The Vietnam War–Closure or Catharsis?

The Vietnam War TV series
The Vietnam War

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS masterpiece, The Vietnam War is a mournful, heartbreaking documentary: an essential expose and an unvarnished history of war. The refocusing of history using first-person stories is the most important “Ken Burns effect” producing his best documentary to date.

Burns loves to film everyday people’s “small” stories which give perspective and emotion to the larger picture.   The interviews are unforgettable and poignant–a viscerally searing reminder why there is no winner in war. The human faces, together with the visible psychological damage of all participants (American and Vietnamese), make The Vietnam War courageous and unflinching, staggering, raw and, at times, brutally honest. Decades of bad decisions are verified by archival footage from both North and South Vietnam and secret tape recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. A wasteful, dizzying vortex unfolds: devouring lives due to American overconfidence, arrogance and cultural ignorance on one hand and the relentless groundswell of Vietnam’s peasant resistance to foreign rule on the other.

The Vietnam War unwinds as a montage of the collateral damage of war. Pain is still palpable on the faces of all interviewees, American and Vietnamese, recalling a hellishly dark time they cannot forget. One American veteran articulates his loss succinctly:   “The other casualty was the civilized version of me.”

The Vietnam War’s overwhelming power comes from these oral histories, almost twenty hours of them. An American vet describes dragging insurgents’ corpses “to see who would cry ”. An upstate New York soldier’s mother remembers terror every time she heard the crunch of tires on her driveway. A North Vietnamese officer recalls entering a house abandoned by a South Vietnamese family, a dress half-sewn still lying on a table. A North Vietnamese grandmother is forced to look at her bombed son’s face. A US troop rapes a little girl, and one interviewee breaks down relating the incident that happened more than half a century ago. Rare footage of atrocities on all sides are not for the faint-hearted. The historical sweep and emotional punch are evident throughout: a minimum of 429,000 U.S. and allied soldiers and 533,000 Communist troops and civilians killed between 1954 and 1975 (according to Newsweek). Millions more were wounded. Many sources place the estimates far above these.

Burns believes that the Vietnam war begins in 1945, –not 1965 , when President Lyndon Johnson dispatched the first U.S. ground combat unit. The US could not lose a war, after having come out of World War II victorious.

We are introduced to France’s mid-19th century colonization of territories that would eventually become Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The French plundered the region of natural resources, impoverishing its workers while creating servile French-speaking native bureaucrats to carry out its orders, all largely financed by the opium trade. By the early 20th century resistance was on the rise. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of a nascent revolution, is betrayed by two American presidents culminating in the US installation of a dictatorial regime in Saigon and the canceling of free elections for the Vietnamese people. Now the American war was on. The U.S. installed Ngo Dinh Diem as South Vietnam’s autocratic ruler, and aided him in wiping out his enemies. In addition, the US government engineered an election that Diem stole. Ho Chi Minh, betrayed, becomes the brilliant tactician and leader of the resistance.

The Vietnam War also echoes today’s headlines, as in the subplot of foreign collusion in an American election. Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon had secretly requested that South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu stay out of peace talks with the North, in order to improve Nixon’s chances in the 1968 race. President Lyndon B. Johnson was aware of the deal through intelligence surveillance, knew Nixon was lying, but did not make that fact public. We hear Nixon’s lies on an audiotape of Johnson’s call. And Nixon’s paranoia about being found out in this lie partly contributes to Watergate.

The U.S. government begins justifying its growing military intervention in Vietnam, first under President Kennedy, then Lyndon Johnson. Washington policymakers redefine the war as a fight for freedom and democracy over communism. Both nations–the US and Vietnam– are torn apart.

The Vietnam War still holds out hope that we might learn from history, after presenting 20 hours of evidence to the contrary. This documentary no longer permits the US to evade the harsh reckoning that is long overdue. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do not allow us to remain in denial about what we did in Viet Nam and why.

Note: The Vietnam War is brought into even sharper focus if watched with companion pieces, The Post, and I Am Not Your Negro (to be reviewed in my next post).

There are still buried landmines  killing people in Vietnam and international NGO’s are tasked with removing them.

Jackie Robinson Day—April 15

 

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In the two-part Ken Burns’ documentary, “Jackie Robinson”, broadcast this past week on PBS television, we are immediately hooked by the legendary baseball player’s opening statement: “If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards and citations, and a child of mine came into that room and asked what I had done in defense of black people and decent whites fighting for freedom, and I had to tell that child that I had kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure at the whole business of living.”

In raw archival footage and interviews we see Jackie Robinson’s historic breaking of the major league baseball color barrier on April 15, 1947 when he steps out onto Ebbetts Field to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers (now the LA Dodgers) with fury and racist slurs thrown at him from the stands and from his fellow team members. An outspoken and confident man, Robinson is nonetheless advised by the team’s manager (Branch Rickey) to remain non-confrontational in the face of violent assaults both physical and verbal, and to seek solace in the privacy of his family life. The portrait of Jackie Robinson reveals a more complex, vulnerable, and astonishingly heroic man both tragic and pioneering. The viewer has no doubt of the immense difficulty for Robinson to remain silent in the face of such brutality and injustice.

What Burns contributes to our knowledge of this shameful period of US history is Robinson’s equally courageous life after baseball: his contributions to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Jackie Robinson was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides,” and enlisted his participation in some of the organized civil rights marches.

After Robinson’s baseball career ended, he became a newspaper columnist on race relations, a political advocate for civil rights, and a successful executive for a famous coffee company (Chockful o’Nuts) as well as the founder of a bank for African Americans. This post-baseball career, not as well-known to many of us, in some ways even transcends his athletic achievements.

One of the more remarkable elements of the “Jackie Robinson” miniseries, is Robinson’s luminescent 93-year old  widow Rachel, a sensitive, highly intelligent and caring woman who seemed to buffer her husband from the most insidious pressures on him and his family. This documentary is as much Rachel’s story as it is Jackie’s, because she is our witness to what Jackie felt and believed but could not give voice to in those early years of his baseball career. She describes in unsparing words how her husband collapsed in her arms from a fatal heart attack after years of increasing debilitation from diabetes. He was  53 years old.

Little known facts about Robinson are explained; 1) why he was an early supporter of Nixon who seemed to be more supportive of civil rights than JFK; 2) why his support for Republican candidates seemed the right direction for African Americans after the military was integrated and Brown vs. Board of Education was decided; 3) his reaction to Malcom X and others calling him an Uncle Tom.

If the black press hadn’t strongly advocated over the years for civil rights, and if political pressure outside baseball hadn’t coalesced at this time due in part to Jackie Robinson, gains in civil rights would not have happened. It’s this sequence of historically inconvenient truths that “Jackie Robinson” makes us confront.

Note:

This year, the city of Philadelphia officially apologized for the racist taunts that members of the Phillies baseball team rained on Jackie Robinson when the Dodgers played them [almost seventy years after the game in question].

 

“Central Park Five”–Today’s Scottsboro Boys?

In 1989 the “Central Park Jogger” trial had the country’s attention and a media frenzy fed the heightened fear of New Yorkers who saw their beloved Central Park and the city as a whole becoming a dangerous environment simmering with crime and mayhem. The Central Park Five”, a new documentary from award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, retells the story of the five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of brutally raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park on April 22, 1989. The film chronicles The Central Park Jogger case from the perspective of the five teenagers whose youth was not only stolen from them as a result of a heinous miscarriage of justice but were also subjected to the brutality of adult prison.

Running through Central Park, harassing, assaulting, and robbing people was not uncommon in the 80’s and some of the five teenagers who were brought into the police station that night for questioning had, in fact, been bullying passersby or standing by and watching. The Central Park Five were said to be “wilding” that night, a term that newspapers coined for the savagery of the brutal attack.

Then the narrative becomes more and more heartbreaking at the same time it becomes more familiar with every turn. This is our generation’s Scottsboro Boys. These were 14-to-16 year old boys who had never been indicted for any crime. The police department filmed their confessions,  allowing the viewer to experience how each suspect incriminated himself.  Each teenager was interrogated individually for 14-30 hours, mostly without their parents and with no legal counsel present.  “Central Park Five” leaves the viewer wondering how these five young people had no legal counsel when they were questioned.  Told by law enforcement that, if they signed confessions, they would be able to go home afterwards–even then, they were reluctant until worn down by lack of food, sleep, or adult supporters. Police are not encumbered by the truth in order to get a confession.  Could anyone, let alone a frightened 14-year-old, stand up to that sort of  psychological manipulation? I don’t think so. These boys were not going home.

In 1990 there was a trial. Any open-minded detective or journalist could see that none of their stories matched up, even when fed the facts by aggressive interrogators but it was easier not to ask questions in order to get a story out to the public quickly.  One juror noted how the videotaped confessions were inconsistent in reporting details, that none of the accused had the victim’s blood on his clothing, and there was no DNA evidence linking any of them to the crime scene. But the lone juror was pressured by other jury members to find the Central Park Five guilty so everyone could go home. So he did. (Think “12 Angry Men”.) The partially recovered victim of the rape appeared in court, although she had no memory of the attack or events leading up to the attack, to ensure that public attention would not wane. The coerced confessions were the only “evidence” used, as well as  being the powerfully persuasive–seemingly irrefutable– tools crucial to obtaining long sentences  and mandatory registration as sex offenders. The boys were sentenced to between six and thirteen years imprisonment for attempted murder, rape, and sexual assault.

In a dramatic upheaval of the case, the New York Supreme Court finally vacated all five convictions in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer, accidentally met one of the youths serving his sentence for the crime Reyes had committed.  Reyes confessed to committing the crime alone and DNA evidence confirmed he was the rapist.  In 2002 the Central Park Five filed a civil lawsuit for reparations for wrongful conviction.   The city of New York, however, has been stonewalling the case in order to protect the prosecutors and police,  prompting Ken Burns to make this documentary.

“The Central Park Five”, a societal and cultural flashpoint for the times we live in, reminds us that we all must question our certitude when the media gives “facts” about crimes and their perpetrators, and we must entertain at least the possibility that the suspects were set up due to their race, class, lack of knowledge about their legal rights, and public outrage.  What if the rape victim had been black and attacked in Harlem, one minister asks in the film.  Like “Scottsboro Boys”, this documentary is a sober testament to the damage inflicted by a corrupt legal system, sloppy media coverage, and a court of public opinion. (Netflix plans to release the film on April 22 to commemorate the 24th anniversary of this horrendous miscarriage of justice.)  There is no doubt that this could and will happen again.