Does Vietnam Even Matter Any More? Does Ken Burns?
"There's no scoping out," the author writes. "That is intentional."
Do you remember when, in first grade, you made mosaics out of colored construction paper? You carefully cut the different pieces of paper into little half inch tiles and patiently pasted them onto a bigger paper with many other little tiles to make a picture of a whale, or George Washington, or a house. Remember?
The challenge of making a mosaic is that you have to hold both the micro- and the macro-view in your head at the same time. And you have to scope in and out between the two views, micro and macro, repeatedly, scores or even hundreds of times, to make it work. What color tile do you put in what place in order to form the particular picture you’re trying to create? The physical and mental dexterity demanded of the first-grade artist in doing it is exhilarating. Its mastery is exulting, which is why first-graders love to do it so much.
Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War series is like one part of that process, the scoping in. It has the micro view—the tile-level view of the War—down cold. The problem is that there’s no scoping out into a bigger picture. It provides no context, no historical meaning, and, most importantly, no moral message. It is, in a very real sense, one dimensional, a view of tiles so up-close that you can’t see what is the real picture of the War. That is its tragedy.
Now, to be sure, Burns’ artistry is unquestioned. The tile-level view that he does provide is riveting. Nobody does it better. Grunts slogging through elephant grass, lugging their M-60s, bandoliers of bullets slung over their shoulders. Soldiers bleeding out in the mud before the medevac can arrive. Napalm blossoming over the jungle, beautiful in its hellacious unfolding evanescence. Credence Clearwater Revival and The Byrds cued up at just the right moment. It’s a kaleidoscopic extravaganza for the sensate voyeur of military mayhem.
But history, conveyed as art, if devoid of context, meaning, and especially moral judgement is not really history. It is entertainment masquerading as history. It may be riveting, even titillating, but it should not be confused with anything like gravitas and certainly not with anything like a lesson, which is what we really need to be looking for in parsing the past, especially in something as destructive and divisive as the Vietnam War.
Yes, War is hell. Of course, mistakes were made. Obviously, there were many sides. Undoubtedly a lot of good intentions went bad. Believing that that tells us anything new, anything useful, is like licking the frosting off of the Frosted Flakes and pretending you’ve eaten breakfast. It’s all candy. War is hell no matter what the War. Mistakes are always made. There are always multiple sides. Good intentions so often go bad they have been memorialized into a cliché—the road to hell.
Besides, Thucydides showed us all of this in the Peloponnesian Wars back in 400 B.C. George Bernard Shaw updated it as satire in 1890 in Arms and the Man. If that’s all there is then we haven’t learned anything we didn’t already know before. In essence, we haven’t risen above the level of cliché, although we’re doing it with more panache and more sanctimonious self-congratulation.
Burns, his wealthy right-wing backers, and his legion of establishment promoters want us to believe his work is some kind of cultural sacrament, a divination, a Rosetta Stone we can use to decode the meaning of it all. But we can’t. It is literally not there. All we can see are the tiles, the individual pathos. There’s no scoping out. That is intentional.
This isn’t to say that there is no footage of higher ups, including plenty showing them lying. There is. Rather, it is to say that the walk-away emotional state demanded of the viewer of The Vietnam War is empathy. It’s a Greek word: em-pathos; putting pathos in. We are made to feel the soldiers’ suffering. Intensely. Relentlessly. That is the effective message of the work, the dominant feeling evoked in watching the series. However, as a cultural memoir of the War, as a touchstone for evaluating the War, or for judging other wars against a standard that might be latent in Vietnam, pathos does not begin to be enough.
Consider, for example, what we learn if we scope out just a little bit, like the first-grader has to do when making that mosaic. We can start to see what we don’t see in Burns’ fetishistically microscopic rendering of the War. Here are two paragraphs of facts that do not focus on the tile-level interpretation of the War and so convey an entirely different meaning about it.
The U.S. invaded and destroyed another country because that other country wanted a form of government different than the one the U. S. was willing to allow it to have. To prevent that country from exercising the “consent of the governed” that the U.S. deifies as the highest political expression of civilization, the U.S. killed six million Vietnamese, most of them civilians. That is the number from the government of Vietnam. The U.S. spent $168,000 for every enemy combatant it killed. The average Vietnamese earned $80 per year at the time. To carry out this act, the U.S. dropped 14 billion pounds of bombs on Vietnam, three times more than were used by all sides in all theaters of all of World War II combined.
The U.S. carried out industrial-scale chemical warfare on Vietnam, spraying it with 21 million gallons of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange. It destroyed half of the nation’s forests, leaving the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in the history of the world. When the U.S. destroyed neighboring Cambodia to cover its retreat from Vietnam, the communist Khmer Rouge came to power and carried out the greatest proportional genocide in modern history. The U.S. dropped 270 million cluster bombs on neighboring Laos, 113 bombs for every man, woman, and child in the country. Vietnam had never attacked the U.S., had never tried to attack it, had no desire to attack it, and had no capacity to attack it. All of this was justified through a purposeful campaign of lies to the American people that was sustained by five presidential administrations over more than two decades.
Notice that this level of focus, above the tile-level view that Burns insists we see, renders an entirely different understanding of the War. It is an understanding that Burns does not want us to have. He is, after all, a master documentarian, the best in the business, and if he had wanted us to have this vantage he could certainly have provided it. He didn’t.
Let’s scope out one more time and see if we can see anything else that Burns doesn’t want us to see.
For more than 400 years, Europeans had exploited developing world countries, making colonies of them in order to milk them of their resources. They became fabulously wealthy in the process. But in 1945, at the end of World War II, the European imperial states collapsed, victims of their own suicide, brought on by their starting two World Wars in only 30 years. The global imperial system, however, remained in place. The only question was who was going to dominate it and pick up those nations that had been colonies of the Europeans. It was the greatest land grab in the history of the world and the U.S. was determined that those former European colonies would now become its vassals so that they could enrich the U.S. as they had their European masters.
At the same time, the global capitalist system had collapsed in the Great Depression that preceded World War II and could not be revived without war. While the Western world was in Depression, the economy of the Soviet Union boomed, growing almost 400%. For developing world countries, it was an appealing alternative to the neo-colonial subjugation being offered by the U.S. And spending on weapons proved so powerful a means of transferring national wealth to the weapons makers it was graced with its own institutional moniker: military Keynesianism. Weapons spending lined the pockets of the weapons makers while providing the captains of finance the means to expand and hold their new-found global empire.
Again, notice that we get a very different perspective on the War by scoping out a little bit more. This is what Burns assiduously refuses to do—scope out so we can attain a better understanding of what it was all about. Yet, scoping out in this way is the only way to make sense of the whole thing, to put it into a context that imparts coherence, and meaning, and that allows us to make a judgement about it.
The point is that Vietnam wasn’t an aberration. It was simply the most violent case of the norm when countries refused to submit to U.S. domination. That is what the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran was about in 1953. It’s what the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala was about in 1954. It’s what the assassination of Lumumba in Congo was about in 1961. It’s what the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba was about in 1961. It’s what the invasion of the Dominican Republic was about in 1965. It’s what the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile was about in 1973. Can you see the advantage that context conveys for understanding? That’s precisely what Burns will not do.
The reason this is so important, and what makes Burns’ occlusion of it such a fraud is that, as William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” This is what the destruction of Yugoslavia was about in the 1990s. It’s what the invasion of Iraq was about in 2003. It’s what the Honduras coup was about in 2009. Its what the invasion of Syria, albeit by jihadist proxies like al Qaeda and ISIS, was about beginning in 2011. It’s what the destruction of Libya was about in 2011. It’s what the coup in Ukraine was about in 2014.
Should we talk about North Korea in 2017? Venezuela in 2018? Iran, in 2019? Russia? China? As you can see, it never ends.
Burns is a very smart businessman. He makes millions of dollars on these cinemagraphic blockbusters. More than anything else, he doesn’t want to derail the gravy train. He doesn’t want to blow the franchise. He doesn’t want to have to burden his 40 million middlebrow viewers with anything like the weight of having to make moral judgments about their nation’s behavior. Or worse, having to take action when the same atrocities are committed in their name again and again and again and again.
It’s so much more profitable to make his viewers into moral eunuchs by assuring them that whatever trauma was inflicted on American GIs (and it’s pretty clear that they were the real victims in it all, right?) it was only because well-meaning people made some well-intended mistakes. After all, this is America, right?
If there were any meaningful lessons learned from Vietnam, they were learned by the military and the vast bureaucracies that profit from war. The media, in which Burns is a designated doyen, now serves as the freakishly effective propaganda instrument for this militarized state. After Vietnam it learned how to insulate the American people from the realities of war, embedding sycophantic reporters into front-line units so they could send back only idolizing stories of battlefield heroism, valor, sacrifice, bravery, comradery, and idealism. It has learned how to easily engineer consent for the literally endless wars that the empire and the financiers and weapons makers who run it demand.
Ken Burns and his Vietnam War are at once the progeny and perpetrators of this system. It is a surrealistic fantasy world where there are no venal motives, only benevolent ones gone awry, where there is really no blame because it was all well-intended to begin with, where complexity serves as exculpation for anything, and where there are so many sides it’s impossible to form moral judgements. As a result, it becomes impossible to express outrage, and therefore take action against ever newer, more slickly packaged atrocities.
Charles Beard called it “perpetual war for perpetual peace.” A far greater and more prescient American warned about where it inevitably leads. James Madison, the author of the Constitution wrote, “No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual war.” By depriving us of the context and, therefore, knowledge of the purpose of the Vietnam War Ken Burns lulls us into passivity in the face of and acquiescence to this enveloping reality. We desperately need better sentinels.
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