When the Ken Burns (1) documentary film The Vietnam War came out I watched it with interest and enjoyment. And I was hardly the only person to be impressed. “Let’s not mince words. Ken Burns is a national treasure and his mega series with creative partner Lynn Novick, "The Vietnam War," only furthers the sense that he is not only an essential historian but an essential artist as well, a Shakespeare of the documentary.” said Ed Siegel on WBUR . Brian Lowry of CNN called it “A masterpiece”. And there’s no shortage of similar accolades.
But some while later I read Manufacturing Consent by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky, and I was struck by how different their account of US involvement in Indochina was. And the more widely I read, the more incomplete, and in important respects, misleading Burns’ account of the war seemed to be.
Critics agree that one of the great strengths of the film is that it gives voice to the full range of participants. Vox says “This is what makes The Vietnam War so notable. For much of the miniseries, Burns and Novick are balancing the following series of perspectives: American military members, people in the anti-war movement, family members of military members, the American government, the North Vietnamese army, the North Vietnamese government, the South Vietnamese army, the South Vietnamese government, journalists, and various intelligence community members. It’s a lot. It should be too much, really. Yet it somehow never is.” In The Washington Post Hank Stuever says “As an account of both the war and its political and cultural legacies, "The Vietnam War" is about as complete and evenhanded as it could possibly get, which, of course, means it won't please everyone. … There are numerous, deeply personal interviews with men and women who fought in the North Vietnamese army or the Viet Cong, those who fought in South Vietnamese forces, and other citizens.”
Which would be wonderful if it was true.
But it’s not. There are glaring gaps in the range of voices selected. We hear from no one in US ground forces who held any rank higher than company commander. We hear almost nothing from the South Vietnamese forces, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or ARVN (pronounced “arvan”). Members of the peace movement are interviewed but only once do we hear someone explain why they oppose the war. Ordinary supporters of the war are hardly seen at all. And we hear almost nothing either from the civilian population of South Vietnam. A couple of members of the ruling elite are interviewed but members of the powerful Buddhist opposition never get to give us their perspective. And crucially we do not hear a word from the rural population of South Vietnam. Throughout the entire 17 plus hours of this ten-part series the peasants across whose land the US waged a devastating war for eight years, millions of whom were driven from their land into squalid refugee camps, the people from whose ranks the Viet Cong drew the manpower that sustained the resistance to the South Vietnamese government, are silent.
And all these gaps tend to support a fundamentally misleading framing of the war. They allow Burns to present the war as principally waged by well intentioned, if misguided, American servicemen against an implacable, communist North Vietnam. They allow him to gloss over the uncomfortable fact that the war was waged to a large extent against the rural population of South Vietnam whose principle motive was not support for communism but resentment of the various cruel, corrupt and generally unelected governments imposed on them by the United States. And, most importantly, the gaps allow him to gloss over the calculated destructiveness of US strategy and the frequently murderous brutality of US ground troops.
In an interview at the Newseum Ken Burns and Lynn Novick talk about what they aimed to achieve with the series and their answers are worth quoting at length. Burns says (not speaking in complete sentences) “a good deal of what’s wrong right now in terms of our inability…..it feels like that began…it was a virus planted somewhere in Vietnam and that we’re seeing the full fruits of that toxicity today.” But he is never entirely clear what aspects of current American society constitute this virus.
Lynn Novick goes on to say the intention was, “to try to tell the story in as fair and as open minded a way as we could [so] perhaps we could start a process where we really can have a kind of conversation that we’ve never really been able to have about Vietnam…It’s just very hard to talk about because we can’t agree about what happened.”
A little later Burns says ‘We were dedicated to trying to tell a complicated story and to create a space in which many perhaps conflicting or opposite truths could coexist because they still remain truths to those people and to honour as many perspectives as possible…. we don’t have our thumb on the scale, we’re kind of like just telling it like it is.”
There are two problems with these statements. The first problem is that there is a direct contradiction between the aim of the film as expressed by Lynn Novick and the aim as set out by Ken Burns. They seem to agree that America has so far failed to come to terms with the Vietnam war. However, Lynn wants to establish an agreed account of what happened whereas Ken wants to create a space in which opposite truths can coexist and indeed to honour all these conflicting truths. You can’t do both, and over the course of the 17 hours of the film, Ken wins out. And, in substance, what Burns means by allowing “opposite truths to coexist” turns out to mean allowing apologists for the excesses of US intervention to spout nonsense unchallenged.
The second, related, problem is that they quite definitely do have their thumbs on the scale. As we will see, time and again they omit or downplay information that presents the role of the US in a less favourable light. Judgement is only intermittently passed on the actions of various players and it is passed in a consistently loaded manner.
And the opening of the film points towards further confusion about the producers’ intentions. After the clips forming the montage that introduces the film (almost all depicting US forces) the first interviewee, Karl Marlantes, Marine veteran and author of the superb Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, describes how, for many years, the Vietnam War, “like living in a family with an alcoholic father” was something America didn’t talk about, and for a moment it looks like we are heading towards Lynn’s agreed facts that will form a basis for honest discussion.
However, after shots of the names on the Vietnam memorial, we then hear from an Army veteran, Max Cleland.
‘Victor Frank, who survived the death camps in Word War Two, wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. You know to live is to suffer. To survive is to find a meaning in suffering. And for those of us who suffered because of Vietnam that’s been our request ever since.”
American suffering is foregrounded and is, if not equated with, at least aligned with, the suffering of Jews in the holocaust and the cause of that American suffering is “Vietnam”. This is a warning that, for all their protestations of objectivity, the producers of this film will direct significant effort to meeting Max Cleland’s and, one suspects, America’s yearning to find some sort of meaning in the Vietnam war, because meaning is what they come back to in the final minutes of the tenth, concluding episode and the way they address the subject makes it all too clear what is intended by the word “meaning”.
This final episode covers the history of the war after the departure of the Americans before moving on to the present state of US/Vietnamese relations. We hear some nice touchy-feely stuff from Obama about the US and Vietnam being partners, followed by heart-rending talk of aged North Vietnamese parents wandering the south in search of the bones of their long dead children. Next comes moving testimony from Mike Heaney, an American veteran who returned to Vietnam and met Vietnamese veterans from the communist forces who, he says, “could not have been more gracious and more loving.”
The final voice-over tells us, “The Vietnam war was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it; stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness and ultimately of reconciliation.”
Which is followed by Tim O’Brien reading from The Things They Carried. The passage he reads, for the second time in this episode, is a tribute to the stoicism and suffering of the American infantryman. We cut, briefly to O’Brien himself choking back the tears before the credits roll to the cloying sound of Let It Be.
What is actually going on becomes clear at a preview of the film organised by Rocky Mountain PBS. Ken Burns shares the stage with General Merrill McPeak (2). The presenter quotes George H W Bush (that’s George H W Bush whose CIA CV includes involvement with Operation Condor, who as Vice-President was closely involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and the brutal war against Nicaragua and who as president launched the unprovoked invasion of Panama (3)) as saying “The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory.” You might be wary of going with what a man like that tells you is the “final” lesson of Vietnam. But Burns is very much on the same page and responds, “[Vietnam has] so much unfinished business for so many Americans from all different perspectives. And we tried so hard in this film to make sure that we honoured all the perspectives, We didn’t in a knee jerk reaction make anybody wrong. When somebody did something well we said it was well and we let the record of the other side speak for itself. We had an opportunity to repair that which President Bush understood very very well.” Then, before the Q&A starts he asks everyone in the audience who served in Vietnam and everyone who protested the war to stand up to be applauded together because, “if we’re going to get this country together we are going to have to realise that there are two sides to a coin.” I think this suggestion goes to the heart of the problem with the film. For protesters, the war represented the slaughter of well over a million civilians, the rape, torture and imprisonment of thousands more, the destruction of much of rural South Vietnam with its population being driven into appalling conditions in refugee camps, along with the devastation of much of the the North of the country, all carried out for no good purpose. For much of America though, including many of those who fought there, this war was, despite some acknowledged excesses, a morally justified, pursuit of a legitimate, principled objective; Ronald Reagan’s “noble cause.” These positions are not two sides of a coin. They are two radically different points of view, two sides of a deep moral and historical chasm. What happened during the Vietnam War was that America got to see up close the brutality of US foreign policy. And some people recoiled in horror and some people managed to remained oblivious to or even embraced this brutality. And it would require the mother of all truth and reconciliation commissions to bridge this divide but that is not what Ken Burns gives us. Instead, principally by omission, but occasionally by outright misrepresentation, he sets out to satisfy Max Cleland’s need for meaning and to make America as a whole feel better about Vietnam by hiding a lot of the awful, uncomfortable truth.
There are three parts to this website: the overview addresses thematically the aspects of the war that Ken Burns consistently misrepresents to achieve his aims of meaning and reconciliation; the second part consists of a time coded commentary on all ten episodes, identifying exactly where the film presents a false, misleading or materially incomplete picture of events; the third part, headed “Continuities”, sketches the various ways in which the Vietnam War is entirely typical of US foreign policy.
When I had created this site I sent a link to Veterans for Peace. It was only from their response that I learned of the work done by the Full Disclosure Campaign for an Honest Commemoration of the American War in Vietnam.
They have assembled an enormous amount of material which tends to support the arguments I make here.
1 Ken Burns and his co-producer Lynn Novick present the series as a joint undertaking. However, to refer repeatedly to “Ken Burns and Lynn Novick” is clumsy so I have followed the practice of most reviewers and generally referred only to Ken Burns. I do not intend to downplay Lynn Novick’s input/culpability.
2 As Air Force Chief of Staff in the first Gulf war General McPeak oversaw the bombing of most of the water purification plants in Iraq (a breach of parts of the Geneva Convention that the US has not signed) whose destruction contributed to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths in the years that followed. Osama bin Laden gave these deaths as one of his reasons for funding 9/11 in his Letter to America at (f).
3 This is George Bush