Sunday, September 24, 2017

THE VIETNAM WAR (2017): Déjà vu all over again

We're now on the back nine (hours) of the latest Ken Burns opus, The Vietnam War on PBS. Tonight's episode was on the first half of 1968. I was born in December 1968, so I was in utero for the assassinations of both MLK and RFK--but this terrible historical moment has only become more of a touchstone to me as I raise my own son.

My reverence and respect for my own parents, starting a family in the midst of all this? What a defiant piece of optimism. Decades later, I'm still cribbing notes, I kid you not.But I'm being reminded, watching this series, of the iconography of death that the Vietnam War brought home: frozen in time, burned in collective memory. From a Buddhist monk's protest self-immolation to a Viet Cong's street execution, to a student cut down at Kent State.

I remember, as an undergraduate, studying about how the war was the first to be directly piped into American living rooms via television, and how crucial that was in the domestic perception of what was happening half a world away in our names. Hearing Johnson complain about "damned media lies" tonight, you can't help but see the table being set for the putrid rhetorical assertions of "fake news" to which we're now regularly subjected by the current administration...

The first of The Vietnam War's ten episodes is called "Déjà vu," connecting France's experience as a colonial power with that of Americans trying to stem the falling dominoes. The film convincingly argues that JFK and the US forces made a fundamental misread of the situation as early as 1961: that this was about the Cold War rather than colonialism. That as a result, the whole enterprise was essentially lost as soon as it began--a long, slow, bloody tragedy.

To me, one of the most striking aspects of the series has been the soundtrack--along with usual suspects from the 1960s, there's an ominous, electronic, decidedly 21st Century howl cutting through the documentary as well. Trent Resnor, my friends, is all over this doc. Let that sink in. You know: Head like a hole, black as your soul, Nine Inch Nails Trent Resnor? Yep.


An absolutely inspired choice: the soundtrack refuses the reflex to assign the film (and the war) to the dustbin of history some half-century previous. This isn't only about THEN, it's about NOW. Our war in Afghanistan has now gone on longer than our war in Vietnam, with no end in sight. Svetlana Alexievich's Zinky Boys (1989), the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature's oral history on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, now feels that much more imperative to read...

Finally, watching The Vietnam War, I'm struck by how the rhetoric of the Right we hear from the 1960s seems at times to fit that of 2017 hand in glove. One example: a caller to WEEI this afternoon asserting athletes' protests during the National Anthem were "spitting in the eye of the military."

You can't make this stuff up. Head-shakingly incredible.

Or not. Innit.