Ken Burns sees Viet­nam War as virus

Film­maker hopes his new doc­u­men­tary may be a vac­ci­na­tion for the alienation felt by those who fought

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - HOLLY RAMER

Film­maker Ken Burns views the Viet­nam War as a virus that in­fected Amer­i­cans with an ar­ray of chronic ill­nesses — alienation, a lack of civil dis­course, mis­trust of govern­ment and each other. And he hopes his new doc­u­men­tary can be part of a cure.

“What if the film was just an at­tempt at some sort of vac­ci­na­tion, a lit­tle bit more of the dis­ease to get you im­mune to the dis­union that it has spon­sored?” Burns said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “It’s im­por­tant for us to be­gin to have cre­ative but coura­geous con­ver­sa­tions about what took place.”

Burns and co-di­rec­tor Lynn Novick had just fin­ished work on their Sec­ond World War doc­u­men­tary a decade ago when he turned to her and said, “We have to do Viet­nam.” The re­sult is their 10-part, 18-hour se­ries that will air be­gin­ning Sept. 17 on PBS.

“For me, it was the sense that Viet­nam was the most im­por­tant event for Amer­i­cans in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, yet we had done al­most ev­ery­thing we could in the in­ter­ven­ing years to avoid un­der­stand­ing it,” Burns said. “As hor­ri­ble as they are, wars are in­cred­i­bly valu­able mo­ments to study, and I thought what Viet­nam lacked was a will­ing­ness to en­gage in that.”

The film brings to­gether the lat­est schol­arly re­search on the war and fea­tures nearly 80 in­ter­views, in­clud­ing Amer­i­cans who fought in the war and those who op­posed it, Viet­namese civil­ians and sol­diers from both sides. Burns and Novick have been show­ing ex­cerpts of the film around the coun­try in re­cent months, most re­cently at Dart­mouth Col­lege on Thurs­day night.

“I think this will be for a gen­eral Amer­i­can au­di­ence a kind of rev­e­la­tion, a cas­cade of new facts and new fig­ures, and I don’t mean nu­meral fig­ures, but bi­o­graph­i­cal fig­ures that will stag­ger their view of what was, and hope­fully get ev­ery­body, re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tive to let go of the bag­gage of the su­per­fi­cial and the con­ven­tional,” Burns said.

Hav­ing been blamed for the war it­self, many Viet­nam War sol­diers were un­der­stand­ably re­luc­tant to share their sto­ries, the co-direc­tors said. But com­pared to his ear­lier se­ries on the Sec­ond World War and the Civil War, Burns said there was one chal­lenge he didn’t face.

“One of the great tasks for us as film­mak­ers — am­a­teur his­to­ri­ans if you will — was how to cut through all the nos­tal­gia and sen­ti­men­tal­ity that had at­tached it­self to the Civil War and the Sec­ond World War,” he said. “There’s no such prob­lem with Viet­nam.”

Af­ter watch­ing the hour-long pre­view, U.S. Army vet­eran David Hager­man, of Lyme Cen­ter, said he can’t wait to watch the en­tire se­ries.

“It was pow­er­ful,” said Hager­man, who spent his nine months in Viet­nam run­ning a treat­ment cen­tre for sol­diers ad­dicted to heroin. While strangers now ap­proach him and thank him for his ser­vice, he said com­ing home in 1972 was trau­matic.

“I walked into the Seat­tle air­port, and I was in my Army out­fit,” he said. “The re­cep­tion I re­ceived was so neg­a­tive and so pow­er­ful that I walked into the near­est men’s room, took my uni­form off, threw it in the trash, and put on a T-shirt and a pair of pants.”

Burns said while he doesn’t buy into the no­tion that his­tory re­peats it­self, it’s clear that hu­man na­ture doesn’t change. And he ac­knowl­edges that many of the themes his se­ries ex­plores are un­can­nily rel­e­vant to the present.

“If I backed up this con­ver­sa­tion and said, ‘OK, I’ve spent the last year work­ing on a film about a White House in dis­ar­ray ob­sessed with leaks, about a huge doc­u­ment drops into the pub­lic of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion ... about a deeply po­lar­ized coun­try, about a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign ac­cused of reach­ing out to a for­eign power dur­ing an elec­tion, about mass demon­stra­tions across the coun­try,’ you’d say, ‘Gee, Ken, you stopped do­ing his­tory, you’re do­ing the present mo­ment,’” he said.

At Dart­mouth, Novick and Burns were joined by U.S. Army vet­eran Mike Heaney, of Hart­land, Ver­mont, who is shown in the film de­scrib­ing los­ing fel­low pla­toon mem­bers in a 1966 am­bush and spend­ing the night para­noid that a dead Viet Cong sol­dier ly­ing next to him was just fak­ing it and would rise up to kill him.

Af­ter the screen­ing, he told the au­di­ence about re­turn­ing to Viet­nam in 2008, where he com­pared war wounds with for­mer en­e­mies turned fel­low “grand­pas.” He said he’s been able to cope thanks to the sup­port of his fam­ily, as well as both Amer­i­cans and the Viet­namese peo­ple.

“I don’t ex­pect to ever get clo­sure on this kind of ex­pe­ri­ence that I had,” he said. “And that’s OK.”


A para­trooper of the 173rd U.S. Air­borne bri­gade crouches with women and chil­dren in a muddy canal as in­tense Viet Cong sniper fire tem­po­rar­ily pins down his unit dur­ing the Viet­namese War near Bao trai in Viet­nam.


U.S. Marine in­fantry stream into a sus­pected Viet Cong vil­lage in 1965 near Da Nang in Viet­nam dur­ing the Viet­namese war.

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