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‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode 2: “Riding the Tiger (1961-1963)”
September 18, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments
 

It seems self-explanatory, let alone unnecessary, but there it is: The second night of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War opens with a viewer advisory. Discretion is advised, the viewer is warned, due to mature content, strong language, and graphic violence.

Well, yes and no. Yes, because The Vietnam War is indeed for a mature audience when taken as a whole. No, because, as harrowing and hard-to-take as some of the moments are in Episode 2: “Riding the Tiger (1961-1963)," worse is to come.

Past is prologue. “Riding the Tiger” opens with a flash-forward to the fall of 1967 and ex-Marine and former radio operator John Musgrave likening being assigned to a listening post at Con Thien to getting a death sentence at a murder trial.

Especially for someone scared of the dark.

“I still get a nightmare,” he says, early in the hour. “When my kids were growing up, that was the first time they found out daddy had been in a war. ‘Why do we need to outgrow our night lights. Daddy’s still got one.’ ”

As compelling as the first night of The Vietnam War was as history, it’s this second episode when Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s by-turns harrowing and haunting documentary series gets personal. Intensely so. Worse is yet to come, and worse after that.

The second night is more tightly focused on the John F. Kennedy years and the growing American war effort, and less on the chaotic history of French colonialism. It’s 1961 when “Riding the Tiger” opens, and the Vietnamese people, North and South both, are starting to chafe at European influence. The Korean War and Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China are receding memories, and “the American War,” as the Vietnam War would become known in jungles and cities where it was about to be fought, is in the here-and-now.

Peter Coyote’s narration — written by Vietnam War historian Geoffrey C. Ward — lays down the emotional template of this second episode little more than five minutes in. Over the next three years, the United States would struggle to understand the complicated country it had come to save, fail to appreciate the enemy’s resolve, and misread how the South Vietnamese people really felt about their government. “The new (U.S.) president would find himself caught between the momentum of war and the desire for peace, between humility and hubris, between idealism and expediency, between the truth and a lie.”

Kennedy’s evocative speeches — the soaring rhetoric of, “Ask not what your country can do for you. . . ” (top) — provide an early backdrop against which veterans share stories with Burns and Novick about innocent, idyllic childhoods in small Midwest towns and youthful ambitions deferred in big cities from New York to Los Angeles.

The Vietnam War is lovingly produced, but not overproduced. The sound is rich but frightening, modern-day audio technology bringing the carnage of a ‘60s war to life in 21st-century digital surround. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ background music is thrilling, complex in structure, but deliberately manipulative, nervous and anxiety-inducing. Watching this second installment isn’t like being there exactly — that will come in future episodes — but it’s more urgent and prescient than the opener.

“Riding the Tiger” touches on the Peace Corps, the promise of USAID and the early underpinnings of conscientious objection and what would grow to become a generational anti-war movement.

“Riding the Tiger” focuses in the main, though, on Vietnam itself, on the early war strategy from a new White House administration, on the nature of an insurgency and how to fight it, on how to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people — people already fed up, in 1961, by rumors of a widening war. “Riding the Tiger” focuses, too, on a newly assertive press, journalists who for the most part carried on the Second World War tradition of upbeat reporting from the front, but who now found themselves competing with younger, more ambitious reporters like the New York Times’ David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, then with United Press International (UPI), and Associated Press’ Malcolm Brown, reporters unwilling to take the military line at face value and eager to probe below the surface and get at what was really going on in-country, even if it meant getting under the skin of both military generals and senior editors back in air-conditioned offices in Washington and New York.

Burns doesn’t make simple, cookie-cutter documentaries about historical facts and important dates. "Riding the Tiger" tackles ideas, and tackles them head-on: what it means to fight and die for one’s country when people back home are more interested in The Beverly Hillbillies and Gunsmoke and whether the Yankees would win the World Series again, and the recent death of Marilyn Monroe. What does it mean to be a citizen of “the best country in the world,” when a burgeoning civil rights movement threatens to upset the old order?

It’s halfway through the “Riding the Tiger” hour-and-a-half episode when a gripping, absorbing documentary about a painful period in US history becomes something more, something personal, something truly special.

“I’d grown up in the shadow of a mushroom cloud,” Musgrave, the former Marine radio operator, says quietly, midway through “Riding the Tiger.”

“I remember watching President Kennedy speak during the Cuban Missile Crisis and wondering if I was ever going to kiss a girl . . . It didn’t matter to me where it was, I was going to go if my government said we needed to be there. We were probably the last kids of any generation that actually believed that our government would never lie to us.”

The Vietnam War isn’t just about gods and generals, ambitious politicians, and military strategists. It’s about ordinary, everyday people, and it’s in “Riding the Tiger” that Burns and Novick are about to bring the war home for a whole new generation of TV viewers.

 

TV Worth Watching will preview “Episode 3: The River Styx (January 1964-December 1965)” on Tuesday, Sept. 19. The Vietnam War will air Sunday through Thursday on PBS at 8 p.m. ET, through Sept. 28 (check local listings).

 
 
 
 
 
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3 Comments
 
 
Alex S.
'Mean Old World' by Sam Cooke. And you're right — it is a beautiful song. I loved it, too.
Sep 20, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
Mary Blevins
Who sang the song at the end of the show, something like It's a crazy world to live in all by yourself? I loved it.
Sep 19, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
win simmons
What does "Ride the Tiger" mean? My father was a Vietnam Vet who worked with Air America and SF in Vietnam. The last entry in his journal was "Ride The Tiger". But I don't know what it means
Sep 18, 2017   |  Reply
 
Alex S.
sorry - I should have made that clear. I have in later eps., but of course that doesn't help you now. "Ride the tiger" (the title of the episode) is/was a popular '60s proverb that meant/means finding yourself in a precarious situation. The proverb says, “He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount." A tiger can't get at you if you're riding him. but of course that's a helluva place to be caught in.
Sep 20, 2017
 
 
 
 
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