Sunday, October 1, 2017

Run Through the Jungle: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War

"I said: ‘Yes, my son is dead … One of the reasons he died was so you’d have the right to do this, so go ahead and demonstrate. Have at it. No, I won’t be joining you. But I tell you what, if you ever ring my doorbell again I’ll blow your damned head off with a .357 Magnum." 
– Country singer Jan Howard of Tennessee speaking in The Vietnam War about an anti-war protester she addresses at her door in 1969 
“I think the Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. . . .  Unfortunately, we’ve never moved really far away from that. And we never recovered.” 
– Veteran Phil Gioia in The Vietnam War

By the time you arrive at the end of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's staggering 10-part and 18-hour documentary, The Vietnam War, you may feel so emotionally devastated by the experience that you won't find it easy to sum up its impact. Nevertheless, many on the left and right have already attempted to do so. They seem to share common ground in their belief that the series, in its desire to capture the war from all sides, cancels out any strong subjective opinion of it. From the left, you get the impression that they lament the absence of Noam Chomsky, as if Burns and Novick didn't go far enough in their condemnation of America's war policy. As for the right, there is a discomfort that if only William F. Buckley were still around he'd be able to put those liberal intellectuals in their place and we wouldn't be seeing so many North Vietnamese soldiers drawing moral equivalences with the American experience. Yet one thing is certain in all this contentious debate: the Vietnam War continues to divide and polarize Americans to the extent that maybe no film could fully heal the breach. The Vietnam War, with all its flaws and virtues, goes further than any other documentary toward mapping out its tragic course, clarifying the poor policy decisions that needlessly cost altogether millions of lives, and illuminating the traumatic experiences of those who fought in it. Unlike many of the confused attempts by dramatic films as varied as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket to definitively define the conflict, The Vietnam War delves right into the political hubris that created the war rather than rendering it mystical (Apocalypse Now), turning it into a rites-of-passage parable (The Deer Hunter), or reducing the specifics of war trauma to systemic and sadistic conditioning (Full Metal Jacket). At its best, The Vietnam War fully lays out what Burns calls in a recent profile in The New Yorker his "emotional archaeology" so that viewers can come to their own conclusions. But its flaws, some of which grow out of that need to be fair and even-handed, also reveal an unvarying tone which – over such a long stretch – overwhelms the senses.

Burns's fairness doesn't actually grow out of his resisting a point of view, or an attempt to neutralize his subject by creating balance; it comes instead from a boyish earnestness that emphasizes a need to listen. While that sense of decency does come through with the slight blandness of someone who doesn't want to raise his voice and speak too loudly, in The Vietnam War the sounds of war are loud enough. So if the series does occasionally dial down a forceful perspective, it is not to gloss over its subject. “I think that when Americans talk about the Vietnam War . . . we tend to talk only about ourselves," Burns recently told an interviewer. "But if we really want to understand it . . . or try to answer the fundamental question, ‘What happened?’ You’ve got to triangulate." That strategy of triangulation also means avoiding interviews with obvious individuals – Jane Fonda, John McCain, John Kerry, Henry Kissinger – who are already lightning rods for viewers with strong views and concentrate more on the voices of unknown soldiers from both sides, advisers, deserters, POWs, grunts, journalists (Joe Galloway of United Press International and Neil Sheehan of The New York Times, who covered the war), families, and less familiar anti-war activists. (People like Fonda, Kerry and Kissinger appear in archival footage.) In doing so, Burns and Novick remove any prejudices we may already have about the war so that we can respond more openly and in a way less filtered by our preconceived notions. What we get in The Vietnam War, written by historian Geoffrey Ward and narrated by actor Peter Coyote, is a panoramic history filled with hope and horror, illusion and irony, corruption and calamity – and deep, deep sorrow.

Burns and Novick begin their story a century earlier with the French occupation of Vietnam in the late 1850s to ultimately contrast the country's long war against French rule (which would end in 1954 when France lost at Dien Bien Phu) with the American war effort in the sixties. Besides pointing up the obvious similarities and differences in strategy, the episode reveals (as one commentator puts it) that America failed to realize that for Vietnam this was a war of independence (just as America had its battle against Britain when it achieved its autonomy in 1776). Despite America's intent to contain the communists of Ho Chi Minh in the north, it failed to recognize that (for Vietnam) it was also a war of nationalism against colonialism. By the time the country became two entities in 1954, the Americans would come to back South Vietnam's corrupt governments in Saigon, while the communists in the north, with support from the Soviet Union and China, would rule from Hanoi. The Vietnam War illustrates that Ho Chi Minh, who was both a nationalist and a communist, once lived in America and admired Thomas Jefferson and the country's constitutional accords. But it neglects to mention that he had also witnessed the lynching of blacks in the south, which tempered his enthusiasm of America's ideals. Nevertheless, even when the series doesn't pick up on some salient points, it deepens our understanding of others. We discover, for instance, that Ho Chi Minh may have been the driving force of North Vietnam, especially in its earlier battle against the French and Japanese, but during the American war he became more of a symbol. His more radical deputy, Le Duan, ran the show and took his cues from Beijing, where Mao Zedong was fomenting world revolution, while Ho followed the Moscow line of moderation as the Soviets were trying to cool down the Cold War after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. 

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

From a political standpoint, The Vietnam War levels with both sides of the conflict. If the North Vietnamese are seen as resilient and brutally determined to win, the American presidents from Kennedy to Nixon are equally driven by their fear of losing the south to communism. JFK's support by sending 'advisers' to aid the unpopular Diem regime goes completely against the grain of Oliver Stone's false claim in his drama JFK that Kennedy wanted to keep America out of Vietnam. By the time Lyndon Johnson escalates the war by sending ground troops after exchanging gunfire at the Bay of Tonkin in 1964, you can hear his mounting despair and dread as he watches his liberal domestic policies turn to rubble when Southeast Asia begins to consume him. (In JFK, Stone suggests that the military was behind a coup to kill Kennedy with Lyndon Johnson "waiting in the wings" because he'd support their war in order to get elected.) As tragic as Johnson's circumstances turned out to be, as he would refuse to run again for president in 1968, The Vietnam War shows how he also misrepresented the war as a winnable one in order to look tough on communism in the face of Republican rivals like Barry Goldwater. But if Johnson comes across as a man destroyed by his bad choices, Richard Nixon is seen as expediently craven in his. When Nixon starts losing in the polls to Democratic presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, in 1968, he meddles in the back channels to delay South Vietnam's participation in the Paris peace talks so that he can look like he can strike a better deal than his opponent. LBJ was actually aware of Nixon's arguably treasonous behaviour, but he refused to announce it publicly because he uncovered it by illegally wiretapping him. As a result of LBJ's silence, Nixon's support soars in the polls and he goes on to defeat Humphrey. In the final years of the Vietnam War, Nixon and Henry Kissinger came to realize that South Vietnam had no chance to win without their dependence on America (even as he told Americans that the 'Vietnamization' of the war, where the South Vietnamese fought their own battles, was a huge success). As he pulls out troops to save face, while also widening the war into Cambodia and escalating the bombing, Nixon deliberately breaks promises of support so that when Saigon falls America has already largely abandoned them. (Nixon's paranoia towards his enemies led to Watergate and he fled the office by 1974 to avoid impeachment right before South Vietnam collapsed.) In the final episode, as Saigon is taken over by the communists, the stench of deceit creates an indelible state of despair that is overpowering to watch.

Although the narrative of The Vietnam War covers poor policy decisions with clarity, the resonance lies with the people featured. There are many on both sides of the conflict who carry the sting of memory and the insights they share crackle with tension. Black marine Roger Harris, from Roxbury, Massachusetts, went to Vietnam in 1967 and describes in precise detail what he encounters:  
You go over there with one mindset and then you adapt. You adapt to the atrocities of war. You adapt to killing and dying, whatever . . . When I first arrived in Vietnam there were some interesting things that happened and I questioned some of the Marines. I was made to realize that this is war – and this is what we do.
While he would soon discover that you don't totally adapt to the atrocities, the day he arrives home at Logan Airport and no cab stops to pick him up, it serves to remind him of another atrocity – the racism he left behind:
Six taxicabs passed me by and drove off. I didn’t realize what was happening until the state trooper stepped in and told the next driver, “You have got to take this soldier.” The driver, who was white, looked up at us through the passenger side window and said, “I don’t want to go to Roxbury.” That was my initial welcome home.
Le Minh Khue was 16 when she joined the anti-American Youth Shock Brigade for National Salvation. As she fights for the North Vietnamese, she ironically confesses a love of American literature:
I love Hemingway. I learned from For Whom the Bell Tolls. Like the resourcefulness of the man who destroys the bridge – I saw how he coped with war, and I learned from that character.
POW Hal Kushner was an army doctor who was captured in Vietnam back when "Lucy and Desi slept in twin beds." ("I left Ozzie and Harriett," he would say, "and came home to Taxi Driver.") He talks about both his swagger and his dread:
[My captor] had a little reel-to-reel tape recorder, and he asked me to make a message to my family to let them know that I was safe, and I could do that if I would make a statement against the war. And I told him with great bravado that I would rather die than make a statement against my country. And he said to me, "You will find dying is very easy. Living will be the difficult thing."  
Duong Van Mai Elliott's father worked in the South Vietnamese government and she discusses her family's hopes while we come to see the ways they would later be dashed:
My father was very happy. We were such a small and poor country and the Americans have decided to come in and save us, not only with their money and resources, but even with their own lives. We were very grateful. We thought, sure enough, with this power the Americans are going to win
Anti-war activist Bill Zimmerman succinctly articulates his stance against the war and takes perfect aim at the flaws inherent in American exceptionalism while sharing no comfort from what he knows:
I never considered the Vietnamese our enemy. They had never done anything to threaten the security of the United States. They were off 10,000 miles away, minding their own business, and we went there to their country, told them what kind of government we wanted them to have
One North Vietnamese soldier talks of how the war, after the Americans abandoned the South, became an act of "fratricide" when Vietnamese were killing Vietnamese. His words echo those you see in letters written home by soldiers who fought in the American Civil War a century earlier.

Denton 'Mogie' Crocker Jr. with his siblings (photo: the Crocker Family)

But maybe the most poignant story in the series comes out of Saratoga Springs, New York, where a young man named Denton 'Mogie' Crocker Jr. with a sense of valour went against his family's wishes and enlisted in the army in 1965 to go to Vietnam to "stop communism" – and came home in a casket a year later. Throughout The Vietnam War, Burns and Novick return to Crocker's mother, Jean-Marie, and his sister, Carol, as they try to emerge from the dark shadow that Denton's death cast. "Denton was a great student of history and the highest scorer on the Regents," Jean-Marie Crocker said during in a recent interview with The Saratoga Times Union. "As soon as he began to read, he would read history . . . He felt that it wasn't fair that people who couldn't afford to go to college would be the ones to go to war. [His decision to enlist] really came from caring for people and a certain desire for adventure – to test himself." As a high school student, Denton had enough credits to graduate, but instead insisted on signing up for service. When his parents said no, he ran away from home for three months until his parents promised to let him enlist. He would die the day after his 19th birthday. (Jean-Marie chose Arlington Cemetery as his final resting place because she felt that if he were buried closer to home she'd claw her way into his grave "to feel his warmth.") Over and over, the faces and voices seen and heard in The Vietnam War complicate your responses. In trying to bring a consensus of memory to the series, Burns and Novick show how that process can be both dissonant and haunting.

Although The Vietnam War covers a lot of ground in its run through the jungle – including the Buddhists who set themselves ablaze in protest in South Vietnam, the assassination of a Viet Cong prisoner, the Tet Offensive, Nick Ut's famous photo of a naked Vietnamese girl (with her skin burning away) fleeing a napalm attack, Daniel Ellsberg's The Pentagon Papers, and the horrible massacre at My Lai – it sometimes moves too fast. The tumultuous events of 1968, which include the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations and the riots in Chicago at the Democratic Convention, are included but they need more context in order to make us understand how the country's implosion led to its fearful embrace of Richard Nixon. The shootings at Kent State in 1970 are also dealt with quickly, but the quick rush of images, gunshots and screams bring the horror vividly back to life. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross also buzzes and hums subtly under the constant staccato of automatic fire, while sixties music both predictable ("A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," "The Sound of Silence," "Eve of Destruction," "Let it Be") and unpredictable (Fairport Convention's "The Lord is in This Place"and Nina Simone's "Backlash Blues") heightens the power of certain scenes, and drowns some of them in bathos. (Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Beatles get their due, but curiously no Doors music tweaks the ear.)

At one point in the series, reporter Joe Galloway of UPI says, "You can’t just be a neutral witness to something like war. . . . It’s not something you can stand back and be neutral and objective, and all of those things that we try to be as reporters, journalists and photographers. It doesn’t work that way." Ken Burns and Lynn Novick create a different kind of objectivity in The Vietnam War, one which doesn't take a neutral stand. While their film may lack the cumulative subjective power of Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America, just about the most riveting and original documentary (along with Keith Maitland's Tower) of the past decade, The Vietnam War is about a subject guaranteed to overwhelm the artist as much as it does the people watching it. It's a conflict that hasn't yet been resolved, either – any more than the American Civil War has. Which is why Ken Burns and Lynn Novick open a door with caution and intelligent reserve and let the subject's irresolvable power seep into your pores and percolate.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger.

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