Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense

Ken Burns: Vietnam War;
Epic TV Masterpiece

| published September 21, 2017 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Much anticipated and much promoted, Ken Burns’ newest sweeping mega-documentary starts with a brief interview in which a soldier who fought in Vietnam posits that few people have ever wanted to truly talk about the American experience in Southeast Asia. “Only recently,” he says, have those with close, personal memories of that long, bitter war opened up and begun to ask what really happened.

The brief clip is emotional and searing, and seems to be Burns’ way of establishing the central premise of his new mini-series The Vietnam War: that now, finally, at long last, Americans can have that pent-up conversation about a war which took the lives of 58,000 Americans, 200,000 civilians, and more than 1 million Vietnamese soldiers.

There is only one problem with Burns’ opening salvo: it isn’t true.

Indeed, the United States has been very nearly obsessed with the topic of Vietnam for decades. Discounting, as Burns surely does, pop cultural vehicles (scores of major motion pictures, fictional, semi-fictional, and fact-based), there have been hundreds of major books (including many written by soldiers, officers and reporters who spent significant time in-country), and innumerable major magazine articles and journalistic investigations. These examinations have showered the mainstream consciousness for decades.

In fact, Burns is not the first documentarian to enter into the fray of Vietnam retrospective and analysis. The made-for-PBS mini-series, Vietnam: A Television History, which aired for the first time in mid-1983, was widely regarded as a masterful examination of American involvement in Southeast Asia, including the ways in which the war spilled into Laos and Cambodia. Narrated by Will Lyman, the 13-part, 660-minute mega series was about as politically intensive and historically thorough as one could get. Similar TV documentaries also seek to rewind the historical tape even further, taking the political and historical context (as Burns does) back into the late 19th Century and the reboots of the world maps which took place after World Wars I and II.

2003’s The Fog of War, produced and directed by Errol Morris, is a sharp, deftly-crafted documentary which has, as its core subject, the close recollections of Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense (under both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) whose own long period of official conversion from hawk to dove mirrored the complex and emotional shift in American attitudes on Vietnam. The film includes archival material and penetrating interviews with scores of others, and sheds a very intensive light on McNamara’s critical thinking throughout the 1960s—including most notably the former Ford CEO’s conclusion that the primary combatants in that war grossly misunderstood the motivations of the opposing side.

Add to the roster the 2011 six-part Vietnam in HD, produced for A&E and starring the voices of dozens of actors and musicians, which presents hundreds of minutes of archival and documentary footage, much of it never-before-seen, alongside voice-over commentary which crafts a personal take on the various stages and events of the war. Vietnam in HD was critically hailed as both sensitive and accurate.

In addition, the long period of self-flagellation and political retrospective has never fully come to a close, even after, for better or worse, the subsequent minor wars involving U.S. troops (Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, Somalia), and the still smoldering and costly major wars (Iraq, Afghanistan). A stunning and swift allied victory in the Gulf War, in which Americans and their partners ousted Iraqi troops from Kuwait, was supposed to have neatly and totally rebooted the military might of the U.S., and that at the same moment that the Soviet Union was beginning its crack-up, the Cold War seemed won by the West, and the Berlin Wall was hammered into small chunks of souvenir stone. Indeed, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan—which has surpassed Vietnam as America’s longest military engagement—reminds us that war is a venture sometimes all-too-easy to enter, but often tragically difficult from which to find victorious extraction.

But Burns’ perhaps understandable attempt to plant the flag and to claim first right to provide American understanding about Vietnam is to be expected.

Over the decades, the producers of such examinations of the war have often made the bold claim of being the first to detail the “true” or “real” experience, sometimes to the notable chagrin of those who fought there. Oliver Stone arrogantly claimed his own First Place Prize for the 1986 film Platoon, a handsome and well-edited motion picture starring Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Keith David and Tom Berenger. Stone brashly proclaimed Platoon the first genuine look into the Vietnam experience—a bit of marketing and artistic hyperbole which overlooked the important works of Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter), and Hal Ashby (Coming Home). Stone’s own Born on the Fourth of July would later prove to be a far more masterful interpretation of the war, as seen through the eyes of the real-life Ron Kovic, a U.S. Marine who returned from the war paralyzed from the waist down. Starring Tom Cruise (as Kovic), Kyra Sedgewick, Frank Whaley and Stephen Baldwin, Born on the Fourth of July would prove to be Stone’s Vietnam masterpiece, not the fictional Platoon, which was the more allegorical of the two films.

Claiming first place into the realm of Vietnam understanding has become something of a badge of honor among directors, producers, writers and journalists—so much so that Burns seems to undercut his own thesis within the first minutes of the new series. Clearly, he is not the first to examine the breadth or depth of the Vietnam experience, nor are those witnesses interviewed for the film the first to talk openly or candidly about that war.

What Burns does skillfully offer, right out of the gate, is a powerful lesson in historical perspective and humility. The film begins its Episode One with not just the required historical contexts dating back more than 200 years, but also the deeply-entrenched déjà vu felt by the United States as it was drawn inexorably deeper into the same sliver of land which a generation earlier had brought defeat and pain to the French, and domestic political unravelling in Paris. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat. American thinking at the mid-point of the 20th century was famously obtuse and Pollyannaish, locked in the mindset—many felt then, and still feel now—which suggests that that same century is called the American Century without precondition, regret, or caveat. Before Vietnam all U.S. wars reinforced the virtuous circle: Americans win wars because those wars were just and right; those wars were just and right because America entered each contest and won. Subsequently, each American generation had its share of men who fought wars—some died, some survived, all were men of honor for having made the sacrifice.

The Vietnam conflict, Burns shows us, broke that cycle. Episode One deliberately breaks the traditional documentary approach by effectively telling the two parallel stories of French and American involvement. Though there were obvious differences—the French fought for colonial control and retention of empire, the Americans for the more abstract purpose of checking the advance of Marxist-Leninism and as an adjunct to the Cold War—both France and the U.S. were drawn slowly, inexorably, regrettably deeper into a grisly conflict into which more firepower, more machines, more men, and more resources were poured until it became almost impossible to walk away. Indeed, Burns shows how France, then later the U.S., emboldened by heavy weapons and dazzling firepower, become intoxicated by early military successes and wildly differing interpretations of each battlefield victory.

Dien Bien Phu was meant to be France’s final entrapment of the Viet Minh and communist forces; instead it backfired, and became France’s worst military catastrophe. Likewise, the Tet Offensive was judged by American commanders in the field, including General Westmoreland, to be a resounding win for the U.S.; in fact, it was the final hinge upon which American defeat rested, and spurred the tipping point for domestic support. The Viet Cong may have lost tens of thousands as a result of Tet, but they had won the war almost overnight. The first episode of the series shows how cultural and contextual blindness brings about a tragic replay of history. The parallel telling of these stories is powerful and compelling.

Episodes Two and Three also show how easily the United States was drawn deeper into the conflict: the insertion of dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of additional military advisors, and an uneasy marriage to corrupt political leaders in Saigon, then, the infamous naval skirmishes in the Gulf of Tonkin, which became the catalyst for Johnson and his advisors to raise the stakes. Episode Three shows us the escalation at its most inescapable and torturous, with Johnson agonizing over each request by his generals for more Marines, more Army soldiers, more materials, more weapons. Johnson must at first merely provide ground protection for the massive air base at Danang, then more troops, then still more, then even more. Though victory seems ever more elusive, Johnson admits to McNamara that losing is too painful to imagine. Ultimately, Johnson resorts to Rolling Thunder, a semi-secret program of aerial bombardment of North Vietnam—a campaign meant to force North Vietnam to cease and desist.

Episode Four shows the escalations becoming an increasingly viscous and self-serving cycle, with Westmoreland constantly pressing for more U.S. troops, more firepower, more license to bomb targets in the North, and with some inside Johnson’s administration—among them McNamara—beginning to harbor doubts about the effectiveness of the strategy. By the end of 1967, U.S. troop numbers in Southeast Asia have topped half a million, with the Pentagon already in the early stages of lobbying for still more. Johnson now feels trapped by a war he neither started nor wanted to prosecute, but for which he now realizes he alone may be blamed if it fails to produce clear victory. Worse, to some, it seemed Westmoreland and the other generals were fighting the last war. Episode Four traces how much the U.S. was in fact fighting, in part, World War II, in part Korea—conflicts which bore little relevance for the conflict now facing American troops on the ground in Vietnam.

In a war with no front lines, and no possibility of sustaining meaningful control over any significant piece of land, Westmoreland and Max Taylor eventually settle on a dubious proposition: reaching the “cross-over point,” that numerical tipping-point when the U.S. was depleting enemy forces faster than the enemy could replace them. Obsessed with the body count ratio of American versus Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, this grim metric would prove to be an illusion, or more of a moving mirage, as North Vietnam proved even more determined to send south whatever manpower was required to deplete the willpower of the Americans. The viscous cycle continues, spurring Westmoreland to ask Johnson for still more.

Meanwhile, domestic dissent was itself reaching critical mass at home, and by mid-series Burns’ is hinting at that homeland tipping point to come.

Burns is at his best as the documentarian who effectively weaves the personal stories into the larger fabric of history. As a gifted filmmaker of such epic and award-winning mini-series as The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), and The Dust Bowl (2012), Burns understands the storytelling power of making it personal. In the case of Vietnam, such intimate witnesses provide the kind of context lacking in the colder, chillier—albeit factually accurate earlier PBS series, Vietnam: A Television History. This in fact makes Burns’ monumental effort the greater of the two documentaries, and lends it a cache that seems elusive to the sweeping 1983 version.

Also effective: Burns always winning approach to the masterful melding of archival footage, still photographs, and atmospheric music—much of it contemporaneous pop, folk, R&B, or rock and roll, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Pete Seeger, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel. But much of the soundtrack is the work of Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble, both of whom provide moody and deeply atmospheric contextual sounds which merge seamlessly with Burns’ well-crafted use of authentic sounds. Coupled with Peter Coyote’s penetrating voice-over, which helps to glue the elements together with panache and credibility, Burns’ Vietnam mega series is a stunning visual and aural achievement.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Morley Safer, 60 Minutes Legend, Dead at 84; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; May 19, 2016.

Crack the Sky, Shake the Earth: A Look Back at the Tet Offensive; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; February 14, 2015.