More than a decade in the mak­ing, the 10-part doc­u­men­tary air­ing on PBS start­ing Sun­day in­cludes in­ter­views with more than 80 in­di­vid­u­als — Amer­i­can and Viet­namese. Post­media colum­nist Jack Todd, who de­serted from the U.S. army in De­cem­ber 1969, re­ports o

Windsor Star - - WEEKEND REVIEW -

Like some night­mar­ish, pro­tean beast that re­fuses to be caged, the Viet­nam War comes snarling back at in­ter­vals, de­mand­ing that we re­visit what we thought had been put away for­ever.

More than 42 years af­ter the fall of Saigon, the most am­bi­tious at­tempt ever made to cap­ture the story on film is com­ing to a small screen near you. The Viet­nam War, by doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is one of the largest projects in the his­tory of tele­vi­sion, a mam­moth, 10-part, 18-hour doc­u­men­tary on the war, air­ing on PBS be­gin­ning Sept. 17.

More than a decade in the mak­ing, it is an at­tempt by two of the premier doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers of our time to un­tan­gle the com­plex, con­tentious threads of the war and to make sense of it in two weeks of tele­vi­sion.

Through its sheer scope and qual­ity, I sus­pect, The Viet­nam War will be­come the de­fin­i­tive state­ment on the con­flict, es­pe­cially for those who haven’t read a great deal of the his­tory. This time, per­haps, we will find a way, through a sub­lime piece of film­mak­ing, to reach a kind of peace with the war that tore my gen­er­a­tion apart and helped to sow the seeds for the cur­rent pro­found di­vi­sions in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal life.

The film in­cludes in­ter­views with more than 80 in­di­vid­u­als, Amer­i­can and Viet­namese, who played some role in the con­flict — among them some who op­posed the war, in­clud­ing one Mon­treal sports­writer whose words you’re read­ing now. I had de­serted from the U.S. army at Fort Lewis, Wash., in De­cem­ber 1969, ar­rived in Van­cou­ver in Jan­uary 1970 and even­tu­ally drifted to Mon­treal.

Novick her­self con­tacted me in the late sum­mer of 2012. Tim O’Brien, a Viet­nam vet and by far the best of the Amer­i­can nov­el­ists who have taken the war as their sub­ject, had read my book De­ser­tion in the Time of Viet­nam (The Taste of Metal in Canada). O’Brien had been in­ter­viewed for the doc­u­men­tary and had sug­gested that she talk with me.

Novick flew to Mon­treal. We had lunch and a stroll on Mount Royal. It was not an easy de­ci­sion for me: I thought I had said all I wanted to say about the war and I did not wish to pre­tend to speak for all the draft dodgers and de­sert­ers (now known col­lec­tively as war re­sisters) who came to Canada dur­ing the war. But it was a vastly im­por­tant sub­ject and the film­mak­ers were the best in the business.

That Septem­ber, I flew to New York City, where Novick in­ter­viewed me in front of the cam­era in space on 57th Street rented from the Repub­li­can Party, of all things. It was a lengthy and some­times painful ses­sion but Novick, a slightly built, soft-spo­ken dy­namo, is the best in­ter­viewer I have ever seen and the ex­pe­ri­ence gave me a chance to get a peek at the way Burns and Novick do things.

You never see Novick or Burns or any of their as­so­ci­ates on cam­era dur­ing in­ter­views. Watch­ing the doc­u­men­taries from the Civil War to those on jazz, base­ball and pro­hi­bi­tion, I had never quite re­al­ized there was an in­ter­viewer present. There is in­deed an in­ter­viewer ask­ing ques­tions and Novick’s skill at gen­tly lead­ing her sub­ject through one dif­fi­cult topic af­ter an­other is un­matched.

Al­though they re­ceive joint billing for this doc­u­men­tary and Ken Burns is the rec­og­niz­able brand, from what I was able to see Novick was very much the driv­ing force be­hind The Viet­nam War. She and Burns have been work­ing to­gether since Novick came aboard as a sum­mer re­place­ment dur­ing the mak­ing of The Civil War and stayed for the du­ra­tion.

The Civil War, re­leased in 1990, was a work of pure ge­nius. Burns did away with the painful recre­ations that have marred many a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­tary, in­stead us­ing still pho­to­graphs and won­der­fully writ­ten let­ters to con­vey the truth about that con­flict. Seven­teen years later, he and Novick re­leased The War, their doc­u­men­tary on the Sec­ond World War, just as they were be­gin­ning work on this, the fi­nal in­stal­ment in what is, in ef­fect, a pow­er­ful tril­ogy on Amer­ica’s wars.

When we spoke this Septem­ber, five years af­ter my film ses­sion with her, Novick was in the throes of the public­ity blitz ahead of first pub­lic screen­ing and she con­fessed that she was feel­ing a bit ex­hausted.

“At the same time, it’s ex­cit­ing for me,” Novick said. “I see this as the cul­mi­na­tion of my ca­reer. It’s not that for Ken; he’s had many. So far the re­sponse has been tremen­dous but we’re wait­ing for the firestorm from the right and the left as well. All we ask is that peo­ple watch the en­tire film be­fore form­ing an opinion.”

With an is­sue as con­tentious as the Viet­nam War, that may be a big ask. Con­tro­versy is in­evitable. But Novick and Burns worked very hard to sim­ply tell the story with­out preach­ing, be­liev­ing the story was mas­sive and pow­er­ful enough with­out win­dow dress­ing.

The hard­est part, per­haps, was get­ting the story down to man­age­able size for tele­vi­sion. Burns him­self has com­pared it to mak­ing maple syrup, boil­ing 40 gal­lons of sap down to a gal­lon of syrup. The fi­nal pro­por­tions are rather more ex­treme: thou­sands of hours of film re­duced to 18 hours, an in­fin­itely com­plex war trimmed to a cou­ple of weeks of tele­vi­sion. But given that the Viet­nam con­flict was the first tele­vi­sion war, it is al­to­gether fit­ting that the de­fin­i­tive state­ment should be made in that medium.

I have had sev­eral con­ver­sa­tions with Novick about the doc­u­men­tary over the years. She re­turns again and again to Viet­nam, the small, poverty-stricken na­tion that fought the world’s great­est mil­i­tary power to a stand­still. Dur­ing the long years of film­ing, Novick was on a vir­tual com­mute from New York City to Viet­nam, in or­der to get the Viet­namese side of the story.

When I spoke with her, Novick had just re­turned from yet an­other visit to Viet­nam. “We had an amaz­ing trip to show the film to some of the peo­ple who are in it,” Novick said. “I’m thrilled that it will be streamed in Viet­nam with Viet­namese sub­ti­tles. We’ve spo­ken with many peo­ple there who say, ‘We don’t know much about the war.’ ”

Al­to­gether, The Viet­nam War will be shown in 30 coun­tries ini­tially, in­clud­ing a joint ven­ture be­tween Ger­many and France that boils her 18-hour film down to nine hours. That ver­sion, which Novick feels is too trun­cated to do the sub­ject jus­tice, will air in French in Quebec.

As of this writ­ing, I have yet to see the film. Novick says that my in­ter­view is wo­ven through three or four episodes, the part that will be hard­est for me to watch. I will watch it, how­ever: I have read vir­tu­ally all the qual­ity lit­er­a­ture to come from the war (in­clud­ing sev­eral stun­ning Viet­namese nov­els) and much of the his­tory. It is some­thing of an ob­ses­sion even now, 46 years af­ter I crossed the bor­der to Canada and a new life.

A few months af­ter the in­ter­view in New York in 2012, I re­ceived a call from Lt.-Col. Gre­gory Dad­dis of the U.S. army, a tank com­man­der dur­ing the first Iraq War and a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the West Point Mil­i­tary Academy in up­state New York. I could hardly be­lieve my ears: Dad­dis wanted me to talk to the young cadets study­ing the Viet­nam War in one of his classes.

I thought it over and agreed. With some trep­i­da­tion, I drove to West Point (sit­u­ated on a lovely bend in the Hudson River, stayed at a stately old ho­tel, ate in the huge din­ing room with the cadets, viewed the stat­ues of Gen. Dou­glas MacArthur, Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower and Gen. Ge­orge S. Pat­ton.

The next morn­ing, with Novick’s cam­eras rolling, I strolled the cam­pus with Dad­dis, then met with two of his classes back-to-back. The cadets, ini­tially some­what hos­tile, were more wel­com­ing af­ter I told them that I had en­listed in Ma­rine Corps of­fi­cer train­ing at Quan­tico, Va., and washed out with knee prob­lems from bas­ket­ball be­fore I turned against the war. Af­ter two years of march­ing and writ­ing against the war, I was drafted into the army as a pri­vate and went through ba­sic train­ing be­fore I made the de­ci­sion to flee to Canada.

We dis­cussed some of the prob­lems I had noted at Fort Lewis dur­ing the win­ter of 1969-70 — hap­haz­ard phys­i­cal train­ing, ex­tremely low morale, draftees go­ing AWOL every other day, of­fi­cers ap­par­ently un­will­ing or un­able to pre­pare us for pos­si­ble com­bat in Viet­nam.

In the end it was, if not ex­actly a love-in, at least a thought­ful and con­ge­nial ex­change of views. To some­one with my mem­o­ries of the Viet­nam-era of­fi­cer class, the young cadets were a sur­pris­ingly di­verse and highly in­tel­li­gent group, with nearly as many women as men in their ranks.

The film of that event at West Point did not make the fi­nal 18hour cut for the Viet­nam War, but a seven- or eight-minute clip did make the DVD ver­sion. As I drove away from West Point that af­ter­noon, I thought of what a cu­ri­ous lit­tle ad­den­dum this would make to the his­tory of the Viet­nam War: the de­serter who spoke at West Point.

It’s not of­ten that any­thing con­nected with this hor­rific and un­nec­es­sary war has made me smile — but on that day, with West Point in the rear-view mir­ror, I did.


U.S. ser­vice mem­bers with a fallen com­rade. The Viet­nam War, by doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is one of the largest projects in the his­tory of tele­vi­sion.


Civil­ians hud­dle to­gether af­ter an at­tack by South Viet­namese forces in Dong Xoai in June 1965. Given that the Viet­nam con­flict was the first tele­vi­sion war, it is fit­ting that the de­fin­i­tive state­ment should be made in that medium, Jack Todd writes.


A U.S. sol­dier with his sib­lings be­fore leav­ing for Viet­nam in 1965. For the doc­u­men­tary, thou­sands of hours of film were re­duced to 18 hours.

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