So far, my main quibble is that at the very beginning of the series, narrator Peter Coyote glibly informs us that the United States originally entered this misbegotten war with only the very best intentions. My bullshit detector immediately went into high alert.
The footage somewhat confusingly zig-zags between French soldiers behaving badly in the 1950s and American soldiers behaving badly in the 1960s, and Vietnamese soldiers (essentially, all civilians) behaving badly throughout. This serves the purpose of spreading the blame around thinly and internationally, so that no one country or person can ever be held individually accountable for the colossal mess.
Interestingly enough, though, Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of the north, is portrayed as initially being a good guy and friend of the CIA, but whose outreach to US presidents Truman and Eisenhower was either thwarted or ignored by the State Department, leading him straight into the arms of China. And oh, that Domino Effect, which some of the aging generals and spooks interviewed apparently adhere to right to this very day.
It was something of a jolt to be reminded that journalists in that era were given mostly free rein to document, in both words and pictures, countless bloody images of soldiers behaving both very nobly and very badly. It seems never to have occurred to American leaders to ban reporters from the killing fields, as is the case now. After Iraq and Afghanistan went sour, even film documentation of returning body bags to Joint Base Andrews was banned in an effort to shield American news-consumers from reality. Our leaders were and still are trying to prevent a recurrence of the Vietnam Syndrome: the absolute loathing of most citizens for any more wars after so many graphic debacles on the nightly news. (The Neocons call this dreaded public aversion to state-sponsored blood and gore our "sickly inhibitions").
President John F. Kennedy is also portrayed as a good guy who only reluctantly sent secret US ground troops to Southeast Asia, and was absolutely appalled when, three weeks before his own assassination, the CIA orchestrated the assassination of South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem and his secret police henchman.
So this got me thinking about the whole Kennedy Camelot myth. And that, in turn, got me thinking about the modern re-creator of the Camelot myth, T.H. White, and his five-part The Once and Future King
A pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II, White wrote much of his opus during the rise and rule of European fascism. His overarching theme dovetails nicely with that of the Ken Burns film: They Meant Well.
King Arthur surrounded himself with the righteous Knights of the Round Table just as Kennedy surrounded himself with the Best and the Brightest. Their goals were to fight Might with Right. And, as usually happens, the Righties ended up turning into the Mighties. And things began to fall apart, very badly.
I hadn't read White since I was a child, but I picked up the book again right after reading Helen Macdonald's excellent H Is For Hawk, which is a parallel tale of Macdonald dealing with her grief over the death of her father by taming a raptor, and fellow falconer White's struggling against his own sadistic demons through writing about how hard it is for mankind to be a force for good.
Humans, he acerbically noted, are the only species on earth who kill each other for the sheer, stupid sport of it.
This isn't to say that other animals can't be every bit as nasty as people. In one chapter in the first volume, The Sword in the Stone, we're regaled with Arthur's (the Wart's) life as an ant, and the insanely vicious rules of ant supremacy and ant oppression:
A. We are more numerous than they are, therefore we have a right to their mash.The "incalculable benefits" offered to recruits and draftees in the Vietnam War were actually put down on paper by latter-day Camelot Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. This modern knight in shining armor thought it would be ultra-cool to sell the war to a whole multitude of ants (Project 100,000) in conjunction with LBJ's War on Poverty and the Great Society:
B. They are more numerous than we are, therefore they are wickedly trying to steal our mash.
C. We are a mighty race and have a natural right to subjugate their puny one.
D. They are a mighty race and are unnaturally trying to subjugate our inoffensive one.
E. We must attack them in self-defense.
F. They are attacking us by defending themselves.
G. If we do not attack them today, they will attack us tomorrow.
H. In any case we are not attacking them at all. We are offering them incalculable benefits.
"The poor of America... have not had the opportunity to earn their fair share of this nation's abundance, but they can be given the opportunity to serve in their country's defense and they can be given an opportunity to return to civilian life with skills and aptitudes which for them and their families will reverse the downward spiral of decay."The best and brightest knights of the Pentagon derisively called them "the Moron Corps" - a disposable group of excess ants offered a one-way ticket to the ant farm. They checked in to the war, and due to their mental and physical disabilities, the few who did manage to escape certainly didn't return to any American dream. So it'll be interesting to see whether this largely forgotten tidbit of history will be included in the Ken Burns version of the Vietnam War. Dear Olde Camelot was the same myth in the '60s as it was in the equally mythical ancient Britain. And so it remains to this very day.
You might remember that the Arthurian legend ended with the banally evil Mordred usurping the throne and regressing the whole world to primordial mayhem just for the sheer, stupid fun of it. There are too many parallels to this cautionary tale in our modern world to even count.
As ever, we seem condemned to repeat (and revise) history, over and over and over again.