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Ken Burns’ Vietnam War: An Object Lesson in the Failures of the Objective Lens


Ken Burns’ Vietnam War: An Object Lesson in the Failures of the Objective Lens

Reed Richardson

If journalism resigns itself to being a “first draft of history,” Ken Burns’ popular PBS documentaries, written by Lynn Novick, have increasingly aspired to—and achieved—a coveted status as popular historical canon. This has, in part, been accomplished by Burns’ choice of cozily American subject matter—jazz, baseball, the Brooklyn Bridge—as well as the calming effect that time and distance provide when it comes to more difficult, inflammatory topics like the Civil War. His success is a rare, fraught feat.


“literally pushing the audience backwards,” means just that. I don’t think Burns literally pushed the audience backward.

Time to check metaphors.


Acknowledging the obvious

To obscure the abominable


Not one word about Operation Phoenix in the article or the documentary.


And not one word about the refusal of some B52 pilots to refuse to fly the Christmas bombing runs over Hanoi and Haiphong; at least not that I could find. That was a big deal in the news reports in the day.


" Acknowledging the obvious."

“To obscure the abominable”.


First my Dad first generation American (Norwegian Parents), US Navy radar specialist 1950-1970 told me that Major Colin Powell was very much involved in the cover-up of the My Lai massacre in 1968. Why was the My Lai massacre cover-up not given more attention? Second, my best friend from the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, Combat Medic Vietnam told me about fellow soldiers coming to him before missions for morphine because they were dope sick ( heroin, or pure opium withdrawals). What about that? Why no attention was given to the thousands of soldiers fresh out of high school who went to Vietnam clean and sober, coming back to America with a huge monkey on their back ( heroin addicts ) many cases for life? I meet a lot of Vietnam Vets who are still using today, once the fresh face healthy kid, now old men strung out for life. Why? Why? Why?


I haven’t found this series to be as unbiased as it ought to have been. The narration often refers to the Viet Cong and NVA as “The Enemy,” or “The Communists.” I don’t recall the Marines ever being called “The Enemy” or “The Running-dog Imperialists” even once.

In the most maudlin segment of the series, one of the speakers, the “Captain Doctor” who was captured by the Vietnamese, undermined his otherwise sympathetic story by tearing up as he recalled seeing the US flag and the letters “USAF” on an aircraft after he was released from captivity.

It didn’t help that Ray Charles was singing “America the Beautiful” in the background while this was happening.


Richardson undermines his own claim to objectivity when he notes that " One academic who studies democide (murder by government) conservatively estimates North Vietnam killed 216,000 non-combatants between 1954 and 1975," but then fails to inform the viewer that US forces killed somewhere between three and four million southeast Asians.


One of the things that Burns and Novick attempted to do with their film is to show that not all Americans share the view that Richardson presents – they didn’t back in the 60’s and 70’s, and they don’t now. Whether Burns and Novice succeeded in creating a film that would encourage the open, healing conversations and behaviours they hope for is not yet known, and I suspect that they fear that they have not been as successful as they hoped.

Fear is the great motivator on both sides, fear of change, fear of other, and as with all fear it is only through stepping into and through it, experiencing it nakedly, that there is the possibility of some fresh vision. The fact that Burns and Novice have revealed that so many incidents and aspects of our internal conflict were (and are) more complex than our dearly held ideas about them is uncomfortable and thus is a positive contribution. It may not be a perfect film, but it is clearly a step forward.


Blatant murder of innocent people. It’s what our government does best. The Vietnamese were extremely friendly people unlike the evil monsters inhabiting Washington D.C. then and now.


“Operation Phoenix” is mentioned in the documentary, but the documentary comes nowhere near covering its extent and effects.

“Burns has said that he wants his film to act as ‘some sort of vaccination’ to war, to ‘get you immune to the disunion that it has sponsored.’”

What? Disunion? Immune to which disunion? He wants us to be unified in supporting war? Vaccination against war or “to” war? We should all be comfortable with war in our systems?

Maybe Ken Burns should be indicted for abuse of music.


My main hope is that by airing this series at a time when “our” government is pushing for an escalation in Af­ghanistan – instead of the promised withdrawal – it will provoke a public outcry against the stupidity of continu­ing a conflict that was never justified in the first place.  A glaring omission in Burns’ documentary is discussion of the korporate imperialism behind Johnson’s and Nixon’s support of the war in Vietnam, echoed today by the korporate imperialism behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Tweetle-Dumb has revealed with his “take the oil” and “take the minerals” admissions of guilt.


Vietnam was NOT begun by decent people. Vietnam was the same as the other imperialistic invasions and regime changes that the US had attempted and/or completed. What motivates is not decency, but a greedy march to power. In traveling, I learned that many countries are the same. Many times, the government does not reflect the people.


I turned this off after Burns failed to note Kennedy’s executive order, made shortly before his death, to begin withdrawing advisors from Viet Nam. Kennedy had made it known he wanted out of the approaching quagmire, history and archives have shown, and he was beginning our exit slowly, as to not endanger his reelection the next year.

I was really not surprised when Burns omitted that crucial fact about Kennedy. One only had to see and hear the over-the-top opening donor credits on each segment to understand that David Koch held editorial veto power over the project. Don’t really watch PBS anymore, except for the British-made drama’s. Just more propaganda.


Yet the documentary covers US atrocities and US admin lies about the war. Strange for “propaganda”.


Burns was right. “A lot of people will think I’m a Commie pinko, and a lot of people will think I’m a right-wing nutcase,”.


One cannot come through witnessing or participating in atrocity without that experience having very deep consequences on the psyche, the human integrity. That is one immediate answer for your Why? Not a full answer, but a relevant one.


The murder seems to be a joint effort between the Pentagon and the munitions and hardware suppliers. All the money spent on the war effort didn’t resolve anything. The only benefit went to the military - industrial complex with our tax dollars filling their feeding trough.

Nothing that was done made much sense. Why would lives be wasted to advance to take a hill of no obvious value, only to abandon it soon after. That was the results of years of war in Vietnam when the war ended and we abandoned the country. Unfortunately we never should have ever gone there in the first place, just as we never should have gone into Afghanistan or Iraq. But the Pentagon has their budget, and money must be spent, so we wind up going into countries where corruption becomes the norm.


“America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended 30 years later in failure, witnessed by the entire world. It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions made by five American presidents belonging to both political parties.”

I recall Noam Chomsky framing the American media’s response to the Vietnam war – what might be called the accepted consensus, and seemingly unchanged up to the present day – as allowing basically only two possible viewpoints: 1. We went in with noble or good intentions, but those good intentions got transmuted into bad policy, i.e. Operation Speedy Express, the Phoenix Program, etc.; or, 2. Our mistake was not “going all the way”, invading the north and completely expunging the communist menace.

The first response, as Burns seems to uphold, might be considered the dovish admission; the latter, the hawkish one. But never, Chomsky declares, is there allowed a third possible viewpoint, namely: did the US have any right in the first place to be in Vietnam. By whose authority did the US intervene and continue to prosecute the war? It’s a pattern that continues today as we blithely accept, with hardly a questioning by the msm, the right of world’s self-declared policeman to intervene overtly or covertly in sovereign states. Who invited US special forces into Syria? Say nothing of the drone wars.