You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Insidious Ideology of Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War

Burns and co-director Lynn Novick take a "many sides" approach to history at a time when "many sides" is a tool of obfuscation.

Bettmann/Getty Images

The Vietnam War, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest historical opus, opens with Karl Marlantes discussing the code of silence many Americans upheld when it came to the war. “Coming home from Vietnam was close to as traumatic as the war itself,” says the Matterhorn author and Vietnam veteran. “For years, nobody talked about Vietnam. ... It was so divisive. It’s like living in a family with an alcoholic father. Shh. We don’t talk about that. Our country did that with Vietnam.” Familiar footage of the war is then played backwards. Helicopters, pushed off aircraft carriers following the fall of Saigon, rise out of the ocean. Tanks roll in reverse. Bombs fly back into mortars, bullets back into guns, tear gas back into canisters. Truncheons move away from the breasts of American protesters, while Phan Thị Kim Phúc—the Napalm Girl—runs the other way.

It’s not particularly subtle, but Ken Burns has not built a career as an auteur of Americana on the back of subtlety. By rolling back all our past associations, The Vietnam War aims to wholly reconstruct our understanding of it. The first five minutes of this documentary’s 900-minute runtime act as a kind of palate cleanser for 50-plus years of division and silence, while pointing to a grander ambition: to arrive at a big, baggy historical truth that everyone can agree on. “From the start, we vowed to each other that we would avoid the limits of binary political perspective and the shortcuts of conventional wisdom and superficial history,” Burns and Novick write in the introduction to the series’ accompanying book. “This was a war of many perspectives, a Rashomon of equally plausible ‘stories,’ of secrets, lies, and distortions at every turn.”

In our fractured historical moment, Burns and Novick defiantly make films predicated on the notion of a unified culture. Burns and Novick have stressed that The Vietnam War is about bringing people together—about creating a “reconciliation.” It’s a common theme of Burns’s work. The Civil War, still his most famous documentary, argued that the Civil War was necessary to forge two halves of a country that had been at odds since their inception. It also implicitly suggested that the documentary itself, which humanized both slaves and Confederate soldiers, played an integral role in finishing the job—in bringing all Americans together in a final understanding of the war. But Burns and Novick’s balanced approach ultimately gives everyone too much credit, while shying away from dishing out blame to those who deserve it. In their ostentatious rejection of ideology, they have sneakily put forth their own: that these rival perspectives are of equal value. It is an ideology that is increasingly out of step with our times.

The Vietnam War strains the wisdom of this approach to its limit. Is hearing all sides that much better than hearing a couple? The Vietnam War gathers testimony from over eighty people, including United States soldiers, intelligence officials, politicians, journalists, and an anti-war activist or two. Their counterparts in North and South Vietnam are also represented. In their zeal to reconcile these various factions, however, Burns and Novick handle division with kid gloves. They portray it, sure, but mournfully, as a kind of unavoidable, human tragedy. There’s a reluctance to assert that these divisions grow out of real forces that continue to influence American culture, such as a political establishment that lied its way into a devastating war not so long ago.

There are benefits to this approach, which is to create something so enormously multifaceted that it dazzles. In Ian Parker’s recent profile of Burns in The New Yorker, Werner Herzog put his admiration this way:

I later spoke to Herzog, who is a friend of Burns’s. Talking of The Vietnam War, he said, “I binge-watched it. I would feel itching: ‘Let’s continue.’” When he was through, he called Burns. “I just said, ‘This is very big.’” The film had flaws, he told me, “but it doesn’t matter.” The project was at once sweeping and serious. Herzog said, “Let’s focus on the big boulder of rock that landed in the meadow and nobody knows how it materialized.”

The Vietnam War attempts to transcend history, to stand as a monument outside it. It’s no accident that Burns’s films are frequently called Homeric. They focus on large themes: the terrifying and distinctly human experience of combat; the mystery of its persistence; the struggle for freedom and autonomy; the jarring lurches of post-industrial life. At their best, these are films about ordinary humans in extraordinary times. Unlike The Civil War, which lionized Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest, The Vietnam War largely resists making heroes out of anyone other than ordinary men (and sometimes women).

But there’s a cost to this approach. It tends to flatten distinctions and quiet anything that deviates from its Grand Narrative about The Truth of War. The experience of fighting is shown to be common on all sides—an admirable decision that promotes a shared humanity and adds to the war’s tragic weight. But that approach is often extended to the non-grunts, even those who had power and made bad decisions, like Colonel Robert Rheault (the real-life model for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now) and Iran Contra architect Donald Gregg.

Burns and Novick’s sense of betrayal is clear whenever they get to the very top. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and their respective circles of advisers—all of whom repeatedly misled the public—are the villains of this documentary. But anyone below that upper echelon is given room to breathe, which results in a strange ambivalence about American imperial overreach. The Vietnam War humanizes the conflict almost to a fault. It lacks the great strength of works like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Oliver Stone’s Platoon, to say nothing of Apocalypse Now. Where those works are righteous and angry, The Vietnam War is fatalistic and resigned. While it can’t forgive the presidents who lied, it’s too forgiving of everyone else.

In retrospect, this is a chronic problem for Burns. Writing about The Civil War in 2011, James M. Lundberg noted, “The moment of the most intense division in American history ... becomes our real national genesis—a mythic struggle in which we expressed our deepest feelings, our truest sentiments, our noblest words, and became our modern selves.” This is Burns’s reconciliation in action: In The Civil War, the Confederates were just as human as the Union soldiers, and presented in the same sentimental light. The problem, as Charlottesville made abundantly clear, is that those divisions still define American life and keep roaring back.

The Civil War, which first aired in 1990, can be understood as being tangentially about Vietnam: It was a call for national unity decades after another war tore the country apart. The Vietnam War comes at a time when the nation is as divided as it was in the 1960s and ’70s, and is still mired in a number of foolish and enormously destructive foreign wars. Unlike the other documentaries Burns has made (both with and without Novick) about baseball and jazz and the Roosevelts, The Vietnam War deals with living history, which means that he is forced to reckon with politics in ways that he is not used to.

But even as The Vietnam War reluctantly bows to this reality, its insistence on giving everyone equal weight makes it lacking as a work of historical nonfiction. It also betrays a flawed conception at the heart of Burns’s enterprise. Vietnam coincided with and accelerated the fracturing of Burns’s beloved monoculture. His documentary does not succeed as history or as a reconciliation of the tribes who have been bickering ever since. It is a requiem for a time that never really existed—a period before the 1960s, when this country was supposedly unified.