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Vietnam: Then and Now

Few countries have had a greater affect on the American psyche than Vietnam. The war we fought on that soil remains with us today in the form of countless books, movies, songs, and memories. But despite decades of political and military involvement, Americans still know very little about the place itself. This monthÕs Bargain Buy column focuses on affordable media that makes some attempt to talk about Vietnamese, not just Americans, who were touched by that terrible conflict. In addition, I will discuss what is available on Vietnam today, especially since it reopened for development during the 1990s. Everything mentioned is appropriate for high school through college classes unless otherwise stated.

The War
From the Vietnamese perspective the war lasted 30 years, from right after the end of WWII when negotiations with the French broke down to when the North Vietnamese army marched into Saigon in 1975. The man who led them through most of that period was the revered Ho-Chi Minh. Although most documentaries on the war barely mention him, A&E Biography has produced a respectable fifty-minute account of his life, focusing mostly on his time in Europe and as a young revolutionary. This video portrays Minh in a generally favorable light, but shies away from discussing politics in general.

Vietnam: Chronicle of War, on the other hand, deals heavily with the politics surrounding the war. It features, according to host Walter Cronkite, some of the most important and interesting stories filmed by CBS. More than half the clips in this 1981 documentary focus on U.S. soldiers, but there are several powerful scenes featuring Vietnamese. These include, among others, one of sobbing villagers watching Americans burn their homes and another of dead Vietcong soldiers being unceremoniously piled up and airlifted away. In between the footage, several reporters who covered the war, including Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, give their analysis of various events. The War in Vietnam: A Multimedia Chronicle, a Windows/Mac compatible CD-ROM, nicely accompanies this video. Co-produced by CBS and The New York Times, it contains a lot of relatively accessible information about different periods of the war. Both of these resources are fairly comprehensive; they give teachers plenty of material to work with, but also require extra time to sort through all of the information.

There are also resources available to educators interested in teaching about particular events during the war. During the 1990s, CBS's "60 Minutes" traveled back to the village My Lai to confront an incident many Americans would like to forget - the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of innocent civilians by U.S. soldiers. Accompanied by two airmen that helped stopped the atrocity, Mike Wallace talks with several of the town's former residents (no one actually lives in My Lai anymore, though some still work there), including one woman that had been personally saved by one of the airmen. Although the program, titled Back to My Lai, is very critical of the men who performed this act, especially the officers, it stops short of arguing that the entire war effort was wrong.

The Discovery Channel feature, The Fall of Saigon, portrays the U.S. involvement in a very critical light. Twenty years after the fact, key players in Washington (including President Ford and Henry Kissinger), in the military, and at the embassy recount the chaotic situation that evolved over that last week before the North Vietnamese took over the city. Also featured are Vietnamese people who aided the Americans throughout the war and were then left behind. This program reveals what an utter failure this conflict was and how it ultimately hurt most the people it was designed to protect.

Beyond the War
No one, American or Vietnamese, forgets a conflict like the Vietnam War quickly. While anger persists on both sides, many people just want to make peace with this terrible chapter in their life. War widow Barbara Sonneborn traveled to Vietnam on just such a mission, a journey documented in the acclaimed documentary Regret to Inform. Accompanied by her Vietnamese-American friend, who is also a widow, Sonneborn visits the village where her husband was killed and talks with the former Vietcong women still living there. Regret is unique in that it chronicles the heartache and recovery of three groups of women - American, Vietnamese-American, and Vietnamese - focusing on their common humanity and strength. This film could be used in Women's Studies classes as well as units on Vietnam.

Sonneborn's friend represents another legacy of the war Ð the migration of millions of Indochinese people to the United States and other Western countries. The Vietnamese: A Refugee Journey, produced by Penn State, discusses this phenomena in an short, but informative 9-minute video that can be shown to younger classes.

Now that Vietnam is open to Americans again, many young people are traveling there as tourists. One somewhat eccentric, but brave woman, Karin Muller, trekked through Vietnam alone with only a Hi-8 camera to record her adventures. The resulting documentary, Hitchhiking Vietnam, focuses on Muller more than it should, but does offer a view of rural Vietnam that most tourists never see. Even better, there is an online teacher's guide available from PBS that accompanies it.

Vietnamese film has become quite popular in the United States during the last few years. Of the new releases, Three Seasons by Tony Bui is perhaps the most teachable, because it focuses on so many aspects of Vietnamese life, including traditional rural practices, war memories, poverty and the underworld, and the effects of modernization/Westernization.

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