A Vicious Entanglement, Part I: Elusive Responsibility for the Vietnam War
Of all the disasters of Vietnam, the worst may be the “lessons” that we’ll draw from it. – Albert Wohlstetter
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War is finally airing on PBS and online. The documentary, which took them ten years to produce, is the most high-profile and exhaustive film treatment of the war to date. To commemorate this achievement, I am writing a series of essays on each episode (the fourth episode airs tonight, but you can watch them all online now). I don’t mean to review the documentary series so much as reflect on what each episode has to teach us. As a PhD student studying U.S. Army decision-making in Vietnam, I was lucky to get an advance copy of the series, and I hope my reflections prove useful to national security scholars and practitioners reflecting on what the Vietnam War has to tell us. Each installment draws out a theme or idea that the documentary raises but doesn’t fully explore. My hope is that these articles are interesting and valuable regardless of how much you care about the Vietnam War or whether you’ve watched the documentary.
Still, it does seem appropriate to begin with a review of sorts. If you don’t know very much about the Vietnam War, watch this series. If you are an ardent military historian or scholar of Vietnam, watch this series. If you are an American, which this series. The technical prowess of the cinematography, research, and sound production creates an immersive experience. Most of Burns’ work succeeds when it conjures an emotional intensity that faded in our society long ago. The wounds of Vietnam, still raw and the scars still visible, mean that the film can spend only a little time conjuring and much more time exploring what the war meant to its many participants. It is a remarkably holistic and even-handed series. This is its most obvious strength, and its most subtle weakness. The American discussion about Vietnam has tended to be tediously prosecutorial and didactic. Who is to blame, and what can we learn? What are “the lessons of Vietnam”? It’s refreshing that the filmmakers are mostly un-interested in these questions. They want to know what the war meant for its participants and for the American people.
The opening scene, a huge stylistic departure for Burns, might be one of the most affecting beginnings in film history. It takes some of the most iconic scenes of the war and plays them in reverse, and in reverse chronological order, set to the throbbing Trent Reznor soundtrack. For me, the scene evoked two emotions. The first, the primary thrill of historians — to unravel the past, to get back to the roots, and then to see time and fate wind an intricate story. You get the sense that we’re going back to the beginning, to see how this all plays out. The second emotion, immediately following on the first, was of sorrow and dread. The scene resembles an anecdote in Karl Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, where a backwards film-reel retells World War II as a story of healing. In this surreal Vietnam War, you see villages springing up out of oblivion, soldiers raised from the dead, the dead unburied, and magical weapons vacuuming up missiles, flames and the violence of war. The scene is a kind of kintsugi (the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery) that lays bare the fundamental logic of violence: the tearing asunder of flesh and spirit. Burns’ message seems to be that the closest we can get as a nation to repairing this dismembering is in acts of remembering, what he has called emotional archeology in interviews.
This conviction structures the whole series. We hear from participants of all stripes — in narrative voice-overs, recordings, and interviews. Burns and Novick’s approach to answering the question “how did this all happen” gives voice to feelings, sentiments, and beliefs as much as to decisions, actions, and interests. It does the vital work of helping viewers imagine what they would have believed, felt, and done at the time, with no fore-knowledge of what was to come. But this approach also means that guilt and responsibility are elusive. It isn’t quite the case that Burns and Novick make the war out to be a helpless tragedy: They are relatively clear-eyed on the decisions, mistakes, and cynical calculations (on both sides) that led to so much death. And maybe it is useful to have a documentary about Vietnam not obsessed with guilt and blame. The series tagline says, “There is No Single Truth in War,” but in the face of a stunning narrative history of the war, this notion seems helplessly sentimental. For many involved — grieving mothers, angry protesters, veterans who lost their friends, limbs, or peace of mind — the Vietnam War did pretty much boil down to a single truth: A loss, a lie, or a crime of such enormity that nothing else mattered. The Vietnam War is stunning storytelling that will probably be the definitive account of the war for generations to come. It certainly surpasses any that have come before it. But in Burns and Novick’s hope for healing, one wonders whether they do justice to the hard-earned grief and bitterness of the war. Perhaps that’s what it means for an event to move from memory into history.
Jon Askonas is a predoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin and a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His current research addresses the impact US Army policies in Vietnam had on knowledge production, learning on the ground, and battlefield effectiveness.