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Critics Misjudge Vietnam War Series – A Film Review

January 9, 2018

Burns and Novick Got It as Right as Anyone So Far

Silhouette of soldier

The other day a friend at the gym mentioned that he had been watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War. “I was on the wrong side,” he concluded repeating a phrase heard in the film. “We didn’t know what we were fighting for and they had everything to fight for.” Not all vets shared his view. Nor did all left-wing commentators.

In fact, several critics of the series have argued that the filmmakers failed to adequately condemn the politicians that promulgated the war, starting with Dwight Eisenhower, then to John Kennedy and moving through LBJ and Nixon. The latter is shown actually preventing peace negotiations from occurring in Paris for his own political gain. Alex Shephard of The New Republic concludes that the series’ “balanced approach” shies away “from dishing out blame to those who deserve it,” adding “while it can’t forgive the presidents who lied, it’s too forgiving of everyone else.”

Jeff Stein of Newsweek cites the views of Chuck Searcy, an Army Intelligence veteran of the war: “It may permit us Americans, once again, to evade the harsh reckoning that is long overdue, and allow us to remain in denial about what we did in Viet Nam, and why.” Stein contends that “some veterans and longtime students of the war are already taking critical aim at the series’ fuzzy treatment of the war’s central question: Why did we get involved in the first place? Who thought that was a good idea?”

Others charge that the filmmakers gave short shrift to the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN, favouring the North Vietnamese military and left-wing anti-war protesters. Tatiana Sanchez of The Mercury News comments that “veterans of the South Vietnamese military say they were largely left out of the narrative, their voices drowned out by the film’s focus on North Vietnam and its communist leader, Ho Chi Minh.” Nick Turse of The Intercept argues that the film largely avoids addressing the rural population who suffered the greatest atrocities during the war. “Burns and Novick seem to have mostly missed these people, missed their stories, and, consequently, missed the dark heart of the conflict.

Perhaps the harshest criticisms of the series come from the left. John Pilger, who covered the war as a young reporter, takes issue with the filmmakers’ statement about the war starting in “good faith.” He calls it dishonest. “There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous. For me – as it must be for many Americans – it is difficult to watch the film’s jumble of ‘red peril’ maps, unexplained interviewees, ineptly cut archive and maudlin American battlefield sequences.”

Pilger on johnpilger.com scoffs at the filmmakers’ statement about “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy.” The ‘meaning’ of the Vietnam war “is no different from the meaning of the genocidal campaign against the Native Americans, the colonial massacres in the Philippines, the atomic bombings of Japan, the leveling of every city in North Korea.” He also comments on the filmmakers’ refusal to use “murder” to describe the My Lai Massacre of an entire village of civilians. They opted for “killings.”

Writer Joseph Babcock, who spent time in North Vietnam long after the war ended, is equally strident, arguing that the filmmakers “glossed over” the “three million Vietnamese people [that] died in the conflict.” This myopia isn’t new, he notes. “American assessments of the war, both fictional and historical, typically gloss over the heavy toll paid by the Vietnamese people. He quotes Vietnamese-American novelist Aimee Phan who comments that “American narratives of the war rarely deviate from their ‘shiny center: the white American soldier and his complex feelings of fear, hatred, guilt and remorse.” The Vietnam War wasn’t an American tragedy, Babcock concludes, “it was a Vietnamese tragedy enabled by America.”

Richard Beck of the online magazine N+1, delivers some of the most damning criticism of all. “Burns and Novick’s film presents itself as a record of both sides’ experiences of war. But its ten episodes are so heavily weighted toward the American point of view…that it does a disservice to the Vietnamese and the Americans alike.” Like Pilger he argues that the series is dishonest, but he adds that it failed in its goal “to account for the war in such a way that patriotic veteran and peace activists alike could each nod their heads in quiet approval and finally lay their grievances to rest.”

While I don’t disagree with many of the above criticisms, I have some sympathy with Burns and Novick given the huge task they assigned themselves. We’ve had plenty of fiction and non-fiction written accounts of the war – David Halberstam and Michael Herr come to mind. We’ve also seen many film attempts to depict the war. Apocalypse Now is the best in my view followed by The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket to name just four. But until the Burns/Novick series arrived we were missing a full-blown documentary treatment. This one deserves high praise for opening up the history of the war in a way that the post-war generation can learn from it.

I take issue with the argument above that the South Vietnamese Army and civilians did not receive adequate treatment in the series. From my viewing, the filmmakers took great pains to show the suffering of the people and the courage of the ARVN. I also disagree with the comment that blame was not properly laid. We learn of the horrible anti-communist-driven decisions made by all presidents concerned. We learn of the secrecy that characterized their behaviour in Washington. We see the incompetence of the American ambassadors, the small-minded attitudes of the military high command, and the greed of the South Vietnamese leadership. Also, while the filmmakers chose “good faith” to describe what was clearly anti-communist paranoia leading to terrible military judgments, it seems to me that they went on to disprove that pretense of good faith and reveal the corruption and indecency of the whole enterprise.

Some criticized the series as another example of glorifying the brave American soldier protecting the world, i.e., the United States, from the communist hordes. There might be some truth to this critique, but if they are guilty of glorifying soldiers it was on both sides, not just the American military. I don’t think glorification was among the film’s goals, but it is after all about war and about human beings being thrust into situations that foment the most callous and inhuman of actions on both sides. Burns and Novick show this side of war fairly, in my view, and to not show it would be dishonest.

The last time we had a film that at least attempted to depict the other side was Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. It was a courageous attempt from a conservative filmmaker that did not show the American side at all. It was a fictionalized account, of course, and this affords the filmmaker some leeway that documentarians do not have. But it serves to illustrate the importance of seeing war from the other point of view. Burns and Novick also make this effort. Contrary to the criticisms above, I think they largely succeeded.

Having read several critiques, I’m left wondering what kind of documentary film the critics were expecting. How much more blame should have been laid? Like all war films, you take away what you want. Some of us see them all as anti-war films, some will be inspired by what they see as a good-and-bad-guy portrait. Some will see all depictions of Americans at war as us against the commies or the Muslims or anyone who disagrees with the American way.

Burns and Novick decided to make a documentary and follow the facts they could find. In the process, they also dug up some of the cover-ups and the fake news. They unearthed film footage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that is not familiar to many of us. They interviewed men and women who fought with the Viet Cong, something I had not seen before. They did not shy from having American soldiers’ comment that they were on the wrong side or that they did not know why they were in Vietnam.

I also have problems with the view that they were out to please everyone. To not take sides is a hallmark of Burns films. He seems to follow this credo: just tell it like it was as best you can. That is a hallmark of good documentary filmmaking, in my view. If they were out to prove that one side was right and the other wrong, it would have been a much shorter exercise.

I find it difficult to imagine how they could have found airtime for a film that simply blasted the U.S. and did not explore the various sides in the combat. To that end they show the usurping of Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnamese leadership by a much harder line military strategist, offering insider looks at what the change meant for the North Vietnamese war effort and its civilian population.

In sum the series, while it did not speak to all the points raised by critics, opened the door to more study of a war of many deadly mistakes and misjudgments. The bigger question is will America learn anything from this examination of its recent past as we watch astonished while Donald Trump plays nuclear war with North Korea’s Jong-un, comparing the sizes of their respective arsenals.

As The Vietnam War was fading from public discourse in late 2017, National Geographic launched another kind of war series. This time it was about the Iraq War, post-Saddam Hussein. The eight-part series is called Long Way From Home, an innocuous sounding title for a series that does many of the things Burns and Novick were criticized for doing and not doing. A comparison reveals how truly valuable the Burns/Novick effort really is.

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