The Vietnam War gets the Ken Burns treatment

I didn’t watch all 18 hours of Ken Burns’ series about the Vietnam War, but I forced myself to endure roughly two-thirds of it. I found Burns’ version of the war biased and superficial.

Scott has performed a service by posting a conference about the series held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). As Scott says, Lewis Sorley’s presentation, which begins at 48:00, provides a devastating critique of Burns’ version of the war. But listen carefully to some of the other participants. I think you will notice that several of them found the series superficial, though they are too polite to say so directly.

I want to comment about the music in the series. Burns consistently deploys the “iconic” music of the Vietnam era in service of the anti-war movement. When protesters appear, we often hear pop music rather than the voices of the protesters, e.g., “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Min, NLF [the ones killing Americans] is gonna win.” Burns wants to associate the anti-war movement with music most people like in the hope that it will make us like the movement. It’s one of the oldest advertising tricks in the book.

It’s true that many protesters listened to the music Burns uses, as did many supporters of the war. But the anti-war movement should be able to stand on its own, without the benefit of pop music.

Ironically, Burns doesn’t let us hear the one song of the era that was explicitly about Vietnam and that made it to the top of charts. I’m referring to “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. This was a pro-war song written by a member of the Green Berets, a special forces unit, while he was in the hospital recovering from an injury sustained during the war.

In the song, a Green Beret who is dying from battlefield wounds makes a last request. He wants his son one day to become a member of the Green Berets.

It would have been interesting if Burns had played this song while showing protesters acting up at an anti-war rally.

Instead, Burns and his crew omitted “The Ballad of the Green Berets” from his documentary. Never mind that it was America’s number one hit song for five weeks and, by one account, the number 21 song of the 1960s.

Gussying up the anti-war movement with the sounds of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, etc. is a minor problem compared to gussying up North Vietnam. I’m being unfair. Burns doesn’t so much gussy North Vietnam up as give it something of a pass.

The Vietnam War was an attempt by a murderous Stalinist regime and its proxy in the south, aided massively by the Soviets and the Chinese, to seize through military conquest an internationally recognized neighboring country. In the 12 or so hours of the series I watched, Burns and his crew downplayed this reality.

The U.S. and South Vietnamese governments came in for relentless criticism. The North Vietnamese mostly skated.

This was the natural result of the voices Burns and company had us hear from (and hear from and hear from). The disillusioned “grunts” (as the documentary called the U.S. soldiers on the battlefield) weren’t going to discuss the wider context of the war. They just knew they hated being in Vietnam. The anti-war protesters weren’t going to talk about the true nature of the North Vietnamese regime. Many of them wanted the enemy to win (“Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh…”). The enemy fighters weren’t going to do so, either, though in the final episode one of them blows the whistle.

Only the U.S. policy makers who were behind the war, or those fully sympathetic to their views, were likely to present forcefully and coherently the full rationale for a sustained war to thwart “Uncle Ho.” In the parts of the show I watched, they weren’t heard from. At the CSIS event, Sorley said they weren’t interviewed. If so, the documentary strikes me as illegitimate.

Ironically, Burns, who says he hopes his documentary will help end divisions over the war and facilitate national healing, has come under fire from the left. The contemporary left is so virulently anti-American that it objects to the few crumbs Burns has offered those who think the war was justified or was a mostly honorable mistake.

Ordinarily, I would find this sad. But in this context, anything that might prevent Burns’ version of the Vietnam War from becoming the received wisdom is okay with me.