The Asian man knelt at the back of the Catholic church vestibule resting his bottom on his heels. His expression was serious, almost anguished. He watched the Mass through the glass doors and I could see tears well in his eyes. His posture reminded me of Buddhist monks who self-immolated during the Vietnam War. They were protesting discrimination against Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, that showed Catholics preferential treatment.
That horrifying practice of setting oneself on fire is on my mind because of PBS' unforgettable documentary, "The Vietnam War." Directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a riveting series on the history of that war, beginning with the French occupation of Indochina in 1850's.
Sadly, most people won't see this series because of the fragmentation of TV audiences. Gone are the days when an epic story like Alex Haley's "Roots" (1977) could dominate viewer attention for weeks because of the dominance of three over-the-air networks. But this Vietnam documentary is not to be missed. Burns and Novick devoted 10 years to filming and creating this masterpiece. They do an exceptional job of sharing genuine responsibility among the six U.S. presidents who presided over American involvement in the battle between the North and South Vietnamese.
But it's the stories of individuals who survived in the trenches that make this program so compelling. Sure, there are soldiers from all sides, but also, civilian men and women who endured the savage warfare at close range. This is the aspect of battles that is most often overlooked. Veterans share their war stories but rarely do most of us talk to those who lived in the communities where bombs fell and atrocities scarred.
My parents were survivors of the Holocaust and the Nazi invasion of Poland in World War II. The collateral damage of battle includes the souls and serenity of those who are surrounded by chaos, foreign soldiers barging into their homes, stealing food and resources, and threatening lives over the smallest suspicion or hesitation to obey. Imagine a submachine gun jammed under your jaw. Or pretend you're a child running to hide in the woods while the Gestapo fires upon you. How would that affect your life and for how long?
Whether it's napalm bombs, Agent Orange or mindless killing of civilians, Burns and Novick capture the insanity of the Vietnam War through so many personal accounts of unbelievable but truly searing tragedies. Stories that should make us drop to your knees, shed a tear and pray for peace.