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Ken Burns In Private Conversation: How All Roads Led to ‘The Vietnam War’
September 12, 2017  | By Alex Strachan
Ken Burns was nine-years-old when he first heard the word Vietnam, and it meant nothing to him. That is to say, it meant about as much to him as North Korea might to an average nine-year-old today, even one as studied in current events as Burns was at that age. The year was 1962 and Vietnam — the word, the country, the simmering war — was not really part of the public conversation.

But then Burns’ family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father Robert Kyle Burns, a professor in cultural anthropology from Columbia University in Manhattan, landed a job teaching at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor was an early hotbed of radicalism and the anti-war movement, and Ken Burns, now 10-years-old, found himself suddenly aware of the political movement around him.

He would graduate from Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School in 1971 — an auspicious year — and by then Vietnam was very much on his mind.

A career in documentary filmmaking for public television — The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, The Dust Bowl, The Roosevelts, The Central Park Five and too many others to count here — was perhaps inevitably destined to culminate in The Vietnam War, his 10-night, 18-hour opus that bows Sunday, Sept. 17 on PBS.

Burns has been tirelessly promoting Vietnam, ten years in the making, all summer, but in a private conversation with TV Worth Watching, alongside fellow Vietnam filmmaker Lynn Novick, Burns’ longtime collaborator on such projects as Prohibition, The War, and Baseball: The Tenth Inning, the conversation becomes soft-spoken and personal.

Burns thought he knew a lot about Vietnam when he resolved to make “the American War” his next major project in 2006 — the year North Korea conducted its first-ever nuclear test, on Oct. 9.

Burns admitted that as much as he knew, once he broke ground on The Vietnam War, he realized there was much he didn’t know.

“It’s the unexpected things,” he said quietly. “How you have one story, and then it turns into another story on its own.”

From the beginning, he resolved to tell the story of the war from the Vietnamese point of view — both the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) as well as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam, and civilians on both sides of the geopolitical divide.

The result became not so much a linear, chronologically told documentary film as a living breathing document of history, messy and complicated.

It was that word ‘complicated,’ Burns says, that became the project’s watchword, the word that kept him up at nights, along with Vietnam historian-writer Geoffrey C. Ward.

“We don’t make films about things we know about,” Burns said softly. “We make films about things we don’t know about. Rather than tell you what we think you should know, this is as much a process of discovery for the people seeing it, we hope, as it was for us making it.

“This is a project I thought I knew a lot about. And we didn’t. I didn’t. This was not a process of shedding preconceptions but shredding them, from the first day of work. I learned humility, as age-old decades of facts I believed to be true fell by the wayside.

“Geoffrey Ward was fond of saying, ‘It’s a little bit more complicated.’ That was the word we learned at the end of this process to just welcome. Because it kept us involved in this child a little bit longer than we might otherwise have been.”

Burns paused, lost in momentary reflection, then said:

“I don’t even know that person from 10 years ago who thought he knew about Vietnam.”

If Burns wants one thing from The Vietnam War, it’s that no two viewers will watch it and see it quite the same way.

“It’s something everyone should speak to about. It totally transformed us, as filmmakers and as fathers, mothers, sons, daughters. I’ve been exposed to this in other films, in The Civil War and The War, but not quite like this. Human nature doesn’t change. That became evident throughout this whole process. We were changed by the challenge and the difficulty of getting the story right. We owed a debt to the testimony of the people who agreed to share their stories with us. I felt a responsibility to take those responses and find a larger truth in the process.”

The Vietnam War consciously uses still photographs from the times, images burned into the public consciousness: The execution of a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon on Feb. 1, 1968; a 14-year-old girl kneeling over the body of a dead student at Kent State University, just moments after he was shot by the Ohio Army National Guard on May 4, 1970 (left); a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running naked in the road after being severely burned on her back by a South Vietnamese napalm attack on June 8, 1972.

The Vietnam War marked the turning point in the relationship between the U.S. military and the media, Burns noted. During the Second World War, reporters were afforded unfettered access to the front lines; the stories they sent home, by radio and in newspapers, shaped public opinion and played an important role in galvanizing the war effort.

The media in Vietnam would play an entirely different role. Those iconic images — and they were iconic, Burns notes — would change the face and shape of the war effort. The military vowed: Never again.

“Journalists today are very resourceful, as we’ve seen in Syria and other places,” Burns said. “Not in the same way, though. The nightly television news was a huge, important component in the Vietnam War. Americans were nightly exposed to the carnage and death.The medium, television, turned everything around and made it personal. Journalists played a huge part in it.”

Burns is mindful that, as monumental an effort The Vietnam War is, it will not please everyone.

“We know the environment into which this will go,” he said quietly. “We understand that there are people who are unfortunately imprisoned by the myopia of their own internal dialogue. We hope that what the film shows is how it is possible to have a conversation in which you know there is more than one truth.

“We’re not naive enough to think it isn’t going to engage a lot of trolling. It happened with The Civil War. It happened with Jazz. It happened with Baseball. It happened with The War. It’s going to happen here. We know that.

“That’s not what we’re looking for. We’re not looking to the fringes. We’re coming to public television precisely so we can have a conversation about a controversial subject, an adult conversation about what is going to be a controversial film. And I think people understand that.

“That’s what we’re looking for. An adult conversation. The rest is just cacophony. Cacophony does not have a purpose. Do you want to have an argument for the sake of having an argument, or do you want to have an argument with the idea that you can do something about it?”


The Vietnam War debuts Sunday, Sept. 17 on PBS at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings), and will be repeated throughout the evening. Future installments will air Sundays through Thursdays, until Sept. 24.

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