Notes on the Ken Burns version

I want to add a few notes to Paul’s comments as well as my own on the gargantuan Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS documentary The Vietnam War. I think it warrants more informed commentary than my own, but let me these offer notes while we wait for knowledgeable observers such as Mackubin Owens, Victor Davis Hanson and James Robbins to weigh in.

As of this weekend, we do have George Veith’s helpful Law & Liberty review (“in many ways [the documentary] is a lengthy redundancy, repeating old stories and unchallenging surface realities”) as well as Mark Moyar’s critique in this Wall Street Journal column (the documentary is “a partisan harangue”). It seems to me, however, that we have only begun to scratch the surface of this profoundly dishonest piece of work.

On the absence of commentary criticizing the documentary, Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen recalled the controversy over Stanley Karnow’s 1983 PBS series on the war. In his column on the documentary, Cullen quoted Sara Altherr, the publicist and wife of the executive producer of the 1983 series. Cullen exulted: “[W]hat surprises Altherr and others who worked on the 1983 series is the absence of a coordinated attack against it by conservative forces similar to those who rose up in indignation 35 years ago. If anything, the most compelling criticism of Burns/Novick is that they strayed too close to the middle.” (Paul discussed this “most compelling criticism” in his comments.)

Although the Burns/Novick documentary concedes the misleading media coverage of the war at the time of the Tet Offensive of 1968, it does so only in passing. It does not pause over it. The documentary serves up the stray reflections of many witnesses who lived through the period, but it utterly omits any consideration of the media’s misunderstanding. For that one must turn to Peter Braestrup’s monumental Big Story and James Robbins’s This Time We Win.

As Robbins shows, this was a misunderstanding with a legacy all its own. The documentary has time to look back at Woodstock (intercut with footage from the battlefield in Vietnam), but no time to give any thought to media misfeasance. Instead the documentary recycles the received version of the media as heroes. Witness, for example, the documentary’s account of the Pentagon Papers case.

The documentary pretends to Olympian if sorrowful detachment, but the tone of detachment is a pretense. The documentary adopts old leftist critiques of the war as a “civil war” in which we had no business and were, moreover, on the wrong side. In Vietnam we were always “chasing ghosts.” The war could not be won. The documentary orchestrates these assertions into motifs that run from the first episode through the tenth.

The motifs add up to a shoddy argument in a shoddy form. Among other things, the “civil war” motif implies that South Vietnam was not a legitimate country. This implication of the documentary remains unsupported by express argument from anyone other than partisans of the North Vietnamese cause, although one or two of the South Vietnamese refer to the fratricidal nature of the war.

The first episode presents a glaring example of the documentary’s argument by implication. Recounting French colonial involvement in Vietnam, the documentary departs from chronological form to cut back and forth between French colonial involvement following World War II and American participation in the war in the mid 1960’s. The unstated implication is that America’s involvement represented a continuation of French colonialism, or that the United States had succeeded to France in Vietnam.

Despite the “civil war” motif, the documentary of course acknowledges and indeed establishes the role of North Vietnam in creating, directing and supporting the Viet Cong. Reviewing the documentary’s companion book by Geoffrey Ward, who also wrote the documentary’s narrative, (leftist) historian David Greenberg banged the gong in the New York Times, of all places. Professor Greenberg noted that Ward provides “an oddly starry-eyed sketch of Ho Chi Minh.” This is a rather crippling limitation in understanding our enemy, as I persist in thinking of him (and Le Duan, Le Duc Tho and the rest of the North Vietnamese leadership).

The documentary does not take the line that I learned at the time from antiwar historians such as Kahin and Lewis in The United States in Vietnam (1967) that the conflict was limited to South Vietnamese factions. No one is now selling the line that the conflict constituted a “civil war” in that sense. The left long ago moved on.

The book’s sugarcoated view of Ho appears in the documentary as well, but the phenomenon of sugarcoating extends to the documentary generally. It sugarcoats Ho Chi Minh, to be sure, but it also sugarcoats Communist persecution and Communist atrocities. How many Vietnamese civilians did the Communists massacre in Hue? The documentary doesn’t say, but the answer is “thousands.” It sugarcoats the American antiwar movement. John Kerry, however, does not emerge entirely unscathed.

While presenting voices speaking from numerous perspectives, the documentary is ruthlessly partial. Among other things, it glosses over the voices of American armed forces proud of their service and not disillusioned by the cause they served. Bing West makes this point (and more) in his New York Post column on the documentary, as does George Veith in the column linked above. The documentary’s tone of detachment is, as I say, a pretense.

The documentary includes interviews with commissioned officers such as West Point grad Matt Harrison (a member of the class of 1966, Harrison also appears in Rick Atkinson’s The Long Gray Line) and retired Air Force General (then Major) Merrill McPeak. As they look back, they are eloquent in their bitterness.

Those of the 2.7 million Americans who served at lower levels in Vietnam range from the disillusioned to the disgusted: Karl Marlantes, John Musgrave, Bill Ehrhart, Roger Harris, Denton “Mogie” Crocker (killed in action at age 19, but speaking through letters and surviving family), Tim O’Brien, Vincent Okamoto, James Gillam, Ron Ferrizzi and others. Their testimony is compelling. In one way or another, however, they look down on their younger selves for their service or for having believed in the cause they served. (I might ask here why Leslie Gelb is the one former government official called on to chime in as a sort of Greek chorus.)

Where, I wondered, is someone like my friend Tim Kelly, the prominent attorney now at the Minneapolis office of the Dykema law firm? Tim graduated from the University of Minnesota and was commissioned through Army ROTC in 1968. Once commissioned, Tim volunteered for the infantry and for service in Vietnam. He served as an Army infantry officer in Vietnam and Cambodia from 1968-1970, attaining the rank of First Lieutenant. I asked Tim what he thought of the documentary. He responded:

Watched a single episode in part and it was so distorted that I quit. Compare the book Huế 1968, by Mark Bowden, to this polemic. Huế leans left but is fair while this documentary is really propaganda.

I think most combat soldiers in Vietnam thought that what they themselves did was noble, but had differing views whether the war effort itself made sense. Everyone just wanted to serve his tour and get home.

Tim is no shrinking violet, but the producers of The Vietnam War somehow overlooked him and others like him in the ten years they worked on the documentary.

Paul Mirengoff wrote about the bias reflected even in the documentary’s musical soundtrack. Man, the producers are proud of that soundtrack. In their précis of the documentary’s episodes, they list the songs that appear on each one. The soundtrack draws on the folk, rock, blues and soul music of the era, but why? It emits a sentimental glow, like the soundtrack of The Big Chill.

It also marks out an approved canon, like Samuel Johnson’s selection of quotations illustrating usage in his Dictionary of the English Language. Bob Dylan is a heavy — and I do mean heavy — favorite of Burns and crew, especially in the early going. The documentary’s online site includes David Fricke’s liner notes for the soundtrack. Fricke hails the soundtrack’s “vivid atmosphere and pointed commentary.”

You may recall the powerful portrayal of the Cambodian holocaust in 1984’s The Killing Fields. The movie’s portrayal of the horror was unblinkered. Even so, the film wound up with John Lennon’s “Imagine,” as though nationalism or patriotism or traditional religious belief rather than Communism had given rise to the killing fields. Sheer, witless stupidity.

The same is the case with the soundtrack as commentary here, from Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Masters of War” to the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” As implicit commentary on the war, this is sheer, witless stupidity.

And if we’re going to revisit P.F. Sloan, let’s go with “Sins of a Family” or “Where Were You When I Needed You” or “Let Me Be” or “Secret Agent Man.” Please, anything but “Eve of Destruction.”

The Burns/Novick documentary adds to Stanley Karnow’s 1983 PBS documentary and companion book. The combat footage is riveting. The voices of the Vietnamese are indeed of interest. I think it is worth watching, especially if you know enough about the war to understand what the documentary is up to. The documentary nevertheless reiterates the line for which Mac Owens faulted Karnow in the Claremont Review of Books. Consider this:

Karnow’s great error is that he insists on seeing the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong as primarily “nationalists,” not Communists. While he has done a service in treating the Vietnam War as part of the 2,000-year historical struggle of the Vietnamese against foreigners, he does not pay enough attention to the qualitative differences between the traditional Vietnamese nationalism and that of the Stalinist Ho Chi Minh.

Perhaps this was never possible for Karnow. After all, he began his journalistic career as a correspondent and writer for the leftist National Guardian in the late 1940s. His writings in that period were strongly anti-anti-Communist and pro-Marxist. In 1949 he was parroting Soviet attacks on the Marshall Plan and on the “Socialist marion­ettes” in France whose strings were being worked by American interests. In April of that year he explained how the Marshall Plan enabled the French to torture nationalist Vietnamese peasants, and in August how it allowed Frenchmen to murder 80,000 civilians in a “Madagascar bloodbath.”

Although Vietnam clearly indicates a change of viewpoint from his Guardian work, one cannot help but be struck by the fact that his view of Vietnamese nationalism seems to have changed very little over twenty-five years. While Karnow now admits that the Communists were often repressive, brutal, and dogmatic, he still uncritically accepts the view that they remain primarily nationalists, but nationalist with a revolutionary vision for an agrarian society.

And this is the point missed by many of those who have praised Karnow’s book but should have known better. While Karnow has forgone the Marxist rhetoric that characterized his youthful scribblings on behalf of “anti-imperialism,” he still holds fast to the Marxist view of history. For Karnow, there was no way the U.S. could have won. We were simply on the wrong side of history; the progressive forces could not help but overwhelm us.

Thus Karnow has written a book which, on its surface, is moderate. But his thesis is the same as that of the demonologists: U.S. foreign policy is doomed unless it accepts the legitimacy of the “revolutionary paradigm.” He does not tell us that the revolutionary paradigm seeks to destroy the republican paradigm, the most successful example of which is the United States. While nationalists per se do not see the U.S. system as their enemy (although they may on occasion see the U.S. as their particular enemy), Communist revolutionaries do. If the Vietnamese Communists were primarily nationalist, they would not have eliminated all independent nationalists.

The necessary changes being made, Mac Owens’s critique applies to the Burns/Novick documentary as well. This is a point also noted by Mark Moyar in the Wall Street Journal column linked above. What we seem to have here is a case of (media) history repeating itself.

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