PBS Monday: Two Days in October

This coming Monday (10/17) PBS will air Robert Kenner's new documentary Two Days in October cross-cutting between a bloody protest over a Dow Chemical recruiting drive at the U. of Wisconsin and a costly (and glossed-over) ambush in Vietnam.

The incidents took place, as you might expect, on successive days in October of 1967, as the nation was beginning to wake up to the reality of Vietnam.

The accuracy and usefulness of comparing Iraq to Vietnam has been a much- and hotly-debated issue. Kenner's film, while remaining mum on Iraq, manages to make some stark statements about the handling of the current situation while avoiding the quicksand of comparisons between the actual wars.

The film opens with a number of soldiers and others making some variation of the statement that "at the time I thought: If my government thinks we should be in Vietnam, then we should be there." This is no accident.

One of Kenner's clay pigeons is our blind trust in spin and power. He not only portrays the two events as seminal in their own way (the bloody protest drew attention to and inspired the antiwar movement while the Black Lions' slaughter shook the cost of war before the face of middle America), but he details the cover-ups that followed.

When soldiers were interviewed by CBS, for example, they were ordered not to use the word "ambush" -- though that's exactly what it was according to a surviving officer. A chilling moment follows when Gen. Westmoreland, visiting the battle's wounded, asks a soldier what happened. The thrice-shot survivor responds point blank: they were ambushed. The General shrugs it off telling him that that wasn't the case, echoing high-level chicanery in today's war.

Likewise in the case of the Madison protest. Though it's abundantly clear that the police entered the peaceful crowd with batons swinging (interviewed officers are still unrepentant about the fact that they meant business...), the official line at the time was that protesters were violent and that "professionals" had been brought in for the occasion.

Some of the film's most interesting moments come after some of the soldiers involved detail their distrust of the military and the war but strongly opposed the movement to stop it. It ought to serve as a lesson to those of us who blithely make the assumption that opposition to the war automatically translates into support for protests and movements.

Which is not to say that movements and marches are necessarily the wrong thing, just that room needs to made for oppositions of many stripes. Check PBS for listings.

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