I started watching Ken Burns’ 18 hour documentary on Vietnam, and after five episodes I’m hooked in, way more hooked, in fact, that I would have ever thought possible given that this is a war documentary. I’ve generally stayed away from watching or reading about war, whether it’s a novel or a blockbuster moview or a documentary, I’ve tended to find other subject matters. For some reason, though, this series has me intrigued and glued to the tube.
Part of the reason this is such a good film is that it’s Ken Burns doing the usual things he does to make his documentaries so compelling. I like everthing he’s done.
Another reason I like this series, though, is probably because I’m looking at power and seeing power from an angle I’m not accustomed to. Like I said, I’ve avoided investing too much of myself into war films. There are notable exceptions. I’ve done a good bit of reading and writing about the genocides in Rwanda and Germany and the United States, but watching the details of a prolonged war play out is something I haven’t really done.
I encountered one particularly profound moment watching Marine John Musgrave recount the first time he killed someone. He speaks of how significant that moment was for him, and he realizes that he can’t go on doing this. He can’t keep killing for another 13 months. So, he makes a vow to himself that he’s not going to kill anyone else.
But Musgrave is a poet, and there’s a twist to this.
Musgrave says that, however, “I will waste as many gooks as I can find. I’ll wax as many Dinks as I can find…” And Musgrave continues to use the racial slurs that American troops applied to the Vietnamese.
Musgrave kept killing, but he had to de-humanize the Vietnamese. If they were truly human, Musgrave couldn’t keep killing them, but if they were gooks? He could, and would, wast some gooks.
Musgrave continues, reflecting on this experience of dehumanization:
Turn a subject into an object. It’s racism 101, and it turns out to be a very necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars and you need them to stay sane doing their work.