Ken Burns had promised himself there would be no more war films. After documentaries on the Civil War and World War II, the filmmaker famous for his exhaustive, multipart deep dives into history was looking forward to more films along the lines of his “Jazz” and “Baseball” works.
Yet there was one more American war, the most controversial, that still called to him.
“What’s interesting about Vietnam as opposed to the Civil War and the Second World War is that those [earlier conflicts] have been easily smothered in mythology,” Mr. Burns told The Washington Times. “Vietnam has no such sentimentality and nostalgia attached to it.”
With co-director Lynn Novick, Mr. Burns set about documenting the Vietnam conflict in 2006. It took a decade of traveling the world to make the 18-hour “The Vietnam War,” the first part of which premieres Sunday on PBS.
“It’s sort of the defining event of American history since World War II,” Ms. Novick said of the conflict, which had been underway for years before U.S. forces joined the fight in Southeast Asia in earnest in the 1960s. “If you were alive during that time, it’s hard to ignore, although we kind of have this ‘amnesia’ about the war.”
Accordingly, Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick said it was their job as documentarians to “unpack” those unpleasant, repressed memories of a deep cultural divide at home complementing the horrific news on the nightly news about battle overseas.
The documentarians also wanted to portray the perspectives of all sides. The filmmakers interviewed not only American veterans but also South Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces — several of whom were present at the exact same spot, a process Mr. Burns refers to as “triangulating.” Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick also spoke to members of the diaspora in the U.S. from South Vietnam, a country that ceased to exist in 1975. Music from Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and other powerhouse artists of the day sprinkles the soundtrack.
Correcting the record
The filmmakers also endeavored to shine a new light on misconceptions.
“When we say ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail,’ you assume it’s a straightforward highway or a hiking path,” Mr. Burns said of the byway by which the North Vietnamese funneled weapons and supplies to the Viet Cong guerrillas in the south. “It’s actually a graded set of jungle paths, most of which was in Laos and Cambodia — and obviously a little bit in North Vietnam and South Vietnam — down into which men and materiel poured,” he said.
Accordingly, the United States dropped more ordnance into neighboring Laos than fell not only in Vietnam, but on both Germany and Japan during all of World War II.
“A lot of the ordnance is still there,” Ms. Novick said, and far too often is discovered accidentally by children even today. Before leaving office, President Obama pledged some $90 million to the ongoing effort to clean out the unexploded U.S. materiel in Laos, according to the Smithsonian Institution.
In a filmmaking device designed to “rewind” the history, the opening credits feature events from the Vietnam War running backward, with explosions shrinking and becoming bombs that fly upward. In order to understand this war, Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick seem to suggest, we must go back to the beginning.
Accordingly, Episode 1, “Deja Vu,” traces the history of the Vietnamese people from their conquering by the French in 1858 and on through successive brutal civil wars before the French abandoned the satellite colony in 1954, thereby opening the door for Ho Chi Minh’s forces to spread communism throughout the country newly divided into North and South — with a U.S.-backed leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, president of the democratic South.
Vintage footage of Ho Chi Minh’s rise to power is interspersed in Episode 1 with cuts to contemporary interviews of American GIs — now in their 60s and 70s — recollecting their time in country. As a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy is seen giving speeches throwing his support behind sending in American forces — a process he fast-tracked after becoming president in 1961.
“What we’ve spent the last 10 years doing is digging into the full story of Vietnam so that we recognize that many truths can coexist,” Mr. Burns said, whether it is the American GI who believed wholeheartedly in the mission, the soldier who did not but went because he was drafted, and those at home who debated the wisdom and morality of the U.S. involvement in a faraway crisis.
“If you knew from the very beginning that this was wrong and you said so, there’s room for you in this film,” Mr. Burns said. “If you think we should still be there fighting the [communists], there’s room for you in our film.”
Mr. Burns said that while the convenient label of “fake news” is bandied about against stories the consumer may not like, he believes the Vietnam War was the media’s “finest hour” — when they ultimately helped the American public know what was going on half a world away.
“What we call fake news now are things that we don’t agree with but which happen to be true,” he said. “We’re not suggesting we’re going to the change the date of the Tet Offensive; that [would be] ‘fake news,’” Mr. Burns said of the 1968 surprise attack by North Vietnamese forces against the South and its U.S. allies.
“We live in a binary media culture which is always red state/blue state, and if you can’t get out of that, you can’t be a country,” he said.
Lessons for today
There are lessons today in the political realm from the war.
“One of the value lessons of Vietnam is that institutions actually asserted themselves. It was bipartisanship that helped get to the heart of the criminality that was going on in the White House,” Mr. Burns said. “It’s not like the Civil War, where we killed 750,000 of our own people when civil discourse broke down. But since the Civil War, it’s been Vietnam that’s been the most divisive.
“We can take lessons from that in a lot of positive ways in learning how to talk [to one another] and how to not make ‘the other’ wrong,” he said. “When you treat [other perspectives] with respect, then you have the possibility to get off this simplistic, binary notion of who’s right and who’s wrong.”
Perhaps this is nowhere more true than in the scenes he and Ms. Novick captured of protesters apologizing to former servicemen they once spat at.
The filmmakers also discovered that, while not without evidence, this trope was far less common than the culture recorded.
“Even in ‘65, the [protest] signs say, ‘Bring the GIs homes,’” Mr. Burns said. “There were isolated areas of protest, especially after My Lai. And so we’ve [believed] that every soldier got spat on, every soldier got called ‘baby killer,’ and it just didn’t happen.”
But on one point, Mr. Burns said, all can agree.
“We learned one lesson out of Vietnam,” he said. “Never again will we blame our warriors.”
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