Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s epic documentary, The Vietnam War, concluded on PBS last evening with a whimper, not a bang.
In publicity interviews before the series, Burns seemed to suggest that the nation remains conflicted over whether the war, which took the lives of 58,000 Americans, was worth it. The first episode last week seemed to promise to deliver an answer to that question.
The question, actually, was never posed during the 18-hour film, opting instead for the assessment of one of the documentary’s handful of interviewees that the stated reason for the war was a worthy one. That was a disappointing, but not unexpected, cop-out from a film that had already delivered its gut punch: a deeper picture of the treachery of Richard Nixon and the thousands of American kids who died because of it.
Nixon, running for president in ’68, torpedoed peace talks between North and South Vietnam and the Viet Cong after President Lyndon Johnson tried to bomb North Vietnam to the bargaining table.
Nixon used an intermediary to convince a corrupt South Vietnam president to pull out of the talks before they could even start because it was just a few days from the election and Nixon, incredibly, had been marketed as a peace candidate. Peace before the election was not in his interest.
Nixon called President Johnson to insist that he had nothing to do with the diplomatic subterfuge (Burns/Novick had the recording of their conversation), but Johnson knew the truth; he had bugged the phones of South Vietnam’s government, but he couldn’t say anything because it would’ve revealed the U.S. had wiretapped its partner.
Later, once elected, Nixon started a secret bombing campaign in neutral Cambodia and Laos, but didn’t tell the American people or Congress. When the media — portrayed now as “the enemy of the people” — found out, Nixon ordered illegal wiretaps on journalists and generals.
The final episode — The Weight of Memory — was far more tender than the rest of the series and didn’t really require an answer to Burns’ original question. History had already spoken, even if — as Fair and Accuracy in Media writes today — Burns couldn’t even bring himself to conclude the obvious: America lost the war.
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.
The document, long on historical facts, was short on obvious context and relevance to America in 2017.
The parallels were unmistakable, however, including the ability of Americans to create reality of whatever they were and are told to believe, the facts be damned, creating an up-is-down country where a subsequent presidential candidate who served in Vietnam was framed as the coward, while his opponent who stayed home was the patriotic hero.
To that extent, another interviewee’s assessment of the Vietnam War last night was far more important and accurate.
“We never recovered,” Sam Wilson (Army) said.
Burns and Novick pulled their punches in their conclusion that meaning can be found in the stories of people who fought in Vietnam. “Stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance of understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation,” narrator Peter Coyote said.
“It makes me cry,” southern Minnesota native and author Tim O’Brien told the Washington Post this week. “I can’t stop crying. I can’t stop thinking of what a waste it all was.”
The film, partly funded by David Koch, gave O’Brien the last word, reading from his book, “The Things They Carried.”
They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. They often they carried each other — the wounded and weak.
They carried infections. They carried basketballs, Vietnamese – English dictionaries. Insignia of rank. Bronze stars. Plastic cards imprinted with code of conduct.
They carried diseases, among them malaria, dysentary. They carried lice and ringworm and leaches, paddy algea, and various rots and mold.
They carried the land itself. Vietnam. The place. The soil, a powderly orange-red dust, that covered their boots, and fatigues, and faces. They carried the sky, the whole atmosphere. They carried it. The humidity. A lot of feelings. The stink of fungus and decay. All of it.
They carried gravity. They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire. At night they were mortared. They crawled into tunnels, and led point, advanced under fire.
But it was not battle; it was just the endless march. Village to village. They march for the sake of the march.
They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bones. Simple grunts soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies. They crossed the rivers, and up again and down again. Just humping. One step and then the next. And then another. They made their legs move. They endured.
Cue the credits, a fade to black over the Beatles’ “Let it Be.”