Ken Burns’ ‘Vietnam War’ aims to show both sides of the con­flict

Waterloo Region Record - - ARTS & LIFE - Luaine Lee

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — Ken Burns has gone to war again. The film­maker, so well known for his doc­u­men­taries on base­ball, jazz, pro­hi­bi­tion, the na­tional parks and the dust bowl, has al­ready pro­vided definitive films on the Civil War and Se­cond World War. But on Sept. 17 he launches his most con­tro­ver­sial doc­u­men­tary yet, “The Vietnam War.”

His aim, he says, was to tell the story from both sides of the con­flict and in hu­man terms. “It’s enough to spend 10 years just try­ing to wres­tle this story to the ground, and we felt that it was hugely im­por­tant be­cause the story is rarely told from more than one per­spec­tive,” he says.

“Amer­i­cans like to talk about this sem­i­nal event. And we be­lieve that it’s the most im­por­tant event in United States his­tory since the Se­cond World War. We tend to talk only about our­selves. And the tri­an­gu­la­tion that we thought we could achieve by hav­ing these other voices and other per­spec­tives would lend cre­dence to the idea that there isn’t a SIN­GLE truth in the war,” he says in a press gath­er­ing here.

“In fact, there’s many truths that can co­ex­ist, and that might help to take the fuel rods out of the divi­sion and po­lar­iza­tion that was born in Vietnam that con­tin­ues to this mo­ment.”

The 10-episode, 18-hour se­ries airs on PBS and in­cludes rare and re­mas­tered archival footage, his­toric news broad­casts, home movies, and even rare au­dio record­ings from in­side the White House. It fea­tures mu­sic from the most fa­mous artists of the era as well as orig­i­nal tunes from Trent Reznor and At­ti­cus Ross and works of the Silk Road En­sem­ble with Yo-Yo Ma and his mourn­ful cello.

Burns and co-di­rec­tor Lynn Novick, spoke with thou­sands of wit­nesses in re­search­ing the project, and 79 are fea­tured in the se­ries.

There were also prom­i­nent peo­ple who they did not in­ter­view. “One of the first things we did is we went to John McCain and John Kerry and said, ‘We need your help. We’re go­ing to do this, but we’re not go­ing to in­ter­view you,” says Burns. “You will be in it in your archival selves, but you’re alive to­day. And we don’t want you in any way sort of spin­ning or any­thing like that.’ We didn’t quite put it that way,” he smiles.

“We weren’t go­ing to talk to Dr. Kissinger or Jane Fonda or a num­ber of other peo­ple.”

One of those di­rectly in­volved in the con­flict was re­tired Air Force Gen. Mer­rill McPeak, who says he knew the minute he landed in Vietnam that we could not win the war.

“It was ob­vi­ous to me that this was a los­ing ef­fort. The Saigon regime was cor­rupt. Ev­ery­body knew it. We knew it. They knew it. They were not pop­u­lar in their own coun­try, and I con­cluded that this just wasn’t go­ing to work be­cause the pol­icy foun­da­tions weren’t set prop­erly to en­able us to win,” he says.

“What did the war look like from the other guy’s point of view? That’s some­thing I don’t think civil­ians worry about much, but pro­fes­sion­als do.

“What were the pol­icy foun­da­tions of North Viet­namese in­volve­ment? They were, first of all, to throw off the yoke of im­pe­rial power in their neigh­bor­hood. Not just the French, but the Ja­panese be­fore them, and then the French be­fore the Ja­panese and so on, Chi­nese, go­ing back in his­tory.

“We un­der­stand that, don’t we? We had a Revo­lu­tion­ary War of our own about throw­ing off im­pe­rial power and get­ting our own na­tional in­de­pen­dence. So that’s a pretty good, solid pol­icy foun­da­tion to build a war on — if you’ve got an ob­jec­tive like that,” he says.

The coun­try had also been di­vided by an ear­lier Geneva Ac­cord, says McPeak, and many Viet­namese longed to unify the coun­try. “And that was (per­pet­u­ated) in Hanoi. Well, do we un­der­stand that pol­icy ob­jec­tive? We had a Civil War about that is­sue, that same is­sue in this coun­try,” he says.


"Hard-Hats" demon­strate in fa­vor of the Vietnam War in New York in 1970. It’s one scene in Ken Burns’ new doc­u­men­tary, "The Vietnam War," pre­mier­ing on Sept. 17 on PBS.


Den­ton (Mo­gie) in uni­form, sit­ting on porch steps with Candy and Randy 1965.

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