Blog #105 – Vietnam – The Film, Contributions and Open Questions
The Vietnam War, the film Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is by any standard a major achievement, a detailed and evocative history of that war and as powerful an anti-war film as there is, but precisely because of its honesty, historical ambition, and attempt at balance, it leaves a number of critical questions open, the depoliticization of its conclusion, its lack of broader historical context, its forced avoidance of moral issues. No film could hope to answer all such questions, but it would be doing an injustice to the film if it were not a basis for some serious discussion about the meaning of the events it recounts. The questions they raise are still critical today, and their meaning for understanding and acting on the painfully similar issues confronting us almost 50 years after its end.
What follows is a very preliminary attempt to raise, but not to answer, four of those questions: I. The assumption of good faith, II. The desire for reconciliation, III. The implicit depoliticization of the history, IV. The ethics of participation.
I. The assumption of Good Faith
The film opens with an uncharacteristic statement: The war was begun “in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.” The film strives for nothing so much as balance and nuance, but that statement is hardly the complete story. To warrant such a statement as if it were the result of detailed examination both of the war’s historical setting in the history of western colonialism in east Asia and of the motives and of those that begat and pressed it onwards, is unwarranted. Indeed, throughout the film the narration questions motives and intent, and tries to explain actions that were both constrained by a long history as well undertaken by sentient human beings with mixed and conflicting emotions and interests, and limited but hardly unbiased or un-self-interested understanding of what they were doing. The issue of where “good faith” lies when leaders as well as followers complain that they are only doing what they had to, even when they regret the results of their actions, is an issue that has perplexed philosophers, theologians, psychologists, judges and authors for millennia. Buti in the film it is put aside in the interests of fundamental desire not to condemn, with or without hindsight. Indeed, the “good faith” both Ken Burns and Lynn Novick need not be questioned in order to suggest that this statement does not come up to their standard of nuance and balance.
The film’s ending has the same flaw, but is even less warranted.
II. The Desire for Reconciliation
The film ends with a background song with the refrain, “let it be,” “let it be,” “let it be,“ repeated over and over. The filmmaker’s motives are themselves in fact well-intentioned but mixed and not consistently pursued. The intent is clear: having forcefully presented decades of unmitigated horror flooded with deep animosities, and having shown in conclusion that whatever good intentions any of the parties had in acting as they did, they did not produce anything of their best hopes – that war was an unmitigated horror, whose wisdom needed to be challenged whenever it reared its head as a possibility, to say “let it be” is hardly the first conclusion that comes to mind. Certainly, one can understand the desire of the participants to put behind them the pain of reliving and being tormented by such horrible events, even a desire to achieve reconciliation, with the hope of having a film such as this come to what is almost a happy ending.
“Never again,” indeed, would seem to be a more fitting final message than “let it be.”
Similarly, Bob Collins argued, on PBS that the film “concludes with a whimper, not a bang,” and called the ending “a cop-out.”  And in fact there is an ambiguity in the ending that justifies the concern. In the last episode of the film. John Musgrave, a very impressive, thoughtful, soft-spoken veteran of the war quoted frequently throughout the film, is asked how he now feels about all he has seen and survived. After giving it some thought, Musgrave says that now finally he has arrived at “a kind of peace.” In an interview, Burns says
“ it’s possible to just say “let it be.” And that’s not about forgetting. It’s about an ultimate reconciliation, which I hope is what we can do…. “Let It Be” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music. That is offering, not the sense of forgetting it, but the ability to reconcile all the conflicting tugs of the information that have just been dumped on you over the last 18 hours.”
Reconciliation is a theme that recurs in the film’s ending, and it can be interpreted in three ways:
- Reconciliation of the conflicting strands of information, of declarations of intentions and actual motivations, of emotions and repression of emotions, of bravery and cowardice, of self-serving and of altruism. That is, in context, I think what Musgrave meant when he spoke of peace: let the attempt to understand, to rationalize, to lay out in order exactly what happened when and where and to whom and why, stop torturing yourself about what you could or should have done or not done. Achieve an inner peace, Each to him or herself. A human and a healthy goal for those traumatized by the war.
- Reconciliation among all the conflicting actors in the events: the troops on the battlefields,, the planners, the governmental leaders, the ideologies, reconciliation of the countries themselves. “I think that reconciliation is possible within our two countries, where we’re both divided, as well as between the two countries, where we seem to have, at least superficially, solved the distance between us,” Burns says in an interview. But that is a form of reconciliation that would wipe out real conflicts of interests and motives, equating the actions of all the various participants and implicitly justifying all actions, depoliticizing and accepting as all equally simply as facts on the ground, just the way things are. It is a form of reconciliation that calls for a broad social amnesia among all participants for it to be successful.
- Reconciliation among some participants but passage of judgement as to others. Perpetrators are different from those benefiting from their actions, those inflicting harm from those harmed, the powerful from those subject to their power. In some ultimate sense, indeed, all men and women are children of God and the imposition of punishment and pain on any human being is to be avoided, but there is certainly a difference between calling for reconciliation of the Nixons and the Westmorelands with the Bao Dies and the Diems, or of the Lyndon Johnsons and the Daniel Ellsbergs.
The film does not make these distinctions, and the failure has significant political and moral consequences.
When Henry Kissinger is quoted, in the opening of the film, as saying:
“What we need now in this country is to heal the wounds and to put Vietnam behind us.”
one can easily understand his vested political – and indeed personal — interest in pushing that result.
III. The Political Role of Induced amnesia.
Depoliticization is one of those consequences of the unwillingness to distinguish victims from perpetrators, or of seeking a balance that would avoid not only popular tropes but go further and not even attempt any grounded thoughtful evaluation of what was done by whom, to whom, and why. Burns and Novick clearly reject any desire to present a comparison between the events of the Vietnam war period with events of present-day U.S. foreign or military policy, probably wisely, for showing what the film shows so vividly speaks movingly for itself, and might lose some of its effect if encapsulated in “partisan” rhetoric. But nevertheless, an insidious message results from this approach. Human weaknesses, all around, basically explain what happened: sadly unavoidable, consequences are unforeseen, plans misfire. That the results, terrible as they seem, may have been the results of some deliberate actins undertaken by specific actors and interests with particular objectives knowingly heedless of their costs to others is thus not explored, even though the raw material from which to draw conclusions is dramatically presented. The film deliberately steers efforts away from confronting its own lessons for today’s realities, and undermines capturing the very lessons of those pregnant years for those watching the film today. It produces perhaps overwhelming sadness, but not targeted anger or resolve for deep-going change,
IV. The Insidious Depoliticization of History
Depoliticization further also results from the again well-intentioned effort to avoid examining the larger context in which the events described in the film took place: colonialism, anti-communism , great power rivalry, vested interests vs. democratic change. Answering the ultimate “why” questions about why things happened as they did is perhaps asking too much of any single effort of scholarship or analysis and far more than can be asked of as meticulous film as the Burns and Novick, but at least naming the forces and making their roles more transparent would be an attempt that might have been pursued somewhat further.
The very language Ken Burns and Lynn Novick use in describing their approach to the film feeds, insidiously, the depoliticization. They are quoted in an interview as saying:
…perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and instead…focus on what it can teach us about courage, it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness, and, ultimately, reconciliation.
“We”? Teach “us?” The film is full of ample evidence of how divided are “our” not only remembrances but roles and interests in the events it portrays. “We” have quite different reasons for remembering what we remember, remembrances continue to plague, not all of “us,” but some of us and not others
Putting perps and victims in the jumble of “us” references at best that the lambs may lie down next to the lions – but in the reconciliation of whose zoo?
V. The Ethics of Participation
The question of motivation for participation is one that produces a frequent and troubling unease in anyone watching the film and attempting to understand what motivated the killings, the torture , the inhuman conduct of so many people, is a harrowing question. The individual interviews provide some insight into what moved some of the individual participants. But the interviews describe rather than explain.
Take a glaring example. Over and over, fighters on both sides are presented as willing to undertake obviously inescapable risks to their own lives, yet proceed to kill and be killed regardless. In some cases, their actions may have been simply self-defense, or carried out where disobedience was not possible. But strong socially-constructed convictions, faiths, beliefs, values, were deeply involved. To grossly over-simplify, the striving for national independence, ethnically and historically based, was a driving force for many. It was played on by leaders on both sides. Communism, with all its shades of meaning, was at least articulated as a key concern pro and con, a concern willing to die for and against. Was freedom from colonial exploitation or dominance the same goal as establishing an independent state, independent ethnically or economically or politically constituted, were among proclaimed goals. Goals important enough to produce an apparent human obliviousness to the tragedies to which the use of these concepts were leading? It would be asking too much to want a film, even of the length and quality of this one, to answer these questions, but they might have been illuminated more from the striking provocative material at hand.
Where would the answer to the question of social motivation/conviction leave us? That a Nazi is honestly and firmly convinced of the merits of fascism and the treachery of all Jews is not an excuse for patrolling concentration camps or gassing Jews. Strength of conviction is one, but only one, aspect of the answer, but only one. And it has even been suggested that the strength of a conviction on a particular question under debate may be inversely related to likelihood of its corresponding to the truth.
The question of morality involved in the assessment of actors’ role in the war has to be seen from two different aspect, if a fair judgment is to be passed, moral criteria to be applied. Buns and Novick are quoted as saying:
“it was super important, I think for us, to leave — at least in a war that has no outward redeeming feature like the Civil War or World War II — to leave you with the realization that sometimes it is the sum total of the heroic contributions of individual people in many different spheres that make it.
If national independence or ethnic self-determination or retribution for anti-social actions or for treason are “outward redeeming features,” do they then justify morally any and all “heroic contributions of individual people”? A distinction could certainly be made between weighing the justice of actions against social goals, against “outward redemption,” against the standard for individual behavior in personal relations. One might find extremism in defense of liberty – read “heroic contributions” to be desirable, and yet have questions about murder and torture as socially desirable actions. Solidarity is both a social and an individual virtue, socially desirable and individually desirable. When John Musgrave warmly embraces a soldier on the other side in the and takes public leadership of an organization of Vietnam Veterans who have fought “heroically” in an unjust cause and spilled blood for no redeeming cause, is he doing something that is socially harmful – embracing others in human solidarity although they have acted in opposition to outwardly redeeming social values? The film leads to confrontation with the question, but does not ask it. Perhaps it need not; the material may simply be let to speak or itself. Yet…?
What, then, is one to make of the contribution of the film as a whole? I would venture only three firm answers:
First, it is an amazing film, a documentary par excellence, a hyug accomplishment, technically in its accessing a wide range of scattered materials and making a coherent and indeed enthralling whole out of them. It is a humane accomplishment in its breadth of concerns, efforts at balance, ability to show and present differing viewpoints and experiences, contributing much to understanding sharply conflicting actions with warmth and concern.
Second, It offers a powerful lessons in what is wrong with war, where false extremism can lead, in the lesson of the over-riding importance that avoiding violence, and certainly government-sanctioned violence, should not play in the making of public decisions and implementation of public policy . It is a profoundly anti-war move.
Third, it raises profound questions about social justice and individual morality, concretely and sympathetically presented, questions that have plagued philosophers and thinking men and women throughout the centuries, questions of social and individual responsibility, the meaning of courage and heroism and brotherly and sisterly love, questions that are way above what can be resolved in one movie, but that could be the basis for broad and open and constructive discussion in many venues in years to come.
Ken Burns’ and Kim Novick’s The War in Vietnam should be widely read, debated, and treasured for all three reasons.
 An excellent summary (among others) is in “The Insidious Ideology of Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War” By Alex Shephard, The New Republic, September 19, 2017.