Documentary on Vietnam War explores realities of battle on every side
PBS documentary explores the conflict from all sides.
When the U.S. Selective Service System initiated the first of two draft lotteries in 1970 to send men to the war in Vietnam, 19-year-old Paul Barnes felt a sense of dread. “I was terrified about the possibility of being drafted,” Barnes, 66, said in a recent interview. “I had friends who went over, and they came back like the walking wounded.”
Barnes got lucky. His lottery number was so low he wasn’t called. Absolved from wartime service, he attended the New York University Institute of Film and Television. By the end of the 1970s, he was working as a film editor, and in the early 1980s he collaborated with renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns for the first time on The Statue of Liberty.
Barnes, who lives in Santa Fe, also worked as an editor on Burns’ new project, the 10-part PBS series The Vietnam War, which debuts Sunday on most PBS affiliates. Working on the documentary revived memories of his teen years, an era of peace marches, protests and civil-rights movements, promiscuity, psychedelic drugs and music to match.
For Vietnam veterans, the series has evoked recollections of combat and death.
“Everything [in the film] is realistic in terms of what was shown,” said Jerry Martinez of Santa Fe, who was serving as a Marine in 1974 and was deployed to Vietnam to help with the U.S. withdrawal. Martinez, one of more than 50,000 Vietnam veterans living in New Mexico, watched clips from the series during a special preview screening last month at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The event included a talk by Barnes.
“There was a little bit of everything,” Martinez said, “the political side, the individual side, what it was like being involved in combat. I could relate to all of that. It brought back some memories.”
He applauded the filmmakers for presenting the realities of the war.
Chuck Zobac, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam from 1967-68, also attended the Lensic event. Burns and his ensemble have created “an accurate depiction of the events and the people involved,” he said.
Zobac, in his late 70s, suffered from post-traumatic
stress disorder after the war. Now the Santa Fe man helps other veterans with his weekly radio show, Calling All Veterans, which airs at noon every Tuesday on KVSF, 101.5 FM.
“I felt it was probably the best anti-war movie I have ever seen, in its depiction of the people conducting it at an extremely high level,” Zobac said of Burns’ documentary. He named Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, “who really didn’t have a strategy or an end goal in mind.”
The human price tag of the war was high. The two-decade conflict began in 1954, and the U.S. became heavily involved 10 years later. By the time the war ended in the mid-1970s, some 58,000 Americans had died in combat, including more than 400 New Mexicans. Also killed were at least 250,000 South Vietnamese combatants and more than 1 million soldiers from North Vietnam. At least 2 million civilians died as well.
The 18-hour Vietnam War series captures the losses — of life, of land and of honor. All of this occurred against the political, military and cultural struggles that dominated the war.
“Who won or who lost is not the question,” one North Vietnamese combat veteran says in the documentary. “In war, no one wins or loses.”
The series starts in the 1850s, when French colonialists took over the region known as Vietnam. The Vietnamese learned how to rebel quickly, and maintained that combative approach later with Japanese invaders during World War II. The Vietnam War makes it clear that the Vietnamese, as a people, were capable of dying for freedom in large numbers — year after year, no matter who the enemy was.
The documentary includes interviews with veterans from all sides of the conflict, whose recollections open up sharp wounds and flashbacks to the days when they committed atrocities they do not want their mothers to know about, and when fear and hate intertwined once the shooting and bombing began.
In an age when government officials seemingly work overtime to deny the media access to information, The Vietnam War benefits from film footage shot mostly by television camera operators. Journalists who covered the war had unlimited entry into the war zone, following the anxious troops as they made their way through unfamiliar jungles and rice paddies looking for an enemy they often couldn’t find.
Burns, Barnes and the other editors who worked on the show were delighted to find this footage, Barnes said, and were pleased they were able to locate Vietnamese scholars, historians, military veterans and civilians who also suffered through the war.
“We combed through everything, not just in the states, but in Vietnam, France, Britain and Japan,” Barnes said. As a result, they came across “wonderful discoveries — not just with film footage but with historians who made the film far richer.”
Reviewing that footage for use in the documentary was tough, Barnes, said. “The brutality of the war is horrifying to watch day after day after day. It took an emotional and sometimes physical toll on me. Sometimes I just had to get up and walk away from it for a while.”
Burns, who initially set out to present the conflict just from the American side, eventually created a “triangulating view of what the three sides went through,” Barnes said, speaking of the U.S. military and the armies of North and South Vietnam.
“We present the facts of what happened from all sides,” he added, “And leave it up to the intelligence of the audience watching to come to its own conclusion about the war.”
Barnes credits the documentary with humanizing the North Vietnamese combatants and showing the personal losses they experienced.
“It doesn’t make them seem like monsters in any way,” he said.
In depicting President Johnson as a leader who accused the press of lying in its coverage of the controversial war, the series reflects current tensions between President Donald Trump and the media.
The series portrays Presidents John F. Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson as men who favored getting elected over doing the right thing and ending the war.
Barnes said his most immediate memory of that era was watching television with his father in the early 1960s, a broadcast about how Kennedy, intent on avoiding a “domino theory” of Asian countries falling under communist control, escalated the war by sending more soldiers to Vietnam. Kennedy’s decision initially fell under the radar, without the public knowing.
Barnes’ father, who worked as a foreman in a General Electric plant, kept looking at his son as he watched the belated news and saying, “We shouldn’t be doing this.”
Barnes’ second immediate memory was of the manner in which many Americans greeted the men who fought an increasingly unpopular war when they returned to America.
“I was appalled at the treatment,” he said. “Whether you thought the war was right or wrong, you shouldn’t look at them sideways as if they were war criminals. That wasn’t right.”
In an interview last year, Zobac spoke to The New Mexican about returning to the U.S. following his tour of duty. He received a non-hero’s welcome, he said. Some called him a baby killer, which hurt, he said, because he had once helped a medic deliver a baby for a young Vietnamese woman.
When the American involvement in the war ended in 1973, Barnes said, he felt relieved: “So glad that the endless unnecessary deaths would finally end, but disgusted that even the final days of the U.S. withdrawal were so botched and mismanaged.
“We did nothing right in that war from the very beginning,” he said. “It ended as it began — as a fiasco of epic proportions.”
Civilians huddle together in June 1965 after an attack by South Vietnamese forces in Dong Xoai.
Film editor Paul Barnes viewing Vietnam War photos taken by Herb Lotz on display at the New Mexico History Museum. Barnes worked on Ken Burns’ new documentary series, The Vietnam War, which airs on most PBS affiliates on Sunday, Sept. 17.
Young North Vietnamese join the Youth Shock Brigades Against the Americans for National Salvation.