Ken Burns' Vietnam

I have reluctantly sat through, so far, more than half of the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War. “Reluctantly”, I say, because that war is not something I very much wanted to relive, having been aware of that war from start to finish as a student and graduate student and then a young professor of sociology who had participated in demonstrations, signed petitions, and gave lectures saying how purposeless was the war and all the suffering it imposed, trying as best I could to give aid and comfort to those who left the United States to go to Canada so as to avoid the draft. When some years later, during the Reagan Era, I mentioned to a class that I had been opposed to the war and demonstrated against it, something I thought of as very conventional behavior, many of my students were flabbergasted that this amiable and still young professor could have turned against his country. For them, the war was over, just unsatisfactory in the way it was settled. But It seemed to us anti-war people who had stood on the sidelines, having ourselves somehow legally avoided the draft, I through a series of student deferments and then because of age, that, while it was going on, the war was never going to end, and so there was a great sense of despair about the war, nothing like what I took to be the satisfaction felt by those who had made it through World War II, and this is the sense of despair that Ken Burns captures very well, that on top of the fact that he got the facts right, at least as I remember them. So let’s probe the wound.

Ken Burns does cover the teach-ins that took over college campuses but he does not refer to what preceded that: a set of debates between foreign policy experts that were broadcast on nationwide television and that dispassionately went through all the arguments for and against the war. It seemed to me that the evidence was overwhelmingly on the side of those who opposed the war. The Vietnamese had been proudly independent, especially of China, for thousands of years. Ho Chi Minh had for most of his life tried to make peace with the Americans. The domino theory that said that all of Southeast Asia would fall to the Communists if the South Vietnamese were defeated was pure speculation and metaphor. The South Vietnamese government did not have the backing of its citizens and its army was corrupt, making side deals with Vietcong generals in the field so as to avoid combat. And yet Johnson went on with his war, basically because, as Burns reports, he could not think of a way out of it that would save him political face. (Robert McNamara said for many years afterwards that we did not have experts to inform him about the state of play in Southeast Asia. That was, like many other things he said, a lie.)

In spite of my conviction that the war was indefensible as a military campaign and therefore morally indefensible because it just meant the wasting of young lives, I still hoped, through 1965, that Johnson would pull off his negotiating magic one more time and cut a deal with the North. His offer of a deal for large scale infrastructure development of North Vietnam in exchange for at least a temporary peace with the South, struck me as reasonable, partly because it was an admission that the war was not worth fighting, and partly because, in the joke told at the time, this is the kind of deal George Meany, the United States labor leader, would have accepted, but Ken Burns informs me of what I did not know at the time, which was that power in the North Vietnamese Politburo had passed out of the hands of Ho Chi Minh to a much more hard liner, someone convinced that victory was nearly there, and so the war went on and on, the movement to oust Johnson and the hawks from power getting nowhere at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, Robert Kennedy having been killed a few months before, and the war prolonged for four more years until Kissinger struck a deal.

The war on the homefront filled my imagination far more than what was called at the time “the living room war” in that battlefield films were shown on the network news programs thirty six hours after they were shot on the battlefield. Those worked too, like the coverage by the very young CBS correspondent, John Laurence, who looks that way in a stand-up Burns uses, who in another stand-up asked soldiers in an American platoon why they were refusing their Lieutenant’s orders to go into battle, and who replied that it was much too dangerous and that they did not trust their officer, who was soon thereafter removed from command. Vietnam was not someplace for a sensible person to be. I remember the Zippo lighters used by American soldiers to burn down native huts. But I remember far more vividly what I saw firsthand. There was a march on Washington where I carried a picture of Ho Chi Minh just because Attorney General Mitchell had said the day before that everyone who marched was pro-Communist, and I found that to be insulting. I was there at the march on the Pentagon that Burns covers. I caught just a whiff of tear gas and saw demonstrators heckling a black soldier who was standing in line with his comrades, and I thought that was an affront to the Civil Rights idea that black soldiers were primarily just soldiers, and so not be be discriminated against. I also remember the young hysterical woman who said that we had the Pentagon surrounded and were about to make it levitate, having abandoned all sense that “levitation” was a metaphor. This was not the soberness of calculation and eloquence of language that I remembered from the Civil Rights Movement of just a few years before. But, except for its actual wounded and dead, the war passed away quickly and people went back to their lives. Kissinger had accomplished his goal of having the United States weather its defeat in a war.

Burns is therefore wrong to think that the Vietnam War had a deep impact on the United States. It was just another war along the border of where the Soviet Empire met the American Empire. Korea, Malaysia, the Berlin Wall, Cuba, had also been such episodes. It is to be remembered that the Soviet Union collapsed five years after suffering serious defeat in one of those border wars where it had taken the initiative of testing the West: Afghanistan. But there was one significant consequence of the Vietnam War. War fatigue was so powerful in the United States that the United States was reluctant to commit American ground troops anywhere for any reason. That is the best explanation I have for why George W. Bush, in the wake of 9/11, had not committed significant ground troops to fighting in Afghanistan after the National Front, our allies, had pushed the Taliban into a corner in the mountains surrounding Bora Bora, where Osama bin Laden had been holed up. That failure to send in American troops allowed him to escape and to continue to direct terrorist operations for another ten years. But it is difficult to calibrate American opinion about what is tolerable with much precision, and a timidity about sending in American troops to another foreign, very foreign, war was quite understandable.

Ken Burns has a mixed history as a documentarian. His greatest aesthetic accomplishment is still his first one, “The Civil War”, which may not have been great on the social and political arrangements that surrounded that war, but the series covered the various military campaigns with clarity and emotion. I will never forget his use of mass rifle fire to serve as a background for his carefully moving around still photos of battles so as to give them movement. Less successful was his series on baseball, which did not even catch a whiff of the corruption that surrounded the era of steroid baseball. And his series on jazz was too much about pitting black musicians against their white counterparts, as if Glenn Miller saw himself as a jazz musician rather than a popular musician. Jazz and the Big Band sound are not the same thing and so there is no point in drawing invidious comparisons between them. But, all in all, you have to give Burns credit because in a field, documentary filmmaking, that is known for faked scenes and for one sided advocacy all the way back to, in documentary filmmaking’s early days, “Nanook of the North”, Burns turns out to be more credible than most, and that is so for his series on the Vietnam War.