The final words given to the narrative voice of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s sprawling documentary The Vietnam War serve as a kind of thesis for the entire, eighteen-hour-long film:
More than four decades after the war ended, the divisions it created between Americans have not yet wholly healed. Lessons were learned and then forgotten. Divides were bridged and then widened. Old secrets were revealed and new secrets were locked away. The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it. Stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance. Of understanding and forgiveness. And, ultimately, reconciliation.
This final piece of narration captures both what’s best and most successful in Burns’s and Novick’s film and also what’s least successful and most aggravating about it.
The Vietnam War does a terrific job presenting those individual stories. Burns and Novick have found an extraordinarily wide range of interviewees, including men and women who fought on both sides of the conflict, civilians from both the North and the South, Americans and Vietnamese who lost family members in the war, and anti-war activists, among others. The LBJ and Nixon White House tapes also allow us to hear from some of the men responsible for forming American policy in Vietnam. All of this makes The Vietnam War compelling.
Though there are excursions to the broader politics of the day, the film focuses on the war itself. The extensive filmed record of the war makes the documentary visually compelling, as well. The first televised war remains in many ways, the most broadly televised war, with the military curating media access much less extensively than it would in the future. And Burns and Novick have taken full advantage of this wealth of footage. Viewers of The Vietnam War leave with a good understanding of that conflict’s military history.
But look back at that closing narration that I quote above. Note all those vague, passive voice sentences that cover extraordinarily important aspects of the conflict: “Lessons were learned and then forgotten. Divides were bridged and then widened. Old secrets were revealed and new secrets were locked away.” This reflects the documentary’s greatest weakness. Though all the issues gestured toward in those sentence come up in the film, The Vietnam War does not discuss them in enough depth and often refuses to draw any conclusions about them. In the penultimate episode, “A Disrespectful Loyalty: May 1970 – March 1973,” we hear some of John Kerry’s 1971 Senate testimony, on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. One interviewee, a fellow member of VVAW, who was present that day praises Kerry’s testimony as perfectly capturing the truth of Vietnam. But we then hear from another veteran of the war, who is still furious about Kerry’s suggestions about American war atrocities, accusations that he believes were entirely unfair. The Vietnam War refuses to say who was right about this important issue.
Burns and Novick’s film brings to life many aspects of the Vietnam War, especially the experience of the men and women who fought it. Its approach does indeed tell stories of courage and perseverance, understanding and forgiveness. But while it effectively suggests that the war was a tragedy and full of ironies, it ultimately fails to answer, in any deep way, what was the most salient question at the time and remains crucial if we are to actually learn the lessons of Vietnam: why were we in Vietnam?