The PBS Vietnam War Series

Some Comments on the PBS Vietnam War Series

Last year the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) presented the ten-episode series The Vietnam War, a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The program covers the full history of American involvement in Vietnam from the earliest assistance in the late 1950s to the final pull-out from Vietnam in 1975. The series devotes as much time to the political situation in Vietnam and the United States as it does to the ground combat in Vietnam. Presented in chronological order, the ten episodes cover unequal time periods, depending on the significance of the events presented in each of the ten segments.

For instance, the first segment, the introduction (titled “Déjà Vu”), reviews events in Vietnam that occurred over nearly a one-hundred-year period, from 1858 to 1961. The second episode (“Riding the Tiger”) covers the events that occurred during a three-year period, from 1961 to 1963; the third episode (The River Styx”) covers events in a two-year period, 1964 and 1965; the fourth episode (“Resolve”) describes events during an eighteen-month period, from January of 1966 through June of 1967; the fifth episode (“This Is What We Do”) covers only a six-month period, from July of 1967 through December of 1967; the sixth episode (“Things Fall Apart”) covers a seven-month period, from January through July of 1968; the seventh episode (“The Veneer of Civilization”) covers a one-year period, from June of 1968 through May of 1969; the eighth episode (“The History of the World”) covers an approximately one-year period, from April of 1969 through May of 1970; the ninth episode (“A Disrespectful Loyalty”) covers events that occurred during nearly a three-year period, from May 1970 to March 1973; and the final episode (“The Weight of Memory”), describes events from March of 1973 to the present.

The emphasis of the Burns and Novick Vietnam War program is on the ground fighting in Vietnam and on the political decisions made by various American leaders from 1960 through 1975, so Air Force (and Navy) military activities in Vietnam and Southeast Asia are mostly ignored. I was a little disappointed that the only Air Force officer featured in the program was Merrill McPeak, a former USAF Chief of Staff. He flew with the “Misty” F-100 unit responsible for air surveillance of North Vietnam, and the activities of that unit rightfully deserve attention. But one of the main purposes of the McPeak interview was to highlight the difficulties of the North Vietnamese workers in maintaining the Ho Chi Minh supply trail from North Vietnam to South Vietnam in the face of aerial attacks by American fighters and bombers. It was an effective segment in the program in which it appears, but it gave the impression that the main activity of the “Misty” pilots was to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That was not the main mission of the “Misty” pilots; their mission was to fly low over southern areas of North Vietnam. Most of the heavy work of dropping bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail was done by various F-4 units, none of which were mentioned in the series.

The other Air Force unit to receive special attention in the program was the C-123 “Ranch Hands” squadron, stationed at Bien Hoa, which was assigned the task of spraying the toxic defoliant Agent Orange over the South Vietnam jungles. These men had the hazardous task of working in a fume-filled environment that eventually created unhappy physiological results for them as well as the jungles (and the living things that lived in them) over which they flew.

I flew into and around and across Vietnam (actually South Vietnam; I never flew my C-130 into North Vietnam) for only a fifteen-month period, from February of 1967 through April of 1968, a relatively short period of time given the long (approximately twenty-year) American involvement in Vietnam. However, as a result of the manner in which Burns and Novick divided the program into its various segments, I was in Vietnam during the time periods covered by three of the ten segments: episodes four (“Resolve”), five (“This Is What We Do”), and six (“Things Fall Apart”). Two of these three episodes (five and six) cover the smallest time frames each (6-7 months) and describe some of the most climactic events of the war, especially the 1968 Tet Offensive, during which I delivered supplies into the besieged field of Khe Sanh. I had the feeling at the time that I was involved in some of the most significant and intense military action of the war and I was right. I have described my experiences flying the C-130 in Vietnam during this period in my book Runway Visions (yes, I guess this is a plug for the book; it is available at Amazon.Com in electronic and soft cover format).

It was interesting to me to realize that in the first Burns and Novick segment during which I was in Vietnam (episode four, “Resolve,” describing events from January 1966 through June of 1967; I was in Vietnam starting in February of 1967), I was flying as a C-130 co-pilot, learning the routes and techniques of flying in-country. During the entire fifth Burns and Novick segment (“This Is What We Do,” July-December 1967), the second of the three segments when I was in Vietnam, I was flying as an aircraft commander, developing my confidence in flying the C-130. And during the sixth Burns and Novick segment (“Things Fall Apart,” January-July 1969; I left Vietnam in April of 1968), I was flying as an instructor pilot, teaching other C-130 pilots new to Vietnam how to fly into small fields in South Vietnam and survive. It was during this period, especially the January and February 1968 Tet Offensive, that “things” really did “fall apart,” for that was the period of the siege of Khe Sanh, the fighting at the Citadel at Hue, and the fighting in Saigon, when the walls of the American Embassy were scaled by the Viet Cong.

Although no C-130 activities were shown on the program, as a C-130 pilot, I was pleased to see how often the C-130 appeared in film clips, usually involving men stepping off of or on to a C-130 (I was reminded of the opening of the Oliver Stone film, Platoon, when the new guy Charlie Sheen steps off the C-130 and enters the war which he almost does not survive.)

I fully appreciated the information that Burns and Novick provided about the political decisions that were made in the United States from 1960 to 1975, and I appreciated learning about the growth of the anti-war movements of the time. When I was in Vietnam, I had only a vague idea of what was occurring back in the United States. When I returned from Southeast Asia I went directly to graduate school at the University of Michigan and was only too happy to indulge in literary study and ignore the war, which I had decided was a very bad idea, especially after the 1968 Tet Offensive revealed the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the US-backed South Vietnamese infrastructure, the effects of which I could easily see as I flew my C-130 from Da Nang to Saigon. Like everyone who watched the televised reports of the awful riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, I was appalled at the sight. As the Burns and Novick film shows, American attitudes turned against the war as a result of the events of 1968, in the United States as well as in Vietnam.

Final comment: Many years later, I eventually visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., determined to find the name of my fellow C-130 pilot, David Risher (USAFA graduate, 1964), who had died flying his C-130 in South Vietnam five months after I left. Foolishly, without consulting the guide book at the Park Ranger station, I walked straight to the midpoint of the Wall, assuming that because he died in September of 1968, approximately halfway between the start and the end of American involvement in the war, his name would be located somewhere to the left of the center of the memorial. As I stood near the midpoint of the Wall, I felt overwhelmed by the hundreds of names extending above me and to the left and right on both sides. After a few moments of futile searching for Dave’s name among so many others, I retreated to the Ranger Station. At first I was surprised to find that his name was located far to the left of where I had been looking. It was located on a relatively shallow section of the Wall, and it was not difficult to find once I knew on which panel it was located. Like all visitors, I gently ran my fingers over his name, summoning up his image as I did so. Then I stepped back, and my reaction changed from surprise to shock. As I looked to my right, the Memorial Wall extended far in the distance; more than two-thirds of the names on the Wall had died after I had left Vietnam and Dave had died. All those men had died after I had decided the war was a bad idea. What a waste!