September 16, 2017–With the sharp-edged sentimentality that seems to go with everything about the Vietnam war, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are releasing their much-heralded documentary film “The Vietnam War” with the slogan that “There is no single truth in war.” There are layers of meaning in that. Burns and Novick set up one such layer by making sure to include many Vietnamese among their witnesses. But there’s a very different meaning from the American side, where this film lays out a story line of conventional, gung-ho heroics, a World War II-style simple-mindedness that proved misplaced amid the complexities of Asia, and which the Vietnam war itself demonstrated to be foolish, even stupid. The Burns and Novick production does for film what neo-orthodox historians have attempted for the written record–to recycle the conventional wisdom of fifty years ago, the lines pushed by MACV spin doctors at the “Five-O’clock Follies,” as supposedly fresh insights from supposedly new research.
Two elements reveal how shallow is the alleged new thinking. One concerns timing. The film’s release coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Long March on the Pentagon (the second big protest there, actually), when 50,000 antiwar demonstrators showed up to denounce the conflict, putting themselves at the heart of America’s military command center. That event was important in crystalizing political opposition to the Vietnam war in the United States. To release a rah-rah praise-the-warrior-and-pass-the-ammunition pic at this moment is to throw down a gauntlet in front of the anguished citizens who had to live through this actual history.
The other element is that the Burns-Novick film slights opponents of the war. Let’s get this straight up front: the United States lost the Vietnam war. Those who opposed the conflict as an imperialist or neocolonialist action or as a military insanity were correct to do so. But the 18 hours of film here contain precious little of that. Ken Burns admits, “I couldn’t tell the difference,” when the audience at an opening at Washington’s Kennedy Center erupted in applause as thunderous for antiwar opponents as for GIs. In the documentary the difference is clear.
The Americans who traveled the furthest in this buffeting of the 60s and 70s were precisely those men and women who went to war–and came home to fight against it. These were the stalwarts of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). They too are having an anniversary this weekend, in New York and Milwaukee, the 50th year of the organization. Starting from the spring of 1967, when a tiny band of these folks marched in New York, VVAW led many in the antiwar movement. They were the first to press for recognition of PTSD, the first to devise means (rap groups) to cope with the malady, they were key innovators of guerrilla theater and creative protests. If in the Burns-Novick you see an antiwar banner hanging from the crown of the Statue of Liberty, that was VVAW. I can hardly do justice to these committed veterans here (I tell the VVAW story in some detail in my book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War). Unlike almost any of the others, VVAW vets remained in opposition to war long afterwards, becoming the heart of Veterans for Peace and inspiring the vets who created Iraq Veterans Against the War, using VVAW as a model. Yet few of these former servicepeople appear in the Burns-Novick documentary series.
Americans should be celebrating the VVAW anniversary. Their exploits deserve honor. More than the media hype around two filmmakers and their latest documentary, this occasion deserves to be noted. I wish I could be with them to do that.