Infantrymen attacking out of a Huey during Operation Attleboro, Vietnam.

A viewer who persists through the ten-part, eighteen-hour entirety of Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War may be forgiven for wishing it might have been shorter. This is a fitting irony for a documentary about a war that itself never seemed to end.  

At first glance it’s not clear what Burns’s effort adds to the prior PBS Vietnam series, created by journalist Stanley Karnow, which aired in 1983. Yet Vietnam was America’s first televised war, and perhaps, like a movie or TV show, it needs to be remade every few decades for a new generation of viewers. And given Burns’s de facto role as America’s national documentarian laureate—“the nation’s most trusted historical brand,” the New York Times called him—any film receiving the imprimatur of his name vaults instantly into the middle of our civic discourse.

Watching his film reminds me that the war spanned the entirety of my childhood. A toddler when our military involvement began, under Kennedy, I was a teenager when it ended; as a paperboy in 1969 I delivered daily headlines of its unremitting carnage, along with accounts of campus protests and urban race riots. Children tend to accept the circumstances of their lives as normal, and so a kid my age did not comprehend, even as he delivered those newspapers, what an unusually toxic American moment he was growing up in. Older Americans, meanwhile, may have forgotten, while younger ones never knew. One of the civic services Burns provides is to remind and/or inform us just how fractious and violent a time it was.

To some extent, the topic of Vietnam resists the usual Ken Burns treatment: a retrospective narrated with sonorous intelligence, set to period-piece music, and tinted with a faint sepia of nostalgia. The Vietnam War strikes more plangent notes, both in a music soundtrack heavy on rock, and in the personal testimonies of ex-soldiers whose memories elicit a still-searing pain. The documentary lays bare a record of badly misguided government and military decisions. But it offers no indictment; the overall tone is one of regret rather than judgment and anger. Its intro features the epigraph, “There is no one truth in war,” and the motto  sums up not only Burns’s message, but his mission. He has crafted a narrative capacious enough to include those who held antagonistic positions in the drama of public opinion regarding the war, and even to help them see the other side.

Thus, for instance, though I have never considered the war anything other than a calamity, and I prize dissent, I nevertheless felt a stab of contempt at the clips of Jane Fonda in Hanoi, wearing NVA gear and gaily simulating operating an anti-aircraft gun. And I wholly sympathized with the account of a returning Marine who describes being picked up by his brother at the airport, then having to drive through a gauntlet of protesters screaming profanities and banging placards on his car. (“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls, decades later. “What in God’s name was this?”) Had I been a college student at the time, I surely would have agreed with those protesting in America’s streets and parks and campuses. Yet when Burns refracts scenes of hippie abandon through the eyes of returning vets, you can’t help but bristle at the carefree hedonism—and the easy moral judgments—enjoyed by those who remained wholly insulated from either doing or receiving harm in the war. The students were right about that war; but being right isn’t everything.

At the heart of the documentary are dozens of interviews with veterans—both Americans and Vietnamese—who fill in the historical timeline with recollections of a horrific and frustrating war. Most poignant on the American side are the stories of the first generation of soldiers, sent in the early years. “Generation” might seem an odd word to use, but the difference between 1965 and 1970, in terms of prevailing American political attitudes, was so stark that it is apt. By 1970, protest at home had unloosed a skepticism that congealed into mass revulsion; soldiers sent to fight did so unwillingly, filled with rancor and ready to disobey orders. Before that, the typical U.S. soldier was far more likely to be a true believer, untroubled by doubt either about his government’s trustworthiness or his nation’s righteousness. “We were probably the last kids of any generation that actually believed our government would never lie to us,” says John Musgrave, who enlisted as a clean-cut eighteen-year-old in 1967 and fought with the 1st Battalion 9th Marines, an infantry unit so decimated by combat that it was known as “The Walking Dead.”

The students were right about that war; but being right isn’t everything.

Musgrave represents the American involvement in Vietnam in all its paradox and pain. A kid from the small-town Midwest, accepting of authority and imbued with unexamined patriotism, he undergoes a disenchantment fostered by horror in the jungle battlefield and growing doubt about the mission, both its morality and its feasibility. He suffers a grievous combat injury, and after the shock of homecoming emerges as a longhaired, bearded antiwar protestor; decades later he is still moved to tears by fellow vet John Kerry’s 1971 testimony to Congress. Musgrave is the ideal interviewee—composed, but still subject to powerful emotions; wryly ironic but heartfelt; and born to a deep patriotism that abides, following his trial by fire, in a highly altered and now actively critical form. With palpable emotion he describes how fully he was implicated, when he was a Marine, in the ideology of warfare; of the Viet Cong he recalls that “my hatred for them was pure. I hated them so much. And I was so scared of them.”

Another early enlistee is Denton Crocker Jr., known to his family as “Mogie,” an idealistic boy from upstate New York. Desperate to serve his country, he begged his parents to let him join up, and when they reluctantly assented, he became a paratrooper. His letters to his family withheld the nightmarish combat he soon found himself plunged into, in which his best friend was killed alongside him. “Someday I may tell you the whole story,” he wrote to a high-school pal, “if my nerves aren’t completely gone by then.” But Crocker never got the chance—killed in June of 1966, on his nineteenth birthday. His family reeled with the loss, and the comments of his Gold Star mother, decades later, reveal a grief undimmed by time.

The Vietnam War presents no earth-shatteringly new perspectives. Still, one is struck anew by the futility of the war at every level—tactical, strategic, and political—and by the enraging fact that our leaders, that coterie of the best and brightest assembled by Kennedy and passed down to LBJ, understood that futility. Burns is at pains to dispel the persistent canard that we fought “with one hand tied behind our backs,” insisting that the problem was not an insufficient effort, but an impossible goal. A core flaw of the strategy pursued by U. S. military leaders was the lack of a territorial goal. “War is supposed to be a real-estate thing,” says one officer, looking back. U. S. forces were not out to take territory, however, but rather merely to repel the North Vietnamese while somehow ferreting out and expunging the Viet Cong. The strategy led to bloody ground efforts that went literally nowhere and were basically designed to go nowhere, heightening a harsh sense of pointlessness and absurdity. One ex-infantryman recalls his unit being ordered to take a ridge called Hill 875. “There was no reason for us to take that hill,” he points out; and indeed, no sooner had they conquered it—with severe loss of life—than it was abandoned. “We accomplished nothing,” he says in disgust. In the absence of territorial goals, success became a matter of inflicting maximal losses on the enemy. Every day, those newspapers I delivered revealed our government’s reliance on the gruesome metric of the body count, boasting how many more North Vietnamese had been killed than Americans. To that end, U.S. troops were deployed essentially in order to attract enemy fire, and they knew it. “We were bait,” observes one veteran bitterly.

We have still failed to reach any consensus judgment about the war’s meaning, other perhaps than “it was awful.”

It didn’t work—it couldn’t work—and following North Vietnam’s 1968 Tet offensive, Walter Cronkite informed the nation that “to say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.” He went further. “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate.” The American public would have been shocked to know that the same sentiment held sway privately in their government: “We are in a war we cannot win,” Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford told LBJ after Tet. As the release of the Pentagon Papers would later reveal, this pessimistic view had been held by his predecessor, Robert McNamara, since 1965. Yet the U. S. fought in Vietnam for another ten years. If there is an ever-fresh source of outrage that Burns taps into, this is it—that the war continued to be pushed by leaders who had long since stopped believing in it, and with a colossal loss of life. In the end, more than  58,000 Americans were killed—and three million Vietnamese, military and civilian.

The Vietnam War reminds us that we have still failed to reach any consensus judgment about the war’s meaning, other perhaps than “it was awful.”  Should we have reached such a judgment by now? Should Burns? Written and narrated, respectively, by longtime Burns collaborators Geoffrey Ward and Peter Coyote, the series begins with this seemingly anodyne summary: “America’s involvement in Vietnam 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.” That this has proved a contested interpretation shows the changing tenor of the times. Back in 1983, Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam series was attacked by conservatives for being unpatriotic (and led to an hour-long “rebuttal,” narrated by Charlton Heston). Burns’s documentary is getting more criticism from the left (here’s a typical example), which accuses him of inundating the political lessons of the war in a torrent of emotion and forgiveness, focusing on intentions rather than the systematic brutality of an imperial war—and in so doing, turning a crime into a tragedy.

Is this a valid critique? It is true, to take one important instance, that Burns leaves uncertain the extent of atrocities committed by U.S. troops, thus skirting a still-burning controversy: was My Lai an aberration, or a nightmarish norm? While he doesn’t exactly pull punches—the series closes with novelist Tim O’Brien expressing horrified disbelief at the reality of fellow soldiers who proved capable of putting a gun to a baby’s head and blowing its brains out—Burns manages to paint a collective picture of American fighting men that is far more sympathetic then condemnatory, linking them to their North Vietnamese counterparts in a soldierly solidarity reminiscent of World War I, while implying that a near-universal failure of grace under pressure inheres in the human being subjected to the stresses and terrors of battle. “I learned that the veneer of civilization is very thin,” says one officer. “In you, in me, in all of us.” The Vietnam War channels Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas through Apocalypse Now.

Viewers will decide for themselves whether the series constitutes some continuing form of American self-deception. Those who reject such a judgment may discern in it an Isaiah Berlin-like recognition that in many crucial instances in a pluralistic democracy, consensus will never be reached, and the best that can be hoped for is harmonious civic coexistence with those who do not share our views. In this light, Burns’s chronic evenhandedness may appear as an astute and dedicated act of liberalism, affirming, in its very refusal to be partisan, an important lesson about who we are. As for healing—that profound and overused term—Burns spares us the disservice of implying that we can feel better, even at this remove in time, about the Vietnam War. The hurt was too great, the harms too many, the regrets too enormous. 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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