For those of us born after 1975, the Vietnam War is not far enough in the past to feel detachedly academic, not recent enough to form a clear opinion on. What we know of the war is through its images and soundtrack: 16mm film footage of low-flying helicopters grazing the tops of rice paddy fields; the guitar line of The Youngbloods’ “Come Together”; Lieutenant Dan. The Vietnam War, for the generation who didn’t live through it, is an abstract notion that hasn’t demanded our moral outrage.
“No one wanted to talk about it.” So begins Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s magnum opus The Vietnam War (premiering Sunday, September 17 on PBS; new episodes will air Sunday-Thursday until September 28). In talking about it now, a half century after the height of American involvement, Burns and Novick have engineered a staggering feat of filmmaking ambition, so overwhelming and raw it’s sure to rip open still-fresh scabs of those who lived through it. More importantly, it’s a film made for those born after, for whom their comprehension of that era—grainy snippets of late-’60s war iconography—will be supplanted by the incomprehensible tragedy of it all.
This is a film that does not assign a victor. Like the best war literature from that era—Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Michael Herr’s Dispatches—Burns and Novick avoid binary labels, understanding that wins and losses, bravery and cowardice, or heroism and villainy can co-exist. Where it doesn’t equivocate is how the war deeply wounded American standing. The narration, written by author and historian Geoffrey C. Ward, uses unsparing language: “America’s involvement in the Vietnam War began in secrecy. It ended 30 years later in failure, witnessed by the entire world.” The war was so messy and complex, the series requires the breathing room of 10 feature film-length episodes so viewers wrap their heads around what happened. (And still some details were glossed over, like post-traumatic stress disorder, given only several minutes of cursory mention in the final episode.) Even at a running time of 18 hours, what emerges from The Vietnam War—culled from 1,500 hours of archival film, 24,000 photographs, and present-day interviews—is utterly compelling.
It is at times an infuriating watch—your blood boils at the mendacity of the war’s decision makers. We see the face-saving stubbornness of government officials who publicly projected rosy optimism, but privately—revealed here in previously unreleased memos and audio recordings—saw no path to victory. (U.S. Assistant Secretary Of Defense John McNaughton wrote in a classified memo: Military action in Vietnam was 10 percent to help the Vietnamese, 20 percent to contain China and the spread of communism, 70 percent to avoid humiliation.) We listen in on phone conversations as U.S. presidents weigh which tactical decisions would bolster their reelection odds. There was the obstinance of Vietnamese diplomats who refused to sit for peace talks in Paris because they couldn’t agree on the seating arrangement at the negotiating table. Endless images of mangled bodies numb our sense of shock, while the on-screen running tally of casualties climb higher with each episode—by the end, 58,000 Americans, 1.25 million Vietnamese troops, and 2 million civilians are dead. A theme emerges: The hubristic motivations by those in charge and the human toll those decisions yielded.
As each episode unfolds, you watch with gnawing dread that things will get worse. The anticipation becomes painful. When a mother in a present-day interview lovingly recalls her son—and photos of this bespectacled, bow-tied, history book-loving boy named Denton “Mogie” Crocker Jr. morph into scenes from a war battlefield—you sense his story will end in certain tragedy.
Rather than allow pundits and political revisionists to present their version of history, Burns and Novick employ the voices of truck drivers, medics, prisoners of war, and troops on the front line—Americans, South and North Vietnamese—to tell the story of war from ground-level. The first-person recounting provides some of the film’s most arresting moments, especially when the filmmakers allow silence and body language to convey the story. When Jean-Marie Crocker—mother of the aforementioned “Mogie”—relates how she and her husband reluctantly allowed their son to enlist in the army, she catches herself in a moment of self-realization. “We tried to believe this was the right thing for him to do,” said Crocker, when suddenly her lips quiver and eyes dart down, knowing the fate awaiting her son. Those two seconds hold the most heartbreaking pregnant pause and tell the story of nearly 60,000 other Gold Star families. There are dozens of moments like it in the film, from grieving Vietnamese and American families, and by those who made choices in combat and now express regret and repentance—without saying a word. Add to it the propulsive, pulsating score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose music provides a haunting, Tell-Tale Heart-like presence.
Burns and Novick’s previous documentaries specialize in the slow-build, panoramic look into Americana, be it jazz, baseball, Prohibition, or our national parks. Where The Vietnam War resonates is its relevancy to the America of 2017. The roots of our divisiveness today can be traced back to Kent State, to downtown Chicago, to the steps of Capitol Hill, when our country was splintering into an us-versus-them mindset, where each side cherry-picked the worst traits of the other and painted them as foe.
Now, decades after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam and Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, the passage of time begins to offer perspective. An anti-war protester who invoked “baby killer” at returning troops is now remorseful of her words and actions. “I was a kid too,” she says, in tears. A Marine named Bill Ehrhart says he was most ashamed of soliciting a young prostitute in exchange for C-rations. A North Vietnamese soldier ponders the senselessness of his country engaged in civil war: “We ate the same rice, drank the same water, had the same culture and music.”
Viewers of these 18 wrenching and breathtaking hours are left with an impossible question: To what end? In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, director Lynn Novick said: “There’s 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.” What The Vietnam War movingly shows is something more humanistic: how man emerges from the hell of war. Many P.O.W.s find their marriages fall apart once they return home, others submit to vices, some experience newfound empathy with their former enemies. And in perhaps the most devastating segment of the film, there are those who lay eyes on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the first time and collapse to their knees.
Five U.S. presidents—Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford—would preside over America’s involvement in Vietnam, and there was a phrase all five would continuously intone. They would assure Americans that there is a “light at the end of the tunnel.” On the day Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces, it would be left to America’s most-trusted journalist, Walter Cronkite, to inform us of the awful truth: “In Vietnam, we finally have reached the end of the tunnel and there is no light there.”