“Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War” is a 26-part series that initially ran on Canadian television. All 13 hours are presented on 4 DVDs in this excellent Time Life DVD set, which tells the story of the rise and fall of America’s 20-year commitment to the war in Vietnam—beginning with France’s post-WWII involvement.

But here are some more numbers:

  • 9.1 million military personnel served on active duty in Vietnam between August 5, 1964 and May 7, 1975—and that’s close to 10 percent of their generation
  • 58,148 were killed
  • 75,000 were severely disabled
  • 1,875 remain missing in action
  • The average age of men killed was 23.1 years old

The statistic that’s most astounding, though, is that 13,853,027 Americans claimed on the 2000 census to have served on active duty in Vietnam—which is to say, four out of five people claiming to be Vietnam veterans are lying.

You won’t find that last stat in this ambitious 1980 documentary, but it does speak to how central the Vietnam War was for the post-WWII generation, and the impact it had on all aspects of American life. In the U.S. the episodes were consolidated so the series could run in 13 hour-long episodes, but this is the original 26-episode presentaton.

I’ve seen plenty of documentaries and films about “Vietnam,” and some of them—like “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam”—are quite good. But for military history I’d have to say that “Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War” is hands down the most comprehensive and accurate. It’s written by Peter Arnett, who covered the Vietnam War for various television networks from 1962-75 and who won the Pulitzer Prize for his war coverage in 1966. As an embedded journalist Arnett accompanied troops on many missions, including the Battle of Hill 875, and he was one of the last western journalists remaining in Saigon when it fell to the North Vietnamese army.

Producer Michael Maclear had unprecedented access to film archives in Vietnam and, in fact, was the first western journalist allowed to visit since the end of the war. So this isn’t photo-dependent, with a Ken Burns effect milking still shots for all they’re worth. You see vintage film footage almost constantly throughout the series, much of it for the first time.

The first episode is really an overview that can be shown to students in a single class, because, let’s face it, few curricula allow the time for a 26-part series. After that, each episode goes into greater detail and depth.

“America in Vietnam”—The course of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

“France in Vietnam”—France’s involvement in Vietnam from the end of WWII to gathering at Dien Bien Phu.

“Dien Bien Phu”—The historic battle that led to the withdrawal of French forces from Vietnam.

“Early Hope”—The U.S. continues to back the South Vietnamese government against a growing communist threat.

“Assassination”—The American government wavers in its support of President Diem.

“Days of Decision”—President Johnson makes two important decisions that change the course of history.

“Westy’s War”—Gen. Westmoreland and the President commit to increasing ground troops in Vietnam.

“Uneasy Allies”—The sudden presence of 500,000 U.S. troops and their affluence proves culturally overwhelming to the South Vietnamese, causing envy, corruption, and a rift in the alliance that is never fully healed.

“Guerilla Society”—North Vietnam lived under a state of war for decades.

“The Trail”—An expedition down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, examining the jungle and mountain paths that were used as communist supply routes linking North Vietnam with South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

“Firepower”—The costly U.S. firepower advantage allowed them to win battles, but not decide the war.

“The Village War”—Without peasant support, neither side can win the war.

“Air War”—Helicopters, airplanes and bombs played an important role in the Vietnam War.

“Siege”—U.S. forces endure 77 days of siege at Khe Sanh.

“Tet!”—An account of the Tet Offensive, a simultaneous North Vietnamese attack on over 100 key locations in the South, staged on January 31, 1968. It dealt a crippling blow to American morale and brought such criticism of President Johnson that he refused to run for re-election. Among those interviewed is North Vietnamese diplomat H Van Lau, who called the offensive a strategic victory.

“Frontline America”—Follows the growing opposition to the Vietnam War in the U.S. The episode features the first anti-war march on the Pentagon in October 1967 and recalls the assassinations of anti-war moderates Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., at a time when American combat deaths were exceeding 1000 per month.

“Soldiering On”—For the G.I., Vietnam is both a physical and a mental jungle. The men who lived in that jungle give first-hand accounts of how a war without recognizable lines or enemy affected discipline and morale, leading to widespread drug use and the “fragging” (battlefield murder) of officers.

“Changing the Guard”—After Tet, Vietnamization is escalated and proves to be less than successful.

“Wanting Out”—President Nixon is determined to obtain peace through pressure. Congress condemns his secret bombing, then invasion, of Cambodia. Daniel Ellsberg releases the Pentagon Papers and public wrath over a decade of government deception descends on Nixon.

“Bombing of Hanoi”—The Battle of Hanoi matches America’s B-52 armada against Soviet SAM missiles in the single most intense air battle in history. Lasting 12 days and nights, the Christmas bombing in 1972 ends 12 years of American military involvement in Vietnam.

“Peace and Consequence”—Having promised peace, Nixon and Henry Kissinger try public and secret talks to arrive at a peace accord with North Vietnam.

“The Prisoners”—Two American P.O.W.s give contrasting accounts of their treatment and actions at the Hanoi Hilton camp. Is the traditional military code of conduct, requiring that a captive give only his name, rank and serial number, valid in an ideological war with some P.O.W.s held captive for eight years?

“The Unsung Soldiers”—The readjustment from jungle to Main Street is painful for 2.8 million American soldiers. For the Vietnam veterans, it is a silent homecoming. America wants to forget the war. The soldiers cannot.

“Final Offensive”—The North Vietnamese army needed only 55 more days to end the 10,000 Day War.

“Surrender”—The chronology of battle from the start of the spring 1975 communist offensive to the domino collapse of South Vietnam’s cities within 55 days. The fall of Saigon ends 10,000 days of war.

“Vietnam Recalled”—Five years after the fall of Saigon, the question is asked: What went wrong in Vietnam? The response of policy makers and combatants reveal the deep divisions over Vietnam which still remain.

The series is narrated by Richard Basehart (TV’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”).

What you see is mostly archival footage (both color and black-and-white), so of course it’s going to be rough: grainy, full of scratches and imperfections. But who cares? So much of this footage is rare that you can’t help but be mesmerized by the narrative. I’m unable to say whether the transfer is identical to or different from the Image Entertainment 2001 release.

The English Dolby Digital 2.0 is so center-speaker specific and so flat that it feels more like Mono. And maybe it is. Like the video, it’s a little rough—though there’s more excuse for the video to be that way.

Though the four-discs come packaged in a no-frills standard-size clear plastic keep case, there are some nice touches. The inside cover, for example, shows four maps: French Indochina, Vietnam in 1965, TET Offensive 1968, and the Siege of Hue 1968.

Bottom line:
For now, “Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War” stands as the best chronicle of a difficult period in American history. It’s full of vintage footage and features an intelligent narrative written by a Pulitzer Prizewinner who covered the war for 13 years.