Ken Burns’ Vietnam War: An Object Lesson in the Failures of the Objective Lens

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Ken Burns’ Vietnam War: An Object Lesson in the Failures of the Objective Lens

In striving to present all sides and simply lay out the facts for the viewer, Burns nonetheless pulls his punches when it comes to assigning blame and culpability for the disastrous war.

Civilians murdered by US troops at My Lai. (Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle/US Army)

If journalism resigns itself to being a “first draft of history,” Ken Burns’ popular PBS documentaries, written by Lynn Novick, have increasingly aspired to—and achieved—a coveted status as popular historical canon. This has, in part, been accomplished by Burns’ choice of cozily American subject matter—jazz, baseball, the Brooklyn Bridge—as well as the calming effect that time and distance provide when it comes to more difficult, inflammatory topics like the Civil War. His success is a rare, fraught feat.

But how would Burns’ earnest, middlebrow glosses on American history, forever panning slowly across sepia-tinted photos, treat a more contemporaneous, contentious event like the Vietnam War? The answer can be found in a 10-part, 18-hour opus that for the first time ventures outside Burns’ previous editorial and narrative comfort zones. The Cold War lead-up, decade-plus of intense air and ground combat, and subsequent years of national shame/guilt over the war affected the second half of our 20th century like nothing else.

Teasing out a coherent, honest through-line of such a momentous, highly charged topic is ambitious, to say the least, and Burns rises to the challenge in many ways. Most notable among them: a dedicated effort to include the voices and experiences of the Vietnamese who suffered and/or fought Americans, to create a much more complete, insightful portrait of the war. But in the striving to present all sides and simply lay out the facts for the viewer, Burns nonetheless pulls his punches when it comes to assigning blame and culpability for the disastrous war. As a result, he has produced a sometimes daring, sometimes schmaltzy, richly detailed yet ultimately flawed film about the tragedy and horrors that the United States brought upon itself and inflicted upon Southeast Asia.

As a Washington Post article (9/18/17) on all the behind-the-scenes detective work that went into the film makes clear, Burns and Novick did an incredible amount of research and original reporting. However, the narrative shortcomings of the documentary mirror many of the same journalistic sins one finds in the corporate media’s coverage of the far-off wars of today. Much like the mainstream press, Burns suffers from inherent biases about objectivity that affect his storytelling.The New Yorker (9/4/17) reports that rather than “advocacy,” Ken Burns sees his documentaries as a kind of “emotional archeology” that “can bring every viewer in.”

In an insightful New Yorker profile (9/4/17) of Burns by Ian Parker, one can see the tendrils of the filmmaker’s can’t-we-find-a-consensus editorial viewpoint that longs for inviolable truths sure to exist somewhere in between the ideological extremes:

Burns frequently—almost hourly—says, “Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time,” paraphrasing a remark made by Wynton Marsalis, in Jazz. Burns uses the line less to acknowledge historical uncertainty than to advertise inclusiveness: a desire to guide all but the most sectarian or jaded viewers through an obstacle course of their own biases. He is not disengaged from his material, but his sense of a subject, and his sense of an audience’s reaction to that subject, seem to be fused. He once said, “I want to bring everybody in.”

Later in that story, Burns betrays more of this tendency for false equivalence when he makes a prediction about the bifurcated political reaction his documentary would receive. Sounding very much like a put-upon, but archly centrist editorial page editor, he makes clear that he sees angering both the right and the left simultaneously as an occupational hazard, if not a proxy for having arrived closest to the truth:

After The Vietnam War, I’ll have to lie low. A lot of people will think I’m a Commie pinko, and a lot of people will think I’m a right-wing nutcase, and that’s sort of the way it goes.

While this suggests little capacity on the part of Burns to engage in past criticisms of his work—chief among them, his tendency to overindulge in hokey American splendor-ism—that’s not to say there aren’t stark departures from his oeuvre in The Vietnam War. In just the first few minutes of the first episode, “Deja Vu,” over a squawling original Trent Reznor score, Burns literally pushes the audience backwards by spooling iconic footage of the war—and protests of it—in reverse. It’s a disorienting, but shrewd gambit; a recognition of all the baggage the Vietnam War still carries in the American psyche.

Right after this jarring sequence, though, the old Burns reappears. We see languid, gauzy shots of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, overlaid with Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and former US senator and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland talking philosophically about the tragedy of suffering and surviving war. As presented, Cleland’s connection to the war is inexplicably vague—he’s only identified on-screen by his name and “Army”—and, though he is a triple amputee because of wounds suffered from a grenade blast in Vietnam, he is filmed only in close up, as if Burns still wants to ease his audience into the full violence wrought by the war. (Burns repeats this ambiguous decontextualization of his interview subjects throughout the documentary.) Then, the film’s narration, once again voiced by longtime actor Peter Coyote, offers up what journalism would call the “nut graf,” the defining leitmotif of the 17 hours and 55 minutes yet to come.

America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended 30 years later in failure, witnessed by the entire world. It 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.

There is a lot to unpack in this short passage, but it is accurate in its summation of Burns’ narrative focus throughout his film: that is, long on personal perspectives and documentary evidence of the chronological evolution, but short on broader conclusions about American foreign policy, or any real condemnation of the indescribable cruelty and dishonesty among policymakers who orchestrated it. In one telling anecdote, Burns confided to the New Yorker that his team debated saying “ended in defeat” in this section, but nevertheless chose “failure” instead.

Likewise, the film’s “begun in good faith by decent people” line doesn’t merely land like a false note, it deafens like a discordant symphony. As Veterans for Peace pointed out, Burns’ own documentary refutes this claim. Nearly every episode in the film offers up myriad examples of our elected officials, the military, or CIA willfully lying to the public (or each other) about the US’s involvement in Vietnam, often for personal or political gain.

Nor can you overlook the passive construction of the language, which helps to strip agency from the war’s cheerleaders. Burns’ equivocations here represent stunning intellectual cop-outs, pure and simple, and throw doubt on all that follows.

Relevant to such a compromised take is how Burns and Novick get funding for their projects. Less than a quarter of their money is provided by government sources; the rest comes from charities and the private sector. So perhaps it’s foolish to believe any Ken Burns documentary—partly paid for by the likes of David Koch and Bank of America, among other sponsors—would offer up a polemicized indictment of US politicians and war policy.

By all accounts, Burns and Novick maintain full editorial independence, but their funding pipeline for future projects also greatly depends upon the continued generosity of those same nonprofit and corporate benefactors, who don’t ordinarily court highly controversial filmmakers. As a result of this ongoing relationship, there’s an unseen, but unmistakable gravitational pull that serves to keeps the pair from wandering too far afield from conventional wisdom. Just like Bank of America, in other words, Ken Burns has a brand to protect.

To stay safely within the bounds of convention, Burns and Novick spend a great deal of their time “in-country,” so to speak, on a simple, universal theme: War is hell. And their ability to convey the visceral fear and pathos of battle at the human level is remarkable and poignant: “In war, nobody wins or loses. There is only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won or lost,” says Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese soldier Burns interviews. (Bao is no random grunt—he is also the author of The Sorrow of War, a novel of a soldier’s anguish—but, again, Burns identifies him only as “North Vietnamese Army.”)

When paired with the blunt, chilling lessons that combat taught US Marine Karl Marlantes, the combination has a powerful effect. “One of the things I learned in the war is that we’re not the top species on the planet because we’re nice,” recounts Marlantes about a firefight from 1969. “People talk a lot about how well the military turns kids into killing machines and stuff, and I’ll always argue that it’s just finishing school.”


Naomi Klein Block


Feeding this seething killing machine on the American side was a wide-open, virulent streak of racism, which Burns, to his credit, delves into (finally) in the fifth episode. (A Washington Post podcast interview with Burns—9/22/17—delves further into this aspect of the war.) Still, the film can never quite make the leap between the countless tragedies on the tactical level and strategic policies that enabled them and then quickly metastasized.

The most famous battlefield atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre, which was mostly covered up and pinned on one Lt. William Calley, again shows Burns putting his directorial thumb on the scale. Rather than call the massacre “murder,” as it was originally described by Novick, Burns switched the script to read that “the killing of civilians has happened in every war.” While true, this statement is so banal that it is meaningless, and serves to inoculate My Lai and all the other atrocities committed in the war of their conscience-shocking power. In effect, the film’s stance is normalizing war crimes. And Burns all but confesses to this in a bizarre admission to the New Yorker: “‘Killing’ was the better word, [Burns] said, ‘even though My Lai is murder.’”

These distinctions without differences betray a corrupted objectivity, one that can’t really reckon with the fact that the wanton destruction and unceasing, lawless violence seen at My Lai was more the rule than the exception. Perpetrating atrocities was, in fact, standard operating procedure for entire units on the US and Vietnamese sides throughout the war, not merely the work of a few deranged individuals. One academic who studies democide (murder by government) conservatively estimates North Vietnam killed 216,000 non-combatants between 1954 and 1975. (The Vietnamese government had been silent about the film until this week, when it issued a boilerplate response. But Vietnamese citizens have been able to watch a version of the documentary with Vietnamese subtitles on PBS online.)

Chase Madar in the American Conservative (7/30/13): “The main reason we don’t want to know about Vietnam is that it gave so much to not want to know about.”

To cite but one specific example of this lawless killing by the US military, the “Tiger Force” recon platoon of the 1/327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, committed a “wave of terror” in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 1967. This bloodthirsty campaign was detailed in a 2003 series by the Toledo Blade (10/19/03). But for a more exhaustively comprehensive look at the tsunami of illegal killing by the US across the entire theater, you’re better off reading Nick Turse’s damning account: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. As an American Conservative (7/30/13) book review of Turse’s book makes clear:

The relentless violence against civilians was more than the activity of a few sociopaths: It was policy. This was a war fought along Fordist principles—Robert McNamara had gone to the Department of Defense straight from the helm of the auto giant—and the slaughter was industrial in scale. Victory over the Viet Cong was to be achieved by quantifiable “kill ratios,” to reach that elusive tipping point where the insurgency could no longer replenish its troops. This approach hard-wired incentives to secure a high “body count” down the chain of command, with the result that US soldiers often shot civilians dead to pad their tallies and thereby move up the ranks.

Turse sent copies of his book to Burns’ team, and it is listed as a source in the show’s online bibliography. But while episodes two and three of Burns’ series do take time to cite McNamara’s chilling preference for quantifying enemy deaths as success (i.e., the infamous “body counts”), the film still fails to connect all the dots as to how this high-level political and military mindset—also propelled by racism—set the conditions for consistent, everyday atrocities, versus mere military operations, by combat units. (Thomas Bass’s highly critical essay covering the entire 18-hour documentary—Mekong Review, 8–10/17—discusses this.)

Ironically, Burns and Novick’s compromised framing also echoes much of the jingoistic reporting of the war as it was happening, which the film does an admirable job of debunking. Most TV media coverage of the early years of ever-expanding war, Burns notes, was almost willfully obtuse, invoking World War II newsreels that portrayed the war in terms that were “enthusiastic, unquestioning, good guys fighting and defeating bad guys.” At one point, Burns features a Marine, Roger Harris, telling his mother in 1967 that “she shouldn’t believe what she sees in the newspaper, what she sees on television, because we’re losing the war.”

There were a few, notable exceptions, however. While Vietnam was still fighting French colonial rule, on-the-ground reporters like Seymour Topping, the local Associated Press correspondent in Saigon, were warning that Western imperialist intentions in the country were doomed to fail. In 1951, Topping said as much to a young congressmember from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who was visiting the nation for the first time.

Once the US began sending advisers, and then combat troops, in the early 1960s, Burns points to a handful of reporters—Neil Sheehan (who was an adviser to the documentary), the New York Times’ David Halberstam and Malcolm Browne of the AP—who dared to buck the party line. After spending time in the field, the film notes, they “were beginning to see that from the Vietnamese countryside, things looked very different than they did from the press offices in Washington or Saigon.”“You can’t be a neutral witness to something like war,” UPI‘s Joe Galloway tells Ken Burns–a warning Burns seems to ignore.

But even intrepid reporters committed to telling the truth about the war were susceptible to creeping American bias. Sheehan, who had fought in Korea, acknowledges that he found riding along in US helicopters on an South Vietnamese Army air assault raid “absolutely thrilling.” Similarly, Joe Galloway, a UPI reporter who filed countless battlefield reports during the war, says in the film:

You can’t just be a neutral witness to something like war.… It’s not something you can stand back and be neutral and objective, and all of those things that we try to be as reporters, journalists and photographers. It doesn’t work that way.

Not coincidentally, when Galloway recounts a landmark 1965 battle in the Ia Drang Valley, where the Air Cavalry unit he was with faced a massive, frontal attack by the Viet Cong, he notably lapses into the first-person plural: “We had two things going for us. We had a great commander and great soldiers and we had air and artillery support out the yin-yang.” That Galloway later co-authored a New York Times bestselling book about the battle with its US commander, Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, and was later awarded a Bronze Star by the US Army for helping rescue a wounded soldier during that battle, goes unmentioned by Burns.

It’s this blindspot—the failure to see that one is adopting the point of view of one’s subjects—that ultimately dooms the film’s potential. Which is a tragedy, since the US is currently failing to learn the the same painful, sunk-costs lessons of Vietnam with its bipartisan, Groundhog Day war policy in Afghanistan. As Drake University political science professor, David Skidmore, noted in his review of the film (Military Times, 9/17/17):

Now Trump has also reneged from previous pledges to disengage from Afghanistan…the histories of US military involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan should serve as warnings to future presidents who might be tempted to again jump onto the treadmill of perpetual war.

Burns has said he wants his film to act at as “some sort of vaccination” to war, to “get you immune to the disunion that it has sponsored.” But by denying the role and agency of the people who lied us into the Vietnam War, and then kept lying to keep us from leaving, his film misdiagnoses the real problem.

Looking for an invading sickness or outside cause for the mayhem and destruction our country unleashed upon Vietnam, and itself, is a dodge. In the end, the answer to the fundamental question about the Vietnam War, “Why?,” cannot be found in any clinical or objective analysis—no matter how many hours of documentary footage you have—that stubbornly avoids placing blame where it is so richly due.

Reed Richardson

Reed Richardson

Reed Richardson is a media critic whose work has appeared in The Nation, Harvard University’s Nieman Reports and the textbook Media Ethics (Current Controversies). Follow him on Twitter: @reedfrich

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