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.