Last week, PBS began airing the 10-part documentary, “The Vietnam War,” co-directed by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Burns is well known for his documentary films such as “The Civil War,” “Prohibition” and “Baseball.” He’s received two Academy Award nominations and won several Emmy Awards for his masterful documentaries.
In this latest documentary, Burns and Novick give viewers a multi-faceted history of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War (1954-1973), in which 3 million people, including 58,000 Americans, died.
Those of us old enough to have lived through those years recall the nightly TV news reports of casualties, including the infographics representing the number of soldiers killed. It instilled fear in young men nearing the age of mandatory military conscription.
A central part of the Vietnam story was the American public’s contrasting opinions of the war. Opposition bitterly divided the nation as protests and demonstrations grew, just as the casualty list grew.
Years after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Vietnam, declassified documents exchanged between U.S. presidents, military leaders and other government officials revealed many deceptions that had been used to win public support of the war.
The documentary offers many lessons for us today about war, patriotism, civil rights, human nature, deceit and forgiveness. Co-director Novick told NPR that the lessons of war are not lost on the soldiers in the trenches.
“The people who were there, they know what it’s like, they know what happened, they know the cost,” she said. “It’s the leaders (who don’t). It’s hard to hold on to these lessons.”
Novick’s words come to mind after President Donald Trump’s address to the United Nations Sept. 19.
During his first address to the U.N. General Assembly, Trump used a derisive description of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in response to that country’s continued missile tests.
“Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” Trump said. “If (the U.S.) is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
It was the latest personal attack on the North Korean leader and only intensified the war of words between the two men. Kim responded by calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
The exchange of insults, sounding more like schoolyard taunts, would arouse laughs if not for what’s at stake. Rather than turn to behind-the-scenes diplomacy to help resolve tensions with North Korea, Trump’s “fire and fury” outbursts are pushing the United States to the brink of war. In fact, North Korea labeled Trump’s follow-up tweet on Sept. 23, which said North Korea “won’t be around much longer,” a declaration of war.
It behooves the president’s closest military advisors to caution Trump against his war of words with Kim and instead encourage him to consult his corp of international experts to seek a diplomatic solution.
Perhaps a special White House screening of “The Vietnam War” documentary would serve to remind Trump of the failure and the cost of war. In the words of Pope Francis (who in April called for “resolving problems through the diplomatic path” with North Korea), “War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity.”