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Ken Burns, The Vietnam War, and Why You Should Care About This Documentary

I watched about an hour of excerpts from the new Vietnam documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick last night at a local event sponsored by PBS. There are journalists out there who have been treated to the entire 18 hour documentary, but being “just” a mom blogger and not one that usually covers topics like this, I definitely missed that press list. So I sat in a small theater with veterans, Vietnamese students, and other invited guests, and we watched scene after scene of exactly what you’d think of when you think about the Vietnam war, followed by an open discussion that was exactly as tense as you’d think it would be.

Those of you who have spent any time with me whatsoever know that I’m a huge history information nerd and I don’t do much to hide my Ken Burns fan girl status. I’ve watched the majority of his documentaries at least twice (do you know how long those things are??) and credit him with providing the foundation of my understanding of many major historical events.

However, I try not to litter this blog with whatever random thing that strikes my fancy, since people come here to read about parenting and family recipes and vacationing with kids, etc. Believe me, it’s tough sometimes to stay inside this mom bubble here in my publishing space, but I also want to be sure people know what they’re going to get if they show up here.

So why on earth would I want to start talking about the Vietnam war?

It’s a charged topic and one that people have trouble speaking about with authority unless they were there because all of the reasons and motivations got so murky. I went to school for nearly twenty straight years and only studied the conflict twice – once in an American History class that shoved it in at the end of the year, lumping it together with unrelated facts in a clump of “post World War II conflicts”. The other time I talked about it was in a high school English class where we read a book called Going After Cacciato and talked about the horrors of being a soldier in Vietnam. Beyond that, I never covered it in college, it didn’t come up in law school, and everything else I know about Vietnam is a result of personal study or movies where nothing good happens to anyone.

And, honestly, that’s not enough to give me a foundation if my kids ever want to talk about Vietnam. And if they don’t want to talk about Vietnam, we should probably talk about Vietnam anyway because not knowing about uncomfortable things doesn’t do anything to make them slink off into the dark corners of history. It’s just information you don’t have and actively being uninformed is not something we chase in this house. Yet, I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to type the Vietnam War or The Vietnam War or the Vietnam War, etc. I could look it up right now and hide my ignorance, but then again that misses the whole point.

Are we going to watch each episode of this 18 hour series as a family, huddled together while the 6 year old and 4 year old balance bowls of popcorn on their laps? No, and please please don’t do that either if you have young kids. This is not a family documentary and the fact that it’s on PBS shouldn’t give you any false comfort there. It’s graphic and honest and although I think it will be beautifully told, it’s a horrible story.

I don’t know if Eva will be ready for it at 12 years old (which is when I’d let her watch The Civil War) or if I’ll really want her to wait until she’s 15 or 16 to see all that violence. But Kyle and I will watch it and we’ll talk about it between ourselves and the first time the subject comes up in family discussion, we’ll have more of a handle than we do now. Which, with horrible things, is pretty much all you can do as a parent.

Is this documentary going to make you upset? Probably. Will it bother you from a political standpoint? Probably, regardless of whether you’re liberal or conservative or a veteran or a millennial. Is it going to be exhausting? Yes. Will it be exhaustive? I believe so because it’s a ten year project tackled by an experienced filmmaker who knows exactly what his responsibility is here. So I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy this film. I can only promise that you’ll be a more prepared mom for having seen it.

The Vietnam War: A Film by Kenn Burns and Lynn Novick premieres this Sunday, September 17, on PBS. You can also pre-order the entire series on DVD, although it won’t ship for another week. I would recommend the $90 DVD and soundtrack bundle because the soundtracks to these are always amazing and this one is 2 CDs of the best of that time.

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