Anticipating Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s Forthcoming PBS Documentary, “The Vietnam War”

Much has been written and many documentaries made about the American War in Vietnam including the highly acclaimed 1983 effort by PBS, Vietnam: A Television History. Though not without its shortcomings, this 13-part documentary series was well crafted, meticulously researched, carefully balanced and thought-provoking.

In September 2017, PBS will air the highly anticipated – seemingly touted as the definitive documentary – about the Vietnam War, directed by respected documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The goal of this 10-episode, 18-hour project is, according to the directors, to “create a film everyone could embrace” and to provide the viewer with information and insights that are “new and revelatory.” Just as importantly, they intend the film to provide the impetus and parameters for a much needed national conversation about this controversial and divisive period in American history.

“The film will be accompanied by an unprecedented outreach and public engagement program, providing opportunities for communities to participate in a national conversation about what happened during the Vietnam War, what went wrong and what lessons are to be learned. In addition, there will be a robust interactive website and an educational initiative designed to engage teachers and students in multiple platforms.

In an interview and discussion of the documentary on Detroit Public TV, Burns describes what he hopes to accomplish as a filmmaker, “Our job is to tell a good story.” In response and in praise of Burns’ work, the interviewer offers his view of documentary. “The story that filmmakers like yourself, the story that storytellers create, are the framework that allows us to understand the truth because the truth is too unfathomable to take in all at once.” To which Burns quickly adds, “And there are many truths.”

My hope is that Burns and Novick, in “creating their story” of the Vietnam War, will demonstrate the same commitment to truth and objectivity as did their PBS predecessor. That they will resist the urge and the more than subtle pressure from what many historians and veterans see as a Government sponsored effort to sanitize and mythologize the US involvement in this tragic war, as illustrated in President Barack Obama’s proclamation establishing March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day.

“The Vietnam War is a story of service members of different backgrounds, colors, and creeds who came together to complete a daunting mission. It is a story of Americans from every corner of our Nation who left the warmth of family to serve the country they loved. It is a story of patriots who braved the line of fire, who cast themselves into harm’s way to save a friend, who fought hour after hour, day after day to preserve the liberties we hold dear.”

Though the documentary has yet to be released in its entirety, based upon Burns’ and Novick’s recent New York Times op-ed, several interviews with the filmmakers, and the “Special Preview” and numerous video clips from the series posted at the Documentary’s PBS website, there is, in my view, serious grounds for concern.

Lowering Expectations

In their op-ed, Burns and Novick expressed their skepticism regarding whether, despite a decade of careful research and analysis and 18 hours of documentary, viewers will come away with a greater, more accurate understanding of the war:

There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War. Many questions remain unanswerable. But if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.

After nearly 50 years of hindsight, building on the work of previous researchers, as well as having access to new, comprehensive and formerly unavailable information, archives and recordings, to acknowledge that after 18 hours of documentary, “many questions remain unanswered,” is disappointing and does not inspire confidence in the skill, thoroughness and research capabilities of the documentarians. More troublesome, perhaps, is the claim that “we must recognize more than one truth,” as it smacks of perspectivism, the view that truth is relative and the opinions of individuals with different, even opposing, viewpoints are equally valid. This would explain, I think, why Burns and Novick can claim to have created “a film everyone could embrace.” If the premise of the documentary is that truth is perspectival, relative not objective, then one may argue for the validity of accepting the “truth” that most benefits us, that makes us look just, courageous, patriotic, resilient and exceptional. And if, as the PBS interviewer notes, truth is “unfathomable” until it is placed in the proper framework, truth becomes the perspective of the filmmakers and how they choose to “create” and fashion the “story.”

Documentary as Therapy

Perhaps I am being overly critical and expecting too much. Documentary is a human endeavor after all, and despite the best of intentions, inevitably expresses the viewpoint and biases, however implicit, of the filmmakers. Expectations of objectivity, therefore, may be unrealistic. Like with much historical reporting, memoirs and documentaries, there is a tendency on the part of the historian, writer and documentarian, intentionally or not, to tread lightly when recording and analyzing the motives of their political leaders and the actions of their countrymen so as not to offend perspective readers or viewers by appearing unpatriotic and disrespectful of the sacrifices of members of the military who “fought hour after hour, day after day to preserve the liberties we hold dear.” Burns and Novick, not insensitive to how their nation and countrymen are portrayed, indicated their hope that their documentary will provide the impetus for a much-needed national reconciliation between supporters and critics of the war and, perhaps more importantly, contributes to the healing of veterans who suffered and sacrificed so much on behalf of their country.

If we are to begin the process of healing, we must first honor the courage, heroism, and sacrifice of those who served and those who died, not just as we do today, on Memorial Day, but every day.”

Burns’ and Novick’s expectation that their documentary be therapeutic and their belief that veteran healing is contingent upon honoring their courage, heroism, and sacrifice is misguided on so many levels. My fear is, of course, that this misunderstanding of the wounds of war, specifically PTSD and Moral Injury, will inform, influence and bias their presentation of fact. Documentary and history is not an established therapeutic modality, necessarily suited to effect healing and reconciliation. Rather, the goal and function of the historian and documentarian, as generally understood, is to accurately record the relevant issues and events as they occurred – in this case, the causes and justification for the war, why and how the belligerents became involved, the manner in which the war was conducted, etc. It may be the case that accurate, historical reporting and clarification of what actually transpired may, as a collateral effect, be therapeutic by putting the war and the experience into perspective and enabling veterans and non-veterans alike to understand what transpired and thereby determine and come to grips with their personal responsibility and culpability, if any, for the horrors of the war. But this therapeutic consequence of documentary and history, should it occur, is a secondary, not the primary, intended effect of such an undertaking.

Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem

In The New York Times op-ed, Burns and Novick set the stage for their discussion of the Vietnam War by referencing an address delivered by President Gerald Ford at Tulane University in New Orleans. They write,

 

“As the president spoke, more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops were approaching Saigon, having overrun almost all of South Vietnam in just three months. Thirty years after the United States first became involved in Southeast Asia and 10 years after the Marines landed at Danang, the ill-fated country for which more than 58,000 Americans had died was on the verge of defeat.”

 

Referencing the sacrifice of some 58,000 of its own citizens, ignoring completely the deaths of over 3 million Vietnamese, and the description of the US’s involvement in the war as an ill-fated effort to save South Vietnam from invading hordes of North Vietnamese Communists, illustrates a not so tacit American bias and begs the historical question regarding why the war was fought, its legitimacy, and inevitable outcome. Objectivity (or at least neutrality) in documentary requires that we not accept without question, assumptions that are fundamental to what the documentary is alleging to ascertain – the legitimacy of South Vietnam as a nation and US’s claim of justification for its involvement in the war.

In truth, South Vietnam was an illegal construct made possible by the intervention of the United States in violation of the provisions of the Geneva Accords that forbade foreign intervention during the interim period of national reconciliation following the defeat of the American funded French colonialists at Dien Bien Phu and required a democratic election to unite all of Vietnam within two years – an election that was prevented from occurring by Saigon’s puppet regime and its U.S. overlords for fear that Ho Chi Minh would emerge victorious. Consequently, rather than to describe the North Vietnamese as “overrunning” an “ill-fated independent country,” it would be more historically accurate, not merely a different perspective, to describe the end of hostilities as the liberation of the occupied south.

Remembering

Since Burns and Novick chose to quote noted Vietnamese writer Viet Thanh Nguyen in their Op-ed, allow me to further illustrate Nguyen’s commentary on remembering the war. He writes,

 

Emotion and ethnocentrism are key to the memory industry as it turns wars and experiences into sacred objects and soldiers into untouchable mascots of memory.

 

The validity of Nguyen’s assessment of how the war is remembered and memory appropriated to enhance a political agenda and subvert the historical record is illustrated by one veteran’s testimony posted on the documentary website. Vincent Okamoto, in remembering his experiences as an infantry company commander in Vietnam, extolls the merits of the soldiers under his command.

“Nineteen-year-old high school dropouts from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society,” he remembered. “They weren’t going be rewarded for their service in Vietnam. And yet, their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself: How does America produce young men like this?”

Okamoto’s admiration for the men he led in combat is certainly understandable. What must be pointed out, however, is that in most cases, the “Nineteen-year-old high school dropouts from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society” of which Okamoto speaks, did not choose to fight for their survival in a land they never knew existed, for a cause they didn’t (and if they survived probably still don’t) understand. Nor did their behavior in combat demonstrate nobility and honor as is implied, but, rather, the tragedy of being young and poor in the US. It indicates as well the profound inadequacies of the country’s educational system, the unfairness of conscription (now the economic draft), the effectiveness of military training and of surviving the battlefield in developing small unit cohesion (the brotherhood/sisterhood of the warrior), and in conditioning soldiers who will kill. Yes, it is true that patience, loyalty to comrades, and courage under fire, may in some instances, as implied by Mr. Okamoto, be character traits to be admired but only in those whose goals and purposes are just and moral. I think it safe to say that the patience, loyalty and courage in a terrorist, for example, would not be considered virtues. Though I hope otherwise, judging by what Burns and Novick have said in their op-ed and by what is illustrated by the film clips posted on their website, I question whether issues such as these will be explored in any fair and detailed way in the forthcoming documentary despite their relevance to responding to Mr. Okamoto’s question and, perhaps more importantly, to our understanding of the American war in Vietnam and of US’s propensity for war in general.

The filmmakers’ mythological bias and appropriation of memory in “telling their story,” is further corroborated by an interview with the “other,” also featured on the documentary’s website, probably as an attempt to demonstrate balance. A former member of the Vietcong, no doubt after having watched his comrades mutilated and killed by US soldiers, commented upon how, in observing his enemies from a safe distance, he was surprised and impressed by their humanity and compassion, obviously not toward him and his comrades however.

The Legacy of the American War in Vietnam

For more than a generation, instead of forging a path to reconciliation, we have allowed the wounds the war inflicted on our nation, our politics and our families to fester. The troubles that trouble us today — alienation, resentment, and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions; conflicts over ethnicity and class; lack of accountability in powerful institutions — so many of these seeds were sown during the Vietnam War.

While I believe Burns’ and Novick’s assessment of the state of our nation is accurate, what they seem not to realize is that this tragic legacy of the war in Vietnam can be explained in large measure not by a lack of patriotism or the failure of this nation to accord veterans the nobility and honor they so richly deserve. Rather, “the troubles that trouble us today” are a direct consequence of our reluctance to admit the hard truth of US criminality and the appropriation of memory to portray this nation’s involvement and our soldier’s behavior as honorable and noble. Nguyen observes,

 

Any side in a conflict needs . . . the ability to see not only the flaws of our enemies and others but our own fundamentally flawed character. Without this mutual recognition, a genuine reconciliation will be difficult to achieve.

 

Tragically, as has been the case, not only does this mythology prevent reconciliation, it may well be counterproductive to veteran healing by providing a refuge of sorts in which veterans may avoid facing the reality of their experiences – healing requires that we move beyond illusion and mythology. Just as tragically, it has allowed our leaders to ignore the lessons of Vietnam, to again portray militarism and war as palatable, to entice another generation of young people to enlist in the military, and to fight perpetual wars of choice in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Conclusion

After much research as a philosopher studying the institution of war and even more soul-searching and introspection as a veteran striving to come to grips with the Vietnam War experience, I have realized that to restore the moral character of this nation and to achieve a measure of normalcy in my life – I hesitate to speak of healing as I am not at all certain that healing is possible – what is required is not more of the mythology of honor, nobility, courage, and heroism, as Burns and Novick suggests. Rather, we must have the courage to admit the truth, however frightening and awful it may be, regarding the immorality and illegality of the war and then to accept national (and perhaps personal) responsibility and culpability for the injury and death of millions of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people. We can, as Burns suggests, finally stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and reconcile our differences, but only if we realize that there are not “many truths” and “alternative facts,” with which to make our involvement and our defeat more palatable. This is what history requires and what the documentary should work to clarify.

Despite the reservations I have expressed in this article, my hope is, of course, that, when viewed in its entirety, this documentary will prove more than propaganda and mythology intended to restore patriotism, this nation’s resilience, exceptionalism, and unity of purpose for further militarism and war. Regardless of whether my hope is realized, I will use this documentary in my course on war this fall semester, whether it is to provide insight and a historical basis for understanding the nature of war in general and of the Vietnam War in particular, or to demonstrate the manner in which historians and artists may contribute to the appropriation of memory and the distortion of truth in behalf of furthering the interests of the corrupt, the greedy, and the powerful. My hope is it will be the former.

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16 Responses to "Anticipating Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s Forthcoming PBS Documentary, “The Vietnam War”"

  1. Martin Maloney  July 23, 2017 at 5:04 am

    Why have the author of the article and the various commenters ignored that the Vietnam War was, like the current Afghanistan War is, a drug war?

    VT readers seem to regard themselves as the cream of the crop, the smartest and the best informed. Yet there’s been no mention that the CIA airline Air America’s C-47s transported heroin from Laos to Saigon, to be loaded into the body bags (and into the body cavities) of killed US troops, for shipment to the US west coast.

    Different country, different war, different methodology, same result. 90% of the heroin on US streets originates in the poppy fields of Afghanistan, guarded by US troops.

    Drugs are the real money — the real war profiteering.

  2. David Odell  July 22, 2017 at 8:56 am

    If I were to suggest, that every high school chemistry major be required to sample LSD before graduation, it would receive more anger and outrage than bombing children of all ages in foreign countries. A parent would sooner send their child into war, than to change social habit. The psyche of average America is stuck in a blind savagery of bloodlust and denial. They will kill for cheaper gas and even less meaningful things than that. There is no healing without acceptance that an illness exists in the first place. The soldiers are on their own until they report to the people and not the, usurpers, banks and churches.
    I don’t know what Viet Nam was, but it wasn’t war. US military budget should be reduced by 80 %. Churches should be fully taxed.

  3. Sparrow  July 21, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    [“…It explores the Rockefeller involvement…”]

    [Funding for The Vietnam War is provided by Bank of America; Corporation for Public Broadcasting; PBS; David H. Koch; The Blavatnik Family Foundation; Park Foundation; The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations; The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; National Endowment for the Humanities; The Pew Charitable Trusts; Ford Foundation Just Films; {Rockefeller Brothers Fund};…] {…}emphasis mine.

    That’s where the truth has fallen…can’t imagine upsetting those millionaire charities that just keep on giving, and who especially cause the many takes on history with their historians. Just knowing and watching what went down at Kent State told the whole truth about the Vietnam ProWarProfiteers and their Jewish/Zionist lords in DC, Kissinger to name one main player.

    “Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.”
    ― Henry Kissinger

    • Sparrow  July 21, 2017 at 7:17 pm

      sorry, but my comment was a reply to Well Aware…

  4. nawlins  July 21, 2017 at 6:07 am

    “Restore the moral character of the nation”? You cannot bring the dead back to life. No honest documentary on any subject can be made in this day and age where langley controls everything. This will, however, be a study in how far the propaganda boys have perfected their craft.

  5. JohnZ  July 21, 2017 at 4:28 am

    I graduated out of High School in 1969 and was determined not to enlist or get drafted into that meat grinder. I went o college for two years and then remained incognito for the duration. I know some guys that did go to Canada. They were viewed as cowards but in reality it took a great deal of courage to leave ones country.
    My older brother was brain washed by the Baptist Church he attended all through his high school years, into enlisting, supposedly to fight those godless commies. He became a helicopter pilot and served with the 1st Air Cavalry for the year he was there. He was exposed to Agent Orange. When he returned, he had a long talk with my dad. The only gist of it I got was that there was no effort to defeat North Viet Nam only to wage the war as a stalemate. My dad was furious and I vowed to never allow myself to get involved in that unholy mess.

    • JohnZ  July 21, 2017 at 4:35 am

      My brother was there from 1967 – 1968 during my junior year in high school. When he returned from his year in Viet Nam he attempted to persuade a local boy who just graduated from enlisting into the flight program. My brother knew what the score was. Obviously he had seen enough choppers go down like ducks in a barrel to know what his future would be. Sadly this young man did not heed his advice and enlisted into the Warrant office flight training program, graduated and was sent directly to Viet Nam where he was killed a short time later. His father blamed my brother for it and probably did until the day he died.
      My brother died last year from incurable brain cancer, as a result to exposure to Agent Orange. His son died a few months later from a rare form of lung cancer. There are two daughters still alive and well but for how long?
      Damn you LBJ and McNamara! Damn the both of you to hell!

    • D. J.  July 22, 2017 at 8:51 pm

      My BFF was there, in the Kontum Corridor, during the entirety of 1968. He was constantly exposed to Agent Orange, which was sprayed more intensively during 1968 than at any other period during its’ use from 1962-1972. He died of a Dioxin-induced brain tumor in 1991, and I share your sentiments toward the powerful elites who generated that pointless exercise in hegemony maintenance. I am not surprised the US is again–and still– involved in the hegemony project in yet another locale, since ‘we the people’ have failed to learn and exercise our alleged political clout to prevent these profiteers from using our bodies and lives to do their dirty work.

  6. Well Aware  July 21, 2017 at 1:11 am

    I watched a John Pilger film not long ago, it’s on youtube and offers an interesting perspective as he is right there interviewing those 19 year olds. I agree we don’t need more combat footage-but the real truth will not be shown. There’s a great book by Gerard Colby and his wife, “Thy Will Be Done”, finished in 1996. It explores the Rockefeller involvement mostly in South America, but details on Vietnam, Chase Bank, a chart showing all the corporate ties and ‘interests that family had(Agent Orange being one of them)
    There will be no documentary on PBS showing this, how much they invested there, mercenaries/green berets before American kids ended up drafted to fight for what they never even knew they were fighting. US was involved in all sides of the world, even sending complete tire factories to the Soviet Union who in turn supplied trucks and these tires and armament to the North, fighting US soldiers-
    Profiteering on both sides. In fact, most every heavy industry and technology in the USSR was from the West, from 1917 onwards. Ford, GE, Standard Oil, even Gillete. History is a farce, the real thing is never taught. WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Cold War, the truth is well hidden. Marionette show for the public.

    In his other documentary, Burns also failed to disclose that FDR was another Premier Dictator, whose family profited vastly from the Opium War in China, WWII/ Pearl Harbour false flag, same scammer as Wilson in WWI. Uncle Scam.

  7. Garry Compton  July 21, 2017 at 12:01 am

    We don’t don’t need to see more photos of bombing, killing, soldiers dieing, or Vietnamese being burnt from Napalm. We demand to see what happened in the dirt dealings in Washington, Paris, Saigon, and the MIC/Pentagon meetings.Then we need to hear the truth from Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi, about how they saw the intervention of the US in SE Asia and let the public see that the same thing today is happening in the ME , Africa etc. And last but not least let’s have the truth about Agent orange, white etc and how the corporations have paid off the VA and USG in order to keep too many vets – from getting the truth and medical help they needed -30 years ago.

  8. Chris Paul  July 20, 2017 at 8:12 pm

    Personal responsibility? The only reasons that I didn’t rush off to join the army in the late 1960s was because my father told me not to and the Church told me to Honour My Father. When he was on New Caledonia in 1943-44 he had seen the mutilated USA Soldiers coming back to Hospital from further up The Pacific and knew the horrendous results of Modern War. That and losing an Uncle in WW1. Later when I was at University we played Rugby against Meiji University and two cultured and dignified young Japanese men came to be billeted with my mother and father in this very house. I have cousins of Irish descent living in the USA and the Archetypical Blue Collar Yank, Carroll O’Connor a.k.a. Archie Bunker is the Spitting Image (A “Dead Ringer” in our vernacular) of my grandfather, Maurice D. O’Connor. Some of my children are descended from a man who fought three wars for The Kaiser in the 19c and the children’s Grandfather was a Crack Shot Open Sights Sniper at maleme on Crete in May of 1941. Their Uncle Pat manned 105mm Howitzers in Vietnam. Nothing demonstrates the futility of war more than these examples.

    • JohnZ  July 21, 2017 at 4:21 am

      I didn’t either and I am glad I didn’t. I went to college instead and got a somewhat education. Actually it did me some good to be among more people my own age as I am some what introverted. Anyway my draft number was around 250 so I figured I was pretty safe. A few years later I burned my draft card. I shoulda done it sooner.
      My older brother enlisted and spent a year there as a heli pilot and mechanic. I blame the Baptist church he went to for brain washing him into enlisting.

  9. wjabbe  July 20, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    Don’t most Americans still blindly believe all the lies they were told by their lying government on Viet Nam and most earlier wars like WWI and WWII? Has the behavior of our outlaw government or the whores in Congress changed any in the intervening years? Haven’t we been doing the same lying and the same killing of innocent children and civilians all over the planet since and then lying about 9/11 too which even involved traitorous acts by Bush, Cheney and the four stars right in our backyard? Isn’t America a ship of fools wandering aimlessly all over the seven seas?

    • wjabbe  July 20, 2017 at 7:51 pm

      Let us pray that Ken Burns does a better job than he did with the Civil War Farce where he idolized the biggest unindicted war criminals in history Dishonest 39% Abe, Psychopath Sherman and Drunk Grant who raped and plundered the South with zero legal authority because they sought to leave the Union having peacefully voted to do so. How was their effort any different than the earlier efforts of the Founders to leave bully England? Didn’t they have the same moral right to choose their own government as the Founders did earlier? Where did the Constitution say they could use military armed force to kill about 1 million and plunder over half the country to “hold the Union together”?

    • JohnZ  July 21, 2017 at 4:15 am

      No soldier serving in Viet Nam was serving the American people. The war was based entirelly on lies and deceit. The only beneficiaries of that war were the arms manufacturers. The vast profits they made, all of it blood money from wasted human lives. The MIC is run by soulless/satanic husks resembling human beings, sucking the life blood from America.
      America learned NOTHING from the useless war, except how to do it better. How to create a more effective propaganda program that Americans, dumbed down, ignorant, stupid, filled with hubris and blindly servile, believe every word Washington spews forth. Americans have become fat, stupid, complacent and compliant with a government that does not care for them. Americans are cringingly servile to the state and its agents, the cops, all the while the state has become the enemy of the people. Americans voted this disaster, Trump into office and they are going to get it good and hard. They deserve whatever they get.

    • JohnZ  July 21, 2017 at 4:39 am

      Yes, most Americans did and to this day most continue to blindly believe all the lies and propaganda told them by the government and its mouth pieces, the presstitutes in the CMMM. That’s why most Americans don’t know sheit.

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