Last night I watched another absolutely gripping double bill of the epic ten part TV documentary on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. They interviewed a thousand people and spent ten years making the series. Eighty of those interviews are included and they reveal the deepest feelings and thoughts of American soldiers, generals and anti war protestors as well as Viet Cong, South and North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, all reflecting on the conflict many years later. There was also a very powerful selection of contemporary footage. Quite the best television I’ve seen in years. The current deep divisions in American Society, exemplified by the support for and resistance to Donald Trump, have, at least in part, their origins in the divisions created by the Vietnam War.
Ken Burns talks about these divisions in American Society in an interesting interview in the Guardian. His film was intended to help heal the scars of Vietnam. Burns is optimistic that the institutions of American democracy are, and will continue to be, reinvigorated as they rise to the challenges that Trump represents. I hope he is right. In my darker moments I fear USA is teetering on the verge of civil war.
An interesting parallel exists with Germany and how they came to terms with their own dreadful responsibility for Nazism. In West Germany there was a deep period of self reflection in the decades following the Second World War. This laid the foundations for their very sensible and mature style of democracy of these last seventy years. In communist East Germany there was much more of an institutional and personal denial of guilt, responsibility being shifted onto the capitalist west. The recent election results in Germany mirror this history, with support for the racist AfD strongest in the former East Germany.
All warfare inevitably involves atrocities by all sides. People are traumatized, and often brutalized, by the experience of war, as some of the interviews in Ken Burns documentary show. They commit acts that are essentially insane. The period of healing, for individuals, nations and for our species is long and complex. At the core of it is recognising the horrors of our individual and collective histories. If we fail to acknowledge and take responsibility for them, we are much more likely to repeat more conflict, warfare and collective insanity.