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‘The Vietnam War’ “Episode 10 - The Weight of Memory (March 1973- Onward)”
September 28, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments

In the right hands and with the fullness of time, the sadness of loss can become an extraordinarily humane examination of the fragility and beauty of life.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s by-turns harrowing and haunting exploration of The Vietnam War reaches the end of the road tonight with “The Weight of Memory (March 1973 - Onward)” at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings).

The tone is more subdued, more reflective than what has come before. There’s a hush, an almost elegiac feel — an overall sadness, even as families are reunited and emotions laid bare.

“The best you could say about Vietnam,” Army veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien says in 'The Weight of Memory’s' opening moments, “was that certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons.

“The blood was for sure — the bodies, the widows, the orphans, they were certain. Nobody disputed it. The dead people were dead.

“But the rectitude of the war was in great dispute. Smart people in pinstripes couldn’t make up their minds up about the war.”

Followed by this, from one-time US intelligence officer Stuart Hetherington:

“I remember asking myself, ‘Was it worth it?’ Maybe it was all a big mistake. What was it all about? We answered the call, me and two-and-a-half-million other young Americans who went over there. It was a cause worth the effort.

“And sometimes things just don’t work out. The guys in the white hats don’t always win. But that doesn’t take away from the rectitude of the cause.”

A grainy black-and-white photo of the rooftop evacuation of what remained of South Vietnam’s political elites on April 30, 1975, would be the final frame in a montage of defining images. Vietnam was arguably the last war in which still photographs taken by photojournalists on the front lines of history would shape popular opinion back home. Ever since Robert Capa — the history-defining photographer who landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, during the D-Day landings — powerful, emotionally wrenching still images were a record of history.

Now, we have television. And the Internet.

For readers of this site and anyone else who watched every frame of The Vietnam War, it will take a long time for everything to sink in. We live in noisy, polarized times. Many people who follow the news now prefer to get information from — and find solace in — echo chambers that reinforce their predetermined beliefs and opinions. Some get their information from Fox News, others from MSNBC. Rare of the viewer who gets their news from both.

Burns and Novick took a deliberately measured approach to their marathon account of the Vietnam war — mature, adult, reasoned, even-tempered. That is the way Burns has approached his filmed histories since The Civil War in 1990, more than 25 years ago before he took on The Vietnam War with his filmmaking partner from The War, Prohibition, and Baseball: The Tenth Inning. America’s misguided ventures in Southeast Asia resulted in appalling losses, on both sides, both in terms of lives lost and futures deferred. By focusing on the details of history and telling their story with sensitivity and a commendable, often raw frankness — and by leaving it to the viewer at home to decide what to believe and judge for themselves who was right and wrong, on those occasions where it was possible to tell one from the other — Burns and Novick have pulled off a remarkable achievement.

One of the last voices to be heard over the fall of Saigon, in one of The Vietnam War’s summoning moments is that of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, ex-Marine and foreign correspondent Philip Caputo, one of the last Americans to leave Saigon that fateful day in April 1975.

In one of the first installments of The Vietnam War, Caputo recalled how, on first arriving in-country, Vietnam struck him as a remarkably beautiful country, redolent with green rice fields, early morning mists and gently sloping hills and mountains, a tropical vision of Shangri-La. That image didn’t stay with him for long.

His lasting image of Vietnam was being ferried to safety in an evacuation helicopter and looking down at what was left of Saigon, falling away below him.

“The choppers take off, and they’re flying toward the coast. You could look down, and all you could see, all around Saigon, all around the airfield, were just these plumes of smoke from burning buildings from exploding artillery shells. And I’ll never forget going over that coastline, seeing the entire 7th Fleet, dozens and dozens of these enormous (ships), out there like that. And I just remember this sense of disbelief. Complete disbelief. And relief. At the same time.”

In the end, it was left to Walker Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America,” to break the news to most Americans watching at home, on The CBS Evening News.

“In Vietnam, we have finally reached the end of the tunnel, and there is no light there,” Cronkite reported. “What is there perhaps was best said by President Ford — a war that is finished.”

One of the most moving, memorable moments in The Vietnam War — 30 minutes from the very end — is the idea, design, and construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, two 246-foot long elongated triangles set into a hill in Washington, DC. As of Memorial Day, 2017, the black granite, gabbro walls have been engraved with the names of 58,318 men and women who gave their lives in Vietnam, their names etched in panels of horizontal rows in chronological order, in the order in which they gave their lives.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund began in April 1981 as a non-profit fundraiser; in the end, more than 650,000 Americans contributed more than $8 million. An open competition for the memorial’s design attracted more than 1,400 submissions; in the end, the judges chose submission no. 1,026, by Maya Ying Lin, a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale University.

Lin, whose parents emigrated to the Midwestern US from China in the 1940s, didn’t think she would win because her design was “too strange and too strong.”

The memorial’s walls were sunk into the ground, to symbolically represent a still-open wound that is slowly healing.

“I wanted to describe a journey,” Lin explained at the time, in a televised press conference, “a journey that would make you experience death, where you have to be an observer, where you can never really fully be with the dead. It wasn’t going to something that made you think, ‘It’s okay, it’s all over.’ Because it isn’t.”

The wall was an abomination to some, a stain on the American character, “a black scar . . . in a hole, hidden as if out of shame.” The writer Tom Wolfe dismissed it as “a tribute to Jane Fonda.”

There were others, though — ordinary, everyday parents and siblings who had lost a loved one in the war — who appreciated it and admired it, who thought it subtle and meaningful, and who found themselves deeply shaken — as self-described “individual and member of the general public” Janice Connally recalls in the film before a veterans’ commission, her voice shaking with emotion: “I think Maya Lin was right in going beyond these (usual) kinds of images. She resolved all the pain and conflict of that unhappy time, in a simple message of sacrifice and quiet heroism.”

In their official vote of support for Maya Lin’s design, the advocacy group American Gold Star Mothers spoke for many, “The Weight of Memory” asserts, when they noted that nowadays patriotism is a complicated matter, that perhaps that is why the V-shaped black granite lines merging gently with the sloping earth convey the only point about the war on which everyone can agree: that those who died should be remembered.

The Vietnam War is a monumental achievement.

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Dave Gajewski
In this day and age, it is so rare to see a fair and balanced account of a horrifying and senseless war. I found all ten episodes to be compelling and thought provoking. Should be required viewing for all American history classes. The footage was perfectly matched to the commentary.
Sep 29, 2017   |  Reply
David Gross
Relevant to the Burns/Novick series, it's far, far from an adequate presentation in many ways, but it does at least open a door, albeit a thirty million dollar door, uselessly flourished with rock and roll and often catering to their commercial benefactors, the perceptible interests of the Koch brothers and Bank of America. A documentary made around 1972 by Peter Davis, "Hearts and Minds", might be more to the point as it captures more of the tenor of the times and has a more visceral approach. But the series does at least create an awareness of some degree of the criminality and subversion and destruction at home and in Southeast Asia by our government. In my own experience as a prosthetist working with many injured Vietnam vets over the years I would offer this personal observation: I never met a Vietnam veteran who needed my care that felt the war was worth his sacrifice or that of his friends.
Sep 29, 2017   |  Reply
The review by Alex Strachan was superb. PBS' Vietnam War series should be required viewing worldwide for those 12-years-old and above, especially in America, Vietnam, Russia and China. This is monumental, forever-scarring history that is so many layers deep that we may never reach the bottom. But Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their incomparable group did their passionate best to do just that. Should this series not win every available award would be a travesty as big as the War itself. --Larry Goodman (Vietnam-era USAF veteran and erstwhile journalist), Temple Terrace, Florida
Sep 28, 2017   |  Reply
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