Saturday 21 September 2019

A corrupt world, then and now

Television review: The Vietnam War (RTE1)

US troops 'in country' during the Vietnam War
US troops 'in country' during the Vietnam War
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

I guess I was trying to forget Vietnam. That's what all of us try to do - forget it. And that's just the movies. In fact for most of us, it's only the movies.

Yeah, I thought I was just about done with 'Nam after Full Metal Jacket, and so I kinda avoided the first few episodes of the documentary series The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for PBS in America, now running on RTE1.

But then I was told by someone of impeccable taste that I really needed to see this, that I had to beat off the demons one more time and throw myself right back in there - with the consolation that at least now I know how it all turned out.

And it is indeed superb, this series which took 10 years to make, but which still has resonances for the world at this present moment. It looked like everything was falling apart in the late 1960s too - at the most brutish level, it seemed that in many countries the good guys were getting beaten up by the bad guys, sometimes to death. And sometimes on television.

Evidently the human race survived that somehow, leading to the age of spectacular cultural enlightenment that was the 1970s. But it was also somewhat disturbing to see footage of John McCain speaking as a prisoner of war and to think that, decades later, the draft-dodging rich kid Trump would be mocking this McCain on his way to victory. Which might for a moment cause you to wonder, as presenter Evan Davies did on Newsnight, if the sort of people who are running countries now are just inferior to the sort who used to run them even 20 years ago?

He was asking this in the light of the omnishambles that is the government of the United Kingdom today, so it is a question which seems to have some weight until you see parts of The Vietnam War pertaining to the calibre of American leaders at that time, and the character of Richard Nixon in particular.

You are reminded that Nixon was such a terrible man he actually conspired to secretly sabotage peace talks with the North Vietnamese, which helped him to a narrow majority over Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

And in this week of the Panorama programmes on the Paradise Papers, it was clear too that there has always been this distinction between what is required of the "top people", and what is required of the lower orders.

It was expressed most eloquently by Vincent Okamoto, the most highly decorated Japanese-American to survive Vietnam: "Nineteen and 20-year-old high school dropouts, they didn't have escape routes that the elite and the wealthy and the privileged had, and that was unfair. And so they looked upon military service as like… the weather… they had to go in and do it… but to see these kids who had the least to gain… there wasn't going to be anything to look forward to, they weren't going to be rewarded for their service in Vietnam… and yet their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal… and you would ask yourself, how does America produce young men like this?" Moreover it was noted that the North Vietnamese, for all their "communism", had their own kind of ruling class, members of which would send their sons off to be educated in Moscow, which had the great advantage of being very far away from whatever was happening in Vietnam.

Borne back ceaselessly into the past, we found Newsnight looking at the first year of Trump by returning to what seemed like year zero in Selma, Alabama, famed in civil rights lore. Soon Alabama may be electing one Roy Moore to the Senate, a man whose views and that of his supporters were encapsulated by a retired military man called Charles Daniel, sitting on his porch talking to Emily Maitlis: "I've travelled a lot, I've spent some time overseas, and the opinion of most people who are any distance from Alabama is that we're ignorant and prejudiced… and most of it's justified."

From Selma to Saigon, the truth is out there somewhere.

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