We watch a fair number of documentaries. Since my older was three, we’ve taken in shows about birds, oceans, presidents, volcanoes, Gandhi, the brain, quantum physics, archeological finds, and much more. For the last several years, however, most of our watching is history related. Humans being what they are, this much of this fare includes war. From ancient Roman warfare to Britain’s battles with everyone, from Troy to World War II, we’ve seen an astounding amount of footage, recreated and actual, depicting humans at their most violent.
It’s enough to make a peace-loving mom turn off the TV and stop paying the Netflix bill.
My younger son, well on his way to eleven, is my historian. I’ve written before about his methods of self-studying history. He is a master at integrating information from books, internet resources, and videos and then processing it with solitary re-enactment, writing (check out his blog), and long discussions/monologues with anyone willing to listen (read: generally mom, who is searching for others to help carry this rather heavy load). As he ages, I allow him to self-select his reading but do strew potentially useful books in his path and often read aloud historical fiction he’d be less likely to pick up on his own. But unless I know the video he’s about to view, I watch it with him or at least remain in earshot.
When watching, he seats himself on the love seat (aka “war seat”) in front of a table with either Risk board or Axis and Allies board atop it. Sometimes he’s playing himself, but often he’s either reenacting a battle or just trying out strategies. History reruns play as background noise for his internal thoughts and external game playing. He’ll pick a specific episode of The Revolution, for example, and watch and play for 45 minutes. Often his seat contains favorite history books on the subject before him, just in case more information is required.
New videos require the same seating arrangement but are generally watched more closely, although I suspect his boards and pieces offer some escape from what is either dull or a bit too graphic. As his understanding of history has deepened, we’ve progressed to some video choices that are, frankly, disturbing at times. Ken Burns’ recent offering, The War, consists of 900 minutes of riveting but intense coverage of the effects of World War II in Europe, Asia, and in the US. No, it’s not children’s fare. Yes, I watched every minute, monitoring his face and verbally checking in as we went along. Sometimes I found him watching his board, but generally his head was up. Many times I considered hitting the fast forward button, but I instead let a fine documentary carry its message. To break the tension I often felt, we watched in smaller bites, often taking in only 30 minutes at a time. I don’t know about him, but I needed the breaks to digest what I’d seen and heard.
After we watched, we’d talk, my younger, my older and I. My younger’s knowledge of the war was already broad and deep, but the video’s focus on segregation in Mobile, Alabama, internment camps in the Philippines and in the US, and more took him from a battle-focused understanding to a greater appreciation of the world at that time. We talked about fairness and hard choices, about absolute rights and wrongs. He expressed dismay at the civilian deaths in Germany and Japan caused by ally forces and was utterly silenced at the images of the liberation of the camps in Germany and Poland. We talked and talked. Genocide. Just war. Nuclear bombs. Choices, justice, and human rights. There was simply so much to discuss.
When we received an invitation to watch a series on the Vietnam War at a friend’s house, I thought hard before offering the opportunity to my younger son. For years, we watched only documentaries with rather tame reenactment of times long before video cameras went to the battlefield. The War was our first foray into more graphic coverage, but most was still in black and white, which did little to blunt the gore. Vietnam footage would be in color and likely of higher quality, bringing grisly images into even sharper focus. He’d read fairly extensively about Vietnam, however, and I would be there if needed. I offered, and he eagerly accepted. For a few days, he waited impatiently for the first of the three two-hour gatherings.
So last night we joined three other families who make up part of my older son’s homeschooling high school cohorts to watch the first two episodes of Vietnam in HD. It was new viewing for all of us, saved from fall for when those in a US History class reached this point of time. By ten minutes in, I knew we were not settling down to a balanced, full account of the Vietnam war. Instead, we witnessed two hours of choppily-cut, full-color (but grainy) battle footage interspersed with cuts to men who had fought discussing their experience. There was almost no historical content in those hours, but there was a total disregard for the citizens of Vietnam then and now. Only 30 seconds of footage of the growing unrest in the US about the war made it to these hours, and the discontent was brushed off as a failure to understand the greater good of the war. Ken Burns this was not.
In addition to being hawkish and painfully unbalanced, the film was boring. I don’t care for war documentaries overall. What makes them palatable for me is the treatment of the war in context, with attention to both sides to the conflict that acknowledges the horror that always accompanies any violent conflict. Vietnam in HD lacked all that. I’m fairly certain that its intended purpose was not to offer that view and understanding but rather to project an image of success, somehow sanctifying the deaths of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.
Near the end, someone asked about the ending. “We won!” announced one child. Moms collectively shook their heads, a few saying, “No one won.” I was silent, bothered that I’d not vetted the film ahead of time and deeply disturbed by the message the film was sending.
My younger spoke out, “They won.” He voice was soon drowned out by others, some repeating that there had been no winner. I carved a verbal path for him and encouraged him to explain: “North Vietnam won. Within a year, the whole country of Vietnam was communist.” The pause after his announcement was brief and no comments were made. A moment later, we were donning coats and heading out into the night. On the short ride home, we talked about winning. From a political standpoint, my younger was correct. He’s also aware that the human price of a war like that is so high that everyone loses — humanity takes a hit. Both boys were disturbed by the bias of the movie and general lack of history of anything other than details of specific battles. We agreed that we’d not attend the next two portions and search out some other materials for this area of study.
Today, we searched for other resources that might better explain that decade of war and what we can learn from it. We looked for information that remembers that more than American teens and young men were casualties, sources that remind us that the scar on Vietnam from that war remains today. We compared Vietnam in HD to the other documentaries on war we’ve watched, including our current viewing of Ken Burns’ The War. And we talked and talked, considering humanity, war, and those who die along the way.