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History's Vietnam In HD has a clarity of purpose -- and pictures

Faces of the Vietnam War: combat troops and LBJ. History photos

History Channel thrived on combat in its formative years, offering heaping helpings of grainy war footage.

Sixteen years after its launch -- and now known as History -- it's back to the future with a digitally remastered, highly personalized look at armed conflict.

Vietnam In HD, followup to 2009's WWII In HD, devotes three nights and six hours to the sharply divisive war that also brought down a president. It has its own tagline: "It's not the war you know. It's the war they fought."

Premiering Tuesday, Nov. 8th at 8 p.m. (central) and continuing at the same time on Wednesday and Thursday, Vietnam In HD is vivid and compelling without being intrinsically political. Ken Burns' twice-as-long Vietnam, announced in March and scheduled to premiere in 2016, assuredly will cover all of those angles. The History presentation mainly trains its sights and sounds on 13 survivors who purportedly "reveal the truth of Vietnam" with their accounts of how it was fought and what it took to make it out alive.

The uncensored war footage, much of it shot by the soldiers themselves, is the product of "scouring the globe" for rare and in many cases previously unseen documentation, History says. It's impeccably edited into a narrative whole, with no shortage of graphic scenes or viewer warnings.

Only Tuesday's Part 1 was sent for review. It covers the years 1964 through 1967, mainly through the eyes of four combat survivors. Actors voice some of their recollections while the real-life principals also are interviewed. It proves to be a very effective device, particularly when Blair Underwood's voice of young Army platoon sergeant Charles Brown is meshed with the now elderly survivor's do-or-die memories.

Underwood and Brown make the most of their respective duties, communicating both the ferocity of combat and the futility of taking a hill and then giving it right back. That's because Vietnam became a war where victory was measured "not by territory taken but by body count" in the words of narrator Michael C. Hall, who otherwise stars in Showtime's Dexter.

During the five-day battle for Hill 875, in which Brown called many of the shots, 115 U.S. soldiers were killed and another 253 wounded. Their mission was to kill every last one of the 6,000-some North Vietnamese hunkered down on this high ground. But the great majority of the enemy escaped before Hill 875 was taken -- and then soon relinquished under orders to move on.

The real-life Brown still takes great pride in the fact that he and his fellow soldiers successfully fought their way to the top. He also notes that the Vietnam War had no Iwo Jimas or symbolic, enduring flag-plantings.

Another principal in Tuesday's opening chapter is former United Press International war correspondent Joe Galloway of Refugio, TX. He's also the stage-setter. And Galloway, who went on to write the memoir We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young, is clearly not enamored of the idea that "The Greatest Generation" fought World War II.

"Those who fought every war since then were the best of their generation," Galloway says. "They went, they served, they sacrificed. And they fought like tigers. They were noble."

Galloway's other voice is actor Edward Burns in a film that oddly enough also includes off-camera work by three former stars of HBO's Entourage -- Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connolly and Jerry Ferrara.

Vietnam In HD at times overdoes it with accompanying music intended to accentuate the drama at hand. But that's a relatively small quibble in a film that brings "The Living Room War" home in ways we haven't seen before.

Galloway, repeatedly in the midst of combat and carnage as a war correspondent, still can't shake the sight of a young soldier who died from friendly fire after an Air Force fighter jet dropped its napalm payload on the would-be enemy.

"Wife had a baby that week," he says, his voice breaking and his hands fidgeting. "He died two weeks later. That boy is my nightmare."

That first major Vietnam battle, in the Ia Drang Valley, otherwise was "won" during a war in which 16,250 U.S. soldiers had died by the end of 1967. Another telling number from the opening chapter: U.S. soldiers in Vietnam spent an average of 240 days a year in combat, compared to 10 for those who fought in WWII.

Wars of any kind are never a pretty picture whatever the advances in clarity. But Vietnam In HD is an advance in the way these stories are told, with new generations exposed for the first time while their elders watch and learn anew.

GRADE: A-minus