clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Noble Crusade

The Vietnam War, with its astounding amount of testimony, is the filmmakers’ latest attempt to shape American history. Can the documentary function as the official record of a dark chapter?  


Ken Burns likes to share an apocryphal Mark Twain quote on the promotional trail for his PBS miniseries The Vietnam War, which he co-directed with Lynn Novick: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The 64-year-old “documentarian-laureate” of the United States has deployed the quip in response to questions about how The Vietnam War applies to the current, fraught national mood. It’s a pithy way to imply that we’re probably doomed without outright saying we’re probably doomed.

The quote does not appear in the 18 hours of The Vietnam War, a dense, emotional marathon that traces conflict in Vietnam from French colonialism to the public opening of the memorial to American soldiers in Washington, D.C. But as the series covers the fall of Saigon, it excerpts a letter from the United States Embassy shortly before it was evacuated in 1975: “Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. Let us hope we do not have another Vietnam experience, and that we have learned our lesson.”

Although Burns avoids point-blank proclamations about the Vietnam War’s modern legacy, that quote is as deliberate as everything else in the sprawling, meticulous documentary. He intends for the film to function as a lesson, to relentlessly drench the audience in the war until it feels as though they’ve had an approximation of a Vietnam experience—one intense enough to learn from history and to wish fervently to never let it repeat or even rhyme.

Burns and Novick have created something rare and necessary: an exploration of the war that functions both as educational tool and viscerally effective storytelling. The harrowing, lavish narrative seeks to operate as the definitive documentation of this chapter of American history—it is, essentially, a textbook in the form of a miniseries, albeit a grimly entertaining textbook. It is eminently worthwhile to watch, but it is also necessary to disentangle what the film actually says from what Burns believes that it says.

“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,” Burns and Novick wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times in May, imploring Americans to take a “long, hard look” at Vietnam. “If we can unpack this enormously complicated event, immerse ourselves in it and see it with fresh eyes, we might come to terms with one of the most consequential, and most misunderstood, events in our history and perhaps inoculate ourselves against the further spread of the virulent disunion that afflicts us.”

Burns’s grand mission is to create documentaries for everybody. His strategy with The Vietnam War is to offer his audience a wide variety of viewpoints of the conflict, which gives people watching the film more opportunities to identify with the people who lived through it. “We realized that it would be possible to make a space, a place where all these divergent points of view could come together. We wouldn’t make anybody wrong. We would just look at it,” Burns told Peter Kafka on the Recode Media podcast. In a profile that focused on Burns’s desire to create an American popular historical canon, The New Yorker’s Ian Parker noted his goal of inclusivity. “He once said, ‘I want to bring everybody in,’” Parker wrote.

To this end, The Vietnam War arranges an expansive panorama of war attendees, including almost 80 personal narratives from every strata of fighter and witness imaginable: Marines, CIA, Viet Cong, ARVN soldiers, North Vietnamese soldiers, a volunteer Army nurse, a grieving mother and sister of a gung-ho grunt, veterans who joined the protesters, veterans who felt hurt by the protestors. “Think of it as a Russian novel,” Burns told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast, as they discussed the film’s technique of weaving together disparate memories of the war with primary footage and audio to collate an ensemble recollection.

Russian novels tend toward extravagant bleakness, and the tone of The Vietnam War is correspondingly despairing, with many of its interview subjects breaking down in tears and graphic photos and videos of bloodshed filling the screen. The relentless sorrow and horror is a departure for Burns. While the subject matter fits into his oeuvre—grand, often violent flashpoints in American culture—it is the tone that distinguishes this documentary from his earlier work. Most of Burns’s films, from Brooklyn Bridge to The War to Baseball, celebrate American accomplishment and burnish national myths; they are introspective but almost always hopeful. Burns has been forthright about his patriotic intentions; he told the American Historical Review that an “undying love of [his] country” drove him to create his documentaries. Even The Civil War ends on a redemptive note, with America whole again.

With The Vietnam War, he has adjusted his project of shaping the historical record. While he once again examines a legendary American moment in exhaustive detail, Burns and Novick portray it as an unambiguously dark moment, a failure and a tragedy with little glimmer of hope. The stories the talking heads share take on the tenor of painful therapy confessions. There’s a palpable sense of unburdening. One American veteran recalls with shame how he had sex with a desperate Vietnamese woman in exchange for food. A grieving sister turned anti-war activist tearfully apologizes for snarling at returning soldiers. The muted message of redemption the film offers at its end is that the act of exposing the past to a modern audience may help mend still-present tensions.

Burns is not simply the most popular television historian, he is in his own category of documentarian fame. There is nobody else who is setting out on projects with the same self-conscious aspiration toward canon. There have been many books written about the war in Vietnam, and many more will be written. But they will not enjoy as wide an audience as this film, and so The Vietnam War carries a singular responsibility. It can channel today’s conversation about what the war meant and what it can mean.

Burns has acknowledged that pure objectivity is impossible, and that his vision of the war is inherently subjective, as much as he has tried to set his own beliefs aside. He has emphasized that his decade-long study of the conflict upended some of those beliefs and made him rethink everything he’d ever known about the war in Vietnam. “I went in with the kind of arrogance that people with superficial knowledge always have. Lynn and I have spent 10 years shedding our feeble preconceptions. It was a daily humiliation,” Burns told Mother Jones. “One way is to avail ourselves of the recent scholarship and begin to craft a narrative that is accurate to the real events of that war. Then populate the illustration of that war with enough variety of human experiences, American and Vietnamese, that it permits you to realize that memory is not just fragile, sometimes fraudulent, manipulated, and self-serving—but also accurate. You begin to realize that more than one truth can coexist.”

The Vietnam War’s commitment to allowing more than one version of events onscreen is admirable. But Burns overestimates the documentary’s multivalence. While it does respectfully curate numerous perspectives, it is also hemmed in by the filmmakers’ overarching narrative framework. It is telling an ensemble story, but it is still a conventional tale. This film is deliberately, consistently, and unapologetically from a centrist American perspective. This is evident even in its title: “The Vietnam War” is what this war was commonly referred to in the United States, while in Vietnam, it was called “the American War.” This is the American version of the story, no matter how much commentary it includes from Vietnamese people. Burns is a liberal Democrat, who has broken from his past habit of staying out of politics to passionately criticize President Trump. It is logical that he would focus his mission of unifying a divided America on bringing hawkish, conservative viewers onto his side, and that logic is on full display in The Vietnam War.

The tapestry of talking heads weaves a multitude of voices together into a slightly dissonant chorus, but it is not as discordant as Burns seems to believe. For example, a thoughtful Dissent magazine piece critiquing The Vietnam War commends Burns and Novick for indicting the war while taking issue with the way the film portrays anti-war activists by zooming in on Viet Cong and Communist Party banners: “ It leaves the viewer with the impression that hundreds of thousands of Americans ... were indeed swearing allegiance to Chairman Mao, Uncle Ho, or Comrade Brezhnev—rather than, say, exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizens to challenge a war that they regarded as inconsistent with American interests and values.” And while the film includes the perspective of anti-war protesters, including Bill Zimmerman, it scaffolds Zimmerman’s perspective within a narrative that suggests that the anti-war movement was overwhelmingly extremist. It’s a framing more likely to ameliorate a conservative viewer than to spark a conversation about the importance of civil disobedience in a healthy society.

And listen to how the film describes the origins of American intervention in Vietnam: “It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation,” narrator Peter Coyote intones, early in the documentary. “And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions made by five American Presidents belonging to both political parties.”

Far from being a radical re-evaluation of the conflict, The Vietnam War is generous to a fault with the early American presidential administrations involved in the war, presuming that their motives were misguided rather than malevolent. In this way, The Vietnam War suffers from what I’ll call “stumbling into war-itis,” in that it presents the war in Vietnam as a conflict forged of initial misunderstanding rather than a prolonged massacre born of imperialistic ambition. The United States entered the war because it did not want its empire to fall to the shadowy threat of global Communism, nevermind that the Vietnamese (even those who supported Communism) were more concerned with independence than ideology. A relatively small nation thousands of miles away from the United States embraced a regime animated by an economic system other than capitalism, and the United States felt a specious threat to its freshly established position of global dominance. Sending its poorest citizens to die in order to bulwark against threat was never merely misguided—it was always craven. America didn’t lose its innocence during the war. Its citizens lost their naïveté about the machinations of their government.

The Vietnam War is not a radical film. Perhaps it will soften the opinions of Americans who had previously thought of the war as noble and change their minds. Although The Vietnam War is Burns’s grimmest work by a wide margin, it still attempts a redemptive flourish at the end by stressing that people today may be able to glean meaning from its storytelling. The film’s most consistent point throughout is the decency of its subjects, despite the cowardice of the politicians who led them into carnage.

The American public will be better informed if The Vietnam War is shown in its schools. We have a profoundly short collective memory, and the film is a gripping summary of a futile conflict. But it is crucial to recognize that The Vietnam War should not be the only story in this canon. Burns and Novick are intelligent, humane filmmakers, but their America-centered point of view should not be the one blockbuster perspective. One of the most poignant messages The Vietnam War conveys is how meaningful it is for many voices to contribute their own version of one event. Another equally important takeaway from watching this film is how much this country needs more history-focused filmmakers equipped with the resources and platform that Burns has. The canon should not have one author.