The blaring, boozy chords of Jimi Hendrix, accompanied by the chug and spit of helicopter propellers. Twenty-five thousand chanting, long-haired anti-war protestors, facing down a bayonet-pointing National Guard. Cornfed young Marines, brows furrowed with a preternaturally aging despair.
There’s practically a cultural shorthand around the Vietnam War, borne of the bloody images that haunted American living rooms and psyches for years to come. These images—news reportage, subsequent films, countless documentaries—are the bread and butter of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new 10-part blockbuster series for PBS, The Vietnam War. The sheer volume of the images that came out of the Vietnam War years meant that Burns and Novick had a mass of filmed representation to work with. The lauded team of documentarians have collaborated on a number of renowned projects for the channel, including The Civil War and Prohibition, but this may be their most provocative piece of filmmaking yet.
“It’s the most important event for Americans since the Second World War,” Burns tells me by phone, a few weeks before the first episode is set to air on September 17. “But we wanted an entire range of human experiences. Mostly when Americans talk about the Vietnam War, we talk about ourselves. We conveniently, perhaps, leave out our enemies—the victors—and our allies—the losers—in this equation.”
Perhaps the most admirable element of Burns and Novick’s series is that it’s determined to avoid the typical myopia around the war, giving room to a wide range of voices and characters that shape the historical narrative. The endeavour required exhaustive research, involving extended commentary from 79 individuals, from North Vietnamese guerilla-turned-poet Bao Ninh to American POW Hal Kushner, with an abundance of perspectives in between, including Pentagon policymakers and anti-war protestors. It’s not surprising that the series has been a decade in the making, spanning 18 hours in the final cut, with each episode’s running time well over feature-length.
There are around 30 Vietnamese subjects included in the film, telling stories that offer a desperately needed counterpoint to the American perspective. Their reminiscences remind us of the awful upheaval of traditional agricultural life in the small nation, of the millions of civilian dead killed by American bombs, and of extralegal killings carried out by the governments of both Hanoi and Saigon. Most of all, they reinforce an oft-forgotten fact: This was a foolhardy American intervention, waged against a war-hardened people the Americans knew next to nothing about.
“The North Vietnamese are treated as if they’re these hordes—as if in a later generation they could be CGI troopers from the empire,” Burns tells me.
As a filmmaking endeavor, The Vietnam War includes the finest qualities of a Burns and Novick production: painstaking attention to detail, a lively visual mosaic of sound and fury, and the ability to draw out painfully revealing emotions from its interview subjects. Yet there are additional brushstrokes here, too. One notable departure from the past is the use of a rock and roll soundtrack, mirroring the tumult of the era, and even deploying a handful of Beatles songs. The profusion of color film from the conflict and the heightened use of montage also change the rhythm of the typical Burns/Novick film. While the pair’s other two series on warfare, The Civil War and The War, move at a stately pace, Vietnam is propulsive and contemporary.
This is what war is. You can sanitize it, but there is no such thing as a good war.
Given the degree of personal storytelling in the film, the project becomes almost novelistic in its conception, with a full cast of characters and a sharp sense of impending doom. One of the production team’s biggest challenges became how to piece this multi-dimensional story together. “It was just mastering this complex narrative, with so many characters, primary, secondary, tertiary, all sorts of cameos,” Burns says. “We’re thinking about how to bring them on and offstage, how to move them from one scene to the next - that’s been our work for a decade.”
One of the most memorable speakers in the film is John Musgrave, who gives a brutally honest account of his experience as part of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines—a unit nicknamed “The Walking Dead.” “I wouldn’t be killing a person,” he explains. “I would just be…smoking a gook. It’s racism 101, but it’s effective when you’re fighting a war.”
It’s one of countless quotations that sound like they came straight from a Hollywood screenwriter’s pen. Perhaps one of the most striking things about the series is how it contains the seeds for every cinematic association a viewer has about the Vietnam War, but simultaneously moves beyond the limited perspectives of those cliches.
In an effort to shed light on the decades-long buildup to the internecine conflict, the first several episodes of the series bring us through the history of French Indochina, a nation struggling for independence from an oppressive colonial regime. By framing our understanding of Vietnam’s history as one of fighting off invaders, we come to grasp the errors and presumptions made by American foreign policymakers.
In April 1975, when Saigon fell, the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies suffered a final blow that ended more than a decade of U.S. involvement in a complex, shifting effort. The People’s Army of Vietnam (NVA) had been an astute and fastidious enemy, far beyond American military expectations. But rather than placing blame directly on the heads of any one group or another, The Vietnam War follows several administrations full of miscalculations and cover-ups, beginning all the way back in the Eisenhower era. Along the way, the key decision-makers executing American foreign policy in Vietnam descend from naivete to willful ignorance to criminal hubris.
There are some truly angering revelations of new scholarship in the film, too. Burns and Novick share recently discovered information regarding Richard Nixon’s 1968 election campaign. With an eye toward securing victory, he hatched a plan to contact the South Vietnamese and actively delay the Vietnam peace process. An irate Lyndon B. Johnson, getting a hint of the interference, went so far as to say Nixon was guilty of treason in a recorded phone conversation with Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. Even with a good understanding of the depths of Nixonian subterfuge, this was a striking low point in Nixon’s biography. Yet the film presents the information with little fanfare. Didn’t Burns feel the need to respond more actively to this dishonesty?
“You know what? All that does is then mean that we’re preaching to the converted. Right? You’re making a film that’s polemical, and it has an audience of people that already agree with you. That makes no sense to me. So, our job is to have that rigorous discipline, and taking our own thumb off the scale, and shedding our own preconceptions and political baggage at the get-go,” he tells me. “We’re always mindful of what the polls were, because the preconception is that everybody hated the war in Vietnam. But they did not. As late as Kent State, when we murdered four of own college students, 57 percent of the American public in a Gallup poll said they supported what the National Guard had done. It’s really important to hear that.”
He adds: “[People] snidely talk about the ‘silent majority’ speech as if they understand it, but that speech was a triumph. We say exactly that. His popularity and approval rating soared to 68 percent. I mean, you’ve got to— whatever you think—just tell the facts.”
It’s true that by and large, the film is even-handed at balancing its often-conflicting viewpoints. But questioned more specifically on his stylistic and visual choices—for example, his depiction of Woodstock and whether his editing methods hold any larger meaning—Burns demurs. “That’s our job, we’re filmmakers. We try to make one plus one equal not two, but three. I don’t think you have to read too much political meaning into it, because we didn’t.”
It seems clear that the filmmakers are more focused on factual details than fussy film technique, but there’s an undeniable emotional build-up in the way Burns and Novick cover their topic. The Vietnam War contains a humanism and a horror which often makes it gut-wrenching. Several episodes include anecdotes from men who witnessed war crimes committed during the conflict—not only at the infamous My Lai massacre, but in widespread “free-fire zones” up and down the country.
Taken on the merits of its enormous and exhaustive scale, The Vietnam War reveals much about the American mindset, and why it’s still so difficult to speak with clarity about the conflict. Our country lost much in the conflict—moral certitude, faith in government, some 60,000 souls. The Vietnamese lost even more: millions of people, both soldier and civilian; painful wounds and divisions that exist to this day. Perhaps that’s why the Vietnam War is still, more 40 years after its conclusion, as contentious and painful a subject as ever. Burns tells me: “There was a team of about 20 people and they worked really hard. Editors, researchers, co-producers, the writer—it’s an intimate experience. There is this kind of tiny nucleus who sort of re-lived this war in very visceral ways. When you talk about emotion, we still feel it. I’ll still cry at certain scenes. And I’ve seen them a hundred times.”
What Burns and Novick’s latest series does is to sweep away preconceived notions. If you have only disgust for American involvement in Vietnam, you may be surprised to find just how tragically innocent and well-meaning the boys who willingly waged it were. If you take issue with the hippie peace movement, you may find that the depths of the government’s dishonesty left more room for second-guessing the war than you’d imagined. The Vietnam War should prove to be narrative-altering, reigniting a national conversation about how the conflict’s worst mistakes were made—and hopefully giving some illumination to those who still struggle to understand it.
During our conversation, Burns quotes one of the interview subjects in the film, Marine Corps veteran Karl Marlantes. “I’d point you to where Karl says, ‘We’re not the dominant species on the planet because we’re nice.’ And he also says, ‘People say that the military turns young men into killers. I say it’s only finishing school.’ He shows his wonder at the bravery of these guys, but there’s also the acknowledgement that someone can become a different kind of person. This is what war is. You can sanitize it, but there is no such thing as a good war.”
The Vietnam War premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, September 17 on PBS. The film continues at 9 p.m. September 18-21 and September 24-28.