Critique of the Ken Burns Vietnam Program

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Panel Remarks

Critique of the Ken Burns Vietnam Program

Institute of World Politics

Washington, DC

22 January 2017

Lewis Sorley

From my perspective the Burns production had one objective, to reinforce the standard anti-war narrative that the Vietnam war was unwinnable, illegal, immoral, and ineptly conducted by the allies from start to finish.

It went about making this case by—contrary to the claims of Burns and his associates that theirs was a historically respectable and unbiased account—skewed and unrepresentative content and commentators, lack of context, and crucial omissions.

Omissions

Crucial omissions are a damaging flaw in the Burns opus. The great heroes of the war, in the view of almost all who fought there (on our side), were the Dustoff pilots and the nurses. We don’t see much of them. Instead we see repeatedly poor Mogie Crocker, who we know right away is destined to get whacked. We see over and over again the clueless General Westmoreland, but learn nothing of his refusal to provide modern weaponry to the South Vietnamese or his disdain for pacification. We see precious little of his able successor, General Abrams. We see (and hear) almost nothing of William Colby and his brilliant work on pacification. And so on. These are serious failings in a film that bills itself as “a landmark documentary event.”

Burns and Company as Historians

Ken Burns and his associates appeared at a large number of preview events. I attended one such session at the Newseum here in Washington (billed by them as an “influencer event”) and was impressed by their self-regard and self-satisfaction. They apparently now view themselves as the premier historians of the Vietnam War. And they are candid in stating their most basic conclusions. “You can find no overtly redeeming qualities of the Vietnam War,” Burns told us. I hope I may be forgiven for stating my own conviction that he is in that profoundly wrong, as he was in referring disparagingly to what he called Americans’ “puffed-up sense of exceptionalism.” Clearly Burns does not much like America, an outlook that permeates his work.

In that same discussion he was surprisingly candid in describing his objective in making the Vietnam film and his methods in realizing it. They had not been interested in dry facts, he told us, “but in an emotional reality.”

And, claiming objectivity, Burns said that in making the film they had not, as he put it, had their “thumb on the scale.” But only moments later he stated his conviction that: “We need to remind people of the cost of war.”

Perhaps some day there will be a sequel reminding people of the cost of losing a war.

Lack of Context

The series opens in Episode 1 with, my strongest impression, a lot of noise. Helicopters roar around, explosions abound, small arms and artillery provide the prevailing atmosphere. This serves very well to underpin Burns’s contention that “war is hell,” and his statement at the Newseum preview that “We need to remind people of the cost of war.”

It does not, however, do a lot to establish Burns and company as the historians he maintains they are. Most historians, at least in my judgment, would have begun a series on the war by providing some context, and some background, on how and why the war began, and how and why the United States became a party to it, and what impelled a succession of U.S. administrations to view it as in America’s interests to do so. But instead we got noise.

Research

What of the research? We are told the Burns team spent ten years on this project, and that in the course of it they interviewed more than 80 people. I know writers, working alone, who have interviewed several hundred people for a single book. The Burns team averaged 8 interviews a year, an interview every month and a half, over the decade. Not impressive, at least to me, certainly not comprehensive.

General McPeak

At that same preview I met General Merrill McPeak, United States Air Force, Retired, a former Air Force Chief of Staff. He was giddy with excitement over the role he had played in making the series, describing how he had made repeated trips from his home in Oregon to the Burns studio in New Hampshire to help with the production, and how he had seen the finished product “several times” and was immensely pleased with it.

We (the rank and file of preview attendees) had, of course, not seen any of the product yet. When we did, we saw that same imbecilic General McPeak proclaiming his view that in Vietnam the United States was fighting on the wrong side. (We should have been helping the Communists defeat the South Vietnamese.)

Later, it is said, McPeak got so much negative feedback that he “withdrew” the comment, as though such a thing might in some mystical manner even be possible. But instead he is, forever, on record as having not only lent himself wholeheartedly to the creation of this terribly flawed version of the war, but having gone the last mile in endorsing its anti-war bias. Sorry, General, too late to back out now. Too late to rescue even a shred of integrity or reputation. You are a Burns man forever.

My email to him was brief: “You are, sir,” I stated, “a fool.” End of message. I’m sure his response will be along one day soon.

Dependence on Sponsors

Outcome Not Inevitable

Nowhere is it explained that both sides in the war, North Vietnam and South Vietnam, are wholly dependent on outside sources for their means of making war. The North obtained its weapons, fuel, and so on from Communist China and the Soviet Union. South Vietnam, of course, obtained like support from the United States. Until it did not.

Nowhere it is shown how valiantly, and effectively, the South Vietnamese continued to fight for their freedom, even after the United States had withdrawn all its forces, and even after the Congress of the United States had dishonorably slashed U.S financial and materiel assistance to them.

While you would never know it if you relied on Burns and Novick for your knowledge of the war, it did not have to end as it did. The Congress of the United States decided that it should and, depriving our ill-fated South Vietnamese allies of the means of continuing to fight (while the Communists received greatly increased support from their backers), made it be so.

Veterans

Burns is deeply interested in My Lai and any other instances of misbehavior by American troops, but he has next to nothing to say of the many, many heroic actions by medevac pilots, nurses, forward observers, the ordinary infantryman, or advisors. He’d rather focus, at great length, on Mogie Crocker and his pathetic destiny.

The real Vietnam veterans—two-thirds of them volunteers, in dramatic contrast to the “greatest generation” of World War II, two-thirds of whom were draftees—said after the fact that overwhelmingly (91%) they were glad they had served. And an amazing two-thirds (67%) said they would serve again, even knowing the outcome of the war. Burns could not find time in his allotted 18 hours to mention that outlook.

Westmoreland

Burns portrays General Westmoreland, whose mindless war of attrition squandered four years of support by the American people, the Congress, and even much of the media, as a hero he never was.

The film describes Westmoreland as “a decorated hero from World War II.” In fact, Westmoreland was a battalion commander in North Africa and Sicily, but a division staff officer through the rest of the war. In three wars he never received a single decoration for valor or bravery.

The film goes on to (falsely) laud what Burns calls Westmoreland’s “impressive record,” adding that “the men he led in Normandy called him Superman.” Westmoreland led no men in Normandy. He was by then a division staff officer.

[9th Infantry Division at Normandy: Utah Beach D+4]

Burns’ Advisors on the Film

Chief Advisor was one Thomas Vallely, a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. During the latter stages of the war US forces were progressively withdrawn in 14 increments over three years, turning more and more of the combat responsibility to the South Vietnamese, who acquitted themselves gallantly. Yet Vallely is portrayed characterizing that highly professional sequence anti-historically: “As we finally came lurching out of Vietnam….”

Other advisors included the imbecilic US Air Force General Merrill McPeak, who delivers himself of his view that the United States was fighting on the wrong side. And the pathetic Mai Elliott, who uttered, regarding the fall of Saigon and conquest of the South by the invading communists, the most inane comment in the entire 18 hours: “I didn’t care which side won, because they could now live normally.” Then came the bloodbath, but that wasn’t mentioned.

South Vietnamese Accomplishments

NVN General Tran Van Tra: By the time of the cease-fire “our cadres and men were exhausted. All our units were in disarray, and we were suffering from a lack of manpower and a shortage of food and ammunition. So it was hard to stand up under enemy attacks. Sometimes we had to withdraw to let the enemy retake control of the population.”

Burns’ Intent

Someone wrote about the production that Burns somehow missed his chance to tell the true and accurate story of the war. I don’t think that is right. I think Burns did exactly what he set out to do, reinforce with all the might of his vaunted film-making skills the standard anti-war narrative.

Effects of US Involvement in Vietnam

Burns and Novick Version

In a New York Times op-ed piece entitled “Vietnam’s Unhealed Wounds” and with a shared by line, Burns and Novick lecture us on how what they call “the troubles that trouble us today” are the result of, they claim, “seeds…sown during the Vietnam War.” They catalogue those troubles as “alienation, resentment and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions; conflicts over ethnicity and class; [and] lack of accountability in powerful institutions.” It is apparently their view that, had we not been involved in the Vietnam War, those troubles would not be afflicting us today.

Aftermath

When we get to the end of this long sad story, with South Vietnam in the iron grip of its supposed “liberators,” and looming the blood bath that Mai Elliott and others cannot see or will not acknowledge, and all of Vietnam now being run by “xx,” as xx described them, there lies ahead this half century (so far) of Vietnam as one of the most backward, repressive, and corrupt societies in the world. Burns says nothing of all that. It does not accord with his narrative of choice.

Any competent historian, it seems to me, would have found room to emphasize, at some crucial points along the way, that it was armed aggression by the North Vietnamese that led to all this bloodshed and agony. Burns does not.

The North Vietnamese aggressors are treated with respect, even admiration. Nowhere is it admitted that the communist way of war deliberately featured bombs in schoolyards and pagodas, murder of schoolteachers and village officials, kidnapping and impressment of civilians, indiscriminate rocketing of cities.

The “boat people” and other émigrés now living in America and elsewhere in the free world have with great courage and industry made new lives for themselves and their families. They get no credit from Burns, who also does not deign to explain their determination not to live under the repressive communist regime that has seized control of their country.

Truth Defined by Burns

Burns repeats in all the materials he distributes the mantra “There Is No Single Truth in War.” But there is such a thing as objective truth, elusive though it may be. What we have here is preferred “truth” as seen through the Burns prism.

Reconciliation

Finally, the idea that this deeply flawed version of the war and those who fought it might somehow facilitate “recon-ciliation,” as claimed by Burns, can only be viewed as fatuous. There is no middle ground, and the Burns film demonstrates, if nothing else, how deep and unbridgeable the divide remains.

Conclusion

The Washington Post on a good day, Editorial of 17 September 1996: “The American role in the Vietnam War, for all its stumbles, was no accident. It arose from the deepest sources—the deepest and most legitimate sources—of the American desire to affirm freedom in the world.” You would not gather that from the Burns film, and that is how it is most profoundly and fundamentally wrong.