An aspect of the Burns-Novick series captured my admiration: the production makes no effort to conceal the grisliness of combat. That sets it aside from the majority of films about war. Since my time in Vietnam, I have believed that if we Americans understood how gruesome combat is, we would be less likely to rush into wars.
Scene after scene in the Burns-Novick shows human bodies ripped to shreds, turned into pulp, burned beyond recognition. Blood is everywhere. Broken bodies strew the scene. Those sequences awoke my memory of time in combat and the ravaging of the human body I observed. I remembered the smell—a mix of smoke, gun powder, and the stink of evacuated bowels from the freshly killed mixed with that of decaying bodies.
One American former fighter interviewed in the series says about combat: “No one can really understand it until they have done it.” He’s right. But only a tiny percentage of the American population have actually done it. In 2016, 7 percent of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18% in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. Of those veterans, something like 2.5 percent saw combat. Few of us have the slightest glimmer of how unspeakably horrifying it is.
The Burns-Novick series at least takes a step toward waking up us to the horrors of war.
Another step it takes is to reveal Richard Nixon’s lies to Americans. In 1968, he secretly tried to scuttle the peace talks with North Vietnam because he was afraid they’d give his opponent, Hubert H. Humphrey, an edge. Later he ordered bombing in Cambodia and withheld that information from the American public. Throughout the rest of his life, he lied about both actions.
And the series shows that Johnson and McNamara as early as 1963 recognized that the U.S could not win the Vietnam war. So did those who replaced Johnson in the White House. But they kept the war going for political reasons, costing untold thousands of lives.