Ken Burns achieved renown with lengthy film histories of the Civil War, World War II, jazz, and baseball, but he describes his documentary The Vietnam War, made in close collaboration with his codirector and coproducer Lynn Novick, as “the most ambitious project we’ve ever undertaken.” Ten years in the making, it tells the story of the war in ten parts and over eighteen hours. Burns and Novick have made a film that conveys the realities of the war with extraordinary footage of battles in Vietnam and antiwar demonstrations in the United States.
The narration, written by the historian Geoffrey C. Ward (who also wrote the companion book to the film) and read by Peter Coyote, is lean and pointed, and instead of people like John McCain and John Kerry, who have often discussed the war, the eighty talking heads are largely unknowns: former soldiers, officials, journalists, deserters, and peace activists. The time elapsed since the war has allowed the filmmakers to include secret White House tapes and testimony from former members of the National Liberation Front (NLF, also known as the Vietcong) and North Vietnamese soldiers and officers. The soundtrack, which greatly enhances the film, includes classic songs of the period, from “The Sound of Silence” to “Let It Be.”
For those under forty, for whom the Vietnam War seems as distant as World War I or II, the film will serve as an education; for those who lived through it, the film will serve as a reminder of its horrors and of the official lies that drove it forward. In many ways it is hard to watch, and its battle scenes will revive the worst nightmares of those who witnessed them firsthand.
Asked why he and Novick took on this project, Burns said that more than forty years after the war ended, we can’t forget it, and we are still arguing about it. We are all, Novick added, “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy.” Their aim, the filmmakers said, was to explore whether the war was a terrible mistake that could have been avoided. They might have added that some consider it no mistake but the result of a deliberate policy. Nonetheless, she and Burns do provide answers to some questions Americans may still be asking about the war.
They begin by running the combat footage backward, the shells flying up into helicopters instead of exploding on the ground, as though the US could take it all back. They then show Ho Chi Minh with American OSS men during World War II, and quoting from the Declaration of Independence in his triumphal speech when he entered Hanoi in 1945. They show snippets of the First Indochina War (1946–1954), later making it clear that the Americans used many of the same ineffective tactics as the French. They tell us how many millions of dollars the US spent supporting the French. What they don’t tell us is that the US virtually forced the French to continue the war until their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and that the US did not sign the 1954 Geneva Accords that split the country in two. Throughout the documentary, Burns and Novick often neglect diplomacy and geopolitics in favor of personal stories from those who lived through the war, but at least they do show that it began as an anticolonial struggle.
From the very start, they strongly suggest that the US could not have won the war. To prove this point, which is still disputed, mostly by military men, they cite the private statements of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and many of their top advisers, who said that the measures they were taking were inadequate. It was feared that the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for more troops and more bombing would not convince the enemy to give up its goal of reunifying Vietnam—and might in fact lead to a larger war with China. The presidents and their advisers nonetheless persisted, unwilling to give up what Kennedy called a “piece of territory” to the Communists.
Burns and Novick say the US was initially “trapped in the logic of the cold war.” As Kennedy’s phrase suggests, the war was never really about South Vietnam. Rather, Washington viewed it as a piece on a chessboard, or a domino whose fall to communism might have caused the rest of Southeast Asia to fall. Before the commitment of American combat troops in 1965, Burns and Novick make clear, there were several occasions when the US could have withdrawn without much public opposition. One was after the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, since his successor, General Duong Van Minh, favored a French proposal for a negotiated settlement and a neutral Vietnam. Another came after Johnson’s victory in the 1964 election, when the military junta that had taken power in Saigon earlier that year fell apart, leaving a vacuum of authority. “This is the year of minimum political risk for the Johnson administration,” Vice President Hubert Humphrey said. In other words, the war could have ended in 1965, if not before.
Burns and Novick suggest that the strategy the Americans adopted was primarily responsible for the enormous casualties on both sides. When General William Westmoreland took command of the first regular American troops in 1965, he knew that the NLF controlled three quarters of the South Vietnamese countryside. Although he never told the press, he had no hope for “pacification” unless his troops could kill more North Vietnamese soldiers than could be replaced, a threshold he called “the crossover point.”
Since US troops could rarely find the enemy, much less “take and hold” the vast jungles of the highlands, his strategy was to deploy small American units to serve as “bait” for North Vietnamese attacks and then kill the enemy with artillery and air strikes. The “body count”—or the “kill ratio”—became the standard measure for whether progress was being made. As a result, commanders on the ground often inflated the number of enemy soldiers killed to please their superiors, who in turn inflated the figures even more. Meanwhile many American combat troops were killed and wounded.
The “body count” did worse than mislead. It changed the nature of the war, as many American soldiers killed indiscriminately. The filmmakers show a helicopter gunner shooting a man in black pajamas running away in his rice field. They show the famous footage of Morley Safer watching as soldiers torched a village, and footage of soldiers blowing a hole in a hut where grain was stored and killing the people hiding there. Commanders designated enemy-held territories as “free fire zones” and shelled them every night, even though many civilians lived in those areas. We also see troops calling Vietnamese “gooks” or “slopes.”
The voiceover rarely editorializes, but the film suggests how the standard of the “body count” helps explain how the My Lai massacre—when American troops killed hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in March 1968—could have occurred. In late 1968, General Julian Ewell sent troops and aircraft into the densely populated Mekong Delta, killing 10,899 people in six months and seizing only 748 weapons. (The army inspector general later estimated that roughly half of those killed were in fact unarmed civilians.) Ewell was made a three-star general and given command of the largest army field force in Vietnam.
At the heart of the documentary are lengthy interviews with a number of American veterans, taking them through their war, often with archival footage of the battles they fought. A large number of these men came from small towns; many had fathers or uncles who had served in World War II and some had gone to West Point. As teenagers, they had always aspired to military service, and they couldn’t imagine not signing up to protect their country. Generally they knew nothing about Vietnam, but they wanted to show that they were warriors, as their dads had been. They went through basic training and were transported by air to Vietnam, where they were sent into battle in a land totally unfamiliar to them. We see some of them slogging through elephant grass and triple canopy jungles, always fearing a booby trap or an enemy ambush.
All of the men interviewed were brave and decent soldiers. One gave up a Rhodes scholarship to go into active duty out of loyalty to his friends. Several tell of their fears and anger. Many were wounded. Eventually some changed their minds about the war. (“What are we doing here?” “Are we fighting on the wrong side?”) One of them began to sympathize with the antiwar protesters and joined the peace movement after he left military service.
These segments of the film are the most affecting and yet these soldiers aren’t entirely representative. Not all American troops were as honorable as they were—or as articulate. Furthermore, as the filmmakers note, eight of ten Americans sent to Vietnam never saw combat. The majority were what the combat troops called REMFs, or Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers—public relations officers, construction men, and the like—who had good food, access to swimming pools, the run of the well-stocked post exchanges, and the liberty to go to Saigon to drink and pick up girls.
What is truly admirable about the film is the effort to show the many Vietnamese sides of the war. Burns and Novick interviewed Saigon government officials as well as dozens of NLF and North Vietnamese survivors: ordinary soldiers, officers, political cadres, and civilians. Many tell of the incessant bombing and the destruction of their villages. Some are reluctant to share details about their personal lives and emotions, but some tell moving stories. The novelist Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier, recounts the joy of coming home despite being unable to celebrate with his family because he was the only one in his neighborhood to return. One woman from Hue tells the camera, with no expression, that she shot an American in the head in order to protect herself. A soldier remarks that the Americans are much like the Vietnamese since they looked after one another and didn’t leave the dead behind. Another asks if there might not have been a way to achieve independence without all of the killing.
Burns and Novick depict the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail from both sides. American footage shows B-52s coming in over the mountains and blasting huge craters in the many routes the enemy carved out of the jungle. North Vietnamese footage, which shows trucks struggling along the muddy trails, reveals that hundreds of the truck drivers were women who had driven their part of the trail so often they could do it at night without headlights.
The filmmakers also show both sides of the 1968 Tet Offensive. American TV crews documented the fighting in Saigon and Hue. From the North Vietnamese side come films of ecstatic soldiers learning they would attack South Vietnamese cities and towns simultaneously and provoke a general uprising in the South. The footage shows as well the careful planning by the NLF, which brought its cadres and munitions into the towns disguised as farmers carrying produce on sampans, flower carts, and false-bottomed trucks. (One thing the filmmakers missed were the many NLF soldiers carrying their coffins with them to be sure of a proper burial.)
The filmmakers include the famous photographs of the war, such as that of a naked young girl running down the road with other children, but they also explain the photos’ immediate setting. When the girl, Kim Phuc, turned around, the photographer took another picture showing that most of her back had been burned black by napalm. The photographer, the AP’s Nick Ut, who grew up in Vietnam, didn’t leave her but brought her to a hospital. When Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the Saigon police chief, is shown by Eddie Adams, also of the AP, shooting an NLF suspect in the head during Tet—an incident that increased antiwar sentiment in the US—the filmmakers explain that Loan had asked his subordinates to do the job, but all refused, and he did it himself.
Not much is said—or perhaps known—about the relationship between the North Vietnamese and the NLF. However, the filmmakers do tell us one important thing that journalists did not know at the time. The North Vietnamese leader Le Duan and his allies were entirely responsible for the decision to launch the Tet Offensive, and those who disagreed with him were silenced. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Communist strategist during the French war, was alleged to be in poor health and sent to Hungary; Ho Chi Minh was sent to China for medical treatment, while others were jailed. Officially Tet was called a great victory in Hanoi, but privately Giap and many of the officers who commanded troops in the field thought it a defeat and a costly lesson: there was no general uprising in the South, and of the 84,000 troops committed to the offensive approximately half were killed, wounded, or captured. The NLF lost control of many provinces; several high-ranking North Vietnamese officers surrendered, and no North Vietnamese units returned intact.
Tet, however, was a psychological and propaganda victory for the NLF and the North. As is well known, it led Walter Cronkite to declare the war a stalemate, and many Americans concluded that it could not be won. President Johnson recalled Westmoreland, and in March he declared he would not run again for president. He announced a partial halt to the bombing and the beginning of peace talks in Paris.
In November 1968, Vietnam became Nixon’s war, and the filmmakers to their credit make by far the most complicated phase of the fighting fairly easy to understand. During the campaign Nixon had promised a quick end to the war, but in secret he had sent an emissary to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to tell him not to join the peace talks because he would treat the Saigon regime better than his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey. He then denied the existence of this secret channel to Saigon after Johnson confronted him about it days before the election.
From then on, Nixon betrayed one side and then another. He sent American troops into Cambodia to cut supply routes to the South, and when the invasion prompted a nationwide student strike in the US, he began withdrawing American troops from the South, as though to fulfill his promise to end the war. He then started a program of “Vietnamization” (pressing the South Vietnamese to take on more of a combat role) though most officials believed the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) could never hold South Vietnam on its own. Their belief was confirmed in February 1971, when the American command sent 17,000 ARVN troops into Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Even aided by the American bombing, half of the ARVN soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured, and the rest straggled out of Laos as best they could.
Henry Kissinger, in one of the recordings that Nixon secretly made in the Oval Office, many of which are included in the documentary, commented that the ARVN weren’t as good as he and Nixon had thought. “But Henry,” Nixon replied, “I have become completely fatalistic about the goddamn thing. I don’t think they’re [the ARVN] up to a real bang…. I’d rather have them get out [of Laos], and then we’re going to get the hell out and hope and pray that nothing happens before 1972. Let’s face it. And if my reelection is important, let’s remember, I’ve got to get this off our plate.” At one point Nixon says, “I don’t want to be the first president to lose a war.”
Read Fitzgerald’s full review at the New York Review of Books
The Cam Ne Report
Frances FitzGerald is a journalist and author. She has written six books and contributed to The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Times magazine, Esquire, Architectural Digest and other publications. Ms. FitzGerald’s books include Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam and, most recently, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.