U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Truth About Documentaries: Burns, Novick, Bacevich, and Vietnam

Documentaries are, always and everywhere, histories. The connotation of social science, or at least of “objective fact,” around the term “document” can, however, fool one into thinking otherwise. The method of delivery, or the form, adds an additional layer of confusion. The visuals—vivid colors and sounds, and their penchant for capturing our emotions—cause one to place documentaries in a different conceptual category. They seem different and novel rather than familiar.

Andrew Bacevich has fallen victim to these kinds of confusion in his recent review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. Bacevich denies the series placement in the genre of history, stating that it “is not history, but rather story-telling and remembrance.” He adds that “it glides along the surface of things, even when that surface is crowded with arrogance, miscalculation, deceit, and bloodletting on an epic scale.”

The Burns-Novick story confuses Bacevich because it seems, to him, to elide the historian’s duty of interpretation. Bacevich rightly reminds his readers that “the purpose of history is to unearth and engage with those truths that have something to teach us.” He adds that “this requires a willingness to interpret and render moral judgments.” This means that documentaries might only rise to history when they include historians in the work.

These things are true. But Bacevich denies Burns and Novick the ability to accomplish those tasks. In so doing Bacevich undermines the potential greatness of certain documentaries as independent histories, and falsely diminishes The Vietnam War series in the process. We should never underestimate the role of moving picture directors, or producers, as historians.

But Burns and Novick have a thesis, which is delivered in the first episode: The Vietnam War “was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation.” Bacevich himself identifies a thesis, worded by himself:

If The Vietnam War as a whole has a point to make, it would appear to be that war is a great tragedy. Of course, this qualifies as a truism. In this particular tragedy, the participants on all sides—the people of North and South Vietnam no less than the Americans sent to fight against the North on the South’s behalf—suffered more or less equally. On all sides, the combatants exhibited courage and stamina. No side was innocent of grievous atrocities. All are victims; all are guilty.

And then Bacevich delivers his own thesis in response: “It comes closer to the truth to say that the war was begun—and then prolonged past all reason—by people who lacked wisdom and, when it was most needed, courage.”

This brings us to the truth of the matter. It’s not that Burns and Novick avoid the historian’s duty interpreting events or providing a thesis. To Bacevich, it’s just that they relay a wrong, simplistic thesis (i.e. “truism”) and interpret inadequately. Rather than designate our documentarians as historians, it’s easier to deny them the role and confine documentaries to the special lightweight category of “story-telling and remembrance.”

If we count Burns and Novick among historians, we then have to confess that major events can be described with many different theses. There will be many valid arguments and truths about the Vietnam War, for as long as we talk about it. Its causes were too complex, and its ending too prolonged. There will never be an all-encompassing, Holy Grail thesis that succinctly encapsulates everything important about the Vietnam War.

In The Human Condition, Arendt illuminates a truth related to the theses of Bacevich and Burns-Novick. In her discussion of public and private realms Arendt reminds us that, for humans, “appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as ourselves—constitutes reality.” She continued:

Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life—the passions of the heart, the thought of the mind, the delights of the senses—lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape fit them for public experience. The most current of such transformations occurs in storytelling and generally in artistic transposition of individual experience.

We can bring this passage into the Burns-Novick philosophy of history, as relayed—accurately I think, in a Dissent Magazine review by Maurice Isserman:

The narrator (the excellent Peter Coyote, formerly of the San Francisco Mime Troupe), says in the series’ final episode, “Meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through [the war].” That is and has always been Burns’s credo as a documentary-maker. He is not primarily an idea guy—he’s a story-teller (which, of course, is key to his popularity). Story-tellers are necessarily selective—the stories they choose and the ways in which they decide to tell them determine the narrative’s larger purpose.

With Arendt in mind, Burns and Novick have shaped a narrative for public consumption. The constituent parts of that narrative are first-hand accounts from American and Vietnamese soldiers, as well as citizens from both countries. Those “deprivatized and deindividualized” oral histories forge a certain appearance of reality and a compositional truth. As is the case with all historical narratives, The Vietnam War becomes another set of contingent truths and arguments about the war. Its scope and length, and visual artistry, make it compelling. They make the series feel authoritative. And it is precisely this felt authority that raises the ire of Bacevich and host of other reviewers and historians.

One fear raised about the series, conveyed to me by a senior historian (who is friend of S-USIH and an acquaintance through Facebook), is that it will become a canonical classroom fixture. The PBS imprimatur and monumental scope of the series will, through innumerable classroom screenings, instill a new generation of students with yet another set of biases and errors about the Vietnam War. This is a legitimate fear, but also easily corrected. Any professor or teacher who screens “documentaries”—from the best to the worst—without sampling the reviews and passing along criticisms is not doing their jobs as instructors. Any professional historian who uncritically screens a moving picture, whether documentary or feature film, is in a state of dereliction of duty. No historian or history teacher should ever present a film such that it can be interpreted as The Truth. All moving pictures should be treated as propaganda. They just differ on how the propaganda is proposed, minimized, or maximized. I think most historians treat films and documentaries this way (meaning critically).

Like Bacevich, I have had my fears about the series, and have even conveyed some early judgment. It’s a human thing to do, even for professionals. But, having now screened most all of nine episodes (through Wed., 9/27), I have found the series to be, at the least, above average—much better than merely acceptable. I think that criticisms from people like Bacevich derive from an assumption about the series’ creators—namely, due to the length, scope, and PBS placement (i.e. primetime), the creators want this to be the definitive historical statement about the Vietnam War. I haven’t seen that aspiration stated in print, and I don’t detect it from the series’ creators. Until that denial, or aspiration, is firmly stated, fears about the series from historians, and historically-minded intellectuals, will persist.

Meanwhile, all historians would do well to remind themselves and others that, no matter how authoritative a historical documentary might feel, it’s just another historical narrative. As such, documentaries are subject to all the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. They are just history by another means. – TL

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this post, Tim. I have only watched the four episodes, but I have been impressed with what I’ve seen so far.

    The target audience for this documentary is not professional historians, but the “general viewing public” — and, yes, that would probably include kids in high school classrooms, maybe even some college classrooms. Given that audience, I think this documentary is far more helpful than it might be damaging, far more clarifying than it might be confusing. It is a valiant attempt at viewing an extraordinarily fraught, contested, and complex event with useful distance, honesty, and clarity.

    Judging from the reaction of my favorite Non-Historian, with whom I have watched a couple of episodes, this documentary is eye-opening, educative, and prompts some critical conversations that might not otherwise happen. And it has been educative for me too. It’s an interesting perspective, or intertwined set of perspectives, and I’m able (as you are) to look through it, but also to look at it, and that’s doubly helpful.

    It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good.

    • Thanks Lora. I have fewer fears about this documentary being absorbed in one-sided ways than some others I’ve screened on the Vietnam era (Fog of War, Weather Underground). Both of those have more obvious biases, but both are compelling in different ways. While the Burns-Novick narrative could be more nefarious because of its desire for balance, I think, in the end, it feels like an anti-war film that achieves its end through a thorough explanation of war and the tragedies of its direct participants.

      Per your “favorite Non-Historian,” I mentioned my mother-in-law’s absorption in the series, in one of my personal posts on the series. She mentioned how she’s amazed at how much she missed while living through it all, as an adult. Her attention was on the CRM at the time. The Burns-Novick series has drawn in both her and my father-in-law. They’ve religiously watched each installment. – TL

  2. Burns’ whole oeuvre is ultimately … public relations for the Nice Polite Republicans and centrist Democrats who listen to NPR, watch PBS and cut donor checks. It’s public relations for a faux-confessional version of American exceptionalism, and in general, Burns gets worse at that, and less historically accurate to boot, with each new series:

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2017/09/if-youve-been-watching-ken-burns-on.html

  3. L.D. … I might for Nature. But not for Burns. Nor for Nova, not since David Koch started funding it, like he does Burns. (And, no, this is not the first series of Burns’ he’s funded.) I cut checks … years and years ago.

    (Oh, and I address that issue at the end of my piece.)

  4. Just to chime in briefly. Haven’t even had a chance to read TL’s post properly yet (but will do so).

    I’ve watched only one episode, the first one, which I watched quite carefully (via computer, today). With the exception of a couple of small-ish missteps in the narrative, I thought it was good. I also learned a number of things that I didn’t know, even though I was familiar with the broad outline of the period covered. (Yes, the series is not going to be a strong indictment of U.S. imperialism and use that word, but I think we all knew that going in.) Geoffrey Ward, who wrote the script, is a lucid writer, which is obvs. important.

    I’m not a historian but my phd says ‘international relations’ and I’ve published a couple of reviews of books about the Vietnam War. If I got something out of the first installment, presumably people who know less about the subject than I do also got something out of it. (I’ll probably watch at least some of the other episodes.)

    • Louis: Thanks for your comment.

      As you watch further, I think imperialism comes up just often enough, in the words of some of the characters from the period, that the concept is not completely ignored (if not thoroughly explored). My disappointment, about which I expressed a fear in my first reflection on the series, is that the interests of money and capitalism are not followed. Where are the business interests—before, during, and after the war? Where is money lost and gained? Where are the lobbyists?

      Otherwise, like you, I think even professionals in politics and foreign relations, as well as U.S. historians generally, can gain something from each installment. As for non-historians, it seems to be grabbing the attention of a wide swath of the population. If it works, then use it–and incorporate criticisms when screened in classroom settings.- TL

    • p.s. What I referred to as a narrative mis-step is this: At one point the narration cites Ho Chinh Minh writing to FDR in a bid for his support, and saying to FDR that the U.S. had never been a colonialist power in Asia. At that point the narrator should have added something like: “Ho, in appealing to Roosevelt, deliberately omitted any mention of the U.S.’s brutal colonizing of the Philippines, starting after the Sp.-Am. War.” Someone who doesn’t know a lot of history could come away from this episode thinking the U.S. had never been a colonial/imperial power in Asia, which of course is incorrect. But, while significant, that’s not all that major a criticism of a script that runs for about an hour-and-a-half. I don’t think Bacevich’s statement that “it glides along the surface of things” is at all fair w/r/t the first installment at any rate.

  5. Hi Tim —

    Sorry for being so late to this conversation. I haven’t watched the documentary yet — partially because for some reason, the narrator’s voice now drives me crazy, after so many Burns documentary viewings — but I was wondering about this:

    “All moving pictures should be treated as propaganda. They just differ on how the propaganda is proposed, minimized, or maximized. I think most historians treat films and documentaries this way (meaning critically).”

    I’m wondering if you would say the same thing about the books historians write. I’m asking because I’m not sure why film, in particular, cannot transcend propaganda, if indeed you wouldn’t say the same of other mediums of historical narrative.

    • Robin: Apologies for this slow reply! I just started a new job, and have been balancing a new commute with new and existing responsibilities. My time for typing and writing has been uneven.

      Note: I’m employing the term “propaganda” in a traditional sense—i.e. a purposed and constructed message meant to be consumed either uncritically or with minimal thinking. So I’m working in definitions #2 and #3 in the Merriam-Webster entry on the word.

      While my post argues for the similarities between texts and moving pictures—i.e. that both rely on narratives—I do think that books require greater concentration and are approached, as objects of study, in ways that challenge the mind more than moving pictures. So I made a strong point above on how the ease of consumption of moving pictures puts people in a state of absorption that works in the category of propaganda. The visual and emotional cues of film overpower our deeper levels of critical thinking that have been habituated to books. Books can also be stopped easier than many films.

      For instance, I screened the Vietnam War episodes as they were broadcast on PBS. Some of those were two hours long, and without intermissions! That kind of attention demand, and intellectual absorption—without a time allowance for reflection—clearly differs from how we approach books. Books more easily allow for note-taking, and hence connection-making and correction, than do moving pictures.

      Stepping back, I do not mean to imply, conversely, that books can’t be propaganda! In fact, any book can be—depending on the kind of reading employed (or not). I just think that moving pictures are more susceptible to a kind of consumption that enables the category of propaganda.

      I hope this responds properly to your comment. – TL

      • Just as a side note to this: I’ve now watched the first three installments and most of the fourth, all on a computer, and I found myself stopping and ‘rewinding’/replaying quite a lot. If I hadn’t been able to do this, I wouldn’t have consumed the narrative (and the conjoined visuals) as carefully or critically. So I think the point about books versus movies watched without stopping/rewinding is right.

        The presence of Neil Sheehan among the interviewees in the documentary led me to look online at his A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, a book I’d certainly been aware of (and had glanced through in bookstores) but hadn’t read. After perusing pieces of it, I suspect Burns/Novick might have been influenced a fair amount by it, in terms of what they chose to emphasize in the historical narrative (at least based on what I’ve watched so far). That’s not necessarily a criticism, as Sheehan’s book is exhaustively researched and won major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Still, it can’t hurt to have some notion of what might have influenced the filmmakers; it’s another element to add to the mix of an overall evaluation.

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