people to the path of totality for a solar eclipse. This path was visible over a large swath of the United States, stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. My hope is that the eclipse will overshadow, in a happy fashion as respite, the political turmoil of early 2017. But only time will tell on that.

By way of preface, I am compelled to a confession: I wasn’t enthused about this “eclipse adventure.” This trip was entirely planned by my spouse. She first indicated an interest in the late summer of 2016, and took the initiative of finding a campsite, making reservations, and working to increase family enthusiasm. The last proved most difficult. Late summer scheduling and workflow complications (for me), for this year, made efforts to rouse our passion more tricky. And then it became apparent that we’d be camping during a heat advisory, with felt temperatures near 100 F due to humidity. The heat index would not be our friend. But we persisted. We loaded the camping gear and piled into the car anyway. It was the path of totality, or bust. Read more…