The Ken Burns version, cont’d

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.

There is no one whose opinion on the Ken Burns version I wanted more than Yale’s Professor 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 landed at Yale, however, 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 quoted from an email he sent me on the documentary in an earlier installment of this series. The Hoover Institution has now posted Professor Hill’s essay “On ‘The Vietnam War.'” It opens:

“History is written by the victors” has been the wisdom of the ages, restated jocularly but truthfully by Winston Churchill about his story of the Second World War. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” fulfills this dictum once again, but with a unique twist. As Americans, they are among the losers, but their documentary exalts the winners—Communist North Vietnam. At the same time, they themselves are on the winning side in the domestic American contest between the anti-Vietnam War movement and those who saw the war as necessary in the larger Cold War struggle.

In his reading of the Ken Burns version, Professor Hill takes special note of its use of the vets and the related motifs:

To ensure that the audience grasps the new story behind the old history of the war, the producers feature a variety of individuals who give their testimony of what happened in Vietnam. There are grizzled American veterans who reveal themselves as heroes-in-reverse, detailing how they began their service as proud patriots until, through bitter experience, they turned against the war. There are distinguished diplomats and foreign policy experts who point out the foolish mistakes and ignorant policies imposed by uncomprehending U.S. officials. And there are the journalists, like the war correspondent Neil Sheehan, whose timely interventions exposed the moral emptiness of the war.

Taken together across the ten episodes, the voice of these witnesses play the role of the Greek Chorus in a classic tragedy, giving warnings of doleful consequences ahead. The veterans, as the producers use them, declare that American servicemen in Vietnam were scared: “I was scared of them. I hated them. I was so scared.” This becomes a series-long trope, repeatedly illustrated by silent images of Americans in or near combat, each face etched in fear. The diplomats and experts repeatedly denounce the ineluctable stupidity of American leaders. And the journalists emit expressions of “woe!”

Professor Hill draws out the current use to which Burns puts his version of the war:

The established narrative of the war, and the gloss on it provided by Burns-Novick’s inner theme, is that the Vietnam War represented not only Hanoi’s victory over the United States, but, more consequentially, the victory of all of the layers of social-political-cultural-personal revolution of the Sixties. To reaffirm the anti-war movement doctrinally is to lock in all the vast changes in the American character brought about by what the documentary sees as the truly greatest generation, the radicals of the 1960s. Thus the Burns-Novick film is as much, or more, about America in the twenty-first century as it is about the years between 1954 and 1975 in Southeast Asia. That was about a political-military conflict; it became and is now about a new phase of moral superiority.

Professor Hill has made an indispensable contribution to understanding the Ken Burns version. There is much more. All it makes for must reading. Take in the whole thing here.

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