"Bittersweet Memories: A Vietnam Reunion" continues, but probably does not conclude, the official CBS News record of an unfortunate and still haunting war. The record already includes Walter Cronkite's early gung-ho reports for the "Evening News" and previous documentaries "The World of Charlie Company" (1970) and "Charlie Company at Home: Veterans of Vietnam" (1978).
Unlike the filmmakers who made last month's Vietnam vet documentary for PBS, the producers of "Bittersweet Memories" -- at 10 tonight on Channel 9 -- did not choose one man to represent all those who fought in Vietnam. Instead, in a joint project with Newsweek magazine, CBS convened 30 veterans of Charlie Company for a three-day reunion in Florida.
The hour opens with one of those veterans protesting the twisted image of Vietnam vets put forth in movies and TV: "We're ordinary people, have ordinary jobs, pay ordinary taxes, and we do our ordinary work every day." But these are ordinary people who carry around some extraordinary emotional baggage, and the rest of the hour pretty much lets them get a variety of things off their chests, with correspondent Bill Moyers the patient listener (this is Moyers' first documentary since rejoining CBS News in November).
Some of their recollections are chilling, as one would expect. A veteran who has now retired to a peaceful valley in Montana recalls a day when a "friendly village" was accidentally bombed by U.S. forces, and how he and his comrades saw "women and kids screaming, covered with napalm" and burning to death. "We shot them," he says calmly. "Kids, and those women . . . 'cause they were dying slowly. We ended it quickly."
Any war would have such horrors. What angers the veterans is not the high-level bungling that got America embroiled in the war in the first place, but the rotten way they were treated when they arrived home, like embarrassments from some nasty youthful misadventure. One young man went into a bar in San Francisco and was told he couldn't buy a drink because he wasn't yet 21. A black veteran, who had been wounded in the course of serving his country, remembers still having to use the back door at a cafe in his home town.
And another vet remembers going to a basketball game, in uniform, with his girlfriend. "We sat down, and people moved away." They left before the game was over, and he stopped wearing his uniform in public.
Moyers asks the men what they thought of the antiwar protesters back home, but he does not ask them, in this report, what they thought of such ill-advised (to be charitable about it) commanders-in-chief as Lyndon B. Johnson, once Moyers' boss; it does seem relevant. When he delivers solemn annotations to the camera, Moyers almost oozes sensitivity -- he's getting to be a tad heavy on the heart -- and he continues to wear his down-home accent like a badge of honor. But he still comes across as a beacon of cool-headed integrity, and he isn't bombastic like so many of his colleagues.
"Bittersweet Memories" was produced by Howard Stringer, Andrew Lack and Bill Wilson; Stringer has just been named the new executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," and Lack replaces him at the head of the CBS Reports unit, which under Stringer compiled an enviable, even magnificent, record of broadcast accomplishments. This powerful, troubling, conscientious hour with Vietnam veterans makes that record more enviable still.