Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest docuseries is sobering, overwhelming, and absolutely necessary viewing.
We were probably the last kids who grew up believing our government would never lie to us.
–John Musgrave, Marine
Believe it or not, before a couple of months ago I had never seen a single Ken Burns documentary.
I knew his style, of course. Everyone does. It’s been parodied to death (I especially love the seminal Community episode “Pillows and Blankets”); even the basic Photos app on Apple computers has a “Ken Burns Effect” for making slideshows. But when the premiere date for The Vietnam War was set, I knew I needed to start filling in that particular blind spot, and fast. So I binged first The Civil War, then The War (his and longtime co-director Lynn Novick’s World War II project) on Netflix, and was blown away by the storytelling and detail. The excellence of Burns & Novick’s work speaks for itself, so I don’t need to generalize where many critics have gone before. You know how great these filmmakers are.
So when I say, after watching now three combat documentary series in quick succession, that The Vietnam War might be the most important of them all, you can take that for whatever it’s worth to you. I never had VHS copies of Burns’ early work to wear out, and I haven’t seen Baseball or Jazz or National Parks (though they’re next on the list, once I can find them). But Vietnam, thanks to its mountains of archival material, more available interview subjects, and the historical and moral complexity of its story, is an utterly overwhelming experience: critical where it needs to be, fair where it ought to be, detailed enough to fill 18 hours, and engaging enough that I was still scrolling through Wikipedia pages for more information when it was all over. Reading more about the major players, like Nixon and McNamara, and the Pentagon Papers, and the aftermath of My Lai. Decades of history that America has swept under the rug, embarrassed, agreeing on nothing except how awful the whole experience was. Did we abandon our allies, or were we on the wrong side from the beginning? Was the cause justified, even if the hubris of its execution led to disaster? Can all of those things be simultaneously true?
If they killed one enemy, they might get one replacement. If they killed they wrong man, they got ten enemies. Mostly they killed the wrong man.
–Tran Ngoc Chau, South Vietnamese Army
Vietnam begins in the aftermath of World War II, with the rise of Ho Chi Minh’s populist movement against the occupying French. The Eisenhower administration was willing to play allies to the native Vietnamese, who were in search of their own identity, until that identity took on a decidedly communist flavor. Burns and Novick do remarkable work setting the stage in the early episodes for the madness to come; much of this part of the story isn’t common knowledge, and not just because the early CIA was operating largely in secret. When the United States eventually entered the country’s civil war on behalf of the “democratic” South Vietnamese, betraying Minh in favor of a regime corrupt and incompetent to the core, the die had already been cast.
President Johnson, who had inherited the quagmire from Kennedy, pitched it as a fight for the future of Western Civilization. Nixon, after initially promising to end the war immediately, would do the same. Every administration who touched the Vietnam War would be tainted by it, until Nixon’s own ignominious departure from office took the nation’s attention away from a conflict it was already sick of. That left the hundreds of thousands of veterans returning home without parades, misunderstood and underappreciated, called “baby killers” and worse, lifelong casualties of what had been our country’s largest overseas folly to date.
I don’t intend to use this review as its own history lesson — because if you haven’t already watched the series, that’s not what will convince you to do so — but I do want to talk about the moments that stuck out most to me. I’m 30 years old. My maternal grandfather was a medic in the special forces, subjected to Agent Orange, and never spoke about his experiences before he passed away. Instead, like many young history buffs, I was drawn to World War II for its clear-cut stories of heroism depicted in Stephen Ambrose books and the literally hundreds of films. We were the good guys there. I know how how much of an oversimplification that is, but it’s still an easy thing to say.
What I knew of “Vietnam,” what I really knew, was by comparison the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture, the controversy, the general feelings of rage and futility that fueled a decade of incredible music, Apocalypse Now, and what people hissed at Jane Fonda whenever she appeared on television. I didn’t know the full story of Napalm Girl, or of the shooting at Kent State. But there was heroism in Vietnam as well, and unfathomable sacrifice, and over a million Americans involved simply doing the best they could with the information and training they had. “This is war,” Marine Roger Harris had to keep telling himself. “This is what we do.”
It was so divisive. It’s like living in a family with an alcoholic father. Shh. We don’t talk about that. Our country did that with Vietnam.
–Karl Marlantes, Marine
In my Junior year of high school I played drums in a two-hour ’60s rock & roll revue called Summer of Love, which courted as much local controversy for the excerpts from Hair as for our perceived disrespect for veterans — not true, of course, because we didn’t understand what it was about enough to have an opinion one way or the other. Partly because we were young, but also because America still hasn’t come to grips with exactly what happened between 1955 and 1975, and why it happened, and just what we’re supposed to learn from it.
With that in mind, The Vietnam War, as a series, as an educational experience and exercise in empathy, is mind-blowing. Burns and Novick spent years putting it together, ambitiously combing through miles of newsreel footage and photographs taken on both sides of the war, supporting the narrative with thoughtful and gut-wrenching interviews from American troops, Viet Cong, civilians, officials, activists, journalists, and their families — nearly 80 in all. Peter Coyote’s urgent (and outstanding) voiceover provides the context, but it’s these veterans, US and Vietnamese alike, with haunted faces and voices that catch no matter the language, that the series successfully makes it its mission to honor.
The cynical deception of politicians perpetuated the conflict. Some military brass demanded immoral behavior. Some anti-war protestors would cause violence. But unless you were there, on the ground with these men and women, you could never really understand, and even then, only a small piece of it. “The more you think about the American strategy,” says one intelligence analyst, the more you realize it wasn’t going to work out.” And every brilliant hour makes you do just that: think.
An exceptional score, a combined effort from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross and the Silk Road Ensemble, provides emotional counterpoint to the requisite spinning jukebox of Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and Beatles hits. Perhaps one of Vietnam‘s more impressive tricks is that these songs, whose role as period scene-setters has long fallen into cliche, somehow sound fresh again. The whirring of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” makes the ideal sonic backdrop for a sequence of Marines flying into the thick of the Tet Offensive; a Carlos Santana solo at Woodstock intercuts perfectly with carnage in the Mekong Delta. And so on.
Vietnam proved we were not an exception to history.
–Neil Sheehan, Journalist
The documentary’s most moving sequence comes in its final episode, “The Weight of Memory,” as these men and women we’ve come to know share about their first experience with the Vietnam Memorial, and how they’ve tried to make the most of their lives since. John Musgrave, who nearly committed suicide after coming home, now counsels soldiers with PTSD. Some American veterans would return to Vietnam decades later to bond with surviving Viet Cong; one of the Vietnamese interviewees speaks with pride about sending his children to the United States to study. There is healing, at least, at the small-scale level.
Burns & Novick’s Vietnam isn’t just the story of a war, but of America itself at a moment of great upheaval. They give space to the Civil Rights Movement and to Watergate, and how both amplified the tensions at home as the conflict dragged endlessly on. The parallels to 2017 are beyond obvious, so the filmmakers don’t have to call them out. History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes; it harmonizes. Perhaps the better question for viewers to ask isn’t “How did this happen,” but “Why does it keep happening?” While we await the answer, we’re still cleaning up the messes left behind, in our culture and within ourselves.