Ken Burns’s Feel-Bad “Vietnam War”


When Ken Burns’s eleven-hour documentary The Civil War aired on PBS in 1990, more than forty million Americans tuned in. Not to knock the accomplishment, but you could get those kinds of numbers in the early Nineties, before cable channels and streaming services upset TV’s traditional order and splintered the viewing public into a million little slivers. The Civil War established Burns, who made his first documentary, about the Brooklyn Bridge, in 1981, as the leading chronicler of all things America.

PBS is likely not expecting forty million people to watch Burns’s latest offering, The Vietnam War, a remarkable ten-part series spanning eighteen hours that premieres on Sunday. It’s ironic that the doc, co-directed by Burns’s frequent collaborator Lynn Novick, arrives at a time when TV no longer functions as America’s town square. Ten years in the making, The Vietnam War isn’t just about the conflict itself; it’s also the story of how the war divided the country, a scar that still hasn’t healed, and maybe never will.

In the canon of Ken Burns, The Vietnam War stands out for its lack of distance from the contemporary viewing public. Burns and Novick were able to track down a significant number of veterans from the American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese factions; in some instances, we see two soldiers from different sides of the conflict reflecting on the very same battle. The fact that this is the first Burns doc tackling a substantial moment in the country’s history that many living Americans can vividly recall adds to its urgency. The most enduring critique of Burns’s films is that they go too far in asking Americans to feel good about their history. This documentary does not.

The first episode’s opening sequence, in which archival footage is played backward, highlights the attempt to recontextualize familiar images of the war: Instead of bombs dropping over the jungle, they float upward; a downed helicopter rises out of the sea; protesters march in reverse. Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Vietnam War is the way in which it breathes new life into images of the conflict that have circulated in movies and on TV for so many years they’ve become clichés.

Whether or not you lived through the 1960s and ’70s, you can’t have missed the photos of nineteen-year-olds in helmets and army greens, their sleeves rolled up or cut off, a pageant sash of bullets draped across their chests. What if you could pick out one or two guys from that photo and see the war through their eyes? As The Vietnam War demonstrates, they’d become more than iconic silhouettes against a backdrop of palm trees; they’d become real people, and with the hindsight of fifty years, they’d have a lot to say about their doomed operation.

The Vietnam War has been called the “first televised war” — the conflict dovetailed with the rise of television as a mass medium. According to the documentary, at first TV reports were tonally similar to World War II newsreels: upbeat and enthusiastic. But unlike during World War II, there was no press censorship, and soon journalists and photographers — more than two hundred would die covering the war — flocked to Vietnam to see for themselves. An August 1965 report by CBS’s Morley Safer so enraged President Johnson that he called up the head of the network and angrily asked, “Are you trying to fuck me?” Televised Senate hearings in 1966 helped turn the public tide in favor of ending American involvement in Vietnam — although, as the doc notes, while NBC ran the whole hearing, CBS switched to sitcoms halfway through.

But man, was this a telegenic war. With the right music and editing, any image from Vietnam, moving or still, is undeniably arresting. Even knowing what we now do about the tragically misguided “American strategy,” it’s hard not to feel a hum of excitement watching some of the events of this documentary — and easy to imagine why so many young men would eagerly volunteer for this suicide mission. As one veteran remarks, “We were probably the last kids of any generation that actually believed our government would never lie to us.” They couldn’t have imagined being sucked into what this documentary positions as just the stupidest war imaginable.

But then, a lot of unimaginable things have happened in the past year. Burns and Novick couldn’t have planned for the sudden terrifying relevance of this series: a deeply, maybe irreparably divided populace; an invigorated protest movement; the unnerving backdrop of a nuclear threat. Now, however, the idea of television bringing the country together is absurd; the rise of Fox News over the past two decades has played an outsize role in tearing it apart, and now that the internet has replaced television as a primary source of information for so many people, it’s hard to imagine a media environment more hostile to the idea of unity.

I hold out hope that The Vietnam War will get its forty million — er, eighty million — eyeballs, although it can’t attract viewers the way a Burns doc did in 1990. It’s no longer enough to spend ten years working on an eighteen-hour documentary; now, you also need to blanket the internet with related “content,” like a recent Atlantic article authored by Burns and Novick, or the multimedia series the Washington Post is running in conjunction with the PBS airing.

And yet, broadcast television still has a gravitational pull that streaming video lacks, perhaps because of its diminished influence on the culture-consuming public. A TV show can still make an impact if it’s not just a show but an event, and The Vietnam War is indisputably that — not only because it’s a long-gestating Burns joint but because it’s coming from a public broadcaster. There’s power in that, even if it’s only symbolic. Burns himself holds the same symbolic sway over his subject of choice; somehow, American history doesn’t quite feel like a tangible — and mutable — organism until Burns has had a go at it. Until we see it on PBS.

In the second episode, Neil Sheehan — one of the first journalists to write about what was really going on in Vietnam — comments that his generation, who came of age in an America of postwar plenty, considered themselves “exceptions to history.” The relative contemporariness of the Vietnam War should serve as a reminder that there’s no such thing — that we’re a part of history, too. How will Ken Burns judge us?

The Vietnam War premieres Sunday, September 17 at 8 p.m. on PBS. It will be available on DVD/Blu-ray as of Tuesday, September 19.