Twenty-seven years later, Ken Burns is back with another documentary about a war that Americans can’t seem to leave behind. In 1990 we were all transfixed with his PBS documentary about the Civil War – a war often described as a national trauma that Americans could never really quit themselves of. This idea seemed validated by our collective experience in our living rooms, as the haunting theme music, letters, and visuals held us spellbound for five consecutive nights in front of our televisions.
This time Burns’ new documentary, The Vietnam War, threatens to do something similar, although the advent of the internet both hinders and enhances the experience. Now we can livestream five of the ten episodes immediately, the rest beginning this Sunday, Sep. 24. If my own reaction to the film is any predictor, this experience will be just as moving, though perhaps less healing, than that of 1990. The catharsis, instead, is deeply undercut by the alteration of things we thought we knew and in fact imperfectly remember, or even find we are learning for the first time.
“In this film we see 1940s footage of the French burning and napalming villages, easily mistaken for 1960s footage if you hadn’t been told otherwise.”
The real-time footage, once-top-secret documents, and presidential tapes make all the difference. Although we’re all familiar with the prolific war scenes shot by photojournalists and U.S. soldier-photographers, in this film we see footage of Ho Chi Minh fishing outside his limestone cave in the northern mountains; battle scenes shot in the midst of Viet Cong soldiers; grainy film of fighters from the northern army scaling sheer cliffs along the Ho Chi Minh trail – even 1940s footage of the French burning and napalming villages, easily mistaken for 1960s footage if you hadn’t been told otherwise.
We do, in fact, hear from many of those who fought for the other side, adding an element of completeness, or intended objectivity, that the filmmakers were determined to achieve. Burns and his codirector Lynn Novick interviewed former members of the Viet Cong and Viet Minh, as well as soldiers from the regular northern and southern armies. Also, of course, we hear from U.S. soldiers, most now in their sixties, who fought in the Marines and the Army, as well as former members of the CIA and state department.
Riveting is the only word to describe these exchanges. More than once we hear the Vietnamese talk about the first time they realized that American soldiers were like them, in that they mourned their fallen companions and fought bravely, if clumsily, in rugged, unfamiliar terrain. A North Vietnamese Army veteran confesses, “We avoid talking about the war . . . In war no one wins or loses, there is only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won and who lost.”
“We hear a tape of John Kennedy, eighteen days before he died, expressing regrets at the assassination of the prime minister of South Vietnam . . .”
The still-bitter memories of American soldiers are likely to stay with viewers forever: “You adapt to the atrocities of war,” says one Marine veteran. “I was made to realize that this is war and this is what we do. . . . And after a while you embrace that.” Says another: “Turn a subject into an object, it’s racism 101. And it turns out to be a very necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars, for them to stay sane while doing their work.”
Thoughts like these are juxtaposed against tapes of U.S. presidents discussing the war or events leading to the war, and against government documents that depict a cold, bureaucratic analysis of the war’s efficacy. We hear a tape of John Kennedy, eighteen days before he died, expressing regrets at the assassination of the prime minister of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem – a murder resulting from a coup that the U.S. encouraged. His voice is filled with palpable sorrow.
Lyndon Johnson is also taped numerous times expressing sorrow and regret. “There ain’t no daylight in Vietnam,” he says at one point – but always asking for his cabinet’s advice, and always receiving encouragement to stay the course. When his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, finally finds his way toward communicating his own misgivings, Johnson promptly transitions him to the post of Director of the World Bank, replacing him with Clark Clifford, a man more clearly disposed toward giving him advice he wants to hear.
“We should have seen it as the end of the colonial era in southeast Asia, which it really was, but instead we saw it in cold war terms . . . which cost us very dearly.”
Donald Gregg, formerly of the CIA, summed it all up best: “We should have seen it as the end of the colonial era in southeast Asia, which it really was, but instead we saw it in cold war terms, as a defeat for the free world that was related to the rise of China. And it was a total misreading of a pivotal event, which cost us very dearly.”
Tim O’Brien, author of the well-loved The Things They Carried, is one of the interviewees in the documentary, and reportedly influenced its content considerably. He agreed to participate only if a few conditions were met, one of them being that attention was paid to the French occupation of Vietnam, and another that a Gold Star family was featured. These decisions greatly enhance this film.
To learn that U.S. involvement in the war was to a large extent a redux of French colonization was a stunning discovery, right down to the rolling images of burning, napalmed villages. The most brilliant addition to the film, however, is the story of Denton “Mogie” Crocker, a 17-year-old who ran away from home, refusing to return until his parents signed a consent form allowing him to enlist, so badly was his desire to serve in Vietnam. Mogie died at Tou Morong, a day after his nineteenth birthday, but not before his family participated in an offer by the local TV station to film family Christmas greetings to send to loved ones in Vietnam.
“Tim O’Brien is a high point in the Burns and Novick film in more ways than one.”
This brief tape – of Mogie’s parents, little brother, and two sisters wishing Mogie a merry Christmas – is so awkwardly tender and so deeply moving, that it’s impossible to sit through without shedding tears. It recalls the Sullivan Ballou letter written to Sarah Ballou in Burns’ Civil War documentary, and rivals that letter’s emotional resonance.
Tim O’Brien is a high point in the Burns and Novick film in more ways than one, but the documentary, on the whole, is a deeply moving, fascinating, troubling, disturbing work that, frankly, I don’t yet know quite what to make of, or how to properly respond to. But I’ve seen only half of the series, and I just bought the companion book, which is an excellent rendering of the film, with added text and graphics. The only thing I can say for certain is that those interested in the history of that war won’t want to miss this chance to see a master storyteller’s version of the event.