On Vietnam

With an unusual amount of time on my hands over the past several days, I’ve begun working my way through the Vietnam War documentary.

Of the many things that jump out onscreen — the savagery of the fighting, the political and social complexity on both sides, the odd hybrid of WWII-era equipment and systems still in use today — the thing that’s most struck me thus far is how poorly the Americans, in particular, understood the conflict they were getting into or why.

During the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, there are example after example of poorly constructed analogies and (under Kennedy) incremental escalations. Then, under Johnson, the conflict gets blatantly out of control. At that point, any analogies in the president’s mind don’t matter as much as ego and inability to find a way out of a fight.

As one of the subjects poignantly remarks, the series shows that Vietnam was the war that proved the United States is subject to history, too.