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October 2, 2017

Follow-up to Ken Burns, "The Vietnam War"

This is a follow-up to my Sep. 18 post on episode one of the Burns-Novick documentary The Vietnam War. Today, I also posted a separate essay above entitled "US Entry into Vietnam: More Order than Disorder," which reviews some of why the American war in Vietnam took place.

In my posting on the first episode of Ken Burns's ten-part documentary The Vietnam War, I pointed out that the film's opening words were a continuation of what Americans have routinely been told about the war, but that the episode contained some good information. The opening words spoke of the war as "begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation." On balance, the subsequent nine episodes tend to reinforce this narrative.

While Burns and Lynn Novick do include interviews, discussion, and footage of a multitude of perspectives, the film tilts toward the American experience. True, the project was directed by Americans, whose careers have centered on America, and was presumably made mostly for an American audience. Nevertheless, episode to episode one feels that the GIs took the worse beating. The documentary doesn't say this, and presents information to the contrary, but the scale isn't conveyed.

When one takes into account the sheer disparity in fatality figures, the extent of the film's partiality is revealed. To illustrate, the death toll for Vietnamese was on the order of the entire population of Chicago. Fatalities for American service personnel, on the other hand, coincide with the capacity of Soldier Field where the Chicago Bears play.

All in all, the bar was low. And, in my view, Burns and Novick didn't have to do much to do good. The way the war has been recalled, discussed, packaged, and processed is distorted so severely that the Vietnam War that exists in the American imagination is a grotesque—a different one. And given that this misconception lies under 40 years of sediment, every little bit helps.

Burns and Novick do treat the North Vietnamese story. We meet Ho Chi Minh, who is presented in a reasonable light. Ho's outreach to the United States is noted, as well as his non-identification with Communist China or Moscow. We see a country that desired independence get bisected, with "independence" forced upon the South by the United States as the White House saw fit. And we are introduced to a number of North Vietnamese and "Viet Cong," who share their experiences.

So some of the origins of the war do receive treatment. And because the film deviates slightly from cinematic depictions—The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and others—progress is made. Though at this point, all these decades later, Burns and Novick ran little risk in presenting a deeper, more honest, less nationalist version of the history. Whether this team would make such a film is another matter.

Taking into account how incremental and careful this film was, could one interpret the results as maybe a temperature reading of the culture? That maybe this is where we (still) are at the moment? (Or maybe it's just where Burns and Novick are.) In either case, a great distance must be covered if we are to prevent further such crimes. Recent history offers limited hope, such as the protesting of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nevertheless, the support for invasion was 70 percent.

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