Chris Appy is providing running commentary on the new Ken Burns Vietnam sagaHistorians in the News
tags: Vietnam War, Ken Burns, Chris Appy
… Ten years in the making, The Vietnam War has probably been more eagerly anticipated than any of Florentine’s films. It is surely the most controversial subject Burns has engaged and, he reports, the most challenging (“It’s the most complicated film I’ve ever worked on”). In sheer size, it dwarfs all other film documentaries on the subject, including the eleven-hour, thirteen-part PBS documentary Vietnam: A Television History (1983). The length of the series and the seriousness of the topic demand a great deal of viewers, but the power and reach of the Burns brand, along with the film’s compelling storytelling, guarantee that many millions will watch at least a significant portion of the whole. Indeed, over time it will undoubtedly reach more people than any book ever written about the Vietnam War and may even rival in audience some of the landmark Hollywood films about the war such as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Platoon (1986). It is critical, therefore, that history teachers of all kinds—not just Vietnam War specialists—give this documentary serious attention.
For many months, Burns and Novick have traveled the country promoting the film. Last April, for example, Burns introduced it at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin with a short talk, a compilation of clips, and an interview. The appearance seemed designed to entice the widest possible audience by sticking to inoffensive generalizations. Burns claimed that he and Novick “had no political agenda. We had no ax to grind. We thought of ourselves as umpires calling balls and strikes.” This classic claim of objectivity might strike historians as naïve, but it may instead reflect the filmmakers’ shrewd calculation that a pose of neutrality is useful when pitching a project with so many hot buttons. After all, the film is hardly shy about declaring the war a “tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable”—a view that is every bit as “political” as the view that the war was a noble cause (a position still held by a significant number of Americans and Vietnamese on all sides), or the claim that the United States fought an unjust war of imperial aggression (also a position held by a significant number of Americans and Vietnamese).
In Austin, Burns described the Vietnam War as a “virus” that divided America into warring camps. He and Novick, he said, hoped the film would provide a “sort of vaccine” to cure our nation’s polarized thinking by presenting “a multiplicity of perspectives and truths that can co-exist at the same time.” But surely neither filmmaker intended to give all perspectives equal weight. A major question for us in viewing the film is to determine which “truths” get the most emphasis. Burns provided a major clue in Austin when he said: “There are lots of lessons . . . but one of the lessons we did learn from Vietnam and we will never forget as a people is that we will no longer blame the warriors [applause]. I’d like Vietnam veterans to stand up and be acknowledged [big applause]. We made this film for you.”
These applause lines raise serious questions at the outset. First, is it an unchallengeable “truth” that American soldiers were blamed for the conduct and outcome of the Vietnam War? By whom? Also, is it possible to make a film for one side’s combatants and still remain neutral? In any case, I suggest that our close attention to how American soldiers and veterans are represented will be essential to our understanding of the film’s implicit and explicit interpretation of history. Through these posts, I will also encourage an effort to examine details that complicate and even defy the film’s most obvious sympathies….
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