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Looking Back on 'The Vietnam War': Past Is Prologue
September 29, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

Endings are hard, postscripts arguably even harder.

For ten nights spread over two weeks, I was held rapt by Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s seminal, ground-breaking documentary The Vietnam War.

Anyone who watched this searing evisceration of America’s misadventure in Vietnam from beginning to end is likely to have been overwhelmed, as I was.

Wide in historical scope and yet exquisitely personal in emotional detail, no two viewers were likely to come away from The Vietnam War the same way.

Asked to sum my own experience of The Vietnam War in 140 characters or less, I can only say . . . I don’t know.

I know so much more today than I knew on Sept. 17, when The Vietnam War premiered. And yet, the more I know, the less I understand. As with all great art, The Vietnam War is going to take a long time to process.

Burns and Novick were meticulous in their detail, and yet it’s the kind of detail that doesn’t form a single, coherent picture at the end so much as a swirling, constant whirlwind of colliding images and conflicting emotions. The Vietnam War touched on so many aspects of a rapidly changing social landscape, not just in the US homeland but all over the world, from Southeast Asia to Oceania to both Western and Eastern Europe.

As you read this, an edited, 10-hour international cut of The Vietnam War has bowed on BBC4 in the UK, where it has won strong notices. Writing Monday in the UK Guardian, ‘Weekend’ columnist Tim Dowling wrote that Burns and Novick — who, Dowling rightly pointed out, probably isn’t getting enough attention for her contribution — managed to make “an immensely complex story immediately comprehensible.”

More than anything, Dowling wrote, the Burns brand carries with it a sense of trustworthiness — a quality in short supply these days — and genuine humility, with no agenda but the truth.

And yet. . . .

My Vietnam War is different from yours, and probably everyone else’s.

On a strictly personal level, I was struck by two emotional beats in particular.

The first was the image of Denton Crocker (left), a young idealist from the heart of New York’s Capital Region, loved and cherished by his parents and adored by his sister. Crocker volunteered for duty despite being underage, had second thoughts once he got to Vietnam, and was then killed in combat, leaving behind a grieving sister who would go on to become an ardent and vocal anti-war protestor — even as friends and neighbors warned her that she had no right to an opinion, because anyone who lost a close family member can’t be trusted to take an objective, dispassionate view of the war.

The second emotional beat that struck me was the image of Lê Minh Khuê (below), a 16-year-old North Vietnamese “youth volunteer” who traversed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the dead of night, helping smuggle arms and supplies through a snake-infested swamp and jungle trails, pounded by relentless around-the-clock bombing by US high-altitude bombers, a well-worn copy of an Ernest Hemingway novel tucked into her pack.

It’s hard to imagine a more American writer than Hemingway — and yet here’s this teenage girl from North Vietnam who admires, idolizes even, Hemingway’s grasp of the human condition and his belief in a universal humanity, borne from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

Perhaps it’s the way TV viewing has changed — we watch TV in entirely different ways than when Burns’ The Civil War first emerged in 1990 — but it’s my impression that The Vietnam War, powerful and compelling though it is, has had nowhere near the impact on the public conversation that The Civil War did then.

Perhaps it’s the competition from HBO, Netflix, Amazon, and myriad other choices. Perhaps it’s that today’s news headlines are so relentless, so overwhelming and so worrying that an 18-hour look back at one of the most divisive periods in American history was too much to bear.

In one important way, arguably the most important way of all, it doesn’t matter.

The Vietnam War will stand the test of time, both as a cornerstone of quality TV in the 2010s and as a living, breathing document of the not-so-distant past, a document that will be taught in schools and played on giant screens in public spaces for decades to come.

For now, despite the glowing reviews — both here at TVWW and at numerous other media outlets around the US homeland — The Vietnam War has taken a back seat, it seems to me, to new seasons of The Voice, Survivor, and The Big Bang Theory.

This past week, Burns appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert — relegated to the very end of the program, and given no more than seven minutes in an hour-long show, shoehorned behind Sofia Vergara, David Boreanaz, and a pair of Colbert comedy bits.

Coincidentally, Colbert’s first question was the same question TVWW asked Burns this past summer in an interview in Los Angeles — so much for trying to be original and thinking outside the box.

Burns came of age when the Vietnam War reached its apotheosis; he graduated from high school in 1971 and drew a high draft number in the Vietnam lottery of life and death. He must have had preconceptions about what his film would look like, Colbert told him, and then asked him what, if anything, struck him as a surprise once he and Novick first decided to make The Vietnam War 10 years ago.

“Everything,” Burns replied, without missing a beat, just as he had with TVWW. He thought he knew a lot about the war, he explained. He quickly learned that he had known next to nothing. In a strange way, it made a personal film that much more personal. The Vietnam War became a better film for it.

I was a child during the Vietnam years. Born in the UK, raised in Canada, and growing up on a steady diet of US TV, I remember Walter Cronkite’s nightly recitation of the day’s casualty figures for the CBS Evening News and thinking that, if the North Vietnamese were losing 10-20 lives for every American life lost, the US was clearly winning the war. Victory was only a matter of time, because that’s the way a child thinks.

I was in my early teens the year the straggling remains of US power and influence were plucked off an embassy roof by helicopter. I saw that, too, on the CBS Evening News. By then Gerald Ford was president, but what I remember most about Ford years was the way he was lampooned by a young Chevy Chase on a brand new, weekly sketch-comedy program called Saturday Night Live, that would debut just five months later, in October 1975.

The Vietnam War made for harrowing viewing, but I’ll always remember it for its grace notes. It was a given that Burns — the creative influence behind The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, The Dust Bowl and, with Novick, The War, Prohibition and Baseball: The Tenth Inning — would make a film that was both compelling to look at, and meticulous in its historical detail.

It wasn’t until I heard musician Trent Reznor’s reaction, on first seeing the final cut of The Vietnam War — for which Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails bandmate Atticus Ross scored the background music — that I realized just how seamless that final cut was.

After composing the background music for virtually every frame of The Vietnam War, together with Ross and the Silk Road Ensemble’s Yo-Yo Ma, could be forgiven for thinking he knew what to expect.

Instead, Reznor admitted in an interview that aired late at night on PBS this past week, he was stunned by what he saw, floored by the way Burns and Novick wove the background music into Peter Coyote’s narration, sound effects and the iconic songs of the era, played one after another — the Beatles, Dylan, Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and so on. Reznor knew he and Ross had done good work, but he had not known the finished article would be like a jolt of aural adrenaline wired directly into the brain.

The Vietnam War had its critics. Burns and Novick were never going to win everyone over, no matter how exquisitely it was written.

A friend sent me a Facebook link to an angry screed by an Australian journalist, who had reported from Vietnam’s Central Highlands during the war for a number of Australian media outlets. He accused Burns of pandering to old assumptions about American exceptionalism, and criticized the program’s producers for accepting seed money from Bank of America, one of The Vietnam War’s primary sponsors.

Burns for his part has always been gracious toward his corporate sponsors. No matter what those sponsors’ critics may say, Burns is adamant that he maintain creative control over his film projects; not one of his corporate sponsors has ever tried to shape or influence his work.

Still, that the subject would even come up is a sign, if nothing else, that the Vietnam War is still divisive, still capable of opening old psychic wounds and stirring up roiling emotions.

Long before I finished watching the full 18 hours, I sensed I was witnessing something that was reaching for greatness, and in large part succeeding.

If you ask me, though, to describe in 140 characters or less what conclusions I’ve drawn —  about both The Vietnam War and the war itself — the only honest answer I can give is that I still don’t know.

I suspect that, deep down, that’s the reaction Burns and Novick expected. Were counting on, even. This one is going to haunt me for a long time.

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Chris Wachsmuth
I think your sense of who watched Burns + Novick's epic might be proven out by the lack of comments here within the first 24 hrs of your post, Alex. I watched the entire thing as broadcast but none of my boomer friends did or could. Some decided to wait until the weekly encore - they just didn't think their heart could take seeing it night after night. It was hard to watch and not be able to "de-brief" with anyone. I came of age during Vietnam, graduated from nursing school before Saigon fell and had many friends who enlisted as student nurses in order to get the monthly stipend. They never thought they would end up over there and of course many did. I've gone to the Wall to find the names of neighbors, boyfriends, people I knew in highschool. Burns + Novick's film -- the music of the 60s - the black + white stills of the men's faces, the nightly count of the dead, the pure futility of it all -- how in the hell did this happen ?
Sep 30, 2017   |  Reply
Alex S.
Chris, thank you. You make a really interesting point, one which resonated with me: your finding it hard to watch, night after night, and not be able to "de-brief" with anyone. I found that discouraging, at the time. It's one reason I chose wrote this, without meaning to until just hours beforehand. I do think it will sink in over time, though, especially for anyone who came of age during the war, as you say.
Sep 30, 2017
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