Ken Burns & Lynn Novick Do Vietnam: a Tale of Two Critics

Still from “The Vietnam War.”

In the run-up to the Burns/Novick documentary on the Vietnam War to air on PBS beginning the 17th of September, I’ve read two previews that likely define the opposing poles around which critical commentary will grade the film series:

Why the Vietnam War is Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Most Ambitious Project Yet,” by David Kamp, in the August 2017 issue of Vanity Fair.

America’s Amnesia,” by Thomas A. Bass, in Vol. 2, No. 4 (August-October 2017) of the Mekong Review.

As I read the tea leaves, the revived debate on Vietnam prompted by the documentary will essentially bypass the old nest of apologists among the surviving neo-cons and the highbrow sages of the National Review and Commentary, and pit forces from the neo-liberal camp who see the “lessons of Vietnam” as repudiations of the U.S. policy of permanent war targeting international “bad guys” not down for American global hegemony, against the principled crowd of leftists and academics who cut their political teeth during the period of massive opposition to the Vietnam War. We may hear from the right, the diehard revanchists among the Viet Kieu, the rants of Rolling Thunder’s ersatz vets on their hogs, the idiocracy of Trump’s base, or even the Idiot in Chief, Trump himself. But their voices on this topic will be ignored as so much extraneous background noise. No one serious, you know, still supports the Vietnam War.

Given what he’s served up in Vanity Fair, I place David Kamp, if only in the utter Arendtian thoughtless he brings to the topic, among the temporizers. Kamp’s operative critical pose is ennui chic. He is bored by treatments of the Vietnam War he’s encountered that recycle the “tired tropes… of Hollywood,” and is refreshed in finding that auteurs Burns and Novick have “avoided” them.   After all, Lynn Novick instructs the critic in an interview, ““There is no agreement among scholars, or Americans or Vietnamese, about what happened: the facts, let alone whose fault, let alone what we’re supposed to make of it.” Burns punctuates his partner’s hymn to ambiguity, telling Kamp he disdained to give voice in their epic to “avuncular, Monday –morning quarterbacking from historians and scholars who never set foot in Vietnam.” There it is: throw out your Gibbon, unless the renowned author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire managed to time travel in the Way-Back machine with Sherman and Mr. Peabody to personally interview the Visigoths as they sacked the Eternal City.

Of course, Burns’ deaf ear here is really tuned to left historians who know quite well “what we’re supposed to make of it.” The conclusion is foregone that in the documentary we will not hear from Noam Chomksy, whose powerful writing on Vietnam constitutes a virtual library of its own; nor from Christian Appy, whose several works will inform a reader exactly what happened; nor from my friend John Marciano whose The American War in Vietnam is a gem suitable for inclusion on curricula wherever the war is taught. Perhaps in failing to present Vietnamese visas when they submitted their passports to Burns and Novick, these and other alleged ‘Monday morning quarterbacks’ came up lacking.

To ‘avoid old tropes,’ Kamp wags approvingly, Burns has coined new ones “by interviewing those with firsthand accounts, from Vietcong guerrilla fighters to Army deserters.” Certainly all of the above are entitled to their opinions, and most of them presumably have had half a century to compose their own sound bites. Moreover, might there be something problematic in assigning equal weight to all “firsthand accounts” in rendering informed historical judgements about the war? This is not a question Kamp appears to have grappled with. And to Burns, the question is irrelevant.   During an early stop last April at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs to promote the film, America’s favorite documentarian was asked if Vietnam was a ‘’just war?” “It’s impossible to make a blanket judgment about the war,” intones Mr. Burns – the very paragon of avuncularity.

The war about which no judgment can be made, writes Kamp, “began as an ill-considered but contextually understandable effort” to restore French colonialism in Indochina after World War II. But following the defeat of the French by the Vietnamese resistance in 1954 – by no means entirely “communist,” as Kemp suggests – Vietnam became “America’s headache.”   Fast forward to America’s defeat, and the subsequent years of “agonizing debate [that] begat a kind of reckoning fatigue,” which Kamp glosses as: “Okay, okay, we get it: The Vietnam War messed people up divided our nation and is a stain on our history – let’s drop the subject.”   Enter Burns and Novick to pick it up again, believing “that enough time may have elapsed for tempers to have cooled and for perspective to have been gained.”

Kamp heartily agrees. The completed documentary, which Kamp screened in a “marathon viewing session,” was “emotionally taxing.” It was worth the angst it caused him, though, because, “By dint of its thoroughness, its fairness, and its pedigree, The Vietnam War is as good an occasion as we’re ever going to get for a level-headed national conversation about America’s most divisive foreign war.”   It is, gushes this unabashed Burns groupie, a “monumental achievement.”

Much of this “achievement,” Kamp acknowledges rests on the availability of archival footage “filmed by news organizations with minimal governmental interference.” This remark is particularly telling for what Kamp does not say.  One of the lessons of Vietnam that the American war making establishment learned definitively, and applied widely, was to throw plenty of “interferences” at news organizations to prevent them from such independent coverage of our current string of wars since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.   But Kamp is a hack for hire; he has no skin in defending or protecting the prerogatives of the 4th Estate.

Burns reassures Kamp on this point, the inevitable analogy of weighing Vietnam against our subsequent wars, telling him that “the initial impulse to do [the documentary] was uninformed by some cultural Zeitgeist… our production was not going to set up a neon sign that says, “Hey, isn’t this a lot like Afghanistan. Isn’t this a lot like Iraq?” Not to worry, Kamp writes, Burns “is a long view historian… accustomed to finding modern day resonance in every story his films tell.”   Thus, in a generality that is as sweeping as it is vacuous, Burns enlightens Kamp with this fortune cookie wisdom, “there is a universality to human experience.” Next to Ken Burns, a folksy philosophizing sentimentalist of Americana of an earlier vintage like Carl Sandburg comes off like Immanuel Kant. Of course, there was also the feelings of the sponsors to consider; David Koch wants to wrangle the Zeitgeist, not be stampeded by it.

The one surprising sign of intelligent life in Kamp’s review was a comment about how “watching the first half” of the documentary was like the scene in Delmore Schwartz’s iconic short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” where the author dreams he is watching “a film of his parents’ courtship playing on a movie screen, and is moved to stand up… and shout, “Don’t do it!… Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred and scandal.”   [Schwartz, a literary prodigy in the late thirties, was a close friend of Robert Lowell’s, and the model for the tragic protagonist in Saul Bellow’s novel, Humboldt’s Gift, a fictionalized account of Swartz’s decline into failure and alcoholism; it’s years since I read James Atlas’ biography of Schwartz, but if memory serves the once poet of great promise died penniless in a hotel flop on upper Broadway].

Alas Kamp immediately squanders this minor triumph with a banal observation about the war’s outcome also being “fixed” from the beginning. And how in watching the old newsreels assembled by Burns and Novick, he “winces… every time John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or… Robert McNamara ignores or rejects a plausible exit strategy.”   Kamp’s tender moment notwithstanding, one wonders if Vietnamese survivors who have an opportunity to view this “monumental achievement” – as most assuredly they will – also wince when witnessing these unpunished acts of criminality by American leaders who worked so assiduously to bomb them into submission.

Veterans, Americans and Vietnamese, whose interviews Burns and Novick work into the documentary through-line, many “left with enduring wounds both physical and psychological,” are introduced by the filmmakers “slowly and situationally.” Kamp highlights the contributions of two of them, a white Middle Westerner, John Musgrave, and Roger Harris, a black man from the hood in Boston. Musgrave, who Kamp predicts, will “captivate viewers the way that the hominy-toned historian Shelly Foote did in The Civil War…, speaks with remarkable candor and eloquence about the terror he felt, the despair he fell into, and the pride he still takes in having served his country.” Kamp has also interviewed Musgrave separately, and provides a quote that offers some hope, “I’ll probably take some heat for some of the things I said.” I won’t know which way that sword cuts, of course, until I’ve actually seen more than the preview I watched recently near my home sponsored by Maine’s PBS station.

The one clip of Musgrave I saw reveals nothing of note, but that is not the case with Harris, shown both as he appears today and in photographs from his tour in the war zone. There’s a touching scene where he recalls a conversation with his mother – there were rare occasions in Vietnam for telephoning home – in which he tells her not to expect that he will survive, not with self-pity, but just calculating the odds he sees all around him.   His mother’s invokes the protection of her god, and the son mercifully survives. But there is something especially cynical in the way Burns and Novick use Harris as a strawman to promote the greatly exaggerated trope – to coin a phrase – about Vietnam veterans subjected to abuse, in particular in being slandered as “baby killers.” Maybe someone did call Harris a baby killer, but in the clip I saw, he appears to be generalizing – “they called us…” – not speaking from personal experience.   To juxtapose my own homecoming experience, and that of the scores of Vietnam veterans I have gotten to know over the past fifty years, not one of them ever complained of being confronted with those hurtful words, not to mention being spat upon.

That narrative of the badly treated Vietnam vet, never properly welcomed home, another trope and one exploited by Ronald Reagan in his first presidential campaign, has lubricated the smooth transition into the American collective unconscious of the ordinary boy next door, the citizen soldier who went to war, reluctantly or willingly, into the inflated, glorified warrior we are expected to revere today, and which David Kamp abets shamelessly and without reflection. Not a reader of Vanity Fair, I had none the less formed the vague notion that the magazine was a showcase for good writing, the only possible motivation for slogging through its telephone-book-thickness of glossy ads for power wrist watches and the fashion menu from the Milan rag trade.   Gratefully, David Kamp has disabused me of that hollow misimpression.


In the hands of Thomas Bass, a thoughtful, informed scholar, The Vietnam War is cast in an infinitely more revealing light.  Bass’s exceptionally insightful essay, America’s Amnesia, appears in the lively Mekong Review, edited by a Vietnamese expatriate, Minh Bui Jones, until recently based in Phnom Penh, and now relocated to Sydney, Australia where Minh’s refugee family settled in 1978.   Leading with a solid blow, Bass nails the essential flaw in the “cinematic topoi” – the conventional syntax – of the Burns’ brand, “the urge toward healing and reconciliation, rather than truth.” And while Novick has shared top billing as Producer in many works Burns has “created” since 1990, Bass “wonders,” based on what he sees in the Vietnam project, “what tensions might exist between… the patient archivist and the sentimental dramatists?” This bit of provocative coup de theatre Base launches with the penetrating observation that “a dichotomy between history and drama shapes all ten parts of the PBS series… it feels sometimes as if it were edited by two people making two different movies.”

Here’s how Bass makes that case: “Even before we get to Ho Chi Minh and his defeat of the French… in 1954 we are watching a US marine describe his homecoming to a divided America in 1972, a homecoming he says that was harder than fighting the Viet Cong.” By Episode Two, “we are heading deep into Burns territory. The war has been framed as a civil war, with the United States defending a freely elected democratic government in the south against Communists invading from the north. American boys are fighting a godless enemy that Burns shows as a red tide creeping across maps of Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.”   But here’s the rub. “The historical footage in Episode One which disputes this view of the war, is either ignored or misunderstood. Southern Vietnam was never an independent country.”

From there Bass retells the story well known to any serious student of this history. After the French defeat, the South Vietnamese state was engineered by the U.S. through the manipulations of a super spy named Edward Lansdale, bankrolling an internal struggle to overthrow Saigon’s powerful drugs lords who had helped to finance France’s colonial empire, and, with the collaboration of Vietnamese elements who had served the ancien regime, installed the Catholic mandarin, Ngo Dinh Diem, who, until his return to Vietnam, was being groomed by the CIA in the United States.

Diem then cancelled the elections “intended to unify northern and southern Vietnam – that President Eisenhower and everyone else knew would have been won by Ho Chi Minh.” Another election was quickly staged in the south, with Diem claiming to win 98.2% of the vote.   Breaking their link to the opium trade was “the CIA’s announcement that the French were finished in Southeast Asia…” – the Company now taking charge of that product line – “and it was time for the losers to go home.” After which came the American War beginning with the ill-fated Diem, ultimately abandoned by his sponsors and assassinated, and the building of “the autocratic police state that survived for twenty years before collapsing into the dust of the last helicopter lifting off from the U.S. Embassy” [which, Bass informs us, was actually a CIA safe house]. Lansdale’s critical contribution to this sequence of events, is absent from Burns’ film (although it is covered in the coffee table book that will accompanying the series).

Despite the overwhelming evidence, including the statement by Leslie Gelb, the senior Defense Department official [and later correspondent for The New York Times] who directed the project that produced the Pentagon Papers, that “South Vietnam… was essentially the creation of the United States,” Burns and Novick remain heavily invested in the narrative of the two Vietnams. Selected for the role to advance this historical distortion in their film is a Vietnamese woman named Duong Van Mai Elliott, who has also been a prominent member of the promotional tour Burns and Novick have been conducting throughout the country in advance of the film’s official airing. Elliott is a former interrogator of the Rand Corporation, married to an American for fifty three years, and a longtime resident of the U.S.

Born in Hanoi, where her father was “a former high government official in the French colonial administration,” the Catholic family ‘followed the Virgin Mary south” after the French defeat in the First Indochina War. Her sister, however, remained in the north and joined the Viet Minh. “This has allowed Elliott,” writes Bass, “to insist – as she does repeatedly in her public appearances – that Vietnam was ‘a civil war.’ The war divided families like her, but anti-colonialist fighters against colonialist sympathizers do not constitute a civil war,” any more than in the American Revolution where Tories supported the British against the patriots.

The photo below was lifted from my 1963 Georgetown University year book, the year Mai graduated from the Foreign Service School, two years my senior.

“Once Lansdale is erased from the history of the Vietnam War,” observes Bass with some disgust, “we settle into watching eighteen hours of carnage, interspersed with talking-head testimonials… More than eighty people were interviewed over the ten years they gathered material… Funded by Bank of America and David Koch and other corporate sponsors… the film relies heavily on former generals, CIA agents and government officials, who are not identified by rank or title, but merely by their names…” As the credits roll, we will learn that here we find that the war’s architects have had their say in the film, even if they are not likely to get much attention after the series is shown. As I said above, we all know that no one today, supports the Vietnam War. It is only in exploring whether the war was a mistake or a crime that the debate will revolve.

My summary of Bass’s essay is only inadequately presented here. The true value in “America’s Amnesia” will be gained by those who give it a careful reading, and pass it along as widely as possible in their own networks. I should not overlook, however, the positive note that Bass found “in the film’s best narrative gambit… its reliance on writers and poets, the two key figures being Bao Ninh and Tim O’Brien. But what if,” muses Bass, the two storied writers “had been allowed to meet each other [in the film]? Their reminiscing would have brought the meaningless mayhem of the war into the present. And instead of its search for closure, and healing reconciliation, what if the film had reminded us that US special forces are currently operating in 194 countries, or 70% of the world?”

Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening