I put everything I had to offer on the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick/Geoffrey Ward documentary The Vietnam War into “Notes on the Ken Burns version.” I think the documentary seeks to fix the record in falsity. To take only one example, as I say in my “Notes,” Burns and his colleagues were apparently unable to find a soldier to recall his service in anything other than shades of disillusion, disgust and shame. Much more remains to be done on this deeply dishonest work to prevent it from becoming the received history of the war.
Wanting to check my own heated reaction to the documentary against the observations of more knowledgeable observers, I wrote Yale’s Charles Hill. Professor Hill is diplomat in residence and lecturer in International Studies at Yale as well as a research fellow of the Hoover Institution.
Before he alighted at Yale, Professor Hill had an incredibly distinguished career in the State Department. In the course of his career in the government he served in Saigon during the climactic period of the Vietnam War (1971-1973). Among the roles he served was that of mission coordinator in the United States Embassy. Molly Worthen covers Professor Hill’s work in Vietnam in chapter 6 of her precocious 2005 biography, The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill.
Professor Hill watched the documentary with intense attention. I asked Professor Hill if he would comment on the documentary, however briefly. He responded:
The most repulsive sub-theme starts at the very outset when a veteran says: “I was scared. I hated them. I was SO scared!” This quaking fear of American troops is repeated throughout the 18 hours, often silently with just quick photos of US soldiers with expressions of fear.
In a separate message he commented on the documentary’s depiction of the war after 1968:
When the US and South Vietnamese cause turned the war on the ground in a sharply different direction and began actually to win it (I was there), the cultural elite of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock, promoted by the media, simply stopped reporting on the war so that the astonishing South Vietnamese victories over the invading North Vietnamese Army on three international fronts in 1972 was barely mentioned. Burns’s aim is to make sure the annoyingly christened (sic) “Millennials” will be locked into the leftist narrative of his own formative years -– to him, the real “Greatest Generation.”
I think we are beginning to get somewhere.
Earlier this week came Philip Jennings’s New York Sun column “Justifying betrayal of Vietnam emerges as the raison d’être of Ken Burns’ Film on the War.” As I did in my “Notes,” Jennings observes: “Burns fails to find even one American or South Vietnamese veteran who wholly supported the war, was proud to have appeared in arms, and sickened by the United States’ abandonment its freedom-seeking ally.” He adds: “There are literally hundreds of thousands of us.”
Yesterday the Weekly Standard published Stephen Morris’s important essay on the documentary, “The bad war.” Morris knows what he is talking about. Written with attention to detail in a carefully modulated tone, the essay makes an important — I would say invaluable — contribution to the record on the documentary. If you have been following the commentary on the documentary so far, you will not want to miss it. As I say, we are beginning to get somewhere.