The Vietnam War Is a Staggering Documentary Achievement

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Photo: Courtesy of Associated Press

The last American chopper has left the roof of the American embassy in Saigon; with its departure, both the Vietnam War and The Vietnam War come to an end. What have we learned?

In the PBS documentary’s case, plenty. Producer and co-director Ken Burns’s work carries itself with unassuming certitude. The very simplicity of the titles announce that each subject he touches — solo at first, and now in tandem with co-director and creative partner Lynn Novick — will receive definitive treatment. Jackie Robinson, Mark Twain, Lewis & Clark, The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The National Parks, The Congress, The West: These films and others promise viewers a thorough, engrossing introductory dive into a library of images and data, from the first word to the last.

The ten-part, 18-hour nonfiction epic The Vietnam War is typical of Burns and Novick in many ways, but unusual in one: The subject is still a part of living memory. Most Americans who watched the series have older relatives who served in the war, protested the war, or simply saw it unfold and wondered what to think of it and what, if anything, to do about it. A good measure of the series’ power stems from the filmmakers’ ability to connect the weathered faces of present-day witnesses in their 50s, 60s, and 70s with photos and home movies of their pristine young selves. (The production’s archivists deserve a special Emmy.)

In their usual no-fuss manner, the filmmakers start The Vietnam War with French colonial power from the 1850s to its twilight in the late 1950s, observe the United States’ gradual immersion and entanglement in the conflict, and move through the rest of the long, sad narrative chronologically — with a few striking exceptions, including the stomach-churning account of the My Lai massacre, which is placed in the timeline when the public first learned of it instead of when it occurred. Near the start of his career, Burns was criticized as a visually dull filmmaker when he was actually just meticulous but folksy, more concerned with serving the story than dazzling the viewer. His collaborations with Novick have made this even more clear. Their last few productions together — including The War, Baseball, and Prohibition — highlight the elegance with which true artists can deploy basic documentary filmmaking devices, such as crosscutting between present-day witnesses and past-tense photographs or newsreel footage, and the marriage of narration and still photographs. Every installment of The Vietnam War boasts moments where Geoffrey C. Ward’s writing, Peter Coyote’s understated voice-over, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s original score, and a perfectly timed slow zoom into a picture join forces with uncanny power. No living filmmakers are better at this kind of thing, except maybe Martin Scorsese.

The sheer depth of the series’ research is staggering, as is the way Burns and Novick alternate big-picture accounts of military and political decisions with intimate stories that illustrate their impact on individuals and families. Sometimes one type of moment becomes the other, as when President Lyndon Johnson watches CBS News correspondent Morley Safer’s account of U.S. soldiers burning South Vietnamese huts with Zippo lighters, then calls CBS president Frank Stanton and demands, “Are you trying to fuck with me?” More often, and more affectingly, The Vietnam War charts gradual disillusionment by interviewing combat veterans, nurses, reporters, and activists in ways that take us chronologically through their mindset as they changed over the course of the 1960s. There are too many examples to cite here — they are a constant throughout the series — but among the most piercing is that of idealistic young soldier Denton Winslow “Mogie” Crocker Jr. of Saratoga Springs, New York. Crocker was memorialized in the book Son of the Cold War, by his mother Jean-Marie Crocker. He was an idealist who believed wholeheartedly in the battle against Communism and was killed in battle in 1966. Through photographs, letters, and family testimony, the series gives us a sense of the totality of this young man, and as is often the case, we emerge with a sense of futility and waste. “Not my beautiful boy!” his mother cried upon learning of his death. More than 58,000 Americans died during the full arc of the war, an estimated quarter-million South Vietnamese soldiers, and anywhere from 1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese total; many of the latter died from explosives dropped by U.S. bombers, the tonnage of which exceeded all the explosives dropped by the U.S. during World War II, on a country slightly smaller than California.

Burns and Novick further distinguish themselves from other TV historians of this conflict by giving comparable (though not equal) weight to the suffering of the Vietnamese, often alternating between their stories and Americans. Many of the U.S. veterans express deep respect for the people who tried so hard to kill them; more than one says that he would have been honored to have fought alongside them. The point of view of the Vietnamese witnesses is consistently deeper and more philosophical than that of the Americans. This may stem from the country’s long history of colonial occupation, as well as a pervasive sense that North Vietnam’s embrace of Communism, the main motivating factor behind U.S. intervention, was a means to an end for people on the other side, a way of removing whatever boot happened to be on the country’s neck at a given moment. “To us, the Americans were no different than the French,” says former North Vietnamese army officer Bảo Ninh. “The Americans were also invaders.”

Burns and Novick convey the racism at the heart of America’s involvement, though in a roundabout way that treats it less as evidence of longstanding national moral corruption than the product of blithe ignorance — something “we” just failed to consider. A brief section near the start of episode eight seems as if it’s about to tie this tendency in with domestic racism against African-Americans and Latinos, but the series mostly leaves this notion on the table.

We get just enough of a taste to wonder how much more stinging The Vietnam War might have been, had it gone as deep into American bigotry as Burns’s Baseball and Jazz, which were criticized by some on the right for concentrating on race and oppression at the expense of practical details about their subjects. (The current controversy over NFL players taking a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner” would’ve made the series even more ripe editorial bait.) “The enemy’s bullets are colorblind,” says former Marine Roger Harris, an African-American. It’s a reassuring sentiment for white viewers who get defensive and angry whenever racism is mentioned, but then, during a section about the vigilante murder or “fragging” of U.S. officers during the final years of the war, we learn that many such incidents were often prompted by racism, and Harris adds, “Say what you want from a distance, but if you get close to me, I’m gonna rip your throat out.”

Is it ungrateful to want this staggering achievement in documentary storytelling to add up to more? Perhaps. But there were times when I did want more from this monumental production, not because it fails in any obvious sense — hour for hour, it’s one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year — but because it frequently comes so close to becoming not just impressive but important, challenging, even agenda-setting. But it never quite pushes itself over that line.

This could be a limitation of the venue — PBS funds itself through grants, individual donations, and public money, and viewers tend to get pissy when programming takes a stand of one kind or another — but it’s just as plausibly a limitation of the filmmakers’ approach to the subject. Burns has always insisted that political agendas are not his thing, even as he carves out space within many of his productions (solo or with Novick) for discussions of racism, xenophobia, and America’s imperialist tendencies, which have always sat uneasily alongside the country’s constant trumpeting of the importance of the individual and its belief that it’s a force for good in the world, and within its own borders. The Vietnam War is unsparing in showing how the conflict became a sinkhole almost immediately and kept pulling more people, resources, and emotion into its maw — one peculiar, striking motif is U.S. officials assuring the public and the media at various stages that the war will be over in six months, or by the end of the year — but it’s too much of a “mistakes were made” approach. It’s correct to call the war a systemic political failure and a failure of vision, but if a production pushes too far in that direction, as this series ultimately does, it can make it seem as if the Vietnam War was a tragic mystery akin to an act of God: a thing that just happened somehow, that crept up on us.

There are many moments when Burns and Novick strongly indicate otherwise, as in many portions dealing with attrition strategies and “kill ratios,” the assertion by South Vietnamese province chief Tran Ngoc Chau that Americans created more resistance by killing Asians so indiscriminately, and the early section that talks about former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s belief that he could solve every problem by crunching numbers. (Errol Morris’s masterful 2004 biography of McNamara, The Fog of War, delves into this delusion at length.) But there are many more, often lengthy stretches where such worries are pushed to the side so that we can absorb the heartrending personal tragedies occurring on battlefields and at home, and these inadvertently end up treating another statement by McNamara — “The Vietnam War is acquiring a momentum of its own that must be stopped” — as a kind of unintentional exculpatory statement, a massive shrug of the shoulders.

We keep hearing over and over throughout the series that “we” meant well, that “we” went into the war with noble intentions. “It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings,” Coyote’s narration intones in the opening minutes of the first installment. But much of the evidence assembled by Burns and Novick strongly suggests the opposite: that multiple cancers have resided at the heart of the body politic for hundreds of years, that those cancers seemed to multiply after our use of atomic bombs against civilian populations in World War II, and that they are the ultimate cause of the confusion, rage, and despair that’s eating the country alive at this moment. As you read this, the War on Terror has been going on longer than the totality of America’s involvement in Vietnam: Next week marks the 16th anniversary of U.S. troops entering Afghanistan, a conflict that’s been fought for so long that sons in uniform are walking the same trails that once bore the bootprints of their fathers. Every now and then, Burns and Novick present a witness who suggests that we really ought to look for patterns of destructive behavior when we study the Vietnam War — that the right question is not “What happened?” but “Why does this keep happening to us?” Or, to make that last sentence active, “Why do we keep doing this?”

The Vietnam War Is a Staggering Documentary Achievement