Film & Television

Seeing both sides in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ‘The Vietnam War’

By Matthew Clayfield
In a new series, prolific documentarian Ken Burns finally acknowledges that American stories have an impact on the stories of others

The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick begins like so many Ken Burns films before it: by listing, in the inimitable voice of Burns’ go-to narrator Peter Coyote, a series of dichotomies that the ten-part, eighteen-hour behemoth will inevitably toggle between, and struggle with, for the duration of its running time. Honour and disgrace, victory and defeat, freedom and its opposite.

The visual style of these early moments is similarly recognisable to anyone familiar with Burns’ work. Take a photograph, pan across it, zoom in, zoom out, fade into the next. It’s a method so thoroughly associated with Burns – and one that will forever render descriptions of his work as “cinematic” a little silly, given how boring it appears when used on the big screen – that when Apple added it to their iMovie suite they named it the “Ken Burns effect”.

But then two things happen that haven’t happened in a Burns film before and they establish beyond question what a break The Vietnam War actually represents for him.

The first is that the film suddenly begins to rewind. We see the choppers pushed into the sea during the Fall of Saigon emerge from the waves and back onto aircraft carrier decks, tracers flying back into no-longer smoking barrels, acrid smoke becoming flame and flame shrinking back to the point of impact of shells that return to the bowels of American bombers. We even see Phan Th Kim Phúc, the famous napalm girl of Nick Ut’s even more famous photograph, running backwards, screaming, up the road to her hamlet.

If Burns is going to tell us about the Vietnam War, the sequence suggests, he’s going to do so from the beginning, and he’s going to want us to forget everything we know and feel about it before he does so.

It’s the boldest gambit he’s ever made, if not on the level of the claim he’s making for himself (all his films, with the exception of his World War Two documentary The War, which focuses on the stories of a mere four American towns, make this claim in one way or another), then at least stylistically.

Then something else happens that we’ve never seen in Burns’ work before, or at least only rarely, and never at the outset: one of America’s enemies appears, in this case a former North Vietnamese soldier, and not merely in a photograph. No, this is an interview, delivered in the man’s own language and shot in the same medium close-up style that introduced the world to good ol’ Shelby Foote in The Civil War. The man’s appearance immediately suggests that the rewind, however self-aggrandising, might in fact be well earned.

One can criticise Baseball for ignoring the sport’s non-American origins. One can even criticise Jazz, albeit to a lesser extent, for ignoring the music’s post-World War Two developments abroad, especially in Europe, where black musicians enjoyed a level of respect and freedom they were rarely, if ever, afforded at home. Hell, if Burns tells both sides of the story in The Civil War, that’s because, well, everyone involved in the conflict was American. For the first time in his oeuvre – there are no German or Japanese voices in The War, for example – the televisual heir to Norman Rockwell is acknowledging that not every American story is about America exclusively, or speaks exclusively to the country’s greatness.

Of course, the story of the Vietnam War – known to this day in Vietnam as the American War – is particularly resistant to such one-sided storytelling.

But as the writer Vit Thanh Nguyn makes clear in Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (and more implicitly in his Pulitzer-winning novel The Sympathizer), that hasn’t stopped American writers and filmmakers in the past from trying to whitewash it. Even apparently anti-war films about the conflict, such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, let alone pro-war films such as 1968’s The Green Berets, focus almost exclusively on America’s role in it. (Nguyn has written at length about his fraught relationship with Apocalypse Now and the famous scene in which the Americans travelling up the fictitious Nung River massacre a family of babbling Vietnamese on a passing sampan.)

It’s also true, and somewhat startling, that Burns was originally reluctant to feature Vietnamese voices to any great extent in the new film. According to an interview that appeared in the New Yorker in the lead-up to the film’s release on PBS in September (SBS and Foxtel reportedly have the rights to screen The Vietnam War in Australia), Burns considers himself a teller of American stories – “[W]e’re making an American film,” he told the reporter, the italics appearing, tellingly, in the original – if not exactly a purveyor of cheesy Americana, though that is also often the case. (Even here we get shots of Main Street cut to a piano rendition of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.) He had to be convinced by his co-director, co-creator and co-producer, Lynn Novick, as well as by his various advisers, that to deny the Vietnamese a prominent role in their own story would be deeply problematic.

This originally gave me pause: the only thing worse than the absence of Vietnamese voices, I thought, would be the inclusion of a few perfectly, cynically chosen ones.

But Burns commits to his new-found interest in telling both sides of the story. Indeed, if anything, Vietnamese voices – enemy and ally alike – at times almost seem to outnumber American ones. They certainly contribute to what is easily Burns’ most nuanced work to date. At one point, in an extended sequence about the 1963 battle of p Bc, Burns interviews American, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese survivors of the shit-show, resulting in a depiction of the incident that defies easy moralising.

According to those same pre-release interviews, Burns knew he was making a more controversial documentary than he usually does. He can’t have guessed quite how controversial it would be, though, coming as it has, after more than a decade in the works, in the middle of the most polarised period in his country’s politics since, well, the period the film is about.

He certainly skirts around the pricklier stuff more than one would perhaps like. Don’t expect any conspiracy theories about the Gulf of Tonkin incident here, however widely accepted and no longer actually controversial such theories are these days. A sequence about the 1968 M Lai massacre refers to the “killing” of civilians rather than to the “murder” of them. (“The killing of civilians has happened in every war,” Coyote says in what is surely one of the film’s most morally dubious moments.) According to the New Yorker, Burns insisted on the script change himself, despite the work of Nick Turse and others proving beyond doubt that murder was what it was, and that M Lai was less an aberration on America’s part than a predictable and representative result of its policy to “kill anything that moves”. (The coup against and assassination of Ngô Đình Dim, and the US government’s tacit support of it, is by comparison given a full and necessary airing.)

At the same time, there’s not much you can do with presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon except listen to the Oval Office recordings of them time and again admitting in private that the war was unwinnable while lying to the public about their country’s chances. They bury themselves with such conversations, at least in the eyes of posterity, and Burns more than allows them to do so. It’s a similarly rare treatment of Ho Chi Minh that acknowledges his various attempts to court the US government, starting with President Truman, on the not unreasonable grounds that the Vietnamese struggle for independence resembled America’s own. (I have American friends who were frankly shocked to learn that Ho’s declaration of independence was modelled directly on Jefferson’s.) If you manage to condemn Ho’s land reform program of the 1950s while also managing to acknowledge his attempts to reach out to America, as Burns does, you’re not only walking a tightrope, you’re rejecting the false dichotomies that helped fuel the war, on both sides, in the first place.

The late Mark Colvin’s father, John, was the British consul in Hanoi during the war (and an MI6 agent into the bargain), riding his bike around the city when it wasn’t getting bombed. In his excellent memoir, Twice Around the World: Some Memoirs of Diplomatic Life in North Vietnam and Outer Mongolia, Colvin argued that the domino theory was a valid concern, and that the war in Vietnam did result in victory of a kind. He wrote:

[T]he American effort in Vietnam, however ultimately unsuccessful on the peninsula, held the line long enough to permit the secure establishment of a democratic market economy outside of Indo–China itself. The existence in liberty of the Association of South East Asian Nations … and the prosperity and independence of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all spring from United States resistance to tyranny in Vietnam.

There are other definitions of American “victory” that one might consider as well. To this day, most of my friends who are veterans of the conflict – and having lived for a year in Ho Chi Minh City, I have a few – maintain that the real purpose of the war was to drive a wedge between the USSR and China, with Nixon’s visit to the latter in 1972, a year before American troops withdrew from Vietnam, the ultimate reward. It doesn’t thrill them to have been pawns in a Cold War proxy conflict, but they can at least acknowledge that, even if they were, they were pawns in a game that their side might be said to have “won” to the extent that it achieved its key, though secret, objective.

These readings have their problems. The game in question was obviously wrongheaded in the short term, with so many tens of millions killed (including in Cambodia and Laos, where the legacy of the so-called “Secret War” can be felt to this day) or else forced to flee. But it was wrongheaded in the long term as well. It has taken Vietnam–American relations nearly 40 years to get back to where, had Ho’s entreaties been answered and his national liberation movement not allowed to morph into a Cold War sideshow, they could and should have been in the first place.

This is especially true given the rise of China, Vietnam’s oldest enemy, which invaded the country in 1979 following Vietnam’s decision to get rid of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and which has more recently been giving it trouble in the South China Sea, where China has been turning minor atolls into military bases at an alarming rate. (The ironies of history abound as ever: Vietnam wouldn’t have had to remove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979 had it not been for the war facilitating the group’s rise, and wouldn’t have been able to do so, to humanity’s net benefit, had the Americans beaten the North.)

The effect of the war at home – including in Australia – throws narrow conceptions of “victory” into even sharper relief. Almost everywhere you look these days, Cold War-era poison lingers in our politics, not least in the willingness of our governments to lie to us as a matter of course. Governments have always lied to their people – it’s a version of the survival instinct, in democratic and authoritarian countries alike – but Vietnam was where that lying became knee-jerk, pathological, not least because the governments in question, at least on our side of the conflict, took to lying to themselves. When George HW Bush coined the term “Vietnam syndrome” in the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War, he was using it to describe the impact of Vietnam on America’s sense of its strength and self-worth. (His son would later adopt the same tone, erroneously, on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.)

We know the military costs of that syndrome: it gave us Iran–Contra, Guatemala, the First and Second Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan, which has since left Vietnam eating its dust as far as long-running conflicts are concerned. But Bush was wrong when he said the syndrome had been “kicked”. Its effect on the body politic and its sense of trust in its leaders is as pronounced as it has ever been. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing.

Despite uncharacteristically condemning three consecutive US administrations – Burns is after all one of the world’s least cynical admirers of the presidency, having made shorter hagiographies of Jefferson and the Roosevelts while contributing massively to the cult of Lincoln with The Civil WarThe Vietnam War can hardly be accused of not “supporting the troops”.

This phrase has become a right-wing go-to, a gotcha, if you like, used to bludgeon anti-war types into submission, to the extent that even many left-wing commentators are forced to use it in pre-emptive defence of their positions. They shouldn’t have to. As others have noted elsewhere, supporting the troops in conscript armies, like that which found itself in Vietnam, is one thing, while supporting volunteers, as Steven Salaita put it in a 2013 Salon article, “[enables] the friendly dictators, secret operations, torture practices and spying programs that sustain this terrible economy”, by which he meant the American war machine and those who would profit from never-ending conflict. (There is obviously an argument to be made for volunteer troops who have only volunteered because they’re piss-poor and want to go to college, but then the military is predatory in more ways than one.)

But as Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches – still the best book written about Vietnam by an American – “I think that those people who used to say that they only wept for the Vietnamese never really wept for anyone at all if they couldn’t squeeze out at least one for these men and boys when they died or had their lives cracked open for them.”

There are many moments in The Vietnam War that challenge you not to “squeeze out at least one for these men and boys”. The one that comes immediately to mind is that in which John Musgrave, who was eighteen when he arrived in Vietnam in 1967, recalls how his kids came to learn that he’d been in the war: they wanted to know why he was allowed to sleep with a night-light while they were so unfairly being weaned off theirs. He had been stationed at an outpost in Con Thien near the demilitarised zone and remains afraid of the dark to this day.

It is nevertheless the Vietnamese voices that linger most strongly here. The voices and the faces: the North Vietnamese Army solider traumatised by p Bc; the South Vietnamese girl, now a woman, who remembers the last hours of the Republic of South Vietnam; even the Vit Cng soldier who talks about killing Americans with what looks almost, at times, like a smile. (He laughs that they were simply too tall.)

Burns has gone beyond his usual remit here: he is for the first time acknowledging, without betraying the Americans who usually populate his work, that American stories have an impact on the stories of others, too. He has contributed, again for the first time, to the establishment of what Nguyn calls “just memory”.

This is a model or form of memory that recalls the crimes and sacrifices of one’s own, but also, if not especially, those of others, a memory that acknowledges the humanity and inhumanity of both sides in equal measure. We cannot always be heroes or villains in our stories, and nor can the others we define ourselves against, not if we are to know them and come to better know ourselves. Putting the “Ken Burns effect” to bold new effect, Burns has made his best work to date.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

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