Ken Burns' Vietnam War Series Enlists Arkansas Storytellers, Veterans To Flashback
On a blistering Monday afternoon in July, retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. George Hollingsworth sat down with Hot Springs Village Voice managing editor Jeff Meek to talk about the Vietnam War.
"I hope this," Hollingsworth said, meaning Ken Burns' The Vietnam War, and perhaps his own small part here on this set, "could start a national dialogue again about America, not only its tendency to war, but its tendency to govern in a dishonest fashion."
In a silky black patterned button up, the sergeant is as cool as the afternoon is not, but he bears up like a soldier, not an actor, before the cameras. His delivery is stiff, almost stern, but his testimony is lucid and rich.
"Can you talk about the effect [misinformation] had on the platoon?" Meek asks.
"It was just sort of accepted. We were infantry. We were just going to get the short end of the stick. I mean, you know, there was a big joke about the entrance exam to get in the infantry was, there's a sheet of paper with point A and point B and you're given a crayon and three hours to draw a line from point A to point B and please don’t eat the crayon."
"We just accepted that they would just be handing us information that was incorrect, or whatever’s convenient for them."
"Most of the time we were completely oblivious except what’s directly in front of us. ... It didn't take you long to realize that you're fighting for the guy who's directly next to you. All of the heroic gallantry for God and country, all of that, it fades. It fades away. You wind up just trying to keep yourself and your buddies alive."
Hollingsworth is one of about 10 Arkansas veteran interviews AETN collected as part of the networks' supplemental production. There's a website — AETN.org/TheVietnamWar — with a list of screenings and educational events around the state, as well as a link to the nearly 170 Arkansawyers still without faces on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's Wall of Faces.
The ramped up effort anticipates Ken Burns' The Vietnam War that premieres Sept. 17. It's an 18-hour examination of the war that unfurls over two weeks. Burns and co-producer Lynn Novick began work on it during the presidential administration of George W. Bush.
In Hot Springs Village on Thursday AETN and Meek will screen an hour of the movie followed by highlights of Meek’s interviews, followed by a panel discussion.
"You know, me personally — I’m 42 years old, and going through school, learning about the Vietnam War was hit or miss," says DeWayne Wilbur, director of production for the network. "It was always at the very back of the textbooks, and by the time you got to that at the end of the school year, the school year was over.
"Getting out there and hearing these stories, I’m personally learning what I was never taught in school."
This month and next AETN will hold screenings of the documentary all around Arkansas. In Jonesboro Saturday, Little Rock next Tuesday, and Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Jacksonville and Little Rock (again) next month.
"We’ve known that the Ken Burns' documentary was coming for a long time … and we realized that yes, Ken Burns was going to get out there and talk about the overall impact of the Vietnam War, but we felt it was our obligation to get out there and tell the Arkansas stories.”
Fearing the morbidity of the so-called Greatest Generation, Meek began capturing the stories of World War II veterans on video tape and compact disc more than a decade ago, in Illinois, his home state.
He and wife Jean moved to Hot Springs more than a decade ago and, quickly, Meek was turning in 750-word excerpts of those interviews once a month to the Hot Springs Village Voice. The retirement community of about 13,000 asked for more.
Soon the career gym teacher was a staff writer, then an interim managing editor, now simply managing editor. He works almost entirely out of his home. And all along he's collected oral histories — well over 300 at this point.
"It all started with a single veterans story in January, 2007, and a Battle of the Bulge veteran named Surry Shaffer."
He cut his teeth on World War II vets. In 2011, he collected 75 oral histories into a bound volume, titled, They Answered the Call: WWII Vets Share Their Stories.
Recently it's been all Vietnam. They're younger, but the interviews are tougher in their own way.
"You know the World War II guys came home to ticker tape parades. It was the total opposite end of the spectrum for the Vietnam veterans. They were called baby killers; there were protesters; one guy, one vet was shot by a Vietnam protester. They were spit at. Some of them struggle with that. Some don’t want to talk about that. I don’t push! I leave it alone."
Meek may be reached at email@example.com.
Ken Burns himself has likened the Vietnam era to a national disease. "A good deal of what’s wrong right now in terms of our inability ... I feel like that began, it was a virus planted somewhere in Vietnam, and that we’re seeing the full fruits of that toxicity today.”
Despite the diagnosis, Hollingsworth is enthusiastic about going back to the era.
"He has done such a wonderful job on so many other projects," he said of Burns. "Vietnam is a story that really needs to be told in an honest, non-judgemental fashion."
"There’s things about that war that we still don’t know how it has affected our country even. There’ll never be a Vietnam veteran president. We’re now getting too old, for one thing, but everyone who’s run — they’re not gonna get elected. I don’t think America as a country has worked out its issues with Vietnam."
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.