Well-intentioned and artfully executed, The Vietnam War—Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part, 18-hour-long documentary series on PBS—is not history, but rather story-telling and remembrance. Balanced, exhaustive, and relentlessly solemn, it glides along the surface of things, even when that surface is crowded with arrogance, miscalculation, deceit, and bloodletting on an epic scale.
According to one promotional trailer prepared for the series, “In war there is no single truth.” Embedded within every war (as in other forms of human endeavor) are multiple truths—some of them trivial, others very important indeed. The purpose of history is to unearth and engage with those truths that have something to teach us. This requires a willingness to interpret and render moral judgments. Yet Burns and Novick have an aversion to interpretation and steer clear of judgments.
Notably, among the many subjects interviewed for the project, professional historians—those trained to interpret the past—are all but absent. Whether as soldiers, government officials, reporters, antiwar activists, or mere bystanders, the series’ featured “talking heads” all participated in the events they recount. Their authority derives from what they themselves did or saw several decades ago and from how they have since processed those experiences. As witnesses, none are less than credible. Many are eloquent and offer deeply moving testimony: the Americans mournful, the South Vietnamese bitter, the North Vietnamese and former Vietcong resolute and assured. Yet largely absent from any of their recollections is a sense of distance or detachment. All are, in effect, partisans of one stripe or another.
If The Vietnam War as a whole has a point to make, it would appear to be that war is a great tragedy. Of course, this qualifies as a truism. In this particular tragedy, the participants on all sides—the people of North and South Vietnam no less than the Americans sent to fight against the North on the South’s behalf—suffered more or less equally. On all sides, the combatants exhibited courage and stamina. No side was innocent of grievous atrocities. All are victims; all are guilty. Or so Burns and Novick would have us believe.
I don’t mean to suggest that the series stakes out a position of bland neutrality. But the controversies it does take up tend to be either already resolved or largely peripheral. For example, Burns and Novick briefly examine and summarily reject the claim, cherished by devotees of Camelot, that President John F. Kennedy was planning to pull out of Vietnam once reelected in 1964. They also expose as simply untrue the US military’s claim that despite losing the war, it never “lost a fight.” In recounting the Battle of Hill 1338 in June 1967, for example, they depict in excruciating detail the destruction of an elite American paratroop unit, a tactical defeat that senior US officers subsequently covered up. And on the charges that, in 1968, Richard Nixon’s campaign conspired to derail the peace talks in order to improve his chances of winning the presidency, Burns and Novick find Nixon guilty. In each instance, their evidence is irrefutable. But having delivered their verdicts, they simply move on. So Nixon’s treasonous behavior becomes just one more anecdote.
Throughout The Vietnam War, the production values are of the highest quality. The narrative unfolds seamlessly, cutting from the war zone to the home front (theirs and ours) and back again. The period footage—a surprising amount of it North Vietnamese—is vivid and compelling. GIs wade through rice paddies, trudge up mountainsides, and stumble into ambushes set up by the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong. At night, fleets of Russian-built trucks lumber down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, trying to conceal themselves from the ordnance-laden American jets prowling overhead. Flying low and slow over the jungles of South Vietnam, Air Force C-123s dump tons of chemical defoliants, with nary a thought about the second-order consequences. Cruising at altitude over North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, B-52s disgorge their bomb loads onto whatever lies below. And always there are helicopters, mostly Hueys, Cobras, and Chinooks, touching down to unload assault troops, provide suppressive fire, or evacuate casualties. The cumulative effect is both mesmerizing and obscene.
Burns and Novick complement the imagery with a soundtrack consisting of pop songs from the 1960s and ’70s: Dylan, Seeger, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Barry McGuire, Simon & Garfunkel, and so on. With few exceptions, the recordings have a political edge, however oblique—no show tunes, no doo-wop, no lovey-dovey mush. Sgt. Barry Sadler’s mawkish “Ballad of the Green Berets,” a hit in 1966, doesn’t make the cut. The music is clearly intended to convey the sense that the film has something profound to say, even if, to quote a famous Buffalo Springfield lyric, “what it is ain’t exactly clear.”
Merrill McPeak, a former fighter pilot interviewed for this series, takes a stab at clarifying one central issue: “We were fighting on the wrong side.” Given that McPeak remained on active duty after the war and, as a four-star general, eventually served as Air Force chief of staff, his verdict is all the more noteworthy. But it is also off the mark. The United States screwed up not because it picked the wrong side in the Vietnam conflict, but because it stuck its nose where it didn’t belong. It simply wasn’t for us to decide who were the good guys and who the bad guys. The fate of Vietnam was an issue of negligible relevance to US national security. Had the United States allowed the Vietnamese to settle their differences on their own terms, everyone would have been better off. Almost certainly, far, far fewer people would have died.
Yet Burns and Novick pay surprisingly little attention to why exactly the United States insisted on butting in and why it subsequently proved so difficult to get out. Their lack of interest in this central issue is all the more striking given the acute misgivings about a large-scale US intervention that Lyndon Johnson repeatedly expressed in the fateful months between late 1964 and early 1965.
The anguished president doubted that the war could be won, didn’t think it was worth fighting, and knew that further expansion of US involvement in Vietnam would put at risk his cherished Great Society domestic-reform program. He said as much in taped conversations with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and his friend Georgia Senator Richard Russell, among others. Despite his reservations, Johnson—ostensibly the most powerful man in the world—somehow felt compelled to go ahead anyway. Yet Burns and Novick choose not to explore why exactly Johnson felt obliged to do what he did not want to do.
Our present situation makes the question all the more salient. The US war in Afghanistan, although smaller in scale than the war in Vietnam, has dragged on even longer. It too has turned out to be a misbegotten enterprise. When running for the presidency, Donald Trump said as much in no uncertain terms. But President Trump—ostensibly the most powerful man in the world—has not turned his skepticism into action, allowing America’s longest war to continue.
In a very real sense, Trump did not so much decide as capitulate. Much the same can be said about LBJ a half-century earlier when he signed off on committing US combat troops to Vietnam. But Burns and Novick barely touch on the factors leading to Johnson’s capitulation, even though, in present-day Washington, those factors persist: a brain-dead national-security establishment unable to conceive of political alternatives to escalation; a fear that admitting military failure will exact unacceptable political costs, whereas the costs of perpetuating an unwinnable war are likely to be tolerable; and, perhaps above all, the iron law of American exceptionalism, centered on the conviction that Providence summons the United States to exercise global leadership always and everywhere, leadership having long since become synonymous with a willingness to use force. As Trump has affirmed, even (or perhaps especially) presidents must bow to this pernicious bit of secular theology.
According to Burns and Novick, the American war in Vietnam was “begun in good faith, by decent people.” It comes closer to the truth to say that the war was begun—and then prolonged past all reason—by people who lacked wisdom and, when it was most needed, courage. Those who fought in the war and those who fought against it will certainly want to watch this series. Yet to find the answers that many are still searching for, they will have to look elsewhere.
Note: The period of the author’s own tour of duty in Vietnam corresponds with episode nine of this series.