There is no single lie in war (films): Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and The Vietnam War
By Michael Stewart Foley
Most everything one needs to know about Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s epic interpretation of the Vietnam War is evident in their summary of the conflict in the film’s eighteenth and final hour. “The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable,” declares narrator Peter Coyote. “But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it: stories of courage and comradeship, and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.” Moments later, the series concludes with the filmmakers’ admonition, channeled through The Beatles, that we, the American viewers, need to “Let It Be.”
Burns’s and Novick’s unsubtle message is that they have just given us their definitive film history of the Vietnam War, that we have now learned enough from the “meaning” found in “the individual stories” to see that the war was, in essence, a “tragedy.” Armed with this knowledge, viewers should be prepared to “let it be,” to put the war behind them, at last. In an interview, Burns said the film’s use of “Let It Be” is “about an ultimate reconciliation” that he hoped the film could facilitate. After 10 episodes of toggling between deeply affective personal stories and overly simplistic analysis of wartime policy and politics, it is hard not to worry about how many millions of PBS viewers fell for this “ultimate reconciliation” charade.
One certainly cannot accuse Burns and Novick of failing the test of the famous antiwar priest, Daniel Berrigan, to “know where you stand, and stand there.” By Berrigan’s measure, citizens had a responsibility to be informed about and to stand either for or against the Vietnam War, stand either for or against peace. Burns and Novick reject any such choice, but they certainly know where they stand: above us. And, boy, do they stand there, talking down to the audience the way parents speak to children who ask too many questions. Ian Parker, profiling Burns recently in the New Yorker, describes the director’s “default conversational” mode as “Commencement Address.” No wonder.
For all their desire for historical and moral clarity, Burns and Novick give us a version of the Vietnam War that is as muddy as the Mekong River. The promotional material stresses the banal point that “There is No Single Truth in War.” Yet problems of proportion, emphasis, and voice obscure many of the central questions surrounding the war – the very questions that must be resolved if the nation is ever to achieve the kind of “ultimate reconciliation” the filmmakers seem to promise.
Michael Stewart Foley is University Professor of American Civilization at Université Grenoble Alpes in France. Contact the author at Michael.
For anyone wanting a more thorough, truthful picture of the American War in Viet Nam than what Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have managed in their 18-hour documentary, we suggest reading selections from Foley’s article’s bibliography:
- Berman, Larry. No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
- Berrigan, Daniel. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1970.
- Buzzanco, Robert. Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Duiker, William J. U. S. Containment Policy and the Conflict in Indochina. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.
- Fear, Sean. “The Ambiguous Legacy of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam’s Second Republic.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 11, no. 1 (Winter 2016): 1–75.
- Greiner, Bernd. War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
- Isaacs, Arnold. Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia. Revised ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
- Jeffords, Susan. The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
- Lair, Meredith H. Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
- Langguth, A. J. Our Vietnam: The War 1954–1975. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
- McMaster, H. R. Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
- McNamara, Robert S., and In Retrospect. The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1995.
- Miller, Edward. Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.10.4159/harvard.9780674075320
- Moïse, Edwin E. Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
- Schulzinger, Robert. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Shawcross, William. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
- Stur, Heather Marie. Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.10.1017/CBO9780511980534,
- Swerdlow, Amy. Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
- Threat, Charissa. Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
- Turse, Nick. Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. New York: Metropolitan, 2013.
- Vuic, Kara Dixon. Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
- Young, Marilyn. The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1990. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.