“Do we have to rehash history?” a commenter on Facebook responded today to a friend who had posted a link to Mother Jones’ interview with Ken Burns, whose documentary, “The Vietnam War,” airs next week on PBS, 10 years after Burns started making it.
For Americans of a certain age, the comment seems to be its own preview of the discussion that will follow. More than 50 years after America stepped into Vietnam, we’re still a wounded nation when it comes to talking about the war.
Burns’ “The War” series provided a sentimental, if painful, look at World War II. There’s no way the latest epic can. It’s still too raw. America is still coming to grips with the discovery that our leaders are often con men. And sometimes, 50,000 young people die because of it.
“What’s interesting about Vietnam is that sentimentality is just not there, so you’re given kind of a clean access to it in one way,” Burns tells Mother Jones. “It’s also a war that represents a failure for the United States. Many people came back feeling like they never wanted to talk about it again. And so we developed a national amnesia.”
The film will touch a nerve right from the start for people who have decades of believing their own narrative of the war.
The narrator’s first words will say the war was started “in good faith by decent people.”
“There’s nobody sitting there like a villain in a B movie, saying, ‘Oh, good, let’s go ruin this country and sully the name of the United States,’” Burns said. “There are jerks and idiots at various points, but most of them are acting in good faith. This was something that was begun in secrecy and ended 30 years later in failure. That was a word we spent literally a year arguing over. It wasn’t a defeat; nobody took over the United States. It was not surrender. We failed.”
With any luck at all, the film will challenge us to rethink what our memory has imprinted about Vietnam and shake what its producers describe as our “national amnesia” about it.