Of all the press treatment the film received, only a handful of writers had interesting things to say, both positive and negative.
The New York Times’s James Poniewozik steers close to patronising Novick by both acknowledging her, and then implying the film is nevertheless only Burns’s work, that it is Burns who aims at canon status for ‘his’ film, and pursuing with it an ideological view that American society is not yet so fractured that there cannot be some neutral baseline from which to explore the past.
In relatively peaceful times, this approach could seem banal, as if the films are arguing for pieties that everyone already agrees on. In — well, times like now — it can seem naïve to think that there’s any fact so unobjectionable it can’t be litigated by opposed camps. In the divides the war rended, you can see the swellings of today’s impenetrable political bubbles.
The saddest thing about this elegiac documentary may be the credit it extends its audience. “The Vietnam War” still holds out hope that we might learn from history, after presenting 18 hours of evidence to the contrary.
I imagine that in life I would regard Poniewozik as a pompous arse. Yet he has a point about lessons not learnt. Even though I suspect he only skimmed the 18 hours of film before coming to this conclusion.
The New Yorker’s Ian Parker also takes aim at Burns’s attempt to create an American canon, albeit less aggressively:
… Burns had said, “Documentaries are traditionally advocacy: ‘Here’s a big problem. Here are the bad guys. Here are the good guys. How do we change this?’ That’s fine. It’s like an editorial, and that’s what editorials do.” He described his own films, in contrast, as exercises in “emotional archeology” that aspire to be works of art. “We just happen to work in history,” he said. (He sometimes talks of the need to enliven “the dry dates, facts, and events of the past.”) Burns frequently—almost hourly—says, “Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time,” paraphrasing a remark made by Wynton Marsalis, in “Jazz.” Burns uses the line less to acknowledge historical uncertainty than to advertise inclusiveness: a desire to guide all but the most sectarian or jaded viewers through an obstacle course of their own biases. He is not disengaged from his material, but his sense of a subject, and his sense of an audience’s reaction to that subject, seem to be fused. He once said, “I want to bring everybody in.”
Newsweek’s Jeff Stein, who was also ‘U.S. Army Intelligence case officer in South Vietnam during 1968 and 1969’, has a different focus:
While the TV critics have been agog with praise and wonder over the series’s cinematic mastery, depth of research (some 80 interviews of participants on all sides) historical sweep and emotional punch, some veterans and longtime students of the war are already taking critical aim at the series’s fuzzy treatment of the war’s central question: Why did we get involved in the first place? Who thought that was a good idea?
Burns strives to give everyone’s strongly held, divergent views equal weight, but before long, he’s waist deep in a historical big muddy, wandering among competing theories that obscure the root cause of a war that killed an estimated minimum of 429,000 U.S. and allied soldiers and 533,000 communist troops and civilians between 1954 and 1975. Many estimates soar far above those. Millions more were wounded.
“Many veterans fear that this new documentary will misrepresent what really happened and why, substituting [the] ‘many truths’ which Burns says he will present,” Chuck Searcy, an Army Intelligence veteran of the war, said in an email to friends this week from Vietnam, where he has spent the past several years helping to rid the countryside of buried U.S. munitions that are still killing people. “It may permit us Americans, once again, to evade the harsh reckoning that is long overdue, and allow us to remain in denial about what we did in Viet Nam, and why.”
Strangely enough, after such bitter words, Stein says absolutely nothing about the reasons for getting involved in the first place, or the nature of the harsh reckoning that is still to come. This was the perfect place to wade into those topics. Perhaps Stein hopes to make a little money from an extended critique? Another book? To vent about being excluded by Burns and Novick? It would have been more instructive to blast away and give reasons, rather than blast away, as in a Vietnamese free fire zone or rolling thunder mission, without obkective or reason.
Jim Sleeper’s Alternet editorial, running on Salon’s website, 1 October 2017, didn’t do much better. He charges that Burns and Novick didn’t give anti-war demonstrators a fair shake. I think he is wrong.
If Sleeper were more disciplined and less emotionally clouded, I would probably agree with him that the root causes of the Vietnam war were to do with political economy. But the protests didn’t identify Wall Street, plutocrats, or corrupt business practices; they just opposed the war and the White House.
In that sense Burns and Novick are off the hook, and Sleeper ought to talk to Jeff Stein to come up with a coherent explanation for their joint, though probably irreconcilable, opposition to any explanation for the causes of the Vietnam War. Despite their own obstinate, possibly ideological, inability to do better.
Perhaps less afraid to stake a claim of knowledge about the causes of the war is Jacobin’s Salar Mohandesi, whose review comes pretty close, at times, to my own interpretations. One of his arguments is that:
While Burns and Novick should be credited for trying to bring balance to what are often incredibly unbalanced histories of the war, the kind of balance they pursue re-inscribes those biased histories. Reducing balance to simply pointing out that both sides engaged in brutality comes dangerously close to Donald Trump’s claim that there was violence “on both sides” in Charlottesville, Virginia. As others have pointed out, this position obscures the reasons why people on different sides engage in violence: Nazis engage in violence because they want to expel, enslave, or eradicate people they deem to be inferior; anti-fascists engage in violence to stop Nazis from achieving those ends.
In taking this position, Mohandesi does not acknowledge the stated aim of Burns and Novick to create a reconciliation rather than another partisan brushfire. Recognising in the film that such a conclusion is entirely possible is not the same as making of the film an anti-Trump spiel.
Predictably, sadly, Mohandesi descends to the smug, self-satisfied, and therefore impotent tone of so many Jacobin writers:
… while US imperialism may have changed shape, our commitment to opposing it in all its forms should not. Let’s not forget one of the central messages of antiwar activists in the 1960s and 1970s: ending the Vietnam War is not enough; the goal has to be to organize a mass political movement that can bring an end to the global system that makes such wars possible in the first place. That’s the real closure we all need.
Preaching Maoism to me, or anyone, in the 21st century is intellectually lazy and more than a little childish. Mohandesi should have stuck to critique of the film for avoiding political economy, not for failing to meet unspecified ideological purities.
Worse, I suspect Mohandesi didn’t actually watch the film, and relied for much of the substance of his piece on secondary sources. This is armchair critique at a great distance, possibly motivated by more contempt for the subject matter than serious critique requires.
Like Mohandesi’s initial points, I find much to agree with in Peter Van Buren’s piece for The American Conservative. Van Buren seems to have watched at least some of the film to come to his central critique:
… where Burns lets us down is where nearly everything that has or maybe will be written about Vietnam lets us down. He is too easy on the politicians who cynically manipulated the public, he is too easy on the bulk of the media who gleefully participated in the manipulation (everything short of proclaiming WMDs in Hanoi), too easy on individual soldiers who took advantage of lax leadership to, in historian Nick Turse’s words, Kill Anything That Moves (My Lai was one, far from the only.)
… As Turse writes and Burns omits, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.” In 2017 America, where the military is fetishized, personal responsibility is lost.
Burns indeed lets all of us off too easy: Us, the American people, the voters, the spectators, the ones who bought the epic story that Vietnam was a struggle between two great forces for the soul of civilization, Communism versus Freedom. … Vietnam was then our bad childhood, and should have left us with no such excuse for Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, etc.
Burns lets us off too easy because he does not demand we not let it happen again, and that is his sin: omission.
I find nothing there to dispute. But I would be more cautious about the following:
Burns tried to be all things to all people, while failing at the most important task, making history valuable to the present. He does not seem in search of lessons, only in creating a catalog of Vietnam stuff and leaving it on the table for us to poke at, like historical amuse bouche. By eschewing experts from his interviews to focus on “real people” and their anecdotes, Burns by default puts himself into the expert role. He then chooses not to responsibly occupy it.
There is no reckoning in The Vietnam War, and it is doubtful there ever will be. You can’t close the book on Vietnam if you want to keep it open for Syria, or Iran, or wherever America makes war on an industrial scale against nations far less advanced, and commits torture, assassinations, and mass killings all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public with the media’s financially-comfortable cooperation.
I was frustrated myself by the conspicuous absence of strong conclusions, but I would suggest, in the vein of Chomsky, Burns and Novick leave lots of footnotes scattered around in the film for people to follow up on their own.
To do what Van Buren demands would make it a Michael Moore film. And perhaps that should be done too. I’m sure Moore is thinking on it when looking at the Burns-Novick film.
Of all the media coverage I read, the most curious came from The Garden City Telegram, whose Christopher Burnett covered an event some distance from the small Kansas community. Ken Burns and Lyn Novick attended a special screening of parts of their documentary at the Command and General Staff College (CGSG) near Fort Leavenworth. Burnett concludes his piece by quoting CGSC dean of academics, Dr James Martin:
This was a good experience while these students are deciding what they may want to write about on their thesis, or what they may want to study if they go to (the School of Advanced Military Studies). …
This film may direct them in a different scholarly direction than they may have taken before being exposed to it.
Does this signal that the US military is willing to change its mind on the Vietnam War while civilian partisans look only for flaws and omissions?
OVERALL, THE impression I got was that most writers barely acknowledged Lynn Novick. Only a woman, after all, and in America not important enough to acknowledge as human, professional, or insightful in her own right. Never mind that she has collaborated with Burns since 1989. If she brought the lesson to the film that women played important and undervalued roles, I suspect her own society is less ready to hear that today than it was in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Another impression I formed is that most writers had not watched the entire film, and maybe not even more than an episode or two. Reviewers are time-poor, and expected to make sense of many offerings to tight deadlines; skimming is an established practice. But insights require more than regurgitation of what others say, and synthesising fleeting impressions.
I asked myself: How do you possibly cover all the pertinent ground in talking about a work this large, on a topic still hotly controversial? You cannot. That is a task for essays in learned journals, and even theses on film-making and historiography in the years to come. And it’s part of the reason why this is a series of notes rather than a structured essay.
VERDICT: CHỢ ĐEN
The black market and drugs are mentioned in the film, but in a desultory fashion that trivialises what I believe to be the beginning of a multi-billion dollar industry in feeding American addictions and defrauding American taxpayers. A business now so well entrenched in American military adventurism it seems one of the most expensive lessons not to have been learnt from the Vietnam War.
I don’t recall that the film made any mention of French colonial practices, which included enforced sales of opium to their Vietnamese subjects, modelled, perhaps, on British practices in China.
Between 1965 and the mid-1970s, heroin imports into the USA via military supply lines for the Vietnam war soared. The famous Frank Lucas arrest in 1975, revealing US army connections in shipping heroin directly from the Golden Triangle, is likely to have been only the tip of an iceberg. The statistics and stories about Vietnam War related addiction and smuggling are legion. Yet they didn’t make the cut for the Burns and Novick film.
Why not? It could be argued that these were peripheral problems, or that heroin was replaced long ago by the much big bigger scourge of cocaine and street crack. But it could also be argued that heroin was a ‘black’ problem, and therefore no problem at all.
Digging too deep might also uncover very unpleasant facts about the rôle of the CIA in illegal drug smuggling. Those rumours deserve to be put to bed. Either way. Particularly if the topic is a war that ‘was supposed to be the ultimate expression of American values’ (headline from Alyssa Rosenberg’s 19 September 2017 podcast about the film).
The black market more generally also didn’t get much attention. This isn’t just a case of military materiel being sold off to the highest bidder, though that problem apparently persist too. It is about billions of dollars of taxpayer funds just disappearing. It isn’t under dispute that America knew about this; there’s a 1966 press release from the then House Republican Leader Gerald Ford screaming about it.
Perhaps it is too hard and dangerous to make the case that the US military established a sideline in corruption that also created a yet unending fraud on the American public, siphoning off gigantic mountains of money to enrich a few insiders.
Nevertheless, this is a real and puzzling lacuna in the Burns-Novick film.
… Chuck Searcy, the veteran who has been helping the Vietnamese cope with U.S. landmines and bombs that are still exploding in the countryside, as well as hereditary diseases caused by the defoliant Agent Orange, the filmmakers’ flinch on the root causes of the doomed U.S. war effort [and] lets Americans off the hook—and worse. “For many of us,” he wrote to friends last week, “that absence of ‘reckoning’ is why we are still dealing with the consequences of Vietnam in failed U.S. policies that continue today,” in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The sonorous, trustworthy voice of narrator Peter Coyote tells us at the five minute mark of the film:
It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American presidents, belonging to both political parties.
It is script, written by Burns and author-historian Geoffrey C Ward, but it sets a tone of continued self-delusion about the Vietnam War that is difficult to shake in spite of the way the authors injected a new stream of honesty into that chapter of American history.
I cannot understand how anyone could possibly see good faith in American decisions about Vietnam, going right back to WWII. The French colony was conceived of first as cannon fodder in the war against the Japanese, then as a French problem, then as a domino, and finally as a pawn on the chessboard of Cold War geopolitics.
American attitudes to Vietnam were paternally racist and inexplicably careless in light of the cost associated with the war.
Nor can I agree that the people who determined this approach were decent in any normal sense of that term. They were mercenary politicians focused on manipulating the Vietnamese for domestic political advantage. I don’t see Kennedy as less corrupt and Machiavellian than LBJ or Nixon. All of them remained arrogantly aloof from seeking or attaining any real understanding of the people, and are entirely responsible for a barbarous, chaotic military strategy, incompetent leadership, and unconscionable conduct.
Moreover, I think that perspective is regarded as pedestrian by many alien observers, meaning it is not intentionally hostile so much as realistic.
If I acknowledge the rest of the statement as accurate, I am left with the idea that for all their iconoclasm, Burns and Novick were not willing to peel back the established mythology of Vietnam as far as it could have been, and maybe should have been, given that the evidence presented actually supports an entirely different summation:
It was begun carelessly by mercenary politicians and incompetent military officers who were wilfully deluded about Vietnam and its people, and who obstinately persisted with their delusions despite evidence that should have demanded a change of plan and execution from rational people, and the damage done to the USA itself in not changing course. This rolling disaster was prolonged because it seemed expedient to persist rather than admit that it had been caused by execrable decisions, made by five American presidents, belonging to both political parties.
As mentioned in the ‘Unresolved’ sections, this failure to admit innumerable top level mistakes means that absolution for the entire period in history is not available – withheld from the nation by exceptionalism and persistent arrogance.
If navigating such an absolution was an aim of the film, it did not succeed.
If the preceding seems a harsh verdict, I can think of much harsher words, spoken to me in the 1980s by an Australian Vietnam veteran. We were near the crest of the Darling Scarp at Mundaring in Western Australia.
It was winter 1983, and we were in a pub heated by an open mallee root fire. It should have been a cosy, idyllic afternoon. Instead my friend had just recovered his composure after being reduced to tears by the Redgum song ‘I was only 19’ –
Mum and Dad and Denny saw the passing out parade at Puckapunyal
It was a long march from cadets
The sixth battalion was the next to tour and it was me who drew the card
We did Canungra and Shoalwater before we left
And Townsville lined the footpaths as we marched down to the quay
This clipping from the paper shows us young and strong and clean
And there’s me in me slouch hat with me SLR and greens
God help me – I was only nineteen
From Vung Tau riding Chinooks to the dust at Nui Dat
I’d been in and out of choppers now for months
And we made our tents a home, VB and pinups on the lockers
And an Asian orange sunset through the scrub
And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
And night time’s just a jungle dark and a barking M16?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me – I was only nineteen
A four week operation, when each step can mean your last one on two legs
It was a war within yourself
But you wouldn’t let your mates down ’til they had you dusted off
So you closed your eyes and thought about somethin’ else
And then someone yelled out “Contact”, and the bloke behind me swore
We hooked in there for hours, then a God almighty roar
And Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon
God help me – he was goin’ home in June
And I can still see Frankie, drinkin’ tinnies in the Grand Hotel
On a thirty-six hour rec leave in Vung Tau
And I can still hear Frankie, lying screaming in the jungle
‘Til the morphine came and killed the bloody row
And the Anzac legends didn’t mention mud and blood and tears
And the stories that my father told me never seemed quite real
I caught some pieces in my back that I didn’t even feel
God help me, I was only 19
And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
Any why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me – I was only 19.
I didn’t press him on it, and he told me only a little about being a soldier, but he was angry about a trip he’d made to the USA in 1980, where Ronald Reagan had addressed veterans in Chicago. He didn’t go into specifics, but I do remember a succinct impression of the war, in words to the effect of:
Those American boys were little monsters, pulling the wings off the flies as soon as mum and dad weren’t watching. And then playing innocent, as if they weren’t cruel little fuckers. Christ, they even did it to each other.
Now they’re all pretending the war was hard on them – and them alone. They were the ones who took a giant shit on the world with their napalm and agent orange, and fucked it all up.
There are two consequences to that memory. The first is that I don’t subscribe to any attempt to exclude alien perspectives from the events. The attempt itself is almost tantamount to the admission: ‘We’re about to lie.’ The second is that no matter how much American confessions might be cathartic and soothing for the USA as a whole, there is no excuse for the rationalisation that it’s OK to behave like a monster when no one can see you do it, and you will still be ‘good’ when you turn your back on what you’ve done.
The second consequence is a lesson clearly not learnt by an America that talks a lot about god, but murders black citizens in broad daylight, refuses to rein in gun violence, is passing legislation so misogynistic they rival fundamentalist Sharia law states, end elects presidents who state unabashedly that there are some ‘good’ neo-Nazis in the USA.
Courageous and dissident though the Burns and Novick film may be in challenging pre-existing American myths about the Vietnam War, they are still a long way away from admitting the most lasting and damaging impacts. Perhaps, like the proverbial frogs in a simmering cauldron, both are too acclimatised to even sense the morass they inhabit.
Burns and Novick mentioned everything, touched on all things you might expect, and yet skated over much of that vast territory to present a personal reconciliation for Americans. Even the Vietnamese voices are excluded from that reconciliation, because after all these years, they did not become the Americans Kennedy and LBJ had assumed they would.
Ian Parker, writing for The New Yorker says of Burns that his ‘work tends to display a kind of wishful patriotism—a soaring appreciation of something that’s not quite there.’ If you include Novick as a partner in that aesthetic and ideological endeavour, you probably have a measure of The Vietnam War. Parker’s portrait of Burns is of a prickly man who makes films to win awards and accolades. I sense some of that in the work, and as a product of not just Burns, but also Novick, who is curiously ignored by some journalists who should know better. It would be unfair, though, to focus solely on wanting praise and even adulation. There is also earnestness, craft, and artistry that deserves to be recognised as sincere, even if it lacks the integrity of self-critique enough to recognise and acknowledge the patrician focus of the work.
The authors speak as, and to, the middle class kids who thought it was unfair they had to go, or run to Canada. They spoke also to the lower class kids who came home to become middle class adults. And to people like me, who are stubbornly white, educated, and, in the USA at least, unconcerned that the widening pool of the poor is forced to offer up its young to fight the USA’s endless, stupid wars. A sacrifice to keep the patricians safe from having to pitch in, but also ignorant enough of what really goes on not to forcefully oppose imperial wars.
Who speaks for the cannon fodder poor? No one. Not Burns and Novick either. Not really. They return home with a better than even chance of dropping through the cracks to end up homeless, mentally ill, drug addicts, and shot for sport by men in dark blue uniforms. If there should have been a lesson to come out of the disaster in Vietnam, it is: ‘Do not to turn your backs on the men and women you sent there, no matter how unpopular the war is at home.’
Not all veterans revealed themselves as worthy human beings by their actions. But all of the ones who went under duress – because there were no better options – deserve respect for their service and for being the shield they represented between harsh realities and the spoilt classes they protected from those.
I suppose Burns and Novick knew that taking a stand on such issues would mire their film in controversy and partisan spite about the unfinished business of the American Civil War. Maybe they would have even missed out on some sponsorship dollars; David Koch was one of the money men for the film.
Without being a bit more honest about the class politics, meaning, really, the political economy of the Vietnam War, there cannot be a final reckoning or reconciliation.
A great work is removed from being the greatest work by that measure.
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