The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick explores “many sides” of the conflict in a way that explodes the “hippies vs. patriots” caricature of the era that’s been such a bad influence on American political discourse. Every American seems to have at least a few regrets about how things went down back then and that’s before we learn about the head-spinning complexity of the Vietnamese positions on their civil war.
Lynn Novick directed the series in partnership with Ken Burns. His may be the name that everyone recognizes, but Lynn has working been with Burns since The Civil War and she previously co-directed seven episodes of their World War II film The War and 2011’s underrated Prohibition.
In the midst of the publicity blitz before the series debut, Novick took the time for a wide-ranging discussion about the film and the influence of the Vietnam War on American society. There are very mild spoilers below if you haven’t started watching the series.
You were born in the ‘60s. What was your experience of the Vietnam war?
My memories of my childhood are sort of spotty and fragmentary. It’s more images and moments than anything continuous or properly organized. But I don’t remember a time growing up when the Vietnam War wasn’t happening. It just felt like it was always there and it was always going on and it was something that the adults around me seemed very concerned about and focused on, watching it on TV, reading about it in the paper, talking to other adults and people older than me.
I just had this sense of something sort of looming and frightening and disturbing, and something that the adults were concerned about and I was not really understanding what was going on. I don’t have any family members or family friends even who served in the military during that time. I knew a lot of people whose families were focused on how to avoid military service.
By the time I really became aware of the war and began to understand that question, it was in the early 70’s, by which time it really had become quite unpopular. There were more people trying to get out of it than eager to get into it. I certainly remember that and I remember protests and a sense of questioning the government, a sort of “They don’t know what they’re doing and we’re not getting told the truth.” I remember that in the background, kind of the bass notes, all the time.
By the mid-’70s, there were quite a few people in my family who weren’t going to college and they were called up to serve. And then we didn’t talk about it anymore. It was this absolutely closed subject from about ’72, ’73, onward.
I was just in Vietnam, showing some clips of the film there. And a Vietnamese man who watched some of the clips said, “I’m not going to sleep tonight after seeing the scenes of the film that we just saw.” He was from a South Vietnamese family and he said he remembered scenes of fleeing, trying to get away, the communists were coming south. And now he would have nightmares, having seen the film.
Then he said, “I have tried to basically put the Vietnam War into a drawer and close the drawer and not think about it and just try to not remember it because it’s too painful. Vietnamese have this saying, we sort of — we celebrate the good things and just put the bad things in the closet and shut the door. But seeing the film made me realize you can’t do that.”
For different reasons, I think Americans have done the same thing with the Vietnam War, unsuccessfully, I would say.
It’s almost like you’re not making a movie about a discrete historical event. You’re making a movie about the most-defining, continuing experience of the U.S. after World War II. It’s not over.
Correct, I completely agree. We say and we stand by this: it’s the most important event in American history since the second World War. We don’t say when it ended and you’re exactly right. There’s a beautiful comment by Thanh Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American writer who wrote the novel, The Sympathizer, that won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago. He said, “All wars are fought twice, on the battlefield and in our memory.”
He also wrote a book of essays called Nothing Ever Dies: The Vietnam War and Modern Memory. The sense that we are fighting over how we remember the war, we’re fighting over what happened, we’re fighting over what it means. That’s very much still going on. The ghosts of Vietnam are still haunting us.
How you feel about Vietnam is the modern culture war flashpoint. How do you respond to people who wonder why someone like you is making this film in the first place?
Oh, wow. Well, first, we hope that anyone who is interested in American history and who we are as Americans and where we are today would take the time to watch the film. Then we look forward to hearing what people think. It’s very easy to make judgments about something you haven’t seen with assumptions about the people who made it or what it might or might not say.
Ken and I believe this film will be surprising, revelatory to everybody, no matter who you are, no matter what your background: if you’re a Vietnam veteran, if you’re the child of a veteran, if you protested the war, if you’re a Vietnamese-American. Wherever you’re coming from, this film will surprise you, it surprised us at every stage.
We thought we knew a fair amount about this subject, being students of American history. And Ken really lived through this era as a young adult and had studied it to some degree, but every day was a surprise on every level. It’s easy to judge something based on assumptions, but the actual story that we’ve discovered in the course of making this film surprised us and we believe it will surprise everybody else.
We set out to do something that never has been done before when talking about this particular subject, which is really to try to see it from as many perspectives as possible, American and Vietnamese. Not to have an agenda, not to have an argument to make. We’re not trying to say whether the war was right or wrong or winnable or not; we’re just really trying to find out what happened.
In doing that, we hope that we told the story in a coherent way and put the pieces of this puzzle together in a way that they’ve never been put together before. Then we hope our audience, our viewers will draw their own conclusions.
I agree that there are far more perspectives in your film than we’ve ever seen before, but there are two that might be missing. The absolute raving anti-war left and the “How dare you question General Westmoreland’s vision?” people are not represented in the film. In a way, it seems like the film will be more controversial because somehow there are still a lot of people who identify with both of those groups. maybe they shouldn’t have a voice.
I don’t think we set out to exclude any particular perspective, but I think that what you find when you dig into this is that we sought out as many perspectives as we could find.
Many of the people who you meet who were against the war feel very strongly about it. They felt strongly about it then and feel strongly about it now. When we ask them to speak about it in a substantive way, they were able to speak in a more nuanced and complicated way than perhaps you might have expected.
So I don’t think you should assume that those sort of far ends of the spectrum are not represented in the film. They’re there. But when we ask them these questions, there’s inner conflict about many aspects of the war because all of it is so unsettled.
That’s true for people on the “right” and “left.” I hate to say it that way because I don’t think right and left is actually the right way to parse this. Even for the people who have very strong views one way or another, when you dig deeply into it, you excavate some things that, I guess, surprised us and probably would surprise you.
I will say this over and over again: we talked to many soldiers. I’m going to try to say this in the right way and I’m not sure I’m going be able to, but a lot of our public conversations about the Vietnam War have been very binary. You’re either on this side or that side. You know you either think the Viet Cong are heroes at war and Americans are villains or soldiers are bad or vice-versa. There really hasn’t been any subtle understanding of the complex human conflicts that the war actually brought out in so many people.
What we have discovered along the way of doing this is that there are many, many soldiers that are servicemen, people who served in Vietnam who were proud of their service, who were not treated well, who didn’t get thanked, who didn’t get the respect that they deserved for serving their country, and are very bitter about that and justifiably so. But some of them also question whether the war was right and whether we should have been there and whether it was winnable and all those same questions that the protestors had.
And there are protestors to this day who feel that they may have thought the war was wrong, but they feel guilty for not having gone to Vietnam. We think there’s a range of perspectives even within people and we’ve tried to pull some of that out in the film.
The idea that there are nuances to how people think about things or reflect on things that have happened in the past actually seems to be a radical statement at this point. Maybe that wasn’t anything you contemplated when you started the film or while you were making it, but in the middle of the shallow, binary debate that seems to be going on in this country, you’ve presented something that’s got a million shades of gray.
We’ve been working on the film for ten years and, when we started the film, we felt that the Vietnam War was this sort of toxic, festering wound, unfinished business, an unresolved, central issue. In some ways, it was driving a very dangerous debate that was not really even a debate. There was just a lot of shouting. We hoped if we could take our time and walk through this story and really pick it apart and put it back together, maybe we could shed some new light and change the conversation.
That’s what we hoped to do. In the meanwhile, our country has, in some ways, devolved in recent history. Even during the Obama administration, we became more polarized and more divided. We are in a very disturbing time, but we have seen, at least in our small way with this film as we’re going around the country and showing it, that no matter who you are when you walk into the film, people come away different. Ken and I think it may have to do with partly the variety of perspectives and the way the story is told and the openness and honesty of the witnesses testifying about their experiences.
We were at a screening in Kansas City a couple of days ago. We did an event with John Musgrave, who is one of the major characters in the film. He was onstage with us speaking about what it was like to be in the film and his memories of Vietnam and who the real heroes were. John was very eloquent about the heroism and courage and selflessness of the Marines that he served with and what he has hoped to do with his life since he survived the war.
Afterwards, we were on the stage and saying goodbye and a man came up to him and said, “I am from Baldwin City, where you live, and we’re the same age, and I just want to tell you that I was against the war and I protested against it while you were overseas fighting.” And John is kind of nodding and this man said, “But I just want to tell you I’m sorry for the things that we said, that we didn’t treat you right, and I feel terrible about it and I want you to know that I’m sorry.”
And John Musgrave said, “Well, you know what, I was against the war too in the end.” So this is a decorated hero. This is one little moment, but there’s something in the power of the way that the people in the film tell their stories that we think potentially could open up, at least, maybe, on a small scale, different kinds of conversations than we’ve been having lately.
The other day I was in Cleveland and I met with my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother and stepfather. His stepfather was in the Air National Guard; he had a very high position after the war and he was a pilot during the war.
He came to a screening and he was basically sort of criticizing the way the war was waged and questioning a lot of things about the way it happened and essentially saying that the one thing that we made a mistake after Vietnam when we got rid of the draft. Because at least when we had a draft, our leaders were accountable, they had to answer to the American people ultimately for the decisions they were making and the wars they were waging and we don’t have that now.
That was from a Vietnam veteran looking back at a time where the draft was hugely contentious. We think the film just raises a lot of questions that are worth answering.
When someone asked John Musgrave what he learned from watching the film, he said, “I learned about the humanity of the men I was trying to kill.”
That’s another amazing part of the film. I think almost no one in the United States has ever contemplated is the disparate perspective that the Vietnamese people had on their own war. And that there were multiple sides for them, not just two.
We didn’t know what to expect. But I had the privilege of going to Vietnam multiple times over the course of the last six, seven years and getting to know people and trying to understand what they think about the war. I had this very superficial official government narrative of the war in my head because that’s what I’ve read about and seen in other films. It was fascinating to find that that was just sort of the veneer.
If you dig below, there’s a lot of complicated and unresolved feelings there about the enormous price, even for the people who won the war, the price they paid and the sacrifice they made and whether their leaders spent those lives wisely. And was it necessary to spend those lives, all of them?
We translated the entire film into Vietnamese and it’s going stream on the PBS site. You can click on Vietnamese and PBS is going to allow it to be streamed in Vietnam. So anyone in Vietnam who has internet, which is 40 million Vietnamese, will be able to watch our film.
I was just back in Vietnam a couple of weeks ago to meet with the veterans who were in the film and help to prepare them for the fact that their fellow countrymen will soon see them and they will become well-known in their own country if they’re not already well-known.
What they appreciated in seeing the film for the first time was —they said this over and over again — they really appreciated the realism and the honesty in showing the true suffering and horror of war. Because in Vietnam, they don’t think about the war, they don’t represent it that way. It’s a noble sacrifice, but there’s not a lot of suffering in it, in how they remember those soldiers. They want their families or their grandchildren to know what the war was really like and they really appreciated the honesty of what we did.
We had given one of the veterans a chance to see the entire film ahead of time, before we came. He said that before he saw the film he thought that it was a weakness of America to be haunted by the Vietnam War, that we were still kind of digging into this thing and we couldn’t make sense of it, we couldn’t move on, and that we had this protest movement.
The facts show that we were a society divided. In seeing the film, he realized that it was a strength of our country, that we were willing to confront our past and examine it and question it. The protest movement actually was a sign of a great democracy and that he hoped that the Vietnamese would be able to do the same thing when they look back at their two wars, meaning the French War and the American War. That was totally revelatory to us to hear from a Vietnamese veteran.
I’ve read some books by authors you interview in your film. The intense way Tim O’Brien reads excerpts from “The Things They Carried” made me rethink my experience of reading the book the first time.
I will say that when we first started on the project we went to Tim and said we’re gonna try to tackle the Vietnam War and we’d really love you to be a part of it. And he said, “Why are you gonna do that? That’s a terrible idea. You can’t possibly do this. It’s an impossible story to tell and it’s so toxic and people are still angry and just leave it alone. Don’t even try. It’s impossible. All you’re gonna do is make people mad.” That’s what he said.
Ken and I said that we were going to do this and we really wanted him to be in the tent with us. Tim said, “Okay, well, here’s a challenge for you. You have to find a Gold Star Mother and you better get her and you better hurry up because they’re getting old and these are the mothers of the young men who died and you can’t tell the story without appreciating what that tragedy meant for at least one family.”
We did find a family that was willing to share their story with us to our great, good luck. But it was really the interview with Tim, sitting down with him and hearing him talk through his own personal story of the war, which he doesn’t do very often, that was a deeply human and profound experience for me, personally. I think he went to a place in describing his own inner conflicts about the war, his experiences both in Vietnam and in deciding to go to the war instead of deserting, basically, the moral questions that that raised for him. That was so painful and so wrenching and so unexpected, I think to him and to us, that he would be as moved as he was in reliving those moments.
Once the audience sees the Crocker family tell their story, it’s got something that people can relate to now. I can see it coming but that doesn’t make it have any less impact when it happens.
No, that’s true. How does one ask a family to go to that place and describe the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, tragedy? And it was with trepidation, honestly, that we even approached them.
They felt, especially Mrs. Crocker, that she really wanted to do this, even though she knew it would be extremely painful for her. She thought maybe it would help other people who had suffered losses either in Vietnam or in other situations. If she could share their grief and pain and loss, maybe she could honor her son and not bring him back, but keep him alive in a way. And it’s been really beautiful to see that.
The interview was done, I think, in 2011 or 2012. She was in her late 80’s. She’s in her mid-90’s now. I spoke to her the other day and she’s seen the whole film and she’s talked to her children about it. she said that being a part of the project changed their family’s conversation, speaking about what we were saying earlier, about the war and about Mogie. And that they have been able to talk about him and share memories with him in a way that they never did before. And that she was really grateful that they had the opportunity to do that.
That really made me cry, to be honest, because asking her to sit down and tell that story was overwhelming. It’s one of the only times I really burst into tears in this entire project. I mean I actually had to say, we have to cut right now, after she read the passage from Henry V that she read to him. I could not bear it and even talking about it right now, it makes me cry.
It makes me cry when you’re talking about it now. They really explain the cost of the war faced by the families of those who serve in a way that nothing else does. And they especially explain it to those families who didn’t have anyone serve.
The military service numbers are quite staggering. These numbers aren’t exact, but I think there were 27 million men who came of age and were draft-eligible during the Vietnam era and 2 1/2 million went to Vietnam. I think 8 million served either in active duty or the National Guard or reserves. Most of the people who were eligible didn’t serve.
Most families, I’m gonna guess, don’t have a direct connection to the war. Certainly 58,000 names on the wall is unimaginably tragic, but it’s a small number of people compared to the size of our population. It was really important to convey that and that’s why we took Tim O’Brien’s advice to heart, that we had to try to represent what those tragedies were in at least one or two instances.
I have friends who are in that age group and, since I watched the film a couple of months ago, we’ve had our first conversations about their own experiences with the draft and the war. I’ve know them for years and it’s never come up before.
I don’t think a lot of people like to talk about that. There’s some guilt from many people about it, but the government allowed people to avoid service in perfectly legitimate ways and most people did avoid going. Look at Dick Cheney with many deferments. There were legitimate legal ways that the government set up the draft to keep the elite from having to serve. That’s just how it was.
It seems like you’ve managed to make this film at what’s probably the last possible moment to get as many perspectives as you have in the film.
In the next 10, 15 years, you could still do it, people will still be alive, but their memories won’t be quite as fresh. People change as you they get a lot older, so we felt it was the perfect time to try to tell the story because the people who were involved in this experience are still vital and have a lot to say about it once you start asking the questions.
There’s one thing I wanted to add. I think we do tell the story through the lives of the “ordinary” people that we got to know and who shared their experiences with us. But we also focus on the military strategy and tactics and the leadership and failures of leadership that or part of it.
You get to know our presidents through this entire period and hearing them talk on tape has been some of the most revelatory experiences for us. It’s very, very hard to win a war like this. It’s very complicated to wage a war like this. Our leaders seemed to have understood that from the beginning and yet continued to prosecute it in spite of their grave doubts about it. They didn’t tell the public the truth for most of the time that this was happening. That’s important.
I’ll say it: I thought the film was a bit short and could’ve used another five or six hours. Do you feel like there are things that you weren’t able to cover in this film?
Of course. In every film like this, and especially this one, we had to leave a lot out that’s very important or we covered some things very quickly that we could have spent an hour on. It’s just that constant sort of balancing act of how much can our audience watch and who is the audience? A general audience, not just the people who were at that particular battle, but the whole American public and in fact the world because the film is gonna be shown in 50 countries.
We’re constantly oscillating between going deeply into something and trying to get the essential stories across. And we did our best to distill this experience down to 18 hours. But, of course, we had to leave a lot of things out.
I would call that the greatest praise if someone says it’s 18 hours and you left a lot of things out, we’re very happy, in a way.
Honestly, a film like this, also we hope the film opens up the conversation and suggests other topics that other filmmakers should tackle. We didn’t have time to spend a whole episode on Hamburger Hill, which we absolutely could have done, and I wish we had, but now maybe somebody else should do that, from all sides. There are any number of opportunities. We hope the film raises a lot of questions that we couldn’t answer and we look forward to seeing what other people will come up with.