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Say what you will about the Vietnam War, it had a great soundtrack. Feature and documentary filmmakers have, of course, long appreciated this—cue “The End” by the Doors for the unforgettable opening sequence of 1979’s Apocalypse Now, and, about a decade later, Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” for a long, wet, and ominous combat patrol sequence in HBO’s documentary, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1987).
The 1960s bred a generation of musicians with an ear for prophetic gloom, their songs seeming all the more inspired as a backdrop to the unfolding horror in Vietnam. Even a whimsical ditty like the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” took on new and unintentionally sinister meaning (“The magical mystery tour is dying to take you away / Dying to take you away, take you today”) when played over Armed Forces Radio in Saigon in 1967, as reporter Michael Herr reminds us in his own dark masterpiece about the war, Dispatches (1977).
Ken Burns’s twenty-ninth historical documentary, The Vietnam War (2017), co-directed with longtime associate Lynn Novick, falls within this tradition of depicting the war. Burns’s work—twenty-eight documentaries since his debut with Brooklyn Bridge in 1981—is usually known for celebrating America’s iconic things (the bridge), pastimes (baseball), places (national parks), and people (Lewis and Clark). He has, of course, tackled wars before—The Civil War series (1990), which made his reputation, and a Second World War series in 2007 (The War). But those are at least considered nationally redemptive wars—for all the death and sacrifice and less-than-perfect worlds that followed when the guns fell silent, the union was preserved, slavery was ended, fascism was defeated, and all under the leadership of men who have since been celebrated as national heroes—Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower.
If Burns tends to gravitate toward lighter topics, the Vietnam War is decidedly not one of them. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to binge-watch the eighteen hours of The Vietnam War. Despite an occasional and, to my ears, strained suggestion that the war was in some ways the product of good intentions gone awry, this series is Burns at his bleakest. Unfortunately, this perspective is applied somewhat indiscriminately, to include antiwar protesters as well as policymakers.
Ken Burns’s signature aural and visual style is on display in The Vietnam War—melancholy background music plunked out by what sounds like a lonely musician on piano or a stringed instrument, the slow visual panning and zooming of still photographs to suggest reflection or regret, talking heads who return enough times and converse at sufficient length that viewers come to trust them as knowledgeable interpreters of the past. It’s predictable and easy to mock (just search for “Ken Burns parody” on YouTube), but, as in his earlier work, this narrative style, tics and all, generally helps make a complicated story accessible to a wider audience.
Burns and Novick assemble some eighty “witnesses” (as they’re called in the series’ promotional material), including veterans from both sides of the conflict, Vietnamese and American, whose collective and individual voices are the film’s greatest strength. Researchers have scoured the archives for arresting footage, especially of combat, allowing the filmmakers the opportunity to stage visually dramatic and graphic set pieces for such critical battles as Ap Bac, Ia Drang, Khe Sanh, and, of course, Tet. And the film features a soundtrack that in permission rights alone must have cost PBS the equivalent of the purchase price of a good used B-52: Dylan’s “Hard Rain,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” Jimmy Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” and the Beatles’ “Revolution,” to name but a few. The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” is heard several times over multiple episodes in the series’ first half, most tellingly when the song runs through the closing credits for the episode that takes us to the eve of the Tet Offensive. Something bad—something really bad—the song signals, is about to happen. Of all the songs heard on the soundtrack, for me “Paint It Black” best captures the filmmakers’ take on the war as a whole—powered by a growing sense of dread as events take place and decisions are made that we know are not going to turn out well.
With the exception of the 2012 film Burns made with his daughter and son-in-law about the Central Park Five, The Vietnam War is his first documentary treatment of events taking place largely in his own lifetime. Burns was born in 1953 and raised in Ann Arbor in the 1960s and early ’70s, his father on the faculty of the University of Michigan, so it would be surprising if he didn’t have powerful memories of the Vietnam era (less true, I imagine, of his collaborator Novick, who was born a decade later). Though he was at the younger end of the baby boom—too young to be personally threatened by the draft—he grew up in one of the campus epicenters of the counterculture and antiwar protests, an experience that has surely influenced his perception of the war.
The release of The Vietnam War in September will doubtless shape popular memory of the conflict for years to come. The good news is that Vietnam War “revisionists”—those who argue that the war was a necessary, honorable, and winnable proposition until the liberal media confused the public and liberal politicians prematurely pulled the plug on further military aid to the South Vietnamese government—will find little to sustain their viewpoint here.
In their interpretation of the war’s origins and conduct, the filmmakers have relied heavily on reporter Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1988 account A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Sheehan’s book was partially a biography of Vann, a prominent American military adviser in Vietnam when Sheehan covered the war in the 1960s as a young wire-service correspondent. And, brilliantly, through the medium of Vann’s life, Sheehan retells the history of the war from the 1940s up to Vann’s death in Vietnam in a helicopter crash in 1972. Of Vann, Sheehan wrote, “He saw much that was wrong about the war in Vietnam, but he could never bring himself to conclude that the war itself was wrong and unwinnable.”
Most of the witnesses in The Vietnam War, including Sheehan himself, do not share Vann’s blindspot on that question. The overwhelming impression given through their testimony is that the anti-communist South Vietnamese government was a corrupt, ramshackle travesty, dependent on U.S. patronage from its founding in 1954 to its collapse in 1975, without political legitimacy. Through the testimony of their witnesses, Burns and Novick portray the Vietnamese Communist Party, the determined opponent of the sham Saigon government, as brutal and ruthless, but suggest nevertheless that it represented a powerful and genuine wave of nationalist sentiment. They do not celebrate the eventual triumph of the Communists, but they make it clear that this outcome was all but inevitable. The United States professed to be fighting in defense of a heroic independent ally, but instead stood in the path of Vietnamese self-determination. And in doing so, conducted a war that proved an atrocious waste of human life, both American and Vietnamese.
The bad news is that in their portrayal of the war’s opponents, Burns and Novick are, at best, inconsistent, at worst, intellectually lazy.
The narrator (the excellent Peter Coyote, formerly of the San Francisco Mime Troupe), says in the series’ final episode, “Meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through [the war].” That is and has always been Burns’s credo as a documentary-maker. He is not primarily an idea guy—he’s a story-teller (which, of course, is key to his popularity). Story-tellers are necessarily selective—the stories they choose and the ways in which they decide to tell them determine the narrative’s larger purpose.
In the stories they tell in the series, Burns and Novick manage simultaneously to offer a thorough indictment of the war, and a dismissal of most of the people who were committed to ending it. It’s both antiwar and anti–antiwar movement. The one protest against the war the film truly admires is the October 1969 “Moratorium,” which turned out several million people in peaceful protest across the country, and was indeed an impressive achievement on the part of organizers and participants. But in the series, it is used to denigrate the rest of the movement. “It’s nice,” one participant declares, “to go to a demonstration and not have to swear allegiance to Chairman Mao.” Far too often in the trademark Burns panning and zooming shots of still photos of those other protests, the focus comes to linger on Viet Cong flags or Communist Party banners or the like.
This is a part of the story, to be sure—but only a part. It leaves the viewer with the impression that hundreds of thousands of Americans, gathering in New York, Washington, or San Francisco, 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.
In their treatment of antiwar protest, Burns and Novick divide their witnesses and their stories into two groups: one honorable, the other suspect. There are, firstly, those who turned against the war because of their own experiences: veterans, such as the novelist Tim O’Brien, and the poet W.D. Ehrhart, among others; Carol Crocker, the sister of a G.I. killed in action; Eva Jefferson, the daughter of another G.I. who fought and survived. We learn, through the interviews, a lot about each of them, as individuals as well as historical actors. Their stories are presented in a way that gives them depth, legitimacy, and honor. They learned something about the war the hard way, and viewers can—and should—sympathize with them.
Were there truly no unrepentant protesters for Burns and Novick to interview?
What about the protesters who were not veterans, or didn’t know or lose someone serving in the war? They stood side by side with antiwar veterans, and, one might think, deserve equal consideration and honor. Instead they are treated sparingly and shabbily. I can only remember two such individuals: a man and a woman who had been students at that time. (I don’t mention their names because it’s not my intent to criticize them; the choice of what to present was not theirs, but that of the filmmakers.) Both witnesses in this category essentially remain ciphers. Unlike, say, Tim O’Brien or Carol Crocker, they don’t have a back story (in fact, we’re not even told that the female protester attended Barnard—I only know that because she happens to be a friend of a friend). In their limited screen time (the Barnard woman appears only twice, and in neither case for long), they are presented to us not through their individual stories, but rather as abstract representatives of the genus “protester.” They may not be portrayed as bad people, but neither do they come across as particularly sympathetic.
Most strikingly, both of them, in individual final appearances in the series, wind up apologizing for their actions in the antiwar movement. After the male protester returned from the “Mayday Tribe” protests in Washington, D.C. in May 1971, which involved disruptive civil disobedience (although not, as the film implies, widespread violence), he concludes, “our whole strategy was wrong.” And the female protester, in her second and final appearance in the concluding episode of the series, apologizes for calling returning veterans “baby-killers,” and says that it still grieves her to remember doing that. “I’m sorry,” are her final words—the final words we hear from any antiwar protester. So, out of a total of eighty witnesses who appear in The Vietnam War, a grand total of two fit the common stereotype of the Vietnam protester—students with no direct experience of or connection to the war—and they’re both presented as being sorry for what they did. Were there truly no unrepentant protesters for Burns and Novick to interview?
One other note on “baby-killers.” Karl Marlantes, a Yale-educated Rhodes Scholar, went to Vietnam as a junior officer in the Marine Corps, where he won a Navy Cross for leading an assault on a North Vietnamese bunker. He would later write a best-selling novel based on his wartime experiences. In his own turn as a witness, he deservedly gets the Ken Burns treatment, and comes across on screen, as I have no doubt he is in person, as thoughtful, articulate, and principled. When he returned to the United States from his tour of duty, he tells Burns and Novick, he had a dismaying experience on arrival at Travis Air Force Base in California. His brother, he says, picked him up, and told him to prepare to run a gauntlet of angry antiwar protesters gathered outside the base. Before he made it into his brother’s car, he was called a baby-killer, or the equivalent, and antiwar protesters pounded on the car as it pulled away.
Maybe it happened as remembered and described. Three million Americans served in the military in Vietnam, and perhaps twice as many took part in antiwar protests at home. In a time of high political passion, there must have been some uncomfortable personal confrontations—as in the Barnard woman’s remembrance. Perhaps Ken Burns, growing up in Ann Arbor, witnessed something similar. But how representative is that memory? It certainly doesn’t accord with my own. In a decade of antiwar activism, I never called a veteran a baby-killer (and would never have dreamed of doing so), never knew another protester who called a veteran a baby-killer, never even heard of anyone calling a veteran a baby-killer. (Partial exception—the Weatherman faction of SDS, who in 1969 decided to demonstrate their revolutionary credentials by labeling G.I.s “pigs”—which only reinforced their pariah status in the antiwar community.)
Memory is unreliable, which is why historians prefer documents—like the actual television footage that Burns and Novick use to illustrate their story about what awaited returning veterans at Travis. It does not show protesters engaged in violent or confrontational activities. What it shows is a group of antiwar protesters standing peacefully on the sidewalk outside of an airport with placards and leaflets. The image is at odds with the narrative. One of the protesters is wearing a T-shirt that clearly reads “Active Duty G.I.s Against the War.” From the mid-1960s on, antiwar protesters like this group, and like myself, regarded returning Vietnam veterans as potential allies, and the movement as a whole increasingly made efforts to reach out to them. That’s what is happening in this particular footage. Unlike their treatment of the war, which draws heavily on the historical record, like the Pentagon Papers, as well as personal memory, Burns and Novick prefer anecdotes in their characterization of the antiwar movement. But the record is out there, if they had only gone looking for it. News of G.I. and veteran protests filled antiwar publications. A network of antiwar G.I. coffee houses, supported by the civilian antiwar movement, grew up around military bases. By 1971 Vietnam Veterans Against the War was the cutting edge of the antiwar movement—and also the most vocal in publicizing and condemning American atrocities, including the killing of civilians, in the war.
The baby-killer taunt is a good example of a “zombie lie” (a lie that won’t die no matter how many times it’s refuted), and the worst thing I can say about the Burns and Novick series is that it practically guarantees this particular zombie will remain undead. It goes hand-in-hand with another myth that Burns and Novick might have subjected to critical investigation and help dispel, but chose not to. As Holy Cross sociologist Jerry Lembcke, himself a Vietnam veteran, shows in his 1998 book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, there is no contemporary evidence (newspaper, magazine, or television news accounts) of antiwar protesters ever spitting on a returning veteran. It was only fifteen or twenty years later, following the release of the Rambo movies (sample dialogue: “Then I come back to the world [from Vietnam] and I see all those maggots at the airport . . . Spitting. Calling me baby-killer . . .”) that the notion that antiwar protesters spent long hours lurking around air bases hoping to harass and dishonor returning veterans took off in right-wing lore. Lembcke is still around, still writing about the treatment of veterans on their return from Vietnam. Why wasn’t he invited to be a witness in the series?
To be fair, Burns and Novick had a complicated history to recount; they would need at least another eighteen hours to do justice to every story worth telling about the Vietnam War (and even that might not be enough). But they made choices about the story they wanted to tell. They chose to paint the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s in an unflattering light, when in fact this movement, veterans and non-veterans alike, was the only truly redemptive story to come out of the Vietnam War.
[Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College. He is co-author, with Michael Kazin, of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 1999). This article is a preview of Dissent’s Fall issue, out October 2. To get your copy, subscribe. Dissent is a quarterly magazine of politics and ideas, publishing the very best in political argument. Dissent takes pride in cultivating the next generation of labor journalists, cultural critics, and political polemicists.]