A new, 18-hour Vietnam doc­u­mentary revisits the war. | Wiki­media Commons

The 18-hour doc­u­mentary series “The Vietnam War” opens with Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” setting the tone of casual American optimism at the outset of the ’60s. But it tran­si­tions to an admission of defeat: “America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy,” the nar­rator intones. “It ended, 30 years later, in failure, wit­nessed by the entire world.”

This is not a new thesis, but the doc­u­mentary delivers it in a way nothing has before. The nar­rator and dozens of inter­viewees invoke it con­sis­tently, and the general arc of the story is familiar: By Episode 6, North and South Vietnam have split, American sol­diers are losing optimism, and Lyndon Johnson is begging his advisors, in hapless good-ol’-boy tones, to do some­thing. Any­thing. The final four episodes follow this tailspin.

The doc­u­mentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick began airing on PBS this Sep­tember, and is available for streaming on the channel’s website. Burns and Novick col­lected tens of thou­sands of pho­tographs, videos, and audio from all sides of the con­flict to immerse Amer­icans in what he called “a war we have con­sciously ignored.”

The doc­u­mentary suc­ceeds styl­is­ti­cally, in classic Ken Burns style: the inter­views per­sonal and probing, the music (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) omi­nously opti­mistic and har­rowing by turns, the images arresting thanks to the “Ken Burns effect,” and the cin­e­matog­raphy char­ac­terized by the slow pan-and-zoom that has been the director’s trademark since early in his career.

“The Vietnam War” is not a pleasant viewing expe­rience. The original optimism for the war unraveled quickly; in the first few episodes, Vietnam spirals into brutal vio­lence and hatred on both sides. North and South Viet­namese lead­ership splinters, and Amer­icans find that guerilla warfare is some­thing dif­ferent than they imagined.

“We think about how many times we get our­selves in scrapes as a nation because we’re always the good guys,” ex-marine Karl Mar­lantes said. “Some­times I think if we thought we weren’t always the good guys, we might actually get in less wars.”

Inter­views with vet­erans — doctors, advisers, men on the ground; Amer­icans, French, Viet­namese — give the doc­u­mentary poignancy and depth. Vet­erans John Mus­grave, Roger Harris, Dennis Stout, and 76 other wit­nesses of the war share first-person accounts, voice regrets, and likely reopen the war’s wounds. There are no Vietnam scholars; Burns has no time for talking heads.

“My take on the Burns piece is that [the doc­u­mentary] was highly infor­mative, at the very least, and fairly straight­forward and even-handed,” Hillsdale College Pro­fessor of History Thomas Conner said. “The biggest benefit I can see in it is that it brought the Viet­namese per­spective greatly to light — the pol­itics, and most of all, their suf­fering. It’s easy for us Amer­icans to point to the ter­rible toll in blood that we paid — nearly 60,000 dead.  But, to the Viet­namese, the toll was immensely higher, probably to be num­bered in the mil­lions, and our focus gen­erally has not been on that.”

In his per­sonal and often pro­voking inter­views of vet­erans from both sides, Burns leaves — and always has left — space for emo­tional reac­tions to and re-cre­ations of defining American expe­ri­ences. For Burns, this is history: crafting a national nar­rative of per­plexing or over­looked expe­ri­ences that haunt the cul­tural con­ver­sation. In a Sep­tember profile of Burns’s career, the New Yorker’s Ian Parker traced the director’s ouevre and found a common thread. Burns’s sub­jects are classic American themes: baseball, the Civil War, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Burns tells America’s stories, for Amer­icans, in the voices of Amer­icans.

Burns pro­poses no new aca­demic the­ories, maybe, but he asks for an American reck­oning. And the con­sensus in many of the documentary’s inter­views seems to be that American involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. The task for America, through Burns, is to come to terms with the fallout. Burns claims it is time to raise the curtain of taboo, to bring Vietnam into the light of national con­ver­sation.

While almost 20 hours of footage deepens our his­torical under­standing, it merely adds another layer to an ongoing con­ver­sation: The shadow of Vietnam never moved, haunting for half a century our con­ver­sa­tions about the American government’s role in global pol­itics.

For Conner, Burns’s focus on the failings of Vietnam-era lead­ership is not bias; it’s been an integral part of the debate since the beginning.

“Burns was properly critical of the American gov­ernment when it most deserved crit­icism, and as one who lived through that era, I was quite impressed by his effort to portray the Vietnam war for every­thing that it really was, to all con­cerned,” Conner said.

Since the 1960s, the debate has raged: Was involvement in Vietnam a mistake, a result of incom­pe­tence, or an out­working of American over­con­fi­dence and lust for power?

According to the doc­u­mentary, the answer to those ques­tions seems to be, “Yes. All of the above.” It remains for the American people to voice their regrets and move on, or at least to under­stand what went wrong in Vietnam, and why.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    Maybe Hillsdale should interview their alumni that have actually served in wars, seeking out those with real combat expe­rience