Vietnam Full Disclosure


Responses to Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

Published on: May 31, 2017

Filed Under: Burns/Novick, Connections to Today, Featured, Film

Views: 4423

Photo credit: Owen Freeman

By Howie Machtinger

What is the appropriate response to the banality of the Op-Ed: “Vietnam’s Unhealed Wounds” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick  in the 2017 Memorial Day edition of The New York Times? Such a trite pronouncement is surely destined for the dustbin of history. But already accompanied by much media hype, Burns and Novick are set to launch their PBS documentary: THE VIETNAM WAR, a ten-part, 18-hour series in September 2017. The series will be accompanied by an unprecedented outreach and public engagement process, providing opportunities for communities to participate in a national conversation about what happened during the Vietnam War. The series will, for better or worse, set the terms for this national conversation. Therefore it is incumbent upon those with an antiwar perspective to articulate a clear and compelling alternative perspective.

One might be excused for assuming that the thrust of a piece entitled “Vietnam’s Unhealed Wounds” would center either on how Vietnam coped with the wounds and divisions caused by the war or, perhaps, how America has come to terms with the tremendous destruction inflicted on Vietnam by the war. But no, instead the focus is on the failure of pro- and anti-war Americans to reconcile with each other. “For more than a generation, instead of forging a path to reconciliation, we have allowed the wounds the war inflicted on our nation, our politics and our families to fester.” And this failure is tagged as the root of contemporary American political problems: “The troubles that trouble us today–alienation, resentment and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions; conflicts over ethnicity and class; lack of accountability in powerful institutions–so many of these seeds were sown during the Vietnam War.” So Burns and Novick have arrived late, but still in the nick of time, to foster the required reconciliation. They can help us “inoculate ourselves against the further spread of the virulent disunion that afflicts us.”

I couldn’t help but be eerily reminded of an earlier lament about postwar disunity in America. At the height of Jim Crow, on July 4, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson spoke at the 50th anniversary Blue-Gray reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg. Somehow eliding slavery and African-Americans from the Civil War, he strained to look forward, “we have found one another again as brothers and comrades, in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten–except that we will not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion”[i] “The theme of the reunion from its earliest conception in 1909 was national harmony and patriotism.” [ii]

In the name of complexity and fair-mindedness, Burns and Novick similarly avoid drawing any real lessons about the reality of the war–what the quarrel was about; instead:

“if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.”

Burns and Novick even channel Trump’s bemoaning of the Civil War: “Why could that one not have been worked out?”[iii] by noting that “many Vietnamese have begun to ask themselves whether the war was necessary, whether some other way might have been found to reunite their country.” Intellectual honesty would seem at least to call for a discussion of the 1954 Geneva Accords, which Ho Chi Minh signed and the US did everything it could to undermine.

Burns and Novick do note the different notions of patriotism employed by pro- and anti-war Americans, but don’t have the energy or desire to point out what lay behind and animated these opposing perspectives. Antiwar people feared that an aggressive, and for some imperial, war was unjust and undermined American pretensions to democracy. We questioned whether such a destructive war – guided by an arrogant Presidency, enabled by a subservient Congress, prolonged by a military leadership infamous for its ‘credibility gap’– was compatible with democracy, or more harmonious with fantasies of empire.

These differing views of the American trajectory lay, and still lie, at the root of differences among our people. Burns and Novick, in their high-minded presumption, seem to believe that these issues can be avoided in the name of honoring the courage of our fighters or legitimizing all sides’ patriotism. But they seem more pertinent than ever in an era of unending war and increasingly aggressive noises from our leaders.

“A core component of Trumpism is a desperate desire to reassert American power in an increasingly uncontrollable world in which the US no longer has a free hand. There is a powerful fear among significant portions of the US population that ‘they’ are coming for us, that everyone must be armed for protection and that the US must do anything, from deportation to torture, to exercise the full brunt of its power to crush these dangerous enemies.”[iv]

How will honoring the courage of our soldiers or spreading patriotism around address the divide in American consciousness about the use and abuse of American power?

Burns and Novick, while invoking the words of Vietnamese scholar and author, Viet Than Nguyen, distort his core message. In his powerful and honest Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,[v] Nguyen, first of all, reminds us that “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” He cautions that, “Americans like to imagine the war not as a conflict between Americans and Vietnamese, but Americans fighting a war for their nation’s soul.” He warns against “the selective memory of a country that imagines itself as a perpetual innocent,” and fears that we will learn “no lessons from my war except the lesson to fight the Forever War more efficiently.” Burns and Novick call on us to “ stop fighting over how the war should be remembered”; Nguyen rather desires a just remembrance of the war, and in contradiction to their anodyne words notes that “the basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is…fundamentally about remembering our humanity and forgetting our inhumanity, while conversely remembering the inhumanity of others and fighting their inhumanity.” This is certainly no easy task. An honest effort at reckoning with the injustices of the war by Americans, however, will take us further than Burns and Novick’s call for ignoring the real issues at stake, then and now. This should be the goal of our forthcoming national conversation, not a misguided reconciliation or spurious national unity.

[i] Blight, D. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, p. 11.

[ii] Bight, p. 385.



[v] Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 2016)

3 Responses to Responses to Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

  1. Robert Pojansky says:

    Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (“Vietnam’s Unhealed Wounds”, May 29) say, “[I]f we are to begin the process of healing, we must first honor the courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served and those who died.” I’m sorry, but that’s not the place to begin; there has never been and never will be any shortage of ostentatious patriotism to honor them. Instead, this country needs to look honestly at what it did, without any gloss or spin. The following facts are irrefutable. After the Vietnamese aided the Allies against the occupying Japanese in WWII, the US helped the French try to reimpose their colonial rule. After the Vietnamese defeated the French, the US did everything it could to prevent the agreed-upon national-unification elections because it was clear that Ho Chi Minh would win. First the US foisted a tyrannical puppet regime upon the south, and then, when an armed uprising began against it, started sending military “advisers”, which eventually metastasized into a huge ground war throughout the south — the US eventually sent more than 2.5 million military personnel there — and massive bombing of the north. The US dropped more bomb tonnage on Vietnam than it dropped in all of WWII. Americans and Vietnamese are still being maimed and killed by the 19 million gallons of Agent Orange the US sprayed. If the Memorial in DC included the names of the Asians killed, that 493-foot wall would be literally miles long. And the promised disaster that would ensue if the communists won? Ask Nike; their sneaker plant is just outside Ho Chi Minh City. Healing? First face the brutal facts that the US committed a monumental crime there, not least against the GIs it sent to fight, and face the fact that the US had no legal right and no national interest that could justify what it did to Vietnam. Sorry, I overstated that; there was one national interest: just as WWII put an end to the Great Depression, the American economy since about 1950 has been a war economy. Vietnam was a very good money-maker for those myriad US corporations in the warfare business. And what has been the price to our country of hiding, blurring and glossing over these fundamental facts? Afghanistan and Iraq and this endless faraway permanent Orwellian war that is eating out whatever is left of the soul of this country and still killing GIs to no good end whatsoever (except for the warmakers), that’s what. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, utterly silent on these fundamental Vietnam facts but muddy-mindedly generous with their even-handed false equivalence, have a movie to sell but nothing worth saying in the NYT.

    Robert Projansky
    Portland, OR

  2. Mike Hastie says:

    Napalm Sunday: A Moral Injury

    When 19-year-old Steve Bennett came home from Vietnam,
    he asked his mother if she still had his toy soldiers.

    She told him they were in the attic in a container with his
    old Lincoln Logs.

    Long after Steve’s parents went to bed, he snuck up to the
    attic and got the container.

    He then went to the large backyard where he once played war
    games as a kid with his neighborhood friends.

    At the base of a weeping willow tree where he use to hide,
    he poured lighter fluid on those plastic soldiers, and burned
    them all to hell.

    He instantly yelled, FUCK YOU!

    Steve Bennett’s childhood officially came to an end.

    Mike Hastie
    Army Medic Vietnam

    Photo by Mike Hastie
    Young boys on a flatbed truck with toy guns.
    Veterans Day Parade Albany, Oregon 1992

    Dear Ken Burns,
    When a brutal bully picks a fight on the playground
    with a much smaller kid, there is never two sides to
    the story.
    Mike Hastie
    Vietnam Veteran
    Full Disclosure

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