Ask the average American how many people were killed during the Vietnam War and the answer, charitably assuming they know anything about the war at all, will probably be “around 58,000.” Accurate as it goes, since that’s roughly the number of Americans who fell in Southeast Asia between 1964 and 1975. Alas, it fails to consider the 3 to 5 million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians who also died, many of them victims of American weapons of mass destruction: the napalm, Agent Orange, forest and crop defoliants, and carpet bombing that indiscriminately obliterated civilians in a frenzied pursuit of the People’s Army of Vietnam (NVA) and Viet Cong.
Because let’s be honest: For most Americans, it’s the 58,000 names on that memorial wall in Washington, D.C., that count. Anything (and anyone) else is an afterthought, or irrelevant.
It was to broaden that narrow thinking, we are told, that at least in part inspired the documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to spend a decade working on “The Vietnam War,” the 10-part, 18-hour tour de force that aired recently on PBS (and can still be seen by going to pbs.org). The idea was a retelling of what the Vietnamese call the American War, this time from both sides of the conflict.