PBS Series, The Vietnam War, Receives Emmy Nomination. Should It?

Silence. That’s the overriding theme of this episode. Silence, as in Martin Luther King’s admonition that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Does that not perfectly frame Nixon’s so-called “brilliant” maneuver of celebrating the amoral, even cowardly, silence of the majority of Americans in the face of this war’s immorality and in response to the righteous anger of young and old who raged against it? Nixon’s infamous “silent majority” speech kicks off this episode. To counter this political maneuver, one activist seared our TV screen last night with this placard: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men – Abraham Lincoln.”

And then there is the silence of the filmmakers themselves, when it comes to the incredibly important GI resistance movement that rose up as Nixon tried to wind down the war. Where is that story? Passing references to disgruntled veterans voicing their anger, as important as those voices are, does not do it justice. We needed more. In an 18-hour series, one could expect time to adequately examine the courageous resistance waged by active-duty GIs to an unjust war they were ordered to fight and die for.

“Silence,” wrote Francis Bacon, “is the virtue of fools.” The persistent, unrelenting attempts, as with this documentary, to disguise the essential truth from the American people of the inhumane consequences of this country’s wars makes murderous fools of us all. Hats off, then, to those journalists, independent and corporate, who loaded onto choppers and dug in with the soldiers to capture their stories. Even with the repeated telling of the personal, which this series relies on heavily, the more universal truths began to seep out.

The military brass scrambling to silent voices like Ron Ridenhour’s for a year until the courageous journalist Seymour Hersch uncovered the My Lai and My Khe massacres – that kind of silence. American textbooks not celebrating the courage of Hugh Thompson and his crew as they dropped their chopper down between the civilians and the murderers led by Captain Medina and Lieutenant Calley – that kind of silence.

Almost intentionally blanketing this eerie moral silence are the sounds of bombs blasting away, M-60s rattling on, and the American and Vietnamese cities burning in the background.

At this point in their narrative the filmmakers provide a welcome sardonic voice to their portrayal of the war – suddenly, in late 1969 and early 1970, the Nixon crowd comes up with a marketing ploy – let’s “celebrate” the American POWs by making hundreds of thousands of POW bracelets for kids to wear and an equal number of the POW/MIA flags to fly over town halls across the land. One astute journalist says in the film, “It is almost as if the Vietnamese kidnapped 400 American pilots and the war is being fought to free them.”

Even our so-called “terms of peace” – our promise to…

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