To this day, Judge Victor Valdivia still suffers from post-traumatic flashbacks. Unfortunately, they're from the time he gave a class presentation with his fly open.
A compelling look at one of America's most controversial wars.
With the release of The Vietnam War, the History Channel attempts to present a complete look at the conflict. Unfortunately, its focus is so narrow that it winds up being only for serious Vietnam War buffs rather a more general audience.
Facts of the Case
This two-disc set compiles a number of shows the History Channel has done to cover the Vietnam War. Here are the descriptions for the episodes on the two discs:
"Part 1: America Enters the War" (44:59)
"Part 2: Tet in Saigon and Hue War" (45:08)
"Part 3: Ringing Down the Curtain" (45:02)
"Part 4: The End Game" (44:58)
Command Decisions: Tet Offensive (21:49)
Unsung Heroes: Battle of Khe Sanh (43:41)
Over the last few years, the History Channel has begun releasing two-DVD sets dedicated to specific subjects and eras, which usually compile various shows dedicated to those topics. Sometimes, as with the set built around The Last Days of the Civil War, the sets are generally successful. Other times, they seem to be a random collection of shows haphazardly chosen and sequenced with only the barest relevance to each other.
The Vietnam War isn't quite as bad as some other collections, but it is something of a disappointment. It seems strange that the History Channel, of all places, has apparently never really done a comprehensive series on the longest war the U.S. ever fought, but judging by this DVD, no such show exists. In 1983, PBS aired a mammoth 13-part series on the war titled Vietnam: A Television History. While that show has since been attacked by right-wing critics for a supposed anti-American bias, it remains the most complete study on the war, from the early days of French colonialism to the aftermath of the war in all of Southeast Asia. It incorporated all possible perspectives and told the story in sometimes horrifying detail.
Compared to the PBS series, Vietnam: On the Frontlines is a letdown. First of all, it seems to be targeted to Vietnam veterans, military historians, and others who already have a detailed knowledge of the war and want a more detailed look at a handful of very specific issues. Viewers who know little about the war and are interested in learning about it will be frustrated and confused by these episodes. The first episode begins, virtually with the first sentence, by stating that in 1965, the U.S. military strategy was one of attrition; that is, wearing the enemy down through sheer numbers. Which raises the question, why was that the best strategy? What was the strategy before then? For that matter, why exactly was the U.S. there? Elsewhere, a reference is made to an important battle the French lost in 1954. Again, why were the French there in 1954? Why was the battle important? Why did they lose? Anyone who has read about the war extensively will already know the answers to these questions, of course, but that doesn't take into account everyone who could be watching this show. It seems unfair to only address a very small portion of the audience this way.
This highlights another problem. Because the perspective is strictly from the soldiers and, on occasion, from the correspondents (all from CBS News, one of this show's producers), there is never a sense of the larger issues. Instead we get endless combat stories from vets, with occasional asides from the reporters. One or two combat reports are fine, but because the show is so artlessly edited and paced, we wind up getting four or five in a row per episode, many of which are too similar to distinguish easily. The eventual effect is numbing. What's more, the soldiers spend a lot of time using military jargon that is not always explained. Anyone who isn't familiar with military terminology will be confused and, unfortunately, bored.
Most confusing of all is that all the episodes have the same peculiar conclusion. After every battle, we are informed that while U.S. forces suffered heavy casualties, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suffered even more, and that the territory that the United States lost earlier in the battle was eventually recovered. Every show ends with the announcer proclaiming that the battle was an important victory for the United States. Which raises the biggest question of all: If these are the most important battles in the war, and they were all decisive U.S. victories, then why did the North Vietnamese win the war? What errors did the United States make with its victories? What superior military tactics did the North Vietnamese Army use? For that matter, what were the political pressures that affected the outcome, both for North Vietnam and the United States? None of this is explained.
The best episodes are the ones dealing with the Tet Offensive and the fall of Saigon. The Tet episode, covering two specific battles in January 1968, actually does weave the soldiers' comments into a complete, coherent narrative that's not as hard to follow as some of the others. The episode covering the fall of Saigon is arranged as a detailed look at the final 24 hours inside the U.S. Embassy as the North Vietnamese close in and American soldiers and employees rush to evacuate themselves and as many of their South Vietnamese friends and associates as they can. It's masterfully directed and paced, as gripping and tense as any thriller.
Ultimately, Vietnam: On the Frontlines is just too limited in scope and perspective to really be more than somewhat informative. Though references are made to atrocities committed against Vietnamese civilians, no Vietnamese, civilians or otherwise, are interviewed for the show. For that matter, no political leaders of any stripe are interviewed, and this war, more than any other up to that point, was fought in Washington as much as in Vietnam. There are so many holes and missing stories in this series that it's hard to recommend to anyone but the hardcore Vietnam War buff.
The shows on the second disc are actually better than the first. LBJ and Vietnam goes into far more detail about how and why the United States entered the war, and how President Johnson, through a mixture of bad luck and hubris, was ensnared into a war he had actually opposed as vice president. By using previously unreleased recordings of Johnson's phone conversations with his cabinet, various senators, close friends, and even ex-President Truman, the program gives an enthralling look at just how Johnson thought about his decisions and how he felt about his critics and enemies. The lack of interviews is not noticeable, as the narration, file footage, and tape recordings (accompanied, at times, by actors miming along in reenactments) are enough to make this both entertaining and informative. It's the History Channel at its best, and viewers should probably start with this one before watching the others.
Command Decisions: Tet Offensive covers one of the battles also seen in the first disc, except without any interviews, only narration and footage. It's actually easier to follow than the show on the first disc, aided immeasurably by a detailed map that shows the progress of the battle clearly. Unfortunately, the information is presented in an irritating manner. It presents a crisis in battle, asks the viewer to guess how to solve it, gives multiple choices, and then, after a pause, gives the right answer. This gets tiresome quickly and interrupts the flow of the program. Still, there are enough interesting facts presented here that it's still worth watching, despite the irksome format.
Unsung Heroes: The Battle of Khe Sanh is meant to pay tribute to the soldiers who held out for 77 days at the fort of Khe Sanh against overwhelming NVA forces. Interviews with vets are supplemented by readings from the diary of a war correspondent who was stranded at the fort during all 77 days. It sometimes veers into maudlin, and some of the camera and editing tricks are unnecessarily arty, but overall, it's a solid look at the battle. There are even some surprising revelations about PR tactics used by Johnson and U.S. military commanders that only made life for the besieged soldiers worse.
The video is presented in full screen and is decently preserved. Naturally, the older footage from combat, both in color and black-and-white, isn't as sharp as the modern video interviews, but it's still well presented. The audio is in stereo, and is clear. There are no extras, which is a shame. A simple timeline of the war or a glossary of military terminology would have been immensely helpful.
Viewers who already have a considerable knowledge of the war will find The Vietnam War reasonably interesting. Others should definitely start elsewhere, as they will find much of this set puzzling and frustrating.
The Vietnam War is found guilty of missing an awful lot of important stories and history with its narrow focus. The History Channel is admonished to try for a series that is more thorough than the ones here, as this is a topic far too important to be examined so indifferently.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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