As if our current-day national politics and world tensions are not enough (point to most anywhere on earth), along comes the Vietnam War, reprised, reconsidered, roaring back in an 18-hour PBS series. It reminds us that this war is just as maddening today as it was in the 1960s and early ’70s.
The first hour of “The Vietnam War” aired Sunday night. You had choices. You could watch the history lesson that night or record it, maybe instead tuning into the commercial glitter of the Emmy Awards or seeing the Nationals’ bats finally come alive to defeat the Dodgers.
But the Vietnam series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is worthy of your time even if you have to catch up on DVR. It lays out the political missteps that led us there and offers contemporary guidance for our unending battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as our risk of simplistic thinking and miscalculating the North Koreans, among other conflicts.
As starkly haunting as the Vietnam Memorial itself, the PBS series strives to maybe bring some closure to understanding the war. “We hope we might be some agency of healing,” Burns said in one interview.
Some of the harshest critics say the documentary is glossing over nothing short of war crimes by the United States. In many ways the war still divides us, just as it did back then.
Your Notebook is a contemporary of those times. Opposing the war and facing the Army draft, we joined the U.S. Navy Reserves and spent our active duty in 1968 and ’69 right here in Washington at the Navy Yard.
My older brother Ed made a different choice. In 1969 he was a first lieutenant in Vietnam, a platoon leader. He served in the field from Jan. 11 until June 2 when he was wounded.
We’ll let him pick up from there.
“Except for one week, we were constantly in the field on combat patrols,” he wrote us. “I was an infantry platoon leader (third platoon) with the rank of First Lieutenant. My unit was Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
“Our company of 110 men took heavy casualties (16 killed and 50 wounded) during May-July 1969 in some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Prior to Vietnam, I served as an instructor with the US Army Infantry School’s Ranger Department at Fort Benning, GA, teaching combat patrolling to soldier trainees.”
My brother recently saw an hourlong preview of the new Burns documentary, and the Notebook wants to share his further thoughts:
“I have no regrets about my personal service in the war as misguided and mismanaged as the war may have been.
“I do have deep regret over the war’s high cost in human life and suffering by both friendly and enemy soldiers and their loved ones. I also regret that for too long, the term ‘Vietnam Veteran’ wrongly called up images of homeless derelicts and potheads who had lost their way.
“My best and lasting memory of the war is the faithful service, high commitment, courage, and sacrifice evidenced by the young soldiers with whom I served on that distant battlefield long ago. They rightly deserve our nation’s honor. In my view, the documentary will fall far short if it fails to accurately portray their honorable service despite the tragic failures of the senior government and military leaders who misled them.”
My brother’s final thoughts could serve most anyone tuning in: “The experience of watching ‘The Vietnam War’ includes terror, horror, disbelief, discovery, disgust, marvel, pride, ambivalence and tears. You’ll lose count of how many times you’ll have to pick your jaw up off the floor — even when the facts ring vaguely familiar.”
■ Local politics. We’ve written several times that the D.C. Council may be one of the most progressive in the country, but cautioned that its group of new laws regulating business could be viewed by those businesses as piling on. We got the first indication of that last spring when Council Chairman Phil Mendelson abruptly opened the door to changes to funding for the paid family leave program that he had spent more than a year pushing through the council.
In recent years the council also has passed annual increases of the minimum wage, which will rise to $15 an hour in 2020; considered bills regulating sick leave and scheduling; and weighed limits on campaign pay-to-play donations, among other measures. This week Washington Post reporter Peter Jamison detailed how the council appears ready to take a breather — he called it a retreat — on some of those issues.
Jamison quoted Chairman Mendelson: “Businesses like certainty, and if we’re constantly changing the tax burden or the tax environments, or constantly changing the regulatory burden, then it becomes more difficult to do business in the District,” the chairman said. Mendelson has proposed a moratorium through the end of 2018 on bills that would negatively affect businesses. “This doesn’t mean absolutely nothing will go through,” he added.
Mendelson says the city needs time to see how the bills it has passed are working out. Cynics in the crowd might note that a moratorium through 2018 would get the chairman and other council members through their expected re-election campaigns next year.
Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.