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18-Hour Vietnam Epic Is Lesson On Horror Of 'Unleashing Gods Of War'

Directors Lynn Novick ( @LynnNovick) and Ken Burns ( @KenBurns) tell Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd about the effort it took to produce their 18-hour documentary about the Vietnam War that concludes this week on PBS.

They explain the insight that dozens of Vietnamese voices bring to the retelling of the story, and the lessons the war has to teach the American government today about getting dragged into a protracted conflict.

Interview Highlights

On the entire process coming to an end with the final episodes of the documentary

Ken Burns: “I mean, it’s like a child, you don’t want to let it go. I mean, it’s been with us for so, so long that we’re just beyond grief stricken.”

On capturing the grief and agony on all sides of the conflict

Lynn Novick: “We hoped we would be able to do that and that was a long process to find all the people, both in the U.S. and in Vietnam, whose stories we could interconnect. And we get most excited when we find people who were in the same place or the same battle and tell it from different points of view and that helps you understand there’s more than one side to this war.

“We found people there the same way we find people here. It’s just word of mouth, it’s reading. It’s talking to our advisers. It’s one person introduces you to another person and then sitting down with them and getting to know them. And the Vietnamese were interested in sharing their stories because it’s been a long time. The war is not discussed there in a very open way. There’s kind of a pretty rigid and sort of limited way in which they talk about this great victory over the imperialist aggressors. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, and people there seem to be ready to open up and share what they remember and what happened to them and sort of tell the truth about the war. And it was very, very terrible.”

On learning from the Vietnamese voices

KB: “Well I think we knew from the very beginning going in that we needed to do something that was different. All the different documentaries, the feature films are Americans talking about Americans, and that’s been the case basically whenever Americans talk about Vietnam: We talk about ourselves. It’s understandable given the tragedy that went on, but we were committed from the very beginning to triangulate, so that not only do we have these North Vietnamese soldiers, we have North Vietnamese civilians and South Vietnamese soldiers and diplomats and protesters, as well as more than 50 Americans who fill in a pretty complete picture. And what happens in the Vietnam War discussion is that we don’t have a discussion, we have an argument. We either bury our heads and ignore it or we’re sort of in our own hardened silos having a difficult time speaking with rather than at other people. And so by having a variety of perspectives, a kind of 360 view, it permits you to understand that more than one truth could be true at the same time.”

Criticism of the film from former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971

Daniel Ellsberg: “I think there were some some major omissions that are quite fundamental that disturbed me quite a bit, although the overall thing is very impressive.

“First of all, the repeated statement that this was a civil war on which we were taking one side, I think it’s profoundly misleading. It always was a war in which one side is entirely paid, equipped, armed, pressed forward by foreigners. Without the foreigners, no war. That’s not a civil war. And that puts — it very much undermines, I’d say, a fundamentally misleading statement at the very beginning in the first five minutes or so of the first session.

“I don’t see anything in the Pentagon Papers, 7,000 pages, that could be called good faith by anybody, in terms of the American people, our values, our Constitution. This was a war, as I say initially, to keep Vietnam a French colony. And that was not admitted to the American people. It was well known inside. We preferred that they be at war, and there was never a year that there would have been a war at all without American money in the end. So I thought that was extremely misleading.”

On the directors’ response to this criticism

KB: “Obviously what occurred in Vietnam was we began to realize that our government, from Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, even Ford, weren’t telling us the truth about the Vietnam War. And out of that came a very healthy skepticism, but unfortunately that metastasized into a real cynicism.

“[Office of Strategic Services] officers parachuted into Northern Vietnam and armed Ho Chi Minh. He said, ‘I’m going to change the name of my army from the Viet Minh to the Viet American Army, and a few months later when he declared Vietnamese independence, he cited the words of Thomas Jefferson and an OSS officer was standing next to him. It was decent people in good faith thinking, ‘Maybe this is the guy we should go with,’ and things are a lot different from then on, and we’re happy to chart those differences. And we don’t in any way pull any punches about the ways in which a Truman administration, an Eisenhower administration, a Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administration, metamorphosized into something different than decent people in good faith.”

On lessons to be learned from Vietnam and those administrations

LN: “You know, it’s easy to get into a war, as LBJ said. It’s very hard to get out and it’s easy for every — every generation seems to have to learn these lessons again because they are hard to hold onto when you didn’t actually fight in that war and you didn’t live through it, you know. Maybe it’s good that the film is coming out now when the world is in such tension, just to be reminded of what really happens when you unleash the gods of war. It’s not pretty. It’s devastating.”

KB: “There’s a Marine in our film who says that we’re not the dominant species on the planet because we’re nice. This is something that really comes back to us. And we do sentimentalize, we do romanticize wars. We don’t learn the lessons of it and, as Lynn said, we don’t really pay much attention after a few years to the actual cost. And now that we have a separate military community that suffers its losses apart and alone from the rest of us, without national service, without a draft, it means that policymakers can keep people in wars for much longer before there’s any built-up tension to end those wars. And Vietnam may be a way to help us relate to some of these questions in the present by understanding what was going on, you know, 50 years ago.”

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With an ancient pagoda in the background, soldiers of the French-Indochinese Union army push forward across a river towards Song Tra Ly, during war operations against Communist Viet Minh rebels, in the Tonkin region, on Dec. 31, 1954. (AP Photo)
With an ancient pagoda in the background, soldiers of the French-Indochinese Union army push forward across a river towards Song Tra Ly, during war operations against Communist Viet Minh rebels, in the Tonkin region, on Dec. 31, 1954. (AP Photo)

Ken Burns, left, and Lynn Novick, co-directors of "The Vietnam War." (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Ken Burns, left, and Lynn Novick, co-directors of "The Vietnam War." (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

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