The only thing you need to know about the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary series on The Vietnam War (PBS) is that it ends with the Beatles singing “Let it Be” a few minutes after Stuart Harriman muses “was it worth it?”
Burns and Novick have said that they wanted the series to promote healing in America, and they did, indeed, serve up a comforting balm for the great black wound of 20th century American history. Like so many of Burns’ other documentaries, The Vietnam War treats the personal, intimate tragedies, triumphs, heartaches, and achievements of Americans with a quiet reverence, often over a soft soundtrack of soothing music.
Its 18 hours, over ten episodes, succeed admirably as televisual national therapy, eschewing a focus on strategies, statecraft, and high-level decisions to emphasize the ground-level experiences of grunts as diverse as Harriman, author Tim O’Brien, and deserter-turned-sportswriter Jack Todd. Yet although The Vietnam War is an effective exercise in national healing, it is most assuredly not history or even, for that matter, much of a documentary.
Future generations of viewers might be forgiven for believing that the trauma of the Vietnam War – the wound Burns and Novick wish to heal – was felt solely by Americans. While The Vietnam War does feature a number of Vietnamese voices, both North and South, the Vietnamese people as a whole remain a cipher. There is a considerable amount of talk about freedom, but what that means in any detail remains unclear. This is compounded by the producers’ insistence, throughout the series, on referring to the North Vietnamese, the Viet Minh, and the National Liberation Front simply as the Communists.
Communists they might have been, but reducing the complexities of the Vietnamese national liberation movement to simplistic Cold War binaries only reinforces the kind of imperialist and exceptionalist rationalizing we’ve heard from the post-Reagan right since the 1980s. Moreover, Burns and Novick make no effort to tease out the context of decolonization and the collapse of the European Empires in South Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Indeed, they devote a single episode to the first century of the Vietnamese liberation struggle. Maybe they found that history uninteresting – that seems to be why Burns raced through 40 years in the last episode of Jazz in 2001 – but the overall effect is to reduce it all simply to us-vs-them – and wasn’t that what got the US into the mess in the first place?
Most egregious is the way Burns and Novick effortlessly gloss over the Johnson Administration’s clearly colonialist intentions. For example, the narrator, Peter Coyote, intones in Episode Three, “The River Styx,” that a reluctant Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara were only responding to the direct provocation of a North Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, when the US became fully committed to a military intervention in Vietnam.
That is the official story of course, but it is so historically inaccurate that it is difficult to choose where to pick it apart. For one thing, both ships were less than eight miles off the North Vietnamese coast, sailing on reconnaissance missions. No one disputes this, not even Johnson and McNamara, whose telephone conversation the night of the Turner Joy incident is in the public domain. North Vietnam, like virtually every other coastal nation at the time, claimed a 12-mile limit of its territorial waters, and the United States knew this since it had participated in the debates over the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1960. But the UNCLOS would not be fully worked out until 1973 and US only recognized a three-mile limit for non-Western countries.
Maybe that was too complicated for Burns and Novick, but it means that the United States knew full well that it was going to provoke North Vietnam, and was only standing behind the vagaries of “international waters” to provide plausible deniability. That Tonkin was a set-up is clear to anyone who has read McNamara’s memorandum of 16 March 1968 and NSAM-288, neither of which Burns and Novick bother to reference. It’s like they have the special edition of the Pentagon Papers — the one with all the really troubling bits edited out.
It would take several volumes to pick apart every one of the glosses, inaccuracies and half-truths served-up in the Vietnam War, but one is ultimately left wondering why this series was ever made. It is not like there have never been Vietnam documentaries before. In the Year of the Pig, Mills of the Gods, and Hearts and Minds are only the best known, and most direct. The Ten Thousand Day War, produced by Michael Maclear and written by Peter Arnett, and which originally aired in Canada 36 years ago, covered much of the same ground, albeit with much more attention to detail, recognition of Vietnamese agency, and absent the mawkish moments. Indeed, there are so many other examples that you have to wonder what PBS got for its $30 million?
PBS got Ken Burns product; the kind of sepia-toned profundities that keep the right kind of people – the demographic that still watches broadcast television and responds to pledge drives – glued to the television for ten days in September. It got a series that it can air again, and again, and recycle and merchandise for as long as it has recycled The Civil War. And at a time when funding for public television is under threat, and PBS is regarded by the right as a bastion of leftish liberalism, it got the kind of sentimental nationalism that stands for the flag and the national anthem, and gets misty-eyed at the thought of our troops.
Sadly, however, PBS, Burns and Novick have bequeathed the rest of us what will likely become the official account of the Vietnam War, the same way The Civil War is the more-or-less official history of the war between the states. Its gauzy narrative will be a public memory to wrap up the wounds of history. Burns and Novick have given us the healing draught, and we will be much worse for it.