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Ken Burns on making his Vietnam War documentary: 'I was humiliated by what I didn't know'

The word and the war still stick in Americans’ craw — Vietnam. More than 40 years ago, the foremost nation in the free world had to abandon the war it once claimed was vital to defeating communism. It left in its prop-wash more than 58,000 dead Americans, more than 3 million dead Vietnamese, and an aching unease about America’s leaders at home and its leadership in the world.

We may not like talking about Vietnam but beginning Sept. 17 on PBS, filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick take us to war — the war in Vietnam, the war at home, 18 hours of it, the Vietnam story from start to finish, if there is a finish to this unhealed wound on the national spirit.

Like the Civil War, whose stories Burns also told on film, this war too is about cleaving people: by race, by class, by one culture and another, one nation and another, by parents split from children, by peace arrayed against war, by civilians versus military, by bravery against brutality. Burns explains something of his 10-year undertaking.

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This was the most witnessed, the most recorded, the most photographed war up to that point in history — with significant moments there on film, turning points in the war because of those photographs, like the little girl napalmed on a road, and a South Vietnamese police chief shooting a suspected communist in the head. Was this too much of a good thing?

As in the Civil War series and our World War II series, we always had much more material than we could possibly use, and that was true of Vietnam. We also had much more material that you don’t want to use. We edited out individual photographs of morbidity from the Civil War, and certainly some of the stuff from World War II is really difficult to look at.

We do have the images, the classic moments you described, in our film, and in both those cases, we dissect them and understand how they came to be. And we stop to understand the power of those two particular images, to which I would add the photograph of the young woman lying over her dead comrade at Kent State in May 1970, in protest of the invasion of Cambodia and the National Guard reaction there in Ohio to those protests, as the iconic images that helped change the [war’s] direction.

The media had unfettered access, unlike World War II and Korea and unlike now. You know, this kind of access, combined with the presidential tapes, ain’t gonna happen again. So having this ringside seat to this war is hugely important, not just for understanding Vietnam, but also because it speaks to all of these other issues — the role of journalism in democracy, and just our own basic lack of or amount of humanity that we might have.

From a filmmaker’s logistical point of view, there are probably hundreds of people you started interviewing as part of this process to winnow down to a few dozen who appear in the documentary. What was that process like?

I’m sure well over a thousand, talking to them on the phone, asking them various things, seeing several hundred in person, interviewing the hundred or so that we did for the 79 to be on camera. And that’s not including all the people who exist in our film archivally, like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara.

We weren’t trying to make arguments. We didn’t have a political agenda. We wanted to be umpires calling balls and strikes.

But you do meet 79 people, and they include about 50 Americans and almost 30 Vietnamese, including North Vietnamese soldiers and North Vietnamese civilians, Vietcong guerrillas, South Vietnamese soldiers, South Vietnamese civilians and diplomats and protesters. And so we felt it was super-important in the course of this to reflect, Americans tend to talk about Vietnam, when they talk about it, they only refer to themselves. We thought it would be more helpful to understand a better dimensional portrait with perspective if we could include all these other views.

Still, the Americans far outnumber the talking heads of Vietnamese by multiple factors, and this is told still within the relationship to an American narrative, but yet it’s hugely important to do that. We weren’t trying to make arguments. We didn’t have a political agenda. We wanted to be umpires calling balls and strikes, but to do that, to see those pitches coming in, we needed to hear about the war from lots of different folks.

You are old enough to have been eligible for the military lottery for Vietnam. How did working on this series rework your perception of the war?

I don’t recognize the person who began this project and the person you’re talking to now. I went into this project thinking, ah, like baseball, I’m going to be working on a subject I know about. Within a few days, as in baseball, I was humiliated by what I didn’t know, and I had to just let go of whatever baggage, whatever conventional wisdom I had — God knows what it was 10 years ago — but it’s gone and replaced by more accurate scholarship, by facts, by recollections of people who were actually there.

And I think most Americans will spend most of the time watching the series, whether they were there, whether they’re historians, whether they’re civilians, whether they’re kids, millennials who weren’t even taught about Vietnam — that they are riveted to the story and went, Wow, I had no idea. And that is merely an echo of what we experienced working on it every single day: Wow. I had no idea.

We hope the film contributes to helping people have the kind of courageous conversations necessary to exit your hard silo and begin to look across the table and say, Yeah, I get it, I understand your point of view too. Can you understand mine?

Will this be seen in Vietnam?

We really, really hope so. We have created a Vietnamese-subtitled version as well as the Spanish audio version in addition to the film we made. We hope in some way the film might be able to be played in Vietnam, where I think they’re going to be very curious about hearing their side. Because of course the state [there] has been able to write a history, unlike what we do in the United States, and it will be interesting to see their response once that happens.

There was a line in the film that seemed to distill the nature of the war, calling it a war “fought by certain people for uncertain reasons.”

You know, Americans got into it perhaps overcome with a little bit of hubris, distracted by a Cold War mentality that misread some things about it, had military decisions being made by civilian presidents who had domestic political considerations — which is a polite way of saying, will I get reelected? — on their minds, rather than what it is: a country divided by that war, almost in half, and then finally a majority of people opposed [to] it.

Do you think this is going to unravel some of the myths that surely persist about Vietnam as they do about any war?

I sure hope so. There’s not just the myths, but there’s also all of the conjecture and argument that have somehow worked themselves into folks’ certainty, and certainty is the enemy of anything. Certainty is what fundamentalists believe, and fundamentalists fly airplanes into buildings.

You’ve got to be flexible, open to hearing another side, and too often, as we went along, people would say, Well, if only this general had replaced that general sooner, we would have won. Or, if Kennedy had lived, he wouldn’t have gotten us into Vietnam.

Well, maybe — but we just don’t know. That’s not what happened. These parlor games are sort of dead-ends, as are, What if Confederates had won the Civil War? What if Nazis had won the Second World War?

This is the stuff of fiction and of science fiction. When you’re in the history business, when you’re in the fact business, when you’re trying to figure out how to tell a story, these kinds of arguments and myths, as you put them, become just that — myths and arguments.

We’ve been aided by a variety of scholars across the spectrum of historical awareness and by veterans at every turn whose BS meters are pretty finely tuned, and even by just regular folks who didn’t know much about it, but who could help us understand where we are assuming too much, or whether we assumed not enough.

Pop culture suffuses your documentary, as it did the culture then; both the young protesters at home and the young soldiers in Vietnam were listening to the same kind of music.

The amazing soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is supplemented by music from Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The film also features 120 takes from existing music, mostly rock ’n’ roll, but folk and country and jazz and blues, all sorts of stuff. So this will be the soundtrack of the time, and for someone who’s lived through it and someone who’s aware of the power of music, what’s so amazing is that this is music drawn from one of the most fertile periods in all of music; this is music that not only do my kids listen to still, but my grandkids listen to now.

We promised every estate, every label and publisher, that we would not play a tune unless it was already out, that you could hear it in the plane as [now-retired Air Force] Gen. [Merrill] McPeak did, going back and forth to targets, on Armed Forces Radio or Saigon radio, or a grunt could hear it stationed at his base camp, or that you could hear in the medics’ tent, or on a transistor radio at a protest, or on a car radio on the way to that protest, or at home as you’re trying to figure out — as most Americans were — what’s right, what’s wrong, should we be there, shouldn’t we be there.

The moralist in us wants to say black or white, good or bad, young or old, red state or blue state, whatever it is. But in fact, it’s complicated, and that’s sometimes the answer to everything in this film: It’s just complicated. And we tried to create a place where many different and differing perspectives can coexist

As the war was going on, it took us from the Kennedy assassination into Watergate and a period that Americans seemed to think that their government had broken faith with them, so they broke faith with their government.

I agree. You see the seeds going way, way back, to World War I but certainly to World War II, and late, late Roosevelt and Truman and Eisenhower as well as Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson. I think this makes it the watershed moment we feel it is, the most important event in American history since the Second World War, and by studying it, we get a sense of the kind of people we are.

Now I think we tend to report this either one way or the other, and it might be possible to see, with the list of all of the things that resonate in the present, that Vietnam is not just the hourglass running out of sand on the American experience; you could flip it over and say, this is a really wonderful test: The American people slowly but surely decided this is not something they wanted. And through their elected representatives and by taking actions in the streets, helped change opinions on the war and moved the dial on that.

So too we could look at the current situation and say, this is an extraordinary moment and test for the institutions, and to try to find out the real resilience of our fragile republic in all ways — a recently rejuvenated press, people back out in the streets talking, the intelligence community, the legislative branch struggling to find its voice, the judicial branch. All of that may in fact be part of a test that we may look back on as our finest hour.

Here’s where I sound rah-rah, by bringing up the question of American exceptionalism: We went into Vietnam with the attitude we had in the Second World War, that we’re the people who make the world safe for democracy. And we came out of it thinking differently. But the exceptionalism part that remains seems to be the conviction that, when we look at Vietnam, we think, we are better than this.

I agree completely, and I do believe in our exceptionalism. I am not Pollyanna-ish; we simply have to hold ourselves to a much higher standard than anyone else is held to. I think that’s part of the American promise.

Lincoln had predicted even as a young lawyer, not even 29 years old, giving at talk at the Young Men’s Lyceum. He said: “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall we expect some transatlantic giant to step the Earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River, or make a track in the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Every war leaves its stamp on the character of the nation that fought it. Are there one or two that you can crystallize that Vietnam stamped on us?

Oh absolutely. I think the military learned a lot of practical stuff. They didn’t like having collateral damage, so they learned precision bombing. They didn’t like having their planes shot out of the air, so they developed stealth technology. They didn’t want the press getting into every nook and corner, so they invented the embedded thing.

We don’t as a people blame the soldiers anymore; that’s one of the best and most durable things I think we’ll never, ever forget.

But the policymakers are the ones where the failure happens. There is a bloodlust in the human condition, it’s not American, it’s in every breast, and people forget the cost of war very quickly afterwards, and we tend to sentimentalize or romanticize or just have complete amnesia about war’s cost.

War is sort of heightened human existence, you know. Where somebody has the possibility of experiencing their violent death at any moment, they’re going to live life at a level we don’t experience at this moment, you and I, as we have this conversation. At the same time we presuppose, quite correctly, that war brings out the worst in people. It does. But there is also a concurrent humor and a concurrent fellowship and there’s a concurrent love that also permeates, and in degrees we don’t always see in other places. And it comes in unexpected places — on the battlefield of course, on a protest march, all these different places. And if you’re not open enough to receive it, then you end up kind of pulling yourself back into that hardened silo where it’s impossible to budge from the preconceived and, in the case of Vietnam more often than not, erroneous beliefs.

I think all that Vietnam did was pick the scab of people of all political stripes and we’re still not, that wound isn’t completely healed to this day.

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