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.”