Ken Burns’s ‘Vietnam’ Is Fair to the Troops, but Not the Cause

The antiwar narrative could have been lifted from PBS’s last effort, which aired in 1983.

 
 

U.S. Marines land on Red Beach in Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965.
U.S. Marines land on Red Beach in Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965. PHOTO: PETER ARNETT/ASSOCIATED PRESS
 

For the past several years, American and South Vietnamese veterans awaited Ken Burns’s “The Vietnam War” series with gnawing fear. Would Mr. Burns use his talent and prestige to rehash the antiwar narrative, which casts veterans as hapless victims of a senseless war? The program’s final episode has aired, and it is safe to say that worries about the portrayal of veterans were somewhat misplaced, while those concerning the war itself proved justified.

Mr. Burns and co-director Lynn Novick should be commended for giving veterans a central role in the series. In the interviews, American veterans explain they were driven to serve mainly out of patriotism and admiration of veterans in their communities. They denounce the caricature of veterans as deranged baby-killers. Several South Vietnamese veterans are featured as well, a welcome change from earlier productions.

The treatment of the war itself is much less evenhanded. The documentary corrects a few of the mistakes that have been common to popular accounts, for instance acknowledging that Ho Chi Minh was a full-blooded communist, who pulled the strings of the ostensibly independent southern Viet Cong. Yet the show mostly follows the same story line as the last PBS megaseries, “Vietnam: A Television History,” which aired in 1983.

The documentary’s 18 hours highlight the worst military setbacks incurred by the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, while spending little time on the far more numerous battles in which the North Vietnamese suffered decisive defeat. Most of the combat scenes involve one or two Americans speaking somberly over gloomy music while the screen displays images of American troops who are dead, wounded or under fire. The interviewees then explain how the trauma and futility of battle led to their disillusionment with the war. On the few occasions when we hear of the excitement, camaraderie and pride that are as much a part of war as the fear and sorrow, the words usually come from the mouths of North Vietnamese veterans.

Some American troops did become disenchanted, joining the likes of John Kerry and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and they deserve to be heard. But they do not merit the disproportionate airtime they are given in this series. Even by the most generous estimates, Vietnam Veterans Against the War never represented more than 1% of Vietnam veterans, whereas 90% of Vietnam combat veterans said they were glad to have served, and 69% said they enjoyed their time there, according to a 1980 survey conducted by the Veterans Administration. Yet about one-third of the American military veterans in the show otherwise espoused antiwar views, and few of the other interviewees expressed pride or satisfaction in their service.

Among those surveyed by the Veterans Administration, 92% agreed with the statement that “the trouble in Vietnam was that our troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win.” This subject seldom arises in the on-camera interviews or in the narration, presumably because it doesn’t fit the narrative of an unwinnable war. The audience does not hear of the bitter disputes in Washington over the use of U.S. ground forces in Laos or North Vietnam. Nor does it mention revelations from North Vietnamese officials acknowledging that such measures would have thwarted Hanoi’s strategy.

The documentary disregards most of the positive achievements of America’s South Vietnamese allies. Viewers are told that South Vietnam’s strategic hamlet program—which sought to stem communist influence in the countryside—destroyed itself by alienating the rural population. Never mind that numerous North Vietnamese communists have admitted the program hurt them until it was disbanded after the American-sponsored coup of November 1963. The remarkable improvement of the South Vietnamese armed forces after the Tet Offensive receives less attention from the filmmakers than the Woodstock Festival.

After some initial discussion of America’s strategic rationale for the war—the fear of Asian countries falling to communism like dominoes—the series goes silent on geopolitics. The audience isn’t informed of facts that demonstrated Vietnam’s strategic importance, such as the fervent support of America’s Asian allies for the intervention, or the role of American intervention in averting a communist takeover of Indonesia in late 1965.

Historical perspective is also lacking. The narrator and several subjects suggest that the lies of successive U.S. presidents invalidated the American cause. There is no denying that John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon lied repeatedly about the war. The same could be said about Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but no one argues that their dishonesty discredited their wars.

Numerous interviewees contend that the ineffectiveness and corruption of the South Vietnamese government showed that the U.S. supported the wrong side. But America’s allies in South Korea and Taiwan, who were less effective and more corrupt than their communist rivals, survived because the U.S. did not abandon them. South Korea and Taiwan eventually became two of the most prosperous and vibrant nations in Asia, while their foes remain dour police states that still pose serious threats to international peace.

Mr. Burns has said he intended to produce a definitive account that would bring Americans together. He could have pulled it off, but he chose instead to make it another partisan harangue that is certain to keep Americans divided.

Mr. Moyar is the author of “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965” (Cambridge, 2006).

Appeared in the October 7, 2017, print edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *