Scabs peeled off Vietnam War once again

Scabs peeled off Vietnam War once again A scene from Ken Burns' The Vietnam War

Ken Burns has a name for excellent historical documentaries and his current series The Vietnam War (RTÉ and BBC Four, Monday nights) is top notch.

There’s a wealth of archive footage, much of it quite harrowing, along with interviews with those involved – ex-soldiers, bereaved parents, and Vietnamese civilians, all from both sides of the conflict. You’re left with a sense of the awfulness of war, heroism in war, the humanity of ordinary people, the dilemmas of politicians, the pursuit of a cause without empathy and a crushing disbelief at the cruelty displayed by both sides.

Last Monday night’s episode on RTÉ 1 showed the increasing opposition at home to American involvement – American society seemed as polarised as today as we watched the rival demonstrations.

Martin Luther King decided to weigh in against the war having been reluctant to do that while he was making progress on the civil rights front with the help of President Lyndon Johnson. We saw Johnson’s self-doubt about the whole venture, wary of harming civilians but still continuing the bombing of North Vietnam.

The story of 19-year-old US soldier ‘Mogie’ Crocker hit hard – he was an idealist, eager for adventure and then shocked and disillusioned when a friend was killed beside him. It was hard to watch his mother and sister describing the day a priest and a soldier arrived to tell them that he had been killed in battle.


At home the census figures on religious affiliation produced lots of coverage. If I was cynical I’d say that the media were reporting the small drop in the number of those identifying as Catholics and the rise in those declaring ‘no religion’ with a certain amount of satisfaction. In most of the coverage the figures for the Protestant Churches, Islam and Judaism were virtually ignored. And weren’t these figures released a few months ago, with much the same media reaction?

Fr Iggy O’Donovan was interviewed about what he called ‘misleading figures’ on Newstalk’s Breakfast last Friday morning. He outlined the declining state of traditional religious practice, but when asked twice by Shane Coleman what could be done to improve matters, he just continued (apart from suggesting a ‘purgatory period’) to outline the problems. In the end Coleman put that question out to the listeners in hope of an answer from them.  Overall, the thrust of the coverage was that the census questions produced inflated figures for the number of Catholics – but can a scientific instrument like a census really deduce the quality, nuances and even ambiguities of one’s religious observance?

I thought the Budget would mean the Eighth Amendment controversy getting a rest, but if anything the temperature increased. On the Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk) last Thursday the host, in the context of controversy over the Oireachtas Committee, made an awful comment. Responding to a mean-spirited text seeking pro-lifers people to be dubbed ‘the no-choice side’, he offered this alleged insight: ‘if a woman loses her life on foot of the 8th being in place that cannot make the people who approve of that situation pro-life’.

Later Jerry Buttimer TD appeared on the News at One (RTE Radio 1), got some challenging questions from Áine Lawlor, but got away with suggesting it’s ‘too early to pre-empt what happens’.  Surely that’s exactly what the Government has done – health minister Simon Harris has already been tasked with planning the referendum.

By Thursday evening it was clear that Senator Rónán Mullen and Mattie McGrath TD were deeply frustrated with the Committee – Fergal Keane’s report on Thursday’s Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1) outlined their concerns – that 20 ‘witnesses’ invited before the committee were pro-choice while only four were pro-life, and that they weren’t given enough time to question these witnesses.

In a later report on the same show Chairperson Senator Catherine Noone dealt only with the issue of time – she didn’t deal with, and wasn’t pressed on, the imbalance of witnesses – surely the greater unfairness.

The final episode of Ministry of Hope aired on RTE 1 last Thursday night and the high standards I outlined when the series started were maintained to the end. That last episode was filled with generous measures of faith, hope and love. It was empathic, inspiring, spiritual and deeply human.

And if you wanted more hope you could also catch up on Fr Joe McDonald’s moving story of forgiveness after abuse on last Friday’s Late Late Show.


Pick of the week

Songs of Praise

BBC1, Sunday, October 22, 4.15pm

Claire McCollum is in Dungannon introducing music and inspirational stories of faith from across Ireland.

Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery

BBC4, Tuesday, October 24, 9.00pm, also Wednesday, Thursday

Series which goes in search of inner peace in three Benedictine monasteries around Britain.

The Leap of Faith

RTE Radio 1, Friday, October 27

Topical religious affairs with Michael Comyn.

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