Burns and Novick The Vietnam War – A Counter Anthology
The PBS documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has received critical acclaim and has been recommended for showing in schools. It follows Burns reputation well as a work of film art.
For all its ‘truth telling,’ I simply cannot get in tune with its overall context. This Veterans Day post focuses on the Vietnam veteran with remembrance of all.
“This documentary succeeds in vividly evoking sadness and frustration. But that is not all there was to the story. “The Vietnam War” strives for a moral equivalence where there is none. The veterans seem sad and detached for their experience, yet 90 percent of Vietnam War veterans are proud to have served. So there’s a large gap between what we see and the attitude of the vast majority of veterans.” Bing West
Veterans understand their heritage. They know the links from Valley Forge and Gettysburg, from Belleau Wood to Midway and Normandy, from Chosen to Ia Drang. They know that all war is brutal, friends are lost, and scars are created for a life time. But the veterans of the Vietnam War carry forever a different kind of scar, one made not by the battles but rather by their own government leadership and fellow countrymen. Carried by each individual to some lesser or greater extent, it manifests itself for Americans as the long black wall pictured below.
The second Vietnam War lasted from November 1955 until April 1975, almost twenty years. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick created an eighteen hour ten part narrative of that war and their craftsmanship is certainly evident and superb. Comments hail its excellence and heap praise for unveiling things not previously known, touting it as an educational high point. They took ten years to research North and South Vietnamese sources along with those of the U.S. and then craft the type documentary Ken Burns is famous for.
Ten years… and they got it wrong.
From the opening episode, something struck me as off key. Only a boy in the 50’s, my knowledge of war was through John Wayne movies. Trying to understand my piece of Vietnam – the airwar of ’72 – for my own education and for background for this site, I’ve read a bit on the early days, but not nearly enough to critique Burns telling of the early history. But even so, the more I watched, the more uneasy my thoughts. Eventually I found a link to John Del Vecchio’s articles, and others like Bing West and Andrew Bacevich who began to provide experienced and well founded counter arguments to the PBS documentary.
No ten part series can cover everything, but as noted below, crucial aspects are either completely missing or mentioned in an “oh by the way” manner masking any possibility of actionable understanding. Probably even more damning is the series methodology of equivalency from battles to protesters to POWs to government officials of all participants to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who did the dirty work despite a country that in large part did not support them. An event is presented, true as far as it goes, then the narrative moves on with no further comment or link to context or eventual ramifications. (From my own perspective airpower was not effecting the war as planned and needed, but never a mention of why or how things changed from Rolling Thunder to Linebacker I and II beyond the obvious of the ’72 Christmas attacks on Haiphong and Hanoi. Believe me, there was a lot more of pertinence to tell.) It’s as if Obi-Wan is saying ” these aren’t the Droids you’re looking for, move on, move on, nothing more here of interest.”
Much more I could say, but my decision for a Veterans Day post was to present the following sixteen counter Vietnam War documentary articles/links by six distinguished and experienced authors.
John M. Del Vecchio is the author of The 13th Valley and other works on Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and veterans issues. He served as a combat correspondent for the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) 1970-1971.
Bing West served in Marine infantry in Vietnam. He is the author of The Village, which has been on the Marine Commandant’s reading list for 45 year
Andrew Bacevich, , is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. The period of the author’s own tour of duty in Vietnam corresponds with episode nine of this series.
Terry Garlock was a Cobra helicopter gunship pilot in the Vietnam War.
Stephen J. Morris is the author of Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia and working on a book about the Vietnam war during the Nixon years.
Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady was a Dust Off air ambulance pilot in Vietnam. He is a recipient of the Medal of Honor and is former president of the Medal of Honor Society.
While each author overlaps on key points with the others, there is significant diversity in approach for each writer. Even if you do not read each article in its entirety, the excerpts more than highlight the faults of the Burns, Novick series. For all the war’s noted issues, faults, missteps, and long term negative impact on this country, this is not the narrative of enlightenment on a war that to this day impacts the country and its veterans. This documentary in all its artistry is not what the country and its veterans deserve.
Burning History: (in 8 Parts)
Pretending to honor those who served while subtly and falsely subverting the reasons and justifications for that service is a con man’s game.
John M. Del Vecchio,
September 13, 2017
The Vietnam War, a new 10-episode, 18-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, will begin airing on PBS stations in less than a week. From a cinematic perspective it will be exceptional. Burns knows how to make great scenes. But through the lens of history it appears to reinforce a highly skewed narrative and to be an attempt to ossify false cultural memory. The lies and fallacies will by omission, not by overt falsehoods.
False narratives create aberrant behavior and cultural complications.
September 18, 2017
The Ambassador, The Newsmen, and the Imperative for American Conventional Military Intervention.
September 20, 2017
Errors or abuses in the pursuit of freedom are not justifications of the abandonment of that pursuit.
A teaspoonful of sand: Does anyone recall the Jim Roan anecdote about achieving a good life, where he compares it to baking a cake. One, he said, should put in all the very best ingredients: the best eggs, the best milk, the best flour; and if possible they should be included in perfect proportion. The oven is preheated just so, so cooking time can be precise. But then, at the very last moment before popping the pan into the oven, some people put add to the batter a teaspoonful of sand. The results turn out to be something completely inedible. This is what Burns has done with his series. There are many good elements included, many accurate stories told, but it is as if into every episode he has added a teaspoonful of sand.
September 21, 2017
Op Plans York, El Paso 1, El Paso 2… If you don’t have a clue to what went on behind the headlines, you have no moral authority to produce a cultural-story altering documentary. Shame on you!
There is so much more real material on the events covered in the last episode it will take a book, or many books, to cover in any sort of depth.
Mr. Burns and Ms Novick, shame on you! You either don’t have a clue to what went on behind the headlines, or you have chosen to present a very lopsided story designed to alter a far more accurate cultural-story.
September 24, 2017
Story creates self-image, and cultural story creates cultural self-image. Behavior is consistent with self-image. If you can control the story, you can control behavior.
…To portray NVA soldiers, Asian boys, as happily and willingly giving their lives for “the cause,” as if Asians don’t value life in the same way Americans do, is subtly racist.
The first week is complete, the second week is about to start. It feels like we’ve had a semester break (and personally I’d like to get back out climbing). Episode 5 has been the set-up for where we’re going—the Tet Offensive, The Paris Peace Talks. Will we see the realities of what happened on the ground in Vietnam, or will we see Vietnam mostly through the eyes of U.S. and world politicians, and the anti-war movement?
Things do fall apart in 1968, but militarily they fall apart far more for the NVA and VC than they do for the ARVN, Americans and allies.
September 26, 2017
Once again omissions and juxtapositions create and convey a skewed reality.
Yes, we were lied to by our government and our politicians, as this and the next episode aptly show. But we were, and are being, lied to by the information branch of our society, the news media, with equal or worse consequences. Much of the lies of the latter have become part of our historical narrative. A paradigm shift is mandatory. Our current ambient cultural story and worldview has been skewed from reality and is leading us, as a nation, down a road we may find leads to a place we never intended going.
September 28, 2017
Twilight Zones, Alternative Dimensions, Truth, Justice and The American Way.
Perhaps I live in an alternate dimension, or perhaps the film makers of this series (and many of those they have chosen to interview) live in the twilight zone. …With all the scholarship that followed the “end of the war,” the repetition and reinforcement of disproven narratives is disturbing. Worse, it opens old wounds.
I feel compelled to return to my opening thoughts. I recognize all the America troops—soldiers, Marines, airmen, etc.—interviewed for this series by Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick. I don’t mean individually. I mean I knew men like them in Vietnam. And I’ve known vets like them in the years after the war. But it seems to me, in general, this is not who we were in Vietnam. This is a small and skewed fraction. So who were we? In so many ways we were the best of the generation, the ones willing to meet the challenge, to repulse an enemy, and to secure the land of a people we barely knew. Many of us, even if we didn’t wear this on our sleeve, were willing to “bear any burden… oppose any foe…” in support of liberty… willing to die in support of the right to peace, to freedoms and to self-determination free of communist tyranny. Believing we were betrayed, angry at the government or the command, or believing in the cause, our discipline differed from many of those portrayed in the documentary. That’s just who we were. The most basic characteristic of the American soldier was his unexpressed support for Truth, Justice and The American Way.
October 1, 2017
Final Thoughts: Paradigm shifts regarding the meaning of unwinnable, and the phrase the war ended, are imperative.
The war was unwinnable. This is the underlying motif in every episode, the main message of the entire series. And it is a fallacy. The theme begins with episode 1, Déjà Vu which ends with the devastating loss by the French at Dien Bien Phu, but never tells us why the base is there in the first place or that the North Vietnamese and Chinese communist were attacking in Laos in an attempt to widen the war. Déjà Vu is meant to be an omen that what happened in 1954 will inevitably reoccur in 1975. Burns hammers at this point through the following nine episodes, sometimes subtly other times blatantly, through four American presidents, through edited clips showing only their fears, skepticism, pessimism and duplicity.
But to claim inevitability and the un-winnability of the war for the allied side is to also infer that the communist side with all its aggression, coercion and tyranny somehow had a moral superiority or a mandate from the fates.
… Now I think, “Thank God that series is over.” But it’s not over. This series will likely be picked up by thousands of school districts and colleges across the country and around the world, and used to indoctrinate the next generations of young minds. This should be opposed. The series is offensive not only to millions of American veterans who served honorably and with pride, but to anyone who still believes in truth and academic integrity.
The war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos did not end in 1975. More Southeast Asians died in the following ten years due to fighting and communist tyranny than died during the ten years of active American involvement. The repression in all three nations continues to this day.
With all the promise and potential, with all the wonderful presentations, the incredible photography and the moving musical scores, the slanting by choice of material and by massive omission renders this series not history but propaganda.
This is the eighth in a series of eight essays on the Burns/Novick program. Please like, forward and share this essay.
Bing West, September 19, 2017
The film is meticulous in the veracity of the hundreds of factoids that were selected. Everything depicted on the American side actually happened. But that the chosen facts are accurate doesn’t mean the film gets everything right. Indeed, the brave American veterans are portrayed with a keen sense of regret and embarrassment about the war, a distortion that must not go unanswered. And the film implies an unearned moral equivalence between antiwar protesters and those who fought.
Burns’ theme is clear: A resolute North Vietnam was predestined to defeat a delusional America that heedlessly sacrificed its soldiers. The film follows a chronological progression, beginning in the ’40s. Right from the start, harrowing combat footage from the ’60s is inserted to remind the audience that a blinkered America is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the French colonialists. The main focus of the documentary is the period of fierce fighting from late 1965 to 1972.
… This documentary succeeds in vividly evoking sadness and frustration. But that is not all there was to the story. “The Vietnam War” strives for a moral equivalence where there is none. The veterans seem sad and detached for their experience, yet 90 percent of Vietnam War veterans are proud to have served. So there’s a large gap between what we see and the attitude of the vast majority of veterans.
Their sense of pride — so vital for national unity — is absent from the documentary. And that’s a glaring omission.
The new series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is mesmerizing. But it doesn’t answer the questions about the Vietnam War that many are still seeking.
Andrew J. Bacevich, September 19, 2017
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.
…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.
Terry Garlock, September 19, 2017
The series began showing on PBS Sunday, Sept. 17, and with Burns’ renowned talent mixing photos, video clips and compelling mood music in documentary form, the series promises to be compelling to watch. That doesn’t mean it tells the truth.
For many years I have been presenting to high school classes a 90-minute session titled “The Myths and Truths of the Vietnam War.” One of my opening comments is, “The truth about Vietnam is bad enough without twisting it all out of shape with myths, half-truths and outright lies from the anti-war left.”
… Perhaps you will prove me wrong. Watch carefully, but I would advise a heavy dose of skepticism.
Terry Garlock, September 26, 2017
Some readers didn’t much care for my column last week advising skepticism on Ken Burns’ new PBS series on “The Vietnam War.” I understand that, and am not surprised some would think of me sympathetically as trying to justify my role as a young man in what they have been taught was a horrible mistake. But the truth is I am cautioning readers, not rationalizing.
… By mixing facts with leftist distortions, like repeatedly stating the war was clearly unwinnable even before America became directly involved, Burns and PBS are driving the anti-war left’s stake through the heart of history. The leftist version is being made official among those who buy the PBS description of Ken Burns as “America’s storyteller.”
Fits right in with the current passion for revision of history, doesn’t it?
Terry Garlock, October 3, 2017
Great lies have an element of truth, and while Burns tells a great story in film, that does not make his stories true.
The documentary misleads viewers from the beginning with two false premises, first that Ho Chi Minh and his North Vietnamese were nationalists dedicated to reunify North and South Vietnam.
In fact, the North was determined to impose Communist rule by force on South Vietnam. We were there to stop the spread of Communism in southeast Asia. The difference is vast.
America’s part in the war was certainly not immoral or misguided as Burns portrayed, and the war was not unwinnable from the get-go, the second false premise the film pushed repeatedly from different angles.
… The public at home knows nothing about life in that world and has no business watching idiotic talking heads on TV and second-guessing from the comfort and safety of their living room. We should stay out of wars until we can’t, and when forced to fight we should squash our enemy like a bug then tell the public about it when the awful task is done.
That is why — if I were king — we would apply Lesson 3: Journalists in a war zone could write anything they wish, but no photos and no videos until after the war is done. Citizens with sufficient brains and motivation could read and be informed, but the masses would have to wait until after the conflict closed to have their feelings manipulated by powerful images.
Terry Garlock, October 10,
There certainly were villains in the Vietnam War, but a bit different than the film portrays. The chief villains were Communist invaders intent on conquest, feeding to naive anti-war types like Burns and his predecessors the cover story of being nationalists, like a Vietnamese version of George Washington’s patriots.
Without Communist aggression there would have been no war. Ho Chi Minh’s mission of conquest made America’s stand to defend South Vietnam a noble cause, even though our own villains screwed it up badly as we fought to stop the Commies.
… Since the public doesn’t have the knowledge to recognize the film’s omissions and distortions, viewers will be swept along by powerful scenes, mood music and interviewees they won’t know were cherry-picked for the war’s turning them into tormented victims.
For hordes of viewers who have no idea they are being fed the big lie, the Burns film will become the standard by which the Vietnam War will be judged. Most viewers won’t know and won’t see in the film that the vast majority of us who fought in Vietnam are still proud of our service and would do it again, and they won’t know their trust in Burns’ film is one more disappointment we will cram into our box and close the lid tight.
Stephen J. Morris, Oct 23, 2017 |
The great history of the Vietnam war is still waiting to be written. The considerable research efforts and brilliant visual presentation of Burns and Novick (and Ward in the companion book) have captured most of the story of the Kennedy and Johnson years. But they have failed to do justice to the years 1968-73, and thus to the war as a whole.
Even more importantly, they have failed to grasp the nature of the enemy we were fighting. Ho Chi Minh’s calculated plan to market himself and his Communist movement as primarily nationalist was effective both for naïve Vietnamese intellectuals and peasants and for naïve foreigners—even through to today. But Ho and his Communist comrades always considered themselves part of a world revolutionary movement, something much bigger than merely a revolution in Vietnam. They frequently referred to themselves as the outpost of socialism in Southeast Asia. (That is why after their victory in 1975, they provided captured American weapons to the Soviet Union for use in Communist insurrections in other nations, most notably in El Salvador in the 1980s.)
The problem is that it is difficult for most people who have never experienced one to grasp the nature of totalitarian movements based on an internationalist revolutionary ideology—and much easier psychologically to reduce it to the familiar, which is nationalism.
Five American presidents and most of their top advisers did not fall into this intellectual trap. But the producers of The Vietnam War did. After a century of experience of totalitarian movements and states, and more than 70 years of experience of Vietnamese communism, the time is long past for educated Westerners to be so duped.
Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady, November 11, 2017
(General Brady is a recipient of, the Medal of Honor. He is former president of the Medal of Honor Society.)
Needless to say, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “documentary,” “The Vietnam War,” has caught the attention of Vietnam veterans. Except for the John Kerryites, the feedback is decidedly negative.
The filmmakers’ obsequious devotion to the Vietnam-era media narrative is breathtaking. Many call Burns and Novick’s “Vietnam” a hatchet job. That attitude certainly has merit, but I barely got past Tet when it was clear to me that what they were doing was more subtle than a hatchet job. A better description is: The filmmakers damned us – not only the veterans, but America as well – with faint praise.
They use a deceitful journalistic tool of gathering token credibility bites from those on the other side of their preordained narrative in an effort to appear objective. Burns and Novick’s “Vietnam” is plagued with media malfeasance including obfuscation, omission and some really messed up moral equivalences.