Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 26, 2017

Thoughts on Ken Burns’s Vietnam documentary

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 12:26 pm

Ken Burns

Stuck in a motel in upstate NY last night, I decided to watch an episode of Ken Burns’s PBS series on the Vietnam war to kill some time. It was far worse than I expected.

The hour and forty-five minutes was focused on events in 1968 and 1969, a period I am deeply familiar with. The methodology was apparent from the outset. Probably 75 percent of it was devoted to war stories from both American and Vietnamese combatants in an effort to be “balanced”. From the Americans, you get both Rambo-like regrets that we didn’t fight better as well as rueful thoughts about how futile it all was. One fairly high-ranking officer asserts that we backed the wrong side since the Communists were such better fighters—sounding as if he bet on the wrong team to win the Super Bowl. From the Vietnamese, we hear from a couple who were both part of the convoys in which arms and other material aid were sent to fighters in the South on the Ho Chi Minh trail. An American pilot spends 5 minutes reminiscing about how when they spotted a convoy, it was often a “turkey shoot” as they dropped bombs and strafed the slow-moving stream of trucks and men. It was like hearing a rapist describe how he beat up and then fucked a helpless woman.

Missing from these war stories from either side was any notion of why they fought. One supposes that the Americans were at a disadvantage since they enlisted (or were dragooned) into a war that was based on the most ludicrous of theories. Vietnam was a domino and if it fell, other dominos in East Asia would fall and the next thing you know, America goes Communist. Since Communism is a dead issue today (even if Trump is trying to revive it over the North Korea standoff), you need other Orwellian threats to keep society lined up behind the ruling class. It is al-Qaeda and ISIS that are the new dominos. The American bombing of Raqqa has killed 40,000 civilians and forced as many as one million more people from their homes. Back in 1968, the left would have organized protests against such a monstrous assault but today the left stands aside with its arms folded. Why? Because it is infected with Islamophobia.

Three passages in this unseemly documentary stuck in my craw.

Burns tells us that after the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese and the NLF were forced to draft new recruits to keep the war going but morale was so poor that men were getting drunk all the time over the despair they felt for being cannon fodder. This is par for the course for television-based history. Where did Burns get this information from? What are his sources? If I was reading an article that made such an assertion, I’d want to fact-check it. I should add that I probably should be inured to this kind of bad faith since I have been putting up with it for six  years in all those articles about how Syrian rebels were acting on orders from the CIA.

In order to stanch the flow of arms and fighters to the South, the USA adopted the Phoenix Program—according to Burns. However, the Phoenix Program was initiated in 1965 and could be best described as death squads designed to break the back of the resistance. Most of the victims of torture and execution were civilians who made the mistake of opposing the American occupation. Doug Valentine, a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, described the program in terms that never would have been conveyed to PBS viewers:

By 1967, killing entire families had become an integral facet of the CIA’s counter-terror program. Robert Slater was the chief of the CIA’s Province Interrogation Center Program from June 1967 through 1969. In a March 1970 thesis for the Defense Intelligence School, titled “The History, Organization and Modus Operandi of the Viet Cong Infrastructure,” Slater wrote, “the District Party Secretary usually does not sleep in the same house or even hamlet where his family lived, to preclude any injury to his family during assassination attempts.”

But, Slater added, “the Allies have frequently found out where the District Party Secretaries live and raided their homes: in an ensuing fire fight the secretary’s wife and children have been killed and injured.”

I should add that Valentine’s article was inspired by news last year that former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey was going to be named chairman of Fulbright University, a US-backed college with ties to the State Department in Ho Chi Minh City. Kerrey’s tenure there was short-lived since there was so much furor over his role in the Phoenix Program. I only wish that my fellow alumni at the New School had produced such quick results when he was serving as president of the New School for Social Research, an institution that had gained fame for hiring scholars driven out of Europe by the Nazi equivalent of the Phoenix Program.

Finally, there is the ridiculous war story by a physician who had been a POW in one of those legendary sadistic compounds that kept them on the brink of starvation. One day a cat that lived in the camp wandered into their midst apparently. They were so hungry that they butchered the cat, removing its head and paws, and then roasted it while the guards weren’t watching. When the guards spotted the charred remains, the prisoners claimed that it was a weasel they had caught and killed. However, when the guard spotted one of the cat’s paws, their goose was cooked since the cat belonged to the commandant. To start with, killing a cat with your bare hands is almost as possible as killing a weasel. Cats are not only pretty damned fierce but capable of screeches and howls when under attack that would have woke the dead, not to speak of Vietnamese guards. The physician claims that he was beaten to within an inch of his life and forced to wear the cat’s carcass around his neck while tied to a pole. You can’t make this shit up but it ends up in a Ken Burns documentary anyhow.


  1. Burns and Novick say their goal was “to comprehend the special dissonance that is the Vietnam War. … We vowed to each other that we would avoid the limits of a binary political perspective and the shortcuts of conventional wisdom and superficial history.” They refer to the war as a “Rashomon of equally plausible ‘stories.’ ” Thus, the slogan they put on the movie poster: “There is no single truth in war.” As I watched the first half of the epic unfold, I constantly mulled over the question whether it was true “there is no single truth” concerning the Vietnam War. For one, the slogan seems to contradict itself. I would submit there is a single truth concerning the Vietnam War: It’s the fact the Vietnamese people never did anything against the powerful, imperial people who invaded and devastated their country for over a decade.

    Comment by Dennis Brasky — September 26, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

  2. I thought my description (on a FB thread) of Ken Burns as a “slippery jingoist” was on the mark. When he came to Canada a few years ago, he often wore a sweater which had “I love my country” emblazoned on it (or something to that effect).

    Comment by uh...clem — September 26, 2017 @ 3:46 pm

  3. The whole idea has to go that everything in America has to be just Grand and Old no matter what because of the Better Angels of our Nature and Malice Toward None and all the rest of that. Ken Burns, while far from stupid, is completely wrapped up in this liberal bullshit and in the silly idea that America is a wonderful constellation of myths (Baseball!! Hot dogs!!! jazz!!!) that date from the founding of the republic and will go on forever. Crap like the Vietnam war, in the Burns perspective, has to be somehow sanitized and woven into the mythical fabric along with (no doubt) Ronald Reagan and every other godawful thing that has come along in the past seventy years.

    The US around the time of the Emancipation Proclamation was in the historical forefront of 19th century liberalism worldwide, horrible contradictions and all. Karl Marx understood this. This does not mean that those currently living here, even white people, have to keep on genuflecting to the Floundering Bothers and saluting the Grand Old Flag/

    “Special dissonance” my foot. Vietnam, among other things, marked the point at which the patriotic myths recycled throught World War II and painfully stretched to cover Korea just simply and obviously broke–for good.

    Like the Sullan constitution of the Roman Republic, which lasted less than forty years and was defended to the death by Cato and others as if it had always existed, the American consensus to which Burns & Co. want us to cling at all costs is a dead thing that did not live for very long and cannot be revived.

    Let it go. Let Burns go. Enough is enough. It would be a shame if the naive concept of civil liberties and maybe even representative government went away along with the lies of empire, but otherwise there is no point in this kind of exercise, especially when it winds up defending the dead-end miltaristic stoicism that is currently infecting the national psyche and draining the national purse.

    If white people in America are worried about their fate–and in the long run, IMHO, the whole Burns enterprise boils down to this–their best option is to join the rest of the human race and let go of the sort of tortured mythology that Burns and his ilk insist on clinging to.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 26, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

  4. The first two episodes aired in Britain on BBC Four last night. I found it very informative, ignorant as I was of much of the ‘pre-history’ of the disastrous conflict, that the U.S. was an ally of Ho Chi Minh at the outset against Vichy France and Japan, for example. I didn’t see it as an exercise in evasion, or myth perpetuation at all. To me it seemed pretty clear that the barbarous and iniquitous French imperial rule, divisive and culturally poisonous, was really at the rotten core of the war and that kowtowing to de Gaulle at the wars end was a disastrous error. (I always admired de Gaulle in a way because of the Free French against the Nazis, but obviously I didn’t think enough about the other aspects of his politics).

    Comment by Matthew Jackson — September 26, 2017 @ 6:03 pm

  5. I briefly saw Burns being interviewed on PBS by Judy Woodruff because the first episode aired. I heard Woodruff gush over how rigorously he and Lynn Novick had fact checked the program. Right then, I knew it was Cold War liberal crap. After that, Woodruff asked Burns about “the lessons learned.” Burns said there were many, but that “we weren’t going to blame the warriors anymore.’ At that point, I changed the channel. Later, I went on Twitter, and saw that Burns had tweeted that he was honored to attend a DC event for the series with John McCain and John Kerry. Here, in one tweet, the coalition in favor of the program was revealed.

    So naturally, I haven’t watched a single episode, relying upon people like Louis, Tim Shorrock, Nick Turse and others to expose the obvious lies and distortions broadcast on a nightly basis. I’ve been told that Burns and Novick, when they were doing all that rigorous fact checking, didn’t even interview Daniel Ellsberg for their presentation of the Pentagon Papers. It will be interesting to see if Ellsberg appears on air. I’d be amazed if they even know about Douglas Valentine’s work about the Phoenix Program. But then, when your series is funded by the Bank of America and the Koch brothers, you have to exclusively rely upon “objective” sources.

    I believe that there are reasons why Bank of America and the Koch brothers funded this Vietnam series by Burns and Novick now. Just about everything that has been during the “war on terror” was done in Vietnam. Vietnam still casts a shadow of illegitimacy of these practices that remains. Hence, the need for a revisionist series with the cultural cachet that Burns and Novick possess to wash away the horrors with rationalizations and evasions.

    Like “War for the Planet of the Apes”, which, among other things, allegorically addresses Vietnam and the “war on terror” from the perspective of the victims, the PBS Vietnam War series also seeks to engage the present by reference to the past. But, unlike “Apes”, Burns and Novick want to normalize these brutalities as an acceptable way for the US to impose its will upon the rest of the world. Indeed, Burns and Novick are so caught up in their propaganda project that they diminish the imperial objectives of the US in Vietnam, giving it a false altruistic gloss. One can only imagine the kind of documentary series they would do about the Iraq war and occupation. Behind their professed moderation and compassionate objectivity lies a sinister, propagandistic motivation that makes them comparable to Riefenstahl.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 26, 2017 @ 6:18 pm

  6. ‘So naturally, I haven’t watched a single episode’, but you condemn the ‘ false altruistic gloss’. At least watch the programme before condemning it. I watched the first two episodes and it doesn’t portray the altruism of anyone really. It made me think the American policy at the end of the Second World War was pretty terrible with regard IndoChina, and they then went on to further bad policy decisions and were soon dropping Agent Orange at Kennedys say so. How is this whitewash? And if anyone emerges as the least wrong , it would be Ho Chi Minh I would say. The idea this all part of a plan to justify the war on terror strikes me as claptrap. How many will even watch it. You haven’t, for starters, and you are some kind of political animal. Comparing the makers to Riefenstahl! Oh for fucks sake.

    Comment by Matthew Jackson — September 26, 2017 @ 6:28 pm

  7. Go ahead and keep watching it. I’ve seen plenty of criticisms from reputable sources, as mentioned in my earlier post, that discredit it. Indeed, with each new episode, ones that have not aired in the UK yet, they grow and grow. I have better ways to spend my time, especially after Burns pretty much signaled his intentions before the program aired. Do I have to watch “24” to know that it is xenophobic nonsense? Like Riefenstahl, Burns and Novick have put themselves at the service of empire, and their perspective will be used to justify the US empire’s future violence.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 26, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

  8. An additional observation:

    “The idea this all part of a plan to justify the war on terror strikes me as claptrap. How many will even watch it. You haven’t, for starters, and you are some kind of political animal.”

    Will it be watched by millions like “Game of Thrones”? No. But it has been marketed as a major event by PBS, and will be watched by the educated demographic that still gives PBS intellectual credence. Viewers will therefore assume it has more credibility than something that airs on The History Channel. It is also being marketed as a kind of final word about Vietnam, a necessary revision to put the purported ideological extremes concerning the war to rest. Instead of being recognized as an imperialist conflict, the Burns/Novick perspective, as also expressed in interviews, is that the war resulted from misunderstandings, policy failures and poor implementation, with the troops on both sides the victims.

    In other words, it was a management failure.

    After broadcast, there will be DVD sales of the series and purchases by schools because of the false credibility and cultural importance attributed to it. Burns and Novick are essential participants in order to achieve these objectives, and one can only assume that they signed onto the project because of their agreement with them. They are culpable, and deserve to be harshly criticized for it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 26, 2017 @ 7:26 pm

  9. It makes clear at the outset that the U.S. forsook their erstwhile ally Ho Chi Minh and supported the imperialist policy of the French at the end of WW2. That was episode one. The only conclusion the episode allows is that American ideology, its imperialist taint, triumphed over its democratic rhetoric. If schoolchildren watch it I would think they would shout at the screen, ‘Hey, French and Americans, leave those Vietnamese alone’. I just don’t see it, so far, as an exercise in whitewashing.

    Comment by Matthew Jackson — September 26, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

  10. “If schoolchildren watch it I would think they would shout at the screen, ‘Hey, French and Americans, leave those Vietnamese alone’. I just don’t see it, so far, as an exercise in whitewashing.”

    Let’s hope so. By way of background, here’s a number of articles I’ve seen about the series:

    This article from the Mekong Review is excellent: http://vietnamfulldisclosure.org/index.php/americas-amnesia/

    The author, Thomas Bass, emphasizes how role of CIA agent Edward Lansdale in creating South Vietnam was not presented, among other things. This is also the source for my statement that Burns/Novick didn’t interview Ellsberg.

    Here’s another one: https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/19/getting-the-gulf-of-tonkin-wrong-are-ken-burns-and-lynn-novick-telling-stories-about-the-central-events-used-to-legitimize-the-us-attack-against-vietnam/

    Tweet from Tim Shorrock regarding statement of Vietnam War historian Robert Buzzanco: https://twitter.com/TimothyS/status/909777047442087936

    Here’s an exercise for you and others: did Paul Street accurately anticipate what would happen in the series?

    Here’s an article that may confirm your view, stating that the series is too opaque for people to draw parallels to the present, other good observations as well: http://vietnamfulldisclosure.org/index.php/july-december-1967-things-fall-apart-january-july-1968-vietnam-war-episodes-5-6/

    Here’s another good article in addition to the one above by historian Christian Appy, where he points out how dismissive Burns/Novick are to the antiwar movement, particularly its political perspective, which is erased, as well as other defects with what appears to characteristic understatement: http://vietnamfulldisclosure.org/index.php/river-styx-january-1964-december-1965-resolve-january-1966-june-1967/

    A particularly interesting aspect of the article is the Burns/Novick fetishization of the military, only antiwar people who came from the military in Vietnam are interviewed, with one apolitical exception.

    The Vietnam Full Disclosure website seems to be a good resource.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 26, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

  11. I have seen most of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novak documentary and I find it fascinating. The early sections on the French are really good. The release of the Johnson tapes are fantastic as well as you can hear him “live.” Most interesting of all for me is the fact that they conduct extensive interviews with both NVA and VC former fighters, something I’ve never seen done in an American documentary. Also you get rare footage from North Vietnam and film shot in the South from the VC side. They even go into detail into the factional debates inside Hanoi’s Politburo, where Ho and Giap were outmaneuvered.

    In a massive documentary, there are some things I disliked. For example, he explains the “Gulf of Tonkin” resolution as being based on a “mistranslation” from two US warships that gave Johnson the pretext. Maybe so, but it is one of those times when he should have dug deeper. I found this a real blunder. There were other things I didn’t like as well. But he may be setting up certain story lines that may pay off much later so I’m hesitant to pronounce on them too much before the show ends. But because he and Novak let many voices speak, there are some I’m going to like more than others. But so what? I like to hear different points of view to begin with.

    But, overall, I think it’s really good. Nor does not cover up the brutal nature of the NVA/VC either. The discussion of the massacres done on the outskirts of Hue come to mind. Not to mention the murders of the families of officials who were in the South Vietnamese government. But it is balanced by extraordinary stories of (for example) the way the North Vietnamese kept rebuilding the Ho Chi Mihn Trail, based on (in part) an interview with a woman who was a teenager in North Vietnam and who volunteered for the war effort. Her story is astonishing.

    And, yes, it is possible to kill a cat silently with (say) a rock to its noggin while it is napping. It further rang true that the camp commander would be outraged as well that they killed his cat. (Have you talked to any cat owner recently?)

    As for explaining the war as bad management, I think this does a gross injustice to the film’s intent. It’s clear when you watch episode one that the film shows that the Americans, instead of making some kind of agreement with Ho, followed the path of the French step by step and repeated the same blunder as the French on a much more massive scale. It further shows that Le Duan and the majority of the Politburo had no hesitation in sending god knows how many hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths because they followed the kind of military strategy that Stalin used in World War II and the Chinese used in the Korean War.

    What is most striking to me is that like World War II, it seems clear the North and the VC in the South were willing to make this almost incredible sacrifice because Stalinism (and North Vietnam was Stalinist if it was anything) intersected with an incredibly fierce sense of nationalism and outrage at the presence of colonial occupiers starting with the French and ending with the Americans. In that, it further reminded me of World War II in Russia where, despite taking phenomenal causalities, the regime didn’t collapse but beat the Nazis in no small part due to something like Russian patriotism which didn’t depend so much on Communist slogans but a deep sense of national identity. It was visceral. And the paradox of the war from an American military point of view was that the more people they killed and the more schools and dams they bombed, the more they recruited more and more Vietnamese dedicated to resist them at all cost, not because of Communist ideology but because an American bomb landed on a school and killed all the children.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — September 26, 2017 @ 9:23 pm

  12. And, yes, it is possible to kill a cat silently with (say) a rock to its noggin while it is napping. It further rang true that the camp commander would be outraged as well that they killed his cat. (Have you talked to any cat owner recently?)

    Maybe so but the story as told was filled with holes gaping enough to drive a Cadillac Escalade through. Plus, the real issue is not who was more cruel or less cruel. It was the social character of the NLF. Sherman might have been far more vicious than Lee but the North stood for revolutionary change. This was a peasant rebellion. You get no sense of that from all the detailed and pointless war stories.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 26, 2017 @ 10:01 pm

  13. “For example, he explains the “Gulf of Tonkin” resolution as being based on a “mistranslation” from two US warships that gave Johnson the pretext. Maybe so, but it is one of those times when he should have dug deeper. I found this a real blunder.”

    I doubt that this was a blunder.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 26, 2017 @ 11:17 pm

  14. One way you get a sense of the social character of the NLF was from interviews with NLF fighters, something the documentary has included. I personally don’t find war stories pointless in a huge documentary about a war. They are trying to tell a narrative from many levels, including from the people doing the fighting to the highest officials in both Washington and Hanoi. Part of war is social history from below. They are not jingoist tales of American glory a la John Wayne. Also I believe they are laying the basis for explaining the rise of groups like VVAW, which you can’t fully understand (well, at least I can’t) without some sense of what the Vets experienced in Vietnam. They cite numerous letters from GIs back to their families at home saying that the war is a lie and the Vietnamese people can’t stand them and want them to go home. This all comes as a shock to many soldiers who thought they would be greeted as heroes when they arrived.

    What really surprised me was the extent to which Burns and Novak wanted to include interviews with fighters from the NLF and NVA as well as with the Americans and ARVN. Nor was this just a “peasant rebellion.” It was far more complex in my opinion in that it involved the history of the Communist movement, geopolitics, the relations with Russia and China, the long history of nationalism in Vietnam and much much else. And it was a movement led by Ho, Giap, and Le Duan, all of whom were not peasants but nationalist intellectuals who became communists in large part because of Lenin’s writings on national independence, a point the first show makes clear in its discussion of Ho.

    I don’t want to ramble on about this as ultimately you either like something or you don’t. As for whether or not the saga of the mis-translation was “a blunder” or more sinister (as I immediately thought as well), again to me this is a real weakness in the film.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — September 27, 2017 @ 3:11 am

  15. Myth-building–The master theme of all Burns’s work IMHO is the cultish assumption, which also underlies the ideology of the Democratic Party, that America—ultimately white America–is grand, glorious, and wonderful if also tragic and burdensome. Painful truths are told but must in the long run only add pity to the wonder. This shows up when Barack Obama pays tribute to that triumph when living of the undertaker’s art, Ronald Reagan. The myth has to expand to include that stinking turd, and ever afterward, his “contribution” must be honored and praised for its nuance. Likewise Vietnam. These people just can’t let anything go or truly reject the errors and crimes of the past. A grand tapestry is always being woven, no matter of what fiber.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 27, 2017 @ 7:21 am

  16. A history never told. I ‘m always am fascinated by the Manson case, more than any other showing how far young people were willing to go against the war establishment. Think what you want to think, I think Charlie was way out of his element…

    Comment by seaspan — September 28, 2017 @ 2:44 am

  17. Seespan, care to elaborate?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — September 28, 2017 @ 3:40 am

  18. Let’s just say their tactics and targets were crazy as shit. But among a huge swath of youth their attitude was common. From being against the war, the war machine, the establishment, the degradation of the planet, all those things, And with such a consensus, it did go to the next level. What are WE going to do about? The motivation was clearly there considering the war and the hypocracy was everywhere. There was a time when creative thinking, determination, self sacrifice, to change the world, was not taked about much. It was more acted on, I wish I could explain it better..The trial tried to hide the wider context as best it could. Add your own thoughts if you can.

    Comment by seaspan — September 28, 2017 @ 5:24 am

  19. “Myth-building–The master theme of all Burns’s work IMHO is the cultish assumption, which also underlies the ideology of the Democratic Party, that America—ultimately white America–is grand, glorious, and wonderful if also tragic and burdensome. Painful truths are told but must in the long run only add pity to the wonder.”

    Yes, this is it, with reconciliation as the salve that heals all wounds, as addressed by Bozzanco in “Ken Burn’s War Stories” above, so that the American imperial machine can just keep rolling on and on, brutalizing more people. So, in the “war on terror”, helicopter machine gunners can mow down Iraqis in the streets of Baghdad, Navy Seals can kill and mutilate their victims and guards at Abu Ghraib can sexually abuse their inmates.

    And then Burns can come back in, say 2028, with a documentary about the “war on terror”, and say, again, “We aren’t going to blame the warriors anymore”, exonerating everyone who bloodied their hands, so that the US can move on to the next round. And, of course, Burns and Novick just won’t be able to find the time to interview Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, or, for that matter, the parents of Pat Tillman.

    Interestingly, enough, the “glorious and wonderful if also tragic and burdensome” myth is also the one that liberal Zionists use to justify the dispossession of the Palestinians and the occupation. One can only imagine how horrible a Burns documentary about that would be.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 28, 2017 @ 5:04 pm

  20. > American bombing of Raqqa has killed 40,000 civilians

    correct this louis. this is ludicrous.

    Comment by max — September 28, 2017 @ 9:02 pm

  21. > driven one million more people from their homes

    isn’t that the entire population of Raqqa governorate? where are you getting this info?

    Comment by mlinchits — September 28, 2017 @ 9:11 pm

  22. Sorry, Max. I got this from a Nation Magazine article about the bombing in Raqqa but did not notice that the numbers were for Mosul:

    Islamic State fighters have now essentially been defeated in Mosul after a nine-month, US-backed campaign that destroyed significant parts of Iraq’s second largest city, killing up to 40,000 civilians and forcing as many as one million more people from their homes.


    I couldn’t find any numbers for Raqqa after a brief survey. Maybe later I’ll have more info but I am sure it is far less than Mosul since it is a much smaller city. Proportionately, though…

    Comment by louisproyect — September 28, 2017 @ 9:33 pm

  23. Seaspan,
    Sorry I have nothing to add. The subject of how the Manson sect fit in to a broader movement is something that I know nothing about. I was to young at the time to know much in detail about the broader movement, not to young to know about general details though.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — September 28, 2017 @ 10:11 pm

  24. A different take on Burns’ motives – From Vietnam Full Disclosure blog –

    I have been asking myself a difficult question since Episode 1, and today, before I saw Episode 9 that an answer occurred to me that I can’t quite shake. I think it is worth thinking about.

    We are all aware of the narrator’s words in the first few moments of Episode 1: that it all began with decent people acting in good faith and then misunderstandings, mistakes blah blah blah. Then something rather amazing happens. What Burns shows us and lets us listen to right after that proves conclusively — within an hour –that that statement is bullshit. He does something like that throughout the 8 episodes we’ve seen. He doesn’t tell us that the Republic of Vietnam was a puppet state and that Diem was a puppet President, but we see several Vietnamese interviewees who tell us repeatedly about ‘the puppet state’ and ‘the puppet army’, and what they tell us jibes with other stuff Burns shows and tells us about how the US Government treated Diem and Thieu and Ky, et al — as puppets — like not informing them of negotiations and their progress and even that at one point they were OK with the DRV demand that Thieu would have to go.

    What is Burns doing? Why this disconnect between some of the conclusory nonsense the narrator states and the evidence Burns presents that disproves it? He can’t be so lame as not to know what he’s done.

    Burns is a master film maker, no doubt about it. When he wants to dramatize something, it gets dramatized to the nth degree. He has matched found archival footage to accounts of battles so neatly that you would swear he is showing us only those ambushes and firefights for which Cecil B. DeMille was on hand to document it all on film. Burns’s veteran interviewees are almost without exception likable people (excepting of course the evil Negroponte, who used to manage the contras), and he has made the most out of their interviews, and, as with everything else, he knows how to dramatize and build their stories. I confess that when I heard that guy Musgrave — whose words have ended 2 episodes — say that he promised “to waste as many gooks” and slopes and dinks as he could, I did not expect to see that same vet converted in Episode 8 to an antiwar protester, with curly hair almost to his navel. And only later did I realize that the tearjerker story of Mogie, that pathetic kid from upstate New York, was not so much a look at the tragic death of a typically clueless American kid, but the real point was his kid sister’s conversion to a war protester when she went off to college. Burns doesn’t tip his hand; it’s only after Mogie’s story is no longer in the front of our attention, later, when we have seen lots more, that we see his pretty sister — remarkably good-looking for her 60s, a fact that was surely not lost on Burns — tell us her story, and it’s every bit as moving as her brother’s. We hear vets speak of their Vietnamese enemies with admiration, and the only flag-waving attitudes we see or hear of (until that hard-hat rally and riot in lower Manhattan) are those that American kids bring with them into the military. And there’s the fierce mustachioed helicopter crew chief guy with the Italian name who, I was sure, was going to turn out to be a kill-em-all ‘patriot’, but Burns fooled me again: tonight I saw him as a VVAW, throwing a chest full of medals over the barrier. This series is full of surprises, and Burns hasn’t done them out of neglect.

    I am not a Ken Burns fan. I don’t much care for his way of using sappy sentimental music to prime your tear ducts. I don’t look at the Civil War the way he did. I don’t like his tearjerker style, don’t like that feeling of being manipulated. It is clear he has a by now well-established brand to sell his products, and that he is in business, like other brands, to make big bucks. He has figured out how to make those big bucks with documentaries, the hardest kind of movie to peddle profitably, even though his only domestic outlet is that constant-poor-mouth PBS network. That is a pretty impressive business achievement. It seems to me that in choosing, planning, writing, shooting and editing his projects, protection of his brand and his reputation with his PBS customers would be his top priority. But I think I also read that his father was a professor who participated in the earliest teach-ins, and that his family was against the war from the beginning. The Vietnam War is the first film of his that I know of in which there is an active, present-day Other Side, and it’s a powerful, implacable and vindictive one too. It is plain that the main American narrative about the war is theirs, and that they are in stark opposition to the true story, they don’t believe the real history, and they will fight any honest account of what happened. Suppose Peter Coyote’s v/o had kicked off Episode 1 by saying, “The Vietnam War was an extension of a 30 year effort by the US government to prevent the Vietnamese from choosing their own government, starting with trying to re-establish French colonialism and going on to killing and destruction on an astronomical scale. Along the way, the US Government lied to the American people nonstop about what it intended, what it was doing and how it was doing, and all of what it intended and what it was doing was illegal and immoral. Its puppet state and government were corrupt, tyrannical and doomed to failure. Although the US Government began to realize fairly early on that the US could not win the war, it sent more and more troops there to die and to kill in order to maintain its ‘credibility’, until its credibility was gone and the troops wouldn’t fight the war anymore.” That movie would be great to see, and that’s the narrative Americans should know, but Florentine Films has 30 fulltime employees, and that script would not help to meet the payroll.

    So what is going on here? Is it possible that Ken Burns is trying to tell the history of the war and figures this is the only way he can get it made and sold? Suppose he wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, with talking heads like Chomsky and Ellsberg and Dave Dellinger and Abbie Hoffman, etc., etc. Would he have the slightest chance of getting $30 million from David Koch and the Blavatnik Foundation and Bank of America and the rest of those rich people to make that film? From anyone? Of course not. There is a lot of evidence in his picture about what happened. Not all of it, there are huge omissions, but if you actually think about the evidence he presents — I had never heard those LBJ telephone calls or Nixon’s taped conversations before, and those things are total smoking guns — you cannot come away from this project without believing that the US government lied to the American people and to the troops, that it had no justifiable grounds for making war on the Vietnamese, and that all that killing and destruction was a crime. Maybe it’s my imagination, but judging solely from what the interviewees say, wouldn’t it seem clear to any viewer whose mind was open at least a crack, that the US was on the wrong side?

    So here is my question: did Ken Burns try to come as close as he could, under the circumstances of his financing situation, to telling the true story of the Vietnam War? Are his sins of commission and omission the conscious price of getting the bulk of the story out there? It has been almost 50 years since the war and nobody else has been able to catch the attention of the PBS audience with anything like a complete story of that war. The kind of epic of the scale and scope that Burns has put together — said to have cost $30 million — just cannot be made and sold without asking somebody rich for money. And they aren’t going to pony up a lot of money if the narration is going to trash the government they have bought and paid for. Until Wednesday, I was very critical of his project, but I have to admit that much, if not most, of what you need to know can be gleaned from this series. Also, Burns shows several vets who started out as standard teenage dumbbells but who ended up wised up about the war. I find that very encouraging. I need to believe people can change, because a lot of them sure need to. Tomorrow is the last episode. Maybe I should just clam up the criticism until it’s all finished.

    Sorry for the length of this.

    Bob Projansky
    VFP72, Portland, OR

    Comment by Dennis Brasky — September 28, 2017 @ 11:20 pm

  25. On #25. IMO, the reason why Burns got funding (and not just from the David A. Koch Foundation, — which co-funds a lot of wonderful shows on PBS like Nova — in combination with other foundations like the Ford Foundation) is very simple, almost obvious, and has nothing to do with the endless take downs on Ken Burns so often discussed.

    The Burns/Novick series on Vietnam was clearly conceived and developed during the years of the Obama administration. At that time, the CFR mantra repeated by Obama was “the pivot to Asia.” The pivot involved a very complex and sophisticated (at least by American foreign policy standards) idea of a “managed” U.S.-PRC relationship based on the carrot and stick. The carrot is making China economically integrated into the West as capitalism passes the torch (maybe) from the U.S. to China much as Britain passed the torch to America and then became our little buddy in helping America dominate the world after World War II.

    The CFR types want the be the new George Kennan upgrade re China. It’s a policy of containment/engagement. It’s on the minds of CFR long-range strategic planners and has been for years, Graham Allison’s book is just the latest riff.

    As for the “containment” part, it became clear, ironically enough, that one of China’s fiercest enemies on its border was none other than (drum roll!) The Socialist Republic of Vietnam. As part of the pivot to Asia, Vietnam (after decades of benign/malign neglect) now became an asset to U.S. military and foreign policy thinkers as a block to China as part of “contain-engage.” Things got rolling when Clinton visited Vietnam but sort of stalled out after that in the wake of the debacle of Iraq.

    But even these guys could not miss the opportunity as the Stalinist-lite government of Vietnam is deeply at odds with China and has been for decades over the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands (and potential offshore oil), the general crisis in the South China Sea, Vietnamese fears of China finding a client-state relationship with maybe Burma and a host of other issues.

    In short, both American and Vietnamese geopolitical and strategic interests began more and more to align with both motivated by the rise of China to super-duper power status. Given this new reality — and new opportunity — for the U,S. and Vietnam to move closer and for the pivot to really work, you needed some kind of deeper ideological reconciliation as well.

    Enter Ken Burns/Lynn Novick with $30 million to do just that.

    The ideological money shot, so to speak, comes especially in the final chapter with shots of American servicemen back in Vietnam hugging their NVA former foes. Somehow I doubt if any of this expresses the true feelings of most former VC cadre and NVA officers; not to mention most American vets. But it symbolizes exactly where the CFR types feel American foreign policy needs to go and also the highest level leadership of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This Stalin-lite state CLEARLY in my view backed the project and told former high-ranking NVA and VC fighters to to on camera with Burns/Novick. The SRV might even have selected them behind the scenes for all I know.

    But all these geopolitical machinations on both sides for strategic integration had the curious result of giving birth to an extremely unusual documentary because Burns/Novick had two clients to suck up to, New York-Washington as the main client but Hanoi to a degree as well since the pivot would not work without Hanoi. For the series to work, Burns/Novick had to appeal to both of them. Hence we got a remarkable documentary on Vietnam that ends it with Aristotle’s definition of catharsis in the last (super manipulative) episode and the last final (and quite beautiful) shots of Vietnam today as “Let It Be” came on the soundtrack. Even I found this very hard to take.

    The whole point of the film was to psychologically say both to vets, right-wingers, sore losers etc. that as horrible as Vietnam was, it’s in the past and we need to enter into a whole new strategic and cultural engagement with Vietnam, music to the ears of both Washington and Hanoi. It’s an Obama-era creation that was conceived, funded, and shot to promote the pivot and containment side of the strategic pivot to Asia in alliance with our new our new best friend in the region, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Now we have to hug a commie for mommy.

    And that is why they got $30 million and many many hours on PBS and also why it resulted in so unusual a project.

    What they never could anticipate that the documentary they made to pave the way for Clinton (an architect of the pivot at State) is being shown now in the era of Trump.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — September 30, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

  26. to #26: very astute analysis. I wonder if you see any connection between your analysis and the Vietnam War Commemoration being pushed by the DoD? You can find it here: http://www.vietnamwar50th.com/ And you can find this (by no means the only) critique here: https://www.thenation.com/article/vietnam-battlefield-memory/

    Comment by uh...clem — October 1, 2017 @ 9:37 pm

  27. The Burns/Novick series was driven by corporate money and CFR/think-tank long-range strategic planning while the DoD program sounds like amateur hour. My guess is that Obama and the more sophisticated wing of the foreign policy class probably put pressure on the DoD to meet with someone like Hayden and give a minor win to Obama’s left-liberal fan base by forcing some obvious changes. So in that broader sense, I would say probably yes, there is a connection between the critique of the DoD and some of the changes that then occurred and the Burns/Novick series. But I haven’t studied the DoD commemoration issue and so I’m just giving you my guess.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — October 2, 2017 @ 2:04 pm

  28. Catching and killing a domestic cat isn’t as hard as you think.

    Comment by Jonny — December 4, 2020 @ 9:21 am

  29. My problem with the Hal Kushner story isn’t the detail of the cat, it’s the enormous amount of time devoted to it, and to the very real suffering of downed airmen at the Hanoi Hilton. It’s all part of the story but so is the widespread use of torture by US forces, which gets zero coverage. Even the massive use of torture by South Vietnamese troops and police is barely mentioned. I thought the whole film was so dreadful (failure to interview anyone from rural Suth Vietnam, failure to ask anyone from the peace movement why they opposed the war etc) I created an entire website setting out its manifold failings http://www.kenburnsvietnamfail.org .

    Comment by Thomas Wood — December 8, 2021 @ 3:59 pm

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