Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS masterpiece, The Vietnam War is a mournful, heartbreaking documentary: an essential expose and an unvarnished history of war. The refocusing of history using first-person stories is the most important “Ken Burns effect” producing his best documentary to date.
Burns loves to film everyday people’s “small” stories which give perspective and emotion to the larger picture. The interviews are unforgettable and poignant–a viscerally searing reminder why there is no winner in war. The human faces, together with the visible psychological damage of all participants (American and Vietnamese), make The Vietnam War courageous and unflinching, staggering, raw and, at times, brutally honest. Decades of bad decisions are verified by archival footage from both North and South Vietnam and secret tape recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. A wasteful, dizzying vortex unfolds: devouring lives due to American overconfidence, arrogance and cultural ignorance on one hand and the relentless groundswell of Vietnam’s peasant resistance to foreign rule on the other.
The Vietnam War unwinds as a montage of the collateral damage of war. Pain is still palpable on the faces of all interviewees, American and Vietnamese, recalling a hellishly dark time they cannot forget. One American veteran articulates his loss succinctly: “The other casualty was the civilized version of me.”
The Vietnam War’s overwhelming power comes from these oral histories, almost twenty hours of them. An American vet describes dragging insurgents’ corpses “to see who would cry ”. An upstate New York soldier’s mother remembers terror every time she heard the crunch of tires on her driveway. A North Vietnamese officer recalls entering a house abandoned by a South Vietnamese family, a dress half-sewn still lying on a table. A North Vietnamese grandmother is forced to look at her bombed son’s face. A US troop rapes a little girl, and one interviewee breaks down relating the incident that happened more than half a century ago. Rare footage of atrocities on all sides are not for the faint-hearted. The historical sweep and emotional punch are evident throughout: a minimum of 429,000 U.S. and allied soldiers and 533,000 Communist troops and civilians killed between 1954 and 1975 (according to Newsweek). Millions more were wounded. Many sources place the estimates far above these.
Burns believes that the Vietnam war begins in 1945, –not 1965 , when President Lyndon Johnson dispatched the first U.S. ground combat unit. The US could not lose a war, after having come out of World War II victorious.
We are introduced to France’s mid-19th century colonization of territories that would eventually become Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The French plundered the region of natural resources, impoverishing its workers while creating servile French-speaking native bureaucrats to carry out its orders, all largely financed by the opium trade. By the early 20th century resistance was on the rise. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of a nascent revolution, is betrayed by two American presidents culminating in the US installation of a dictatorial regime in Saigon and the canceling of free elections for the Vietnamese people. Now the American war was on. The U.S. installed Ngo Dinh Diem as South Vietnam’s autocratic ruler, and aided him in wiping out his enemies. In addition, the US government engineered an election that Diem stole. Ho Chi Minh, betrayed, becomes the brilliant tactician and leader of the resistance.
The Vietnam War also echoes today’s headlines, as in the subplot of foreign collusion in an American election. Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon had secretly requested that South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu stay out of peace talks with the North, in order to improve Nixon’s chances in the 1968 race. President Lyndon B. Johnson was aware of the deal through intelligence surveillance, knew Nixon was lying, but did not make that fact public. We hear Nixon’s lies on an audiotape of Johnson’s call. And Nixon’s paranoia about being found out in this lie partly contributes to Watergate.
The U.S. government begins justifying its growing military intervention in Vietnam, first under President Kennedy, then Lyndon Johnson. Washington policymakers redefine the war as a fight for freedom and democracy over communism. Both nations–the US and Vietnam– are torn apart.
The Vietnam War still holds out hope that we might learn from history, after presenting 20 hours of evidence to the contrary. This documentary no longer permits the US to evade the harsh reckoning that is long overdue. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do not allow us to remain in denial about what we did in Viet Nam and why.
Note: The Vietnam War is brought into even sharper focus if watched with companion pieces, The Post, and I Am Not Your Negro (to be reviewed in my next post).
There are still buried landmines killing people in Vietnam and international NGO’s are tasked with removing them.