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Subject: And it's 1-2-3 what're we fightin' for? Ken Burns' Vietnam series rss

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J.D. Hall
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Vietnam was the war of my youth. My two older brothers were eligible for the draft -- thankfully, neither had low lottery numbers, and besides my dad (21-year vet of the USAF), told them he would ship them off to Canada if they got draft notices.

It's sad watching the first three episodes, to relive how politicians and generals on both sides of the conflict made bad choices that caused the escalation, the slaughter, and the destruction.

Just wondered if anyone else is watching it?
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David Janik-Jones
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I'm predicting this thread is going to end badly ...
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Jeff Saxton
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I had some advance warning. My sister works for the local PBS station, and had watched the whole series a few weeks ago. She said it was just so depressing, but then, she is also not a fan of military or political history.

I've been watching it (the local station is showing each episode twice a night so it can be watched once, then digested the second time). It's a slog, and I don't think it will be the ground breaker "The Civil War" was, nor as good as "The War". But it is competent, seemingly balanced, and detailed.

I do think the story-telling style Burns uses is becoming a bit too well known, the character introduced in Ep. 3, "Moggie" is likely to become the 'Babe' Ciarlo character (of The War) for the Vietnam series.

[Added edit: my Dad was also a vet from WW2 of the Air Corp, and told my older brother he would drive him to Canada if he was drafted. His number did come up, but he was deemed 4F -- too skinny, bad eyes.]
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DaveyJJ wrote:
I'm predicting this thread is going to end badly ...


I doubt it. I think in this sub domain we will keep the discussion civilized. If this thread had been started in RSP I would agree things could get out of hand. I'd also point out that there's been quite a bit of time that's passed since this war - hard to believe but the fall of Saigon was 43 years ago! If this thread were about Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom, again, I'd agree it probably wouldn't end well, because the experience is still too fresh.
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I like the idea of this documentary, but like with the Civil War one and the World War Two one, I will probably have trouble sitting still long enough to watch it. While I can sit and read a book, I have trouble watching documentaries.

I might try to catch an episode or two, or wait until it comes out on Netflix, like I did with The Civil War.

I think maybe I have a short attention span...whatever it is, the problem is with me, not the material!
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Mike Szarka
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Interesting to hear twice in this thread already vets not wanting their children to go. My step-dad was in the USN in WW2 and Korea and that's actually how he ended up here in Canada. He's never said it in my presence but my mother quoted something about him not allowing his boy "to die in the jungle for nothing". I guess it was a more common sentiment than I realized.
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Tony Doran
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mcszarka wrote:
Interesting to hear twice in this thread already vets not wanting their children to go. My step-dad was in the USN in WW2 and Korea and that's actually how he ended up here in Canada. He's never said it in my presence but my mother quoted something about him not allowing his boy "to die in the jungle for nothing". I guess it was a more common sentiment than I realized.


My dad was 27 years in the Army; wWII, Korea, and Vietnam. When it was time for me to register for the draft, he told me to claim by deferment (we oukd get a deferment if we were in college at that time). He said he didn't want me wasting a life for the jungle either. In the event, they took away the deferments and I ended up in the lottery anyhow, but my number was never drawn that year.
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J.D. Hall
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Burns has a style he hasn't changed much, that is true. But his ability to find really good, illuminating personal interviews is still outstanding. Listening to former NLF guerillas, NVA regulars, and North Vietnamese politicians talk about the war along with ARVN regulars and South Vietnamese politicians is something long ignored by other documentarians.
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Frank McNally
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This should be good. The History channel and similar have turned me off from documentaries in general with their pacing set for recaps after each commercial break, and silly cut scenes (sword clashing or such). The ones edited to be shown without interruption are much better. Bonus- no ancient aliens involved.
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Jeff Saxton
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Mack_me_Bucko wrote:
I do think the story-telling style Burns uses is becoming a bit too well known, the character introduced in Ep. 3, "Moggie" is likely to become the 'Babe' Ciarlo character (of The War) for the Vietnam series.


Spoiler (click to reveal)
Yep. Moggie doesn't make it.
 
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Interesting article on recent developments in the historiography of the Vietnam war.
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remorseless1 wrote:
Listening to former NLF guerillas, NVA regulars, and North Vietnamese politicians talk about the war along with ARVN regulars and South Vietnamese politicians is something long ignored by other documentarians.


I'll watch the series for this alone. Like you say, the Vietnamese perspective has been largely ignored and not just by documentaries but by everything from Hollywood to academic history as well. Correction is long overdue.
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Duckman wrote:
remorseless1 wrote:
Listening to former NLF guerillas, NVA regulars, and North Vietnamese politicians talk about the war along with ARVN regulars and South Vietnamese politicians is something long ignored by other documentarians.


I'll watch the series for this alone. Like you say, the Vietnamese perspective has been largely ignored and not just by documentaries but by everything from Hollywood to academic history as well. Correction is long overdue.


The balance of this documentary is inspiring - no punches pulled - the discussion is frank and free of an agenda besides just telling the story.

A lot to learn watching it.
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We're really appreciating the series so far. Through the third part. So much to learn.

One thing that bothers me a bit is all the comparisons (contrasts, really) to WW2 in Europe, when I'd think Korea or even WW2 PTO would be more appropriate.
 
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Ivor Bolakov
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I completely understand the whole effort might not have been a super cool idea even then, but so far it makes it seem like the US was not really winning anything, whereas my understanding of the war (as small and as limited as it may be) was that the US won every major battle and had tactical superiority in all but exceptional circumstances.

The remarkable thing is the constant lack of progress and overall loss, contrasted with conventional superiority. Not a dead loss from the start, all the way through (which it may have been in some respects, but not all).
 
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OhBollox wrote:
I completely understand the whole effort might not have been a super cool idea even then, but so far it makes it seem like the US was not really winning anything, whereas my understanding of the war (as small and as limited as it may be) was that the US won every major battle and had tactical superiority in all but exceptional circumstances.

The remarkable thing is the constant lack of progress and overall loss, contrasted with conventional superiority. Not a dead loss from the start, all the way through (which it may have been in some respects, but not all).


True, US forces tended to win battles.

Unfortunately, the desired end state for the war was a viable RVN government. Obviously, there was something between defeating a VC or NVA force in a given battle and the ultimate goal that didn't work so well.
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Larry Haskell
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Mack_me_Bucko wrote:
Mack_me_Bucko wrote:
I do think the story-telling style Burns uses is becoming a bit too well known, the character introduced in Ep. 3, "Moggie" is likely to become the 'Babe' Ciarlo character (of The War) for the Vietnam series.


Spoiler (click to reveal)
Yep. Moggie doesn't make it.


Spoiler (click to reveal)
I don't think there was any pretense of suspense -- they interview practically everyone in the family EXCEPT Moggie. And I think that's Burns' intent -- we know almost from the moment we meet him that he is going to die -- so the unfolding tragedy is more poignant.

 
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OhBollox wrote:
I completely understand the whole effort might not have been a super cool idea even then, but so far it makes it seem like the US was not really winning anything, whereas my understanding of the war (as small and as limited as it may be) was that the US won every major battle and had tactical superiority in all but exceptional circumstances.

The remarkable thing is the constant lack of progress and overall loss, contrasted with conventional superiority. Not a dead loss from the start, all the way through (which it may have been in some respects, but not all).

I don't know how far in you are, but the documentary definitely covers the US's many battle victories (attacking the different famous numbered hills, defending Khe San, defending against the Tet and Easter offensives). But usually all these battle victories didn't contribute much to the overall winning of the war, they just defended South Vietnam from a North Vietnamese invasion a little longer, as long as the US remained. And the large enemy troop presence in South Vietnam continued throughout. I thought the documentary was very effective at showing how the US always had superior firepower; every failed attack on the US is described as coming at much greater cost to the attackers.

That sense of strategic futility from early on comes from secret memos at the highest levels.
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OhBollox wrote:
I completely understand the whole effort might not have been a super cool idea even then, but so far it makes it seem like the US was not really winning anything, whereas my understanding of the war (as small and as limited as it may be) was that the US won every major battle and had tactical superiority in all but exceptional circumstances.

The remarkable thing is the constant lack of progress and overall loss, contrasted with conventional superiority. Not a dead loss from the start, all the way through (which it may have been in some respects, but not all).


You have to factor in the North's much higher tolerance for losses as well as the relatively small part played by the big battles. Clearly the way to win for the North was an attritional strategy, and when they went away from that (e.g. at Tet) the results were not good.

Military history generally suffers from too much focus on battles, and while quite understandable (they are very dramatic events) it often obscures the fact that most wars are attritional slogs. Better parameters for judging success in Vietnam would perhaps be loss rates (since the North could sustain something like, say, 1:5) or extent of ARVN and US control over the countryside.

That of course has clear parallells with Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US and allies are also very superior tactically but still struggle to project control (meaning everything from military to political control) and attain strategic objectives.

Another thing often forgotten is the huge impact of terrain, weather, and primitive infrastructure in third world wars. There is a lot of talk of US airpower in Vietnam, but the fact that the monsoon season last almost half the year and severely restricts flying is rarely mentioned.
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J.D. Hall
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With all due respect, I think the discussion over the military aspects of the Vietnam War misses the mark: there was absolutely no way the US and the RVN were going to stop the North Vietnamese government from disrupting and occupying huge swaths of South Vietnam with the military option. The North Vietnamese were Communist, which is true, but they were also nationalists -- they trumpeted the goal of reunifying the country and ejecting foreign powers. That alone gave them the moral edge over the South Vietnamese. The ARVN soldiers and government were fighting to prop up an unpopular, dictatorial and corrupt government, while the North was fighting to free the country of foreign powers. You cannot win in a situation like hat.

I'm glad the series pointed out the NVA hardliners that basically ousted Ho Chi Minh from meaningful leadership and took over the conflict in the early 1960s. Ho might have been more open to a negotiated settlement at that time, but the hardliners wanted only victory. With the US matching the North Vietnamese escalation, the entire situation went out of control and years of slaughter and destruction followed.

Ironic, too, is the increasingly warm relationship between Communist Vietnam and Democratic America. I think it was led by the soldiers on both sides, men and women who felt used by governments and exposed to incredible hardship when there were peaceful alternatives neither side were willing to explore.
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I am amazed at how beautifully restored much of the footage in the series looks - you can detect the sweat on the grunts clothes under backpack straps and such. I imagine much of us has seen a good deal of this footage before; but not with such clarity.
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remorseless1 wrote:
With all due respect, I think the discussion over the military aspects of the Vietnam War misses the mark: there was absolutely no way the US and the RVN were going to stop the North Vietnamese government from disrupting and occupying huge swaths of South Vietnam with the military option.


I don't recall anyone claiming that they could.

My point was: I'm seeing US combat (not just the big battles) given a negative slant, when to my understanding, the US was superior tactically, in small unit engagements on up. US firepower is often brought up as a drawback.

The fascinating thing for me is that military superiority did not translate into success elsewhere, and I am not seeing that contrast between military success and political/hearts and minds failure. The documentary is showing failure all across the board, and I'm not sure how true that is. It is partially down to the fact that the Vietnamese and Vietnam have been rather less forthcoming about casualties, and US casualties were better publicised, but that is not a complete explanation.

I'm not saying the US was winning. I'm not saying the US could have won. I'm not saying the US could have killed the Vietnamese to a standstill.
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J.D. Hall
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OhBollox wrote:
remorseless1 wrote:
With all due respect, I think the discussion over the military aspects of the Vietnam War misses the mark: there was absolutely no way the US and the RVN were going to stop the North Vietnamese government from disrupting and occupying huge swaths of South Vietnam with the military option.


I don't recall anyone claiming that they could.

My point was: I'm seeing US combat (not just the big battles) given a negative slant, when to my understanding, the US was superior tactically, in small unit engagements on up. US firepower is often brought up as a drawback.

The fascinating thing for me is that military superiority did not translate into success elsewhere, and I am not seeing that contrast between military success and political/hearts and minds failure. The documentary is showing failure all across the board, and I'm not sure how true that is. It is partially down to the fact that the Vietnamese and Vietnam have been rather less forthcoming about casualties, and US casualties were better publicised, but that is not a complete explanation.

I'm not saying the US was winning. I'm not saying the US could have won. I'm not saying the US could have killed the Vietnamese to a standstill.

Tactically, the US had excellent soldiers, well-armed and well-fed, supported by one of the best logistical service in the world and in conventional combat situations were able to call in massive fire support to crush the NLF and the NVA. That part is true.

The problem is, winning battles is pointless if there is no logical strategy behind it. The series pointed out two vicious battles over hilltops -- Hamburger Hill sticks out -- where the US/ARVN forces paid a heavy price to eliminate NVA positions, only to abandon said hills within a week of the end of the battle. The negative slant given in the series toward the US military and their Free World allies is centered on command decisions -- the generals and politicians were absolutely ignorant of conditions on the ground, refused to learn, and went after the Viet Cong and the NVA regulars in the same manner they went after the North Koreans. But the VC would simply disappear into the jungle and raid another village/firebase.

Quite simply, it was not a military war. Winning battles meant nothing if you don't have the moral ascendency among the civilians and the soldiers. All the Viet Cong and the NVA had to do was outlast the US, and that's what they did.
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I see the reading comprehension fairies are away this week.
 
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