Now that Yr Wonkette has thrown a bunch of clichés at the topic, you’ll actually be glad to know that in their new 10-part, 18-hour documentary The Vietnam War, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick mostly manage to avoid slipping into familiar tropes about that war America lost. So much of what we think about when we think of the war in Vietnam has become familiar through repetition that Burns and Novick are keen to grab us gently by the eyeballs and make us look at it with a fresh perspective — yes, even the stuff we’ve seen before.
The first episode, set to air tonight on PBS, underlines the point with its title: “Déjà Vu (1858-1961)” (that’s from the earliest French colonial days to the first American troops. There’s some summarizing). A few minutes in, there’s a sometimes-jarring sequence of iconic scenes from Vietnam, played in reverse: helicopters leap from the sea onto the deck of a Navy ship, a North Vietnamese tank backs out of the US Embassy compound (thoughtfully putting the gate back up as it leaves), bombs are pulled out of explosions and rise up to rejoin a jet flying backwards to its base, just like the bit in Slaughterhouse-Five where Billy Pilgrim experiences a WW II movie in reverse:
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
So yes, new perspective. While we were waiting to get our press access for the new documentary, we went back and binge-rewatched most of the excellent 1983 PBS documentary, Vietnam: A Television History. Don’t worry, even though we taught first-year college writing, this won’t turn into a compare/contrast essay on that series and the new one.
But it’s certainly no coincidence that both films frame their introductory episodes with a shot of Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (still quite new when the earlier doc was filmed), followed by variations on the question, What the hell were we fighting for? In the 1983 series, it was a simple recitation of the stats by voiceover narrator extraordinaire Will Lyman: “Two and a half million Americans fought in Vietnam and 58,000 Americans died there. Why?” Burns and Novick let former Congressman Max Cleland ask the question, citing Viktor Frankl: “To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in suffering. And for those of us who suffered because of Vietnam, that’s been our quest ever since.”
Ken Burns has his own special task when it comes to avoiding cliché: We all know by now what a Ken Burns documentary looks and sounds like, so what can he and Novick do to make this one feel like the “Ken Burns” style, but not a parody of itself? For starters, unlike The Civil War or Baseball, there are no on-camera historians or cultural experts to explain things to us. And unlike most documentaries about recent history, there aren’t any high-profile generals or politicians to interview — we hear from veterans (from the U.S. and from both North and South Vietnam), from journalists who covered the war, from protesters and from families of soldiers who didn’t come back, but there’s no John Kerry or John McCain here (Henry Kissinger is inescapable, but stays safely confined to Nixon-era news video). Burns told the New York Times he didn’t want anyone with “an interest in having history break the way they want it to break.”
It’s a smart move — since the Official Voices of Authority proved to be so consistently untrustworthy when it came to Vietnam, best to confine their spin doctoring safely to videotape and the written record.
While Peter Coyote is back doing narration duty, there are no actors recreating the voices of people reading letters or diaries, with a single exception, in the case of a soldier whose recreated letters — and the fact that his story is framed through interviews with his mom and sister — are spoiler warning enough regarding how his tour of duty ended. There’s also a distinct lack of fiddle music. Instead, the series has original music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and additional music by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Plus, of course, the inevitable rock music of the period, because apparently no one is allowed to ever make a movie about Vietnam without dragging out “For What It’s Worth” or “Turn! Turn! Turn!” one more time. At least it’s mostly good cliché music, and the Really Big Pop Hits are mostly reserved for the credits.
But we don’t need to hear any readings from LBJ’s diary — we’ve got tapes. Burns and Novick supplement the news clips and narration with frequent excepts from White House recordings made by Johnson and Nixon, in which we hear them talking with aides about this damned war and why can’t they just not have to deal with it anymore, please. And then the aide points out that quitting would make America look weak, so that’s why the war went on for damn ever, until we finally did leave and ended up looking weak, but with thousands more Americans and hundreds more thousands of Vietnamese dead.
One historic LBJ tape Burns and Novick don’t include, for some reason, is the one where he orders some pants:
You’d think a man who could explain to the maker of Haggar slacks all the necessary details of his bunghole and where his nuts hang might be a little more able to drop his ego and get the hell out of an unwinnable war.
As ever with Burns, it’s the personal stories of the people caught up in the big historic events — combined with the archival footage — that really brings the documentary to life. Tonights first episode actually manages to pull off an amazing bit of first-person perspective right in the middle of a history lesson about French colonial rule in Vietnam by jumping forward over half a century: One moment, we’re being told the early-20th century French colonizers barely regarded their Vietnamese subjects as human, then the next, we’re hearing from Marine John Musgrave, one of the most compelling of the vets the documentary helps us come to know, who admits, with decades’ worth of perspective and shame, that when he was in the country he felt “pure hatred” for the Vietnamese, because he was terrified. “And the scareder I got, the more I hated them. I was an 18-year-old Marine rifleman with the ink still wet on my high school diploma, I didn’t want to shame myself in front of my buddies, but I was so scared. I felt like I was holding onto my honor by my fingernails the whole time I was there.”
Those jump-cuts from old-timey Vietnamese history to memories of Americans who served in the war that we narrowly think of as the Vietnam War are an effective little shorthand for the recursive history of Vietnam’s occupiers — same stupid, different decades. It’s enough déjà vu to set Yossarian’s head spinning.
There are also lots of voices from both North and South Vietnam, including amazing interviews with North Vietnamese veterans (among others) about the battle of Hue, during the Tet Offensive. The two North Vietnamese men are remarkably frank in talking about a massacre of some 2,800 South Vietnamese officials and their families, along with “reactionaries,” low-level government workers, and civilians who simply got arrested for being in the wrong place. Says one of the men, an NVA veteran, “Please be careful making your film, because I could get in trouble” for putting the lie to Hanoi’s official narrative that only Americans and Saigon government forces committed atrocities. There’s also a woman who fought as a Viet Cong guerilla, who seems a bit hesitant about just how much she wants to tell the American filmmakers about shooting American soldiers, but goes right ahead — it was war.
It’s not all blood and hate and horror (though what with being a war, yeah, it’s mostly that) — there’s plenty of dark irony to go around, like the anecdote about an old Vietnamese man who greeted one of the first columns of Marines to move out from Da Nang by running out and shouting “Vivez les Français!” — he honestly thought the French were back.
Then there are moments of jaw-dropping absurdity, as when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara visited South Vietnam to endorse General Nguyen Khan, who had just taken power in a coup. Khan gave a speech that ended with “Vietnam — A Thousand Years!” McNamara, to be supportive, shouted what he thought was the same phrase, but his mastery of Vietnamese tones was more than a bit off: What he shouted more or less translated to “The little ducky wants to lie down!” Top make matters worse, McNamara and an American officer, both much taller than Khan, took the new president’s hands in theirs and raised them in what was supposed to be triumph, but looked more like they were trying to prop up the sleepy little duck. The Vietnamese audience barely kept from falling on the floor laughing.
Just like The Civil War and Burns and Novick’s 2007 WW II documentary The War, The Vietnam War is an absolute must-see, the an amazingly humane examination of an amazingly inhumane war and the people who fought in it, as well as those who fought against it. Like Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland, it’s sure to be a go-to text for understanding how our current culture wars and politics have developed. The Vietnam War probably won’t settle any arguments — and it certainly won’t win over the keyboard Rambos who insist “they wouldn’t let us win” — but it will at least make discussions of what the hell it was all about better-informed.
UPDATE: Also worth mentioning: If you have a Vietnam story to share (or you want more info on the show), the series website has a “Share Your Story” section.
The Vietnam War, a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Airs on PBS Sunday, September 17 through Thursday, September 21 & Sunday, September 24 through Thursday, September 28. Check local listings here. Available for streaming online while the series airs; schedule and viewing at PBS.org. Series available on DVD/Bluray at ShopPBS. Companion book, The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, by Geoffrey C. Ward, available at the linky, with a nice Amazon kickback to Yr Wonkette. Update: After the initial run, They’ll do a one-episode-per Sunday rebroadcast starting October 3; each episode will be streaming at PBS.org for a week after it airs.