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The Unfinished Legacy of 'The Vietnam War'
September 13, 2017  | By Gary Edgerton

"Coming home from Vietnam was as close to traumatic as the war itself.  For years nobody talked about Vietnam... It was like living in a family with an alcoholic father...  The babyboomers are finally saying, ‘what happened?"

— Karl Marlantes, Marines, 1969, from episode one, “Déjà Vu” (1858-1961)

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War (2017) begins with a blank screen and the throbbing whirr of helicopter blades.  This iconic sound is inextricably linked with Americans remembrance of this still unsettling and unresolved conflict.  In point of fact, the war has been over for more than forty years.  In memory, though, it remains a work in progress.

The overture to the opening episode—it’s first eight minutes and fifteen seconds—provides a microcosm to the miniseries as a whole.  The above observation by Marlantes leads directly into a masterfully realized ninety-second reverse-motion flourish that submits touchstone images from the war for the audiences’ approval, as Rod Serling used to say in his mock serious introduction to The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-1964), another richly surreal foray into the realm of the imagination that debuted the same year that the first two American soldiers were killed by enemy fire in Vietnam.

In contrast to Serling’s black-and-white fictional world, the searing angst-ridden incidental music provided by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross signals immediately that Burns and Novick’s shades of gray nonfictional portrait is no joke.  As with much of Ken Burns’s other work, viewers are cued from the outset to leave irony and emotional distance at the door when tuning in to The Vietnam War.

All of the elements of Burns’s well-known and distinctive style are here—the rhythmic and lyrical narration penned by writer Geoffrey Ward and voiced by actor Peter Coyote, the rephotographing of still images and the utilization of stock footage, the incorporation of dozens of witnesses who personalize the history as only those who once lived through it could.

The Vietnam War expands on Burns’s familiar template however. The aforementioned reverse-motion technique, which harkens back to at least three generations of European filmmakers from high modernists such as Jean Cocteau in La Belle et La Bête (1946) to New Wave progenitors such as François Truffaut in Les Mistons (1957), is a case in point.  Burns style has always been informed by techniques introduced decades ago.  His signature accomplishment is devising strategies whereby these constituent elements are seamlessly integrated into a wholly new and highly complex textual arrangement.  He and his creative team succeed once again in this regard with The Vietnam War. (Above, from left to right, producer-director Ken Burns, producer-director Lynn Novick, producer Sarah Botstein, and writer Geoffrey Ward.)

The opening reverse-motion montage, for example, provides a visual litany of brief recognizable clips that replay the war from its end game up through its inception beginning with America’s hasty retreat from Saigon in April 1975 symbolized by a helicopter falling off an aircraft carrier into the South China Sea to Henry Kissinger, Kent State, Kim Phuc running naked down the road with napalm burning her flesh, Nixon addressing the American people, Chicago 1968, the U.S. carpet bombing the North, LBJ in 1967 and again in 1966 assuring the nation that victory is at hand, a flamethrower incinerating a hut, a burning draft card, Robert McNamara, more helicopters, JFK answering questions at a press conference, a Buddhist monk in flames, Eisenhower articulating the domino theory, Ho Chi Minh, Truman talking about stopping the spread of communism, Charles de Gaulle marching straight and tall, a grunt walking through a rice paddy, leading the viewer back finally to a shadow image of a flying helicopter.

After employing this dizzily hyperkinetic montage to conjure up the war in miniature, the scene climaxes with present-day shots of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial captured in the reddish intensity of the golden hour and accompanied by Bob Dylan singing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” on the soundtrack.  Economically and elegantly, the mood is established and the agenda is set for the rest of the series.

Ken Burns’s latest ten-part, nearly seventeen-hour magnum opus, The Vietnam War, debuts on Sunday, September 17, and runs through Thursday, September 28, on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) stations nationwide.  It will simultaneously be available on demand here, as well.  Not surprisingly, this miniseries has already generated controversy from both the left and right, mainly by social media users and bloggers who have yet to see the program, save for brief promos that have been telecast on local TV stations and circulated online since the spring.

Producer-directors Burns and Lynn Novick (below) have been canvassing the country on a thirty-city tour, screening clips and discussing their intentions and goals in producing this epic large-scale project.  I caught up with them recently at an event sponsored by WTTW in Chicago on September 7.  Alluding to the series’ tag line, Ken Burns underscored that “there is no single truth in war and we tried to honor the many sides of human experience” in The Vietnam War.  This even-handed centrist balance is what often leaves Burns and company open to criticism from true believers on either extreme of the political divide.
Ken Burns and all of his collaborators have nevertheless been consistent from the outset of his career in gathering in as many perspectives as possible within the complexly structured biographical narratives they produce.  The Vietnam War, in particular, casts the widest net so far for Burns and his creative team by including Americans and Vietnamese voices, combatants and civilians, the bottom-up ordinary folk and the top-down faces of the famous and powerful.

Lynn Novick and fellow producer, Sarah Botstein, actually had to convince Burns early on to expand the purview of their American-centric historical storyline by integrating the observations of approximately twenty Vietnamese witnesses out of the nearly one-hundred interviewees they spoke with on camera for the series.  They hired a local co-producer, Ho Dang Hoa, who provided advice while securing on-the-ground access to people and additional historical material throughout Vietnam.

What results is not so much a point/counterpoint debate between American and Vietnamese perspectives as a surprising synthesis of complementary insights, aptly illustrated in a representative onscreen observation by former North Vietnamese solider and current novelist and essayist, Bao Ninh (née Hoàng Au Phuong):

"It’s been forty years.  Even the Vietnamese veterans, we avoid talking about the war.  People sing about victory, about liberation.  They’re wrong.  Who won and who lost is not a question.  In war, no one wins or loses.  There is only destruction.  Only those who never fought like to argue about who won and lost."

The Vietnam War was produced on a $30 million budget and is told in ten episodes.  The first installment, “Déjà Vu,” chronicles a century of French colonial occupation that ends in defeat and withdrawal in 1954.  This episode is the most prosaic of the miniseries in that its main purpose is to lay the necessary pipe for viewers to understand the context out of which the American involvement in Vietnam occurred.

What for the United States is a protracted fifteen-year conflict (1961-1975) is for the Vietnamese an even longer thirty-year war (1945-1975).  Burns and company’s perspective is readily apparent in the program’s title itself, The Vietnam War.  Throughout Southeast Asia, the conflict is still known instead as the American War.  Where more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen and women died, The Vietnam War’s narration reports that over three million North and South Vietnamese combatants and civilians perished, comprising more than ten percent of the country’s entire population.

From the second episode onward, an emotionally powerful momentum dramatically builds in The Vietnam War.  As far as narrative construction is concerned, the miniseries resembles an intricately woven historical novel that contains approximately two dozen primary, secondary, and tertiary characters that viewers form close parasocial relationships with over the arc of their respective multi-episodic stories.

For instance, audiences are introduced to private first-class, Denton Winslow “Mogie” Crocker, Jr., as a seventeen-year-old high school student growing up in Saratoga Springs, New York, at the beginning of episode three, “The River Styx” (January 1964-December 1965).  Audience members slowly come to know Mogie through photographs, narration, and the heartfelt recollections of his mother, Jean-Marie, and his sister, Carol.

The Crocker family story encapsulates the idealism, tragedy, and disillusionment that the nation writ large experienced over the course of The Vietnam War.  An idealistic Mogie (right) enlists early in 1965.  He grows increasingly disenchanted with the war effort before being killed in action while walking point on 4 June 1966, only one day after his nineteenth birthday.

Mogie’s mother recounts the profound sadness that overwhelmed her when she saw two soldiers approaching their house, knowing the news they were about to deliver was not good.  Both she and sister, Carol, then reappear intermittently throughout the remainder of the series.  In the final episode, “The Weight of Memory” (March 1973-Onward), for example, Carol’s testimony reflects the ambivalence many Americans felt towards the 1982 opening of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C (below):

"I didn’t want to go.  When I saw it, I literally lost my breath.  Now [Mogie] wasn’t alone either.  And he wasn’t lost.  And he wasn’t forgotten.  It was incredibly healing and freeing for me."

History is never fixed, but this truism is especially relevant for the largely repressed and unresolved thoughts and feelings that many Americans still harbor towards Vietnam in contrast to the more acceptably redeeming war narratives that Burns had earlier produced with the Civil War’s elimination of slavery and World War II’s defeat of the German-Italian-Japanese axis powers, thus stopping the scourge of totalitarianism.

Lynn Novick first joined Ken Burns’s creative team in 1989 as an associate producer for post-production on The Civil War (1990).  Since then, she’s been a frequent producer and director with him as she was with the Emmy-award-winning, The War (2007).  It was during the latter stages of that seven-part fourteen-hour miniseries that Burns invited her to reprise their highly productive and well synchronized partnership in revisiting the far more unsettled and contentious history and legacy of Vietnam.

Ken Burns is a resonant figure on multiple levels with audiences in this country and internationally.  He is first and foremost one of the founders, the executive producer, and principal showrunner at Florentine Films http://www.florentinefilms.com.  Forty years ago he single-mindedly pursued his dual obsession with filmmaking and history, anticipating a much broader surge of interest in all things historical among the general population.  Early on, he emerged as the signature figure of a much larger programming trend, primarily because of the unprecedented success of The Civil War, along with the consistently robust showings of his other subsequent television specials over the past quarter-century.

All told, an estimated eighty million Americans have now seen The Civil War; fifty-five million have watched Baseball (PBS, 1994); forty-five million The War (PBS, 2007); forty million Jazz (PBS, 2001); thirty-five million The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (PBS, 2014); and all of his other TV productions over the last two decades have averaged an estimated fifteen million viewers during their initial telecasts.  The popularity of Burns’s biographical or quasi-biographical histories is extraordinary by virtually any measure, and they have over time redefined the place of documentaries on prime-time television.

Ken Burns is arguably the most recognizable and influential historian of his generation, even though he isn’t a traditional scholar.  He reverses the usual academic hierarchy by trusting first the lessons found in art (photographs, film clips, period music, etc.) before turning to the scholarly record to fill in the details of his liberal pluralist vision of American history.  Burns’s most-favored-artist-status even enabled him and his fellow producers to secure many of the most iconic rock ‘n’ roll songs of the era at minimum cost for The Vietnam War’s soundtrack.

Probably the main way in which Ken Burns makes his popular histories compelling and relevant to audiences in the tens of millions is by his longstanding tendency to embrace presentism, which refers to framing the past—however indirectly—through the lens of the present.  No doubt, this characteristic is where Burns differs most fundamentally with professional historians.

In his recent appearance in Chicago with Lynn Novick, for instance, he listed how The Vietnam War contains parallels with the current White House in disarray and obsessed with leaks; two presidents (Johnson and Nixon) who believed news people were lying about their respective motives and actions; mass demonstrations across the country; document drops of classified materials into a political conversation (the Pentagon Papers); and a doomed attempt to build a successful military campaign upon a corrupt political foundation (in South Vietnam).

The most direct parallel that Burns and Lynn Novick identified with the Vietnam era was the chronic breakdown in civil discourse that admittedly plagues our country today.  In fact, the producer-directors suggested that the seeds of our present-day red state/blue state divide was planted in the hyper-partisanship surrounding the Vietnam War during the Sixties and Seventies.  One of the clips they screened featuring former infantry platoon leader and company commander, Philip Gioia, from episode nine, A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973), emphasized that point:

"I think the Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America.  It polarized the country as it probably hadn’t been polarized since the Civil War.  Unfortunately, we’ve never moved far away from that.  And we’ve never recovered."

Ken Burns’s most adamant critics misperceive him as romantic where it is probably more accurate to describe him as a documentary poet who is attuned to America’s idealistic aspirations.  He also fervently believes in the therapeutic potential of history.  Both he and Novick expressed their hope in Chicago that The Vietnam War will “spark a national conversation” that will lead to a “healing and reconciliation.”

The concluding off-screen narrative statement spoken by Peter Coyote in the final episode of the miniseries that was  originally drafted by Geoffrey Ward and revised more than a dozen times with final editorial input and approval by Burns and Novick give full voice to this mediating sentiment:  

More than four decades after the Vietnam War ended, the divisions it created between Americans have not wholly healed.  Lessons were learned, and then forgotten.  Divides were bridged, and then widened.  Old secrets were revealed, and new secrets were locked away.  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 and understanding and forgiveness and ultimately reconciliation.

As with all of Ken Burns’s work, The Vietnam War ends with his sincere and hopeful vision of the United States eventually pulling together despite a half-century of chronic partisan differences, rather than a society coming apart at the seams.  Judge for yourself.  It’s well worth the investment of your own time and attention to tune in and revisit your thoughts and feelings about this shared seminal event in both our deeply personal and collective histories.


Gary R. Edgerton is Professor of Creative Media and Entertainment at Butler University.  He has published eleven books, including Ken Burns’s America (Palgrave for St. Martin’s Press, 2001), and coedits the Journal of Popular Film and Television.

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