The History Channel collects four of its documentary specials for the two-disc release "The Vietnam War." While none of the features provide a complete analysis of the war on their own, when viewed as a whole, they help provide a larger picture. Students of America's longest, most divisive conflict will find plenty to admire here.
"Vietnam: On the Frontlines" consists of four 45-minute episodes, combining footage of the war with modern interviews with veterans. The result is something like Ken Burns' "The War," allowing for a more personal, first-hand take on the experiences of our troops.
The series forgoes much of the usual history and politics, which leaves the viewer with very little information about the causes of the war itself. As the first episode begins, we're essentially dropped right into battle; one could view this as a reminder that to those in battle, history and politics don't matter as much as such higher priorities as not getting shot. Only the most essential detail about the whys of war are included, as this series focuses entirely on the hows.
To describe the stories the veterans tell as harrowing would be incomplete. These memories are brutal and honest, and we're never surprised when an interviewee takes a moment to choke up, the horrors of the past returning to mind. This makes for tough viewing at times, but it's also essential, providing a deeper understanding of what it was like to actually be there.
The old saying is that Vietnam was our first televised war, and such extensive coverage allows for startling views on the battles being discussed. CBS News provides the footage (which leads to some awkward repetition of the brand name at times), which has not lost its visual power forty years later. Journalists and cameramen join in the discussion. In one interview, a reporter reveals that he once assisted in a battle, helping pass ammunition to a gunner; again, the fight to stay alive outweighs all other options.
"On the Frontlines" is an expert production, its eyewitness accounts more than making up for a lack of commentary on the actual reasons for the fighting. Its minute-by-minute account of key battles will obviously appeal to armchair generals, but more than that, they'll appeal to anyone hoping to find the humanity among the facts and figures of history.
Those armchair generals are the target audience for the 22-minute "Tet Offensive" episode of "Command Decisions", a program that combines historical information with odd breaks in which the narrator asks the viewer to play along with the war. It's a strange show, namely because the questions require you to be "in the moment" - that is, ignore everything you know about the rest of the war. For instance, when the narrator asks "How would you manage the Tet cease fire?", the obvious answer of "know that the enemy won't" isn't among your choices.
Despite this constant sidestepping for creepy questions that boil life and death situations to a quickie game of Risk, there are some solid opportunities for learning here, as we get a detailed rundown of how the Tet Offensive played out and why it's a crucial point for the war.
"LBJ and Vietnam: In the Eye of the Storm" is a 90-minute program combining two of the History Channel's favorite things: in depth research and goofy reenactments. Here, the program's producers have uncovered a mountain of audio recordings made by Lyndon Johnson during his presidency. Rather than simply run them over a stale graphic of a headshot, the producers whipped together a group of hide-the-faces reenactments, thus bringing these recordings to life. It's a silly choice, but ultimately, it doesn't really matter, since the key point is that we get to hear these rare recordings, which present an insight that's downright vital in understanding the war.
Vietnam is not a war LBJ wanted to fight, but the President felt it inescapable - the wheels were already in motion by the time he took office, and he didn't want to spend an election year pulling back troops and showing himself as a weak-willed leader. And during the heart of the war, it seems Johnson took every loss of life personally, which conflicts with the famous chant of "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" It was "Johnson's war," and he didn't even want to be there. (This is not to excuse LBJ for his choices. To go to war just to avoid looking weak is shameful, and a heavy heart does not instantly forgive bad choices. Still, hearing the President's earliest thoughts on the matter provides a welcome insight.)
The program details LBJ's decisions on all matters leading up to war, even spreading out to the 1965 Dominican revolt, which Johnson viewed as part of the larger Communist threat; we end with his address to the nation on July 28, 1965. As such, it reveals a magnificent insider's view to a brief moment in a presidency, to the planning and deliberation that goes into declaring war.
The final program included here is the "Battle of Khe Sanh" episode of "Unsung Heroes", another History Channel series. This 45-minute episode is exactly what it sounds like, a detailed study of a single battle, one that ran from January through April 1968. This is more of the typical talking heads-and-stock footage stuff than the battle studies of "On the Frontlines," although its impact is no lesser. The episode combines comprehensive information with emotional impact.
The discs come in two keepcases that fit into a cardboard slip cover.
Video & Audio
Presented in their original 1.33:1 broadcast ratios, these specials range greatly in video quality due to their constant use of archival footage. However, there are no digital problems with transferring these older films, and newly produced footage is top notch. The soundtracks for all programs are heard in a simple but serviceable Dolby stereo. No subtitles are offered.
None, although the packaging hints (without actually saying it) that "On the Frontlines" is the main attraction and the other programs are the add-ons.
There's a lot to take in with "The Vietnam War," a box set that will fit well on any history buff's shelf. Recommended.