Though Ken Burns’s 10-part PBS documentary The Vietnam War doesn’t try very hard, he can’t be blamed for failing as a filmmaker even if he had. It can’t be done. There are too many Vietnam Wars to accurately portray in a documentary, even one 18 hours long. So fair enough. But Burns’ real failure is not as a documentarian per se, it is one of courage.
Burns teases us at the beginning of the series that there will be courage here, a reckoning of sorts, riffing off the final pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, showing war footage in reverse, so bombs return to their mother ship’s belly, rockets are sucked out of the bush back onto helicopters, and, in case the point wasn’t clear yet, the 1st Cav walks backwards onto their Hueys and departs the rice paddy. See, it’s an antiwar movie.
Well, not really, or maybe not also. Burns quickly moves on to the next test, getting all the greatest hits in. There’s the iconic image of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, and Nick Ut’s photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm raid, alongside that footage of bombs dropping, exploding Kodachrome orange against greener-than-green foliage. If the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” hadn’t been written during Vietnam, it would be necessary to invent time travel to place it alongside the war. And yep, there’s Dylan, a hippie chick with flowers, grunts in the jungle, Marlboro hard packs and M-16s at the ready. Check, check, check—Oh, Suzy Q!
No, wait, it’s one of those balanced documentaries. Burns treats us to the trope-ish story of Ho Chi Minh foolishly writing fan letters to American presidents over the years, starting way back with Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI, thinking the American love of freedom, ye olde tale of democracy, the experience as fellow colonialists—all of which should have bonded the United States to his side over the imperialist French. That didn’t happen, you see, so it’s ironic. There’s also a bunch of actual Vietnamese interviewed in Burns’ movie, albeit disproportionately far too many identified as formerly of the “South Vietnamese Army.” The ties to the CIA of several of those interviewed are also left obscured.
For the Americans in the audience, there’s also a dollop of “Vietnam as a test of manhood/the test of manhood is actually a metaphor for broken American dreams of the 20th century.” Burns had no choice with this one, as it is required as much as the shots of Saigon prostitutes in their tight ao dai’s. America loves the manhood story; it’s the version of Vietnam that allows us to revere a crusty old war monger like John McCain (Episode Four of Burns’ film even includes a shot of George W. Bush in the Air National Guard), and leaves people who took deferments like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton forever in shame.
Burns does the manhood theme proud, though, slipping us both the noble grunt version via gritty personal anecdotes from guys you don’t know (though rough-and-tumble Marine guy Karl Marlantes pops up), and the Oliver Stone subreddit, where manhood is proved only after it is broken down (forget Platoon, his real telling was in Born on the Fourth of July). Stone and his subject Ron Kovic don’t appear for Burns’ camera, but a non-celebrity grunt named John Musgrave is on camera to illustrate the journey from gungho killer to “it was all a lie, man.”
Okay, fair enough, this is Ken Burns for heck’s sake. He does jazz, he does Americana, he gets baseball in a way that sends George Will in to euphoric spasms—of course he’s going to go folksy. That’s why we donate and get the PBS tote bag each year. At least he filmed this one in color, all 79 individual interviews.
But 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.)
Burns drinks too deeply from the cup of “hate the war, not the warrior.” Deaths were committed because of a policy that demanded body counts—the number of “enemy” killed—as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. 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. The American people in 1962 (or 1965 or 1968 or 1945 or 1954) were not yet cynical. They were easily convinced that what was little more than a continuation of colonialism was instead a firewall of the Cold War. We had come out of WWII winners, with anything that would have made that less than the Good War hidden for another couple of generations. 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.
“With knowledge comes healing,” the filmmaker told Vanity Fair about his goal. But that is not the film he made.
We should know better but we were the ones who bought the epic story that Iraq, et al, like Vietnam, was a struggle between two greats forces for the soul of civilization, Terrorism versus Freedom—feel free to substitute in Islam and Christianity. We had to fight them over there (the beach at Danang instead of the beach at San Diego), or we’d fight them over here, the smoking gun a mushroom cloud over Cincinnati. We let Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon lie to us about the war, then let five successive modern presidents, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Kissinger also won the Peace Prize for ending the war he first helped prolong) lie to us about Iraq in a spin of our illusion of invincibility and moral rightness.
Burns tips his hand in the first minutes of his series when the narrator intones the war was “begun in good faith.” Who could have known Vietnam was a war for independence, not a civil war as sold to the American people? That Pakistan supported the Taliban with U.S. aid money? That there weren’t any WMDs in Iraq? Burns doesn’t tell us that Vietnam was not an exception, it was a template.
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.
Each of these wars is not the equivalent of stepping on a Lego in a darkened bedroom. It’s the same story, the same war. It has the same ending. It serves the same purpose. It’s Vietnam. We just slog through 18 hours of Vietnam documentary because it lasts 18 hours. After the 25th similar shot of helicopters landing, you may not even be sure why you’re still watching. You want to finish Burns’ documentary with the feeling the American people will rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but instead shut off the TV knowing we have, and will.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of State. Follow Peter on Twitter: @WeMeantWell