Last week I watched the preview of Ken Burns’s upcoming documentary, The Vietnam War, scheduled to start Sunday, September 17 on PBS.
While there were some moving segments in the preview, I was left feeling that the Burns documentary may turn out to be yet another version of the American version of another American war. Excuse my wordiness but read on and you’ll get my point.
It is perhaps unfair to judge a 10-part 18-hour documentary based on a 23-minute preview, but in it I see symptoms of what I would describe as a kind of knee-jerk sentimentality that makes war an acceptable and often glorified, part of American culture.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are self-proclaimed storytellers, and very good at it. But that’s where the problem starts: with the notion that war is yet another “story” – a term they often use in the preview. It’s from this perspective that war begins to take on romantic appeal; something that young people without parenting, a cause, direction, or education will cling to when all else fails.
Exposing the clouded lens through which his documentary is made Burns says: “Wars are so extraordinarily revealing. Obviously, the worst of humanity, but as it turns out also the best of humanity.” Really?
I would argue that using the phrase “the best of humanity” in the context of war is delusional. It is yet more storytelling about how people react in a time of horror when adrenalin is coursing through their veins. The same happens during a car wreck, a plane crash, or a terrorist attack. We don’t glorify these tragic events, so why do we glorify war?
Talk to anyone who has experienced war, and you quickly learn that its unrelenting tragedy stands on its own. Packaging it into a story only serves to deceive the listener. As Vietnam POW John McCain famously said: “War is wretched beyond description, and only a fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality.”
There is no “best of humanity” for the irrevocably lost lives of 3,000,000 Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans, and their families. There is no “best of humanity” for the Vietnamese woman, six-months pregnant, who was the sole survivor of a napalm attack on the sugar cane grove she worked. She lost both arms and, as her eyelids were scorched by napalm, would spend the rest of her life sleeping with her eyes open.
The Burns film crew made two trips to Vietnam. In the preview, I counted four short takes of Vietnamese graves, but oddly none of the American War in Vietnam memorial in Hanoi.
By contrast, there are eleven long takes of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. Some up close, some further away, some in fall, some in winter, but all in an emotive setting designed to tug at our patriotic heartstrings. Do these effects provide insight into the Vietnam war, or reinforce a misguided passion for the next?
As images of US soldiers in Vietnam are shown, Burns says he hopes the documentary “might be some agency of healing for the soldiers.” That’s a comforting thought, but absent any mention of the Vietnamese. Do they not have to heal too, or is that a Vietnamese problem? Isn’t our healing somehow connected to theirs?
Many a Vet who experienced the hell of Vietnam would tell you this. Their pain is not diminished by ex-hippies admitting they did wrong by spitting on returning Vets, or by more hero worship at home, but instead by coming to grips with the death, destruction, and suffering they participated in, at the command of our leaders.
Lynn Novick says: “In order to move on as a country at all, we have to really understand what happened. And we’ve never done that with Vietnam.”
I agree with Lynn, but I don’t see how a documentary (at least judging by its preview) that makes no mention of the carnage of the Vietnamese, the destruction of their homes and hamlets, the use of napalm, and massive amounts of chemical defoliants, can help us to really understand what happened.
Referring to Episode 8, Tricia Reidy explains how “people seem to be reacting very strongly to the Kent State scene.” In a year (1970) when over 200,000 Vietnamese were killed – many as a result of Vietnamese killing Vietnamese – it’s astonishing that the parallel tragedy to Kent State is not mentioned. The preview falls into a common prejudice that America has about war, and itself: our deaths are a tragedy, the enemy’s a statistic. Am I to believe that the American life is superior to others, or that the American experience of pain and suffering is exceptional?
Near the end of the preview, against the backdrop of another take of the Vietnam Memorial, Vincent Okamoto (US Army) asks: “How does America produce young men like this?” The more relevant historical question is how did the small nation of Vietnam that had fought Japan in WWII, and pushed out the French in 1954, go on to defeat the world’s greatest superpower, the United States of America? I think a documentary objectively conceived would ask this question. Okamoto’s question leaves us thinking America won this war. If we’re going to understand what happened in Vietnam, we need first to acknowledge that we lost.
While I don’t doubt their sincerity, I feel that Burns and Novick may have been limited by their backgrounds, as well as the audience they’re playing to – PBS and the American public.
We may well learn a lot about the Vietnam war and how the American people and culture were affected by it, but not move a step closer to understanding it. If this is the case, their 18-hour documentary will be just another version of the American version of another American war.
I’ll be watching.