Burns and Novick on Vietnam: A Neutral Film, or a Rifle Butt to the Heart?

When it comes to the Vietnam War, we face almost the same situation that we do with physics: there’s really no “grand unified theory” among either scholars or the public. The staggering complexity of that conflict resists any conclusive definition of what, precisely, it was about.

One can command a dizzying array of facts about it, or fervently believe a variety of historical “truths,” yet remain surprisingly uninformed. Perhaps the sheer scope and breadth of the Vietnam War prevents easy explanation, as colonialism, nationalism, ideology, and civil war all intertwined to create a historical facsimile of the Gordian Knot. Worse, possessing intimate knowledge of the war often leads to disdain for other viewpoints, a rejection of even the slightest opening to contrary perspectives. Such divides long ago hardened into competing views, with each side unfortunately seeing its perspective as canon and the others as heretical.

The new documentary on the war by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick hoped to bridge the political divide and elicit healing among the factions. According to Burns, the film sought neutrality, the role of “only call[ing] balls and strikes.” Perhaps seeking middle ground was the best approach. Surely most people watching, especially those without specialized knowledge of the war, or who did not live through those times, will view the series as magisterial. I suspect, however, that, as was the case with the PBS effort from 1983, Vietnam: A Television History, those invested in a particular political viewpoint were not pleased with the current show, whose final episode aired on September 28.

Left and the Right alike seek vindication, instead of being forced to accept “alternative facts.” Taking in several hundred news articles and commentaries about the film, I find my misgivings confirmed. Reading these reviews reminds me of the verse from Revelations: “Because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

As Burns and Novick sought fairness, it behooves us, too, to “call balls and strikes” regarding their work, the fruit of 10 years of effort. In my view, the filmmakers are to be commended for creating an amazing movie, one that covers the war’s span. Most important, they sought out numerous perspectives, from young American men who answered their country’s call, to others who became draft-resisters, to insightful interviews with Vietnamese from both sides of the conflict. Yet even with an exhausting 18 hours, in many ways it is a lengthy redundancy, repeating old stories and unchallenging surface realities. The war was never black and white, but shades of grey reflecting multiple variations of “truth.”

The Vietnam War mainly focuses on the American experience, portraying how the United States entered the war, its effect on both the servicemen and their suffering families, and its influence upon American society and government. The series also represents those who resisted the war, and while it appears to take umbrage at some antiwar protests, one senses an understated yet pervasive antiwar sentiment. In many clips, one sees protesters waving Viet Cong flags, yet the commentator never remarks on this obvious absurdity.

Most U.S. veterans shown, perhaps because their involvement spanned a substantial portion of the war, seem chosen solely to provide authentic voices from those who became opposed to the conflict. Rarely do we see American veterans who were proud of their service and did not believe the war was a mistake. It seems disingenuous to portray one Marine through a major part of the series, only to learn near the end that he eventually joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Moreover, while it is accurate to highlight flawed American battle tactics, such as taking a hill at great cost only to retreat shortly thereafter, the show provides no corresponding view of the many successful battles that drove off enemy units. The negative was accentuated, mainly to provide the unspoken thesis of the war as a costly mistake.

In support of that implicit narrative, White House tapes from the Johnson and Nixon eras are cherry-picked. If in multiple instances both Presidents were taped clearly outlining their policies to help the South Vietnamese, but on occasion lapsed into doubt, and only the doubts are broadcast, what does that say about the motivations of the filmmakers? I had occasion to ask Henry Kissinger specifically about his taped comment heard in the film, that “No one will care about Vietnam in a year.” He observed that U.S. officials and policymakers are also human, subject to the same doubts and fatigues as others, and hence liable to express frustration at an intractable problem. Yet in isolation it is portrayed as a cynical comment revealing Kissinger and Nixon’s true feelings, rather than one remark among many.

Commendably, the series was translated into Vietnamese and is being shown on line in that country. The voices from the communist side were often measured, and occasionally willing (if somewhat grudgingly) to admit past mistakes. However, it required a young journalist named Huy Duc to speak more forthrightly than the others. Duc’s two books criticized the government of Vietnam without raising a backlash, but we shall see if that remains the case after this series. So far, Hanoi’s response has been muted, with only the foreign ministry making a bland statement that they hoped the filmmakers would understand that the war was a “righteous revolution that mobilized the entire nation, and was supported wholeheartedly by friends and people worldwide.”[1]

The film’s most egregious flaw is the unflattering view of the Nationalists, or South Vietnamese, who are portrayed almost continually as corrupt, authoritarian, and cowardly. These have become code words, meant to delegitimize a country and her people, making them not worth fighting or dying for. South Vietnam certainly had those elements, but also many positive accomplishments that were never mentioned. Its government was indeed authoritarian and plagued by corruption but the country was at the same time relatively free and struggling to become a democracy, all the while fighting an implacable enemy that used terrorism to achieve its aims.

It is a clever editorial trick to use South Vietnamese to criticize their own former government. This, however, is no journalistic coup, as the South Vietnamese even today remain riven by factions and incessant back-biting. If the intent were to be neutral, why no corresponding voice discussing Saigon’s many accomplishments, like Land Reform, or that thousands of enemy soldiers left their own ranks to join the South Vietnamese under a program known as Chieu Hoi?

For example, we are told that Communist Party Secretary Le Duan launched the 1968 Tet offensive because he believed the South Vietnamese military would quickly collapse, and the South Vietnamese people would rise up and overthrow their government. We are provided numerous interviews with communist soldiers and cadre who fought during the battle and admitted that this did not occur. Yet only at the end does the commentator acknowledge that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam fought well, and that the civilians did not rise (although he claims they simply hid in their houses). Such begrudging afterthoughts are, as the daughter of a South Vietnamese general remarked, “like a rifle butt to the heart.”

Ultimately, I believe that, despite a valiant effort, this was at best an imperfect effort to tell an extraordinarily complex story. At worst, it has cemented, perhaps forever, the old stereotypes—the Americans as bumbling interlopers layering mistakes upon bad judgment and governmental deceit; the communists as ardent nationalists simply trying to unify their country; the people in the South as corrupt incompetents not worth the lives of our GIs. The film serves as a stark reminder that, “In war truth is the first casualty.”

[1]“‘The Vietnam War’ Draws Muted Official Response in Hanoi,” Asia News Monitor [Bangkok], September 25, 2017.