Blog 126 -Reading the Green New Deal

Vision, Measuring Stick, and Organizational Impetus

Blog 126 – Reading the Green New Deal

A Vision, a Measuring Stick, an Organizational Impetus.

A “Green New Deal Resolution” has just been introduced in Congress. It was drafted by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and supported by some of the  most socially concerned elements on the mainstream political stage today. It has been, I believe, widely misunderstood, intentionally by conservatives, haltingly defended by many who  agree with its emphasis on the urgency of environmental issues but are less sure of its effectiveness as a political statement.

I believe it is a mistake to read the Green New Deal Resolution as if it were the working schedule that a group of legislators had adopted as a detailed formal step by step agenda and time-table for legislative activities for the next session of Congress. It is much too early for that, for some new and some experienced Congress-people and social activists to assemble or present as specific thought-out and carefully formulated set of draft measures ready for immediate vote by a deliberative body, particularly by a Congress with its own ways of working and getting things done, in a somewhat rule-ridden assembly.

 That’s not how the proposed Green New Deal should be read. It is somewhere between a vision and a rallying -cry, and is important as both.. It has three aspects, which together make a real contribution to the signers’ objectives: 1) setting forth what goals they have set for themselves and how they are connected to each other[1], 2) how they or others might gauge their progress to those goals, and, implicitly, 3) a possible way to use their effort organizationally and politically. The signers presumably hope to lure many others to join them in developing and implementing their jointly developed goals through realistic programs and legislation that will pass political muster and work. The New Green Deal Resolution is not a set of draft legislative measures or the platform for an organization, though it could well be steps to both.

As a vision, I would read its text as written to be useful towards presenting a unified view of what its authors are about: putting together quite a variety of ideas on a variety of subjects, paying attention to what academics call their intersectionality, what their children might call how the head bones are connected to the arm bones are connected to shoulder bones are connected to leg bones.  It is intended to avoid being a grab-bag of sweets it would be nice to have, and rather to present a coherent vision of a goal and a future, a destination for the group’s efforts, a platform on which the edifice of a green New Deal and a coalition for its effectuation could be built. It can help fix priorities across a wide band of topics, with a comprehensive logic tying them together, a reasoned way of establishing the goals for their individual terms of office, an argument for others to join in.

But the statement can have a further very concrete and useful function: as a measuring-stick against which to judge what is underway by what is actually needed, to tell how far progress has been made, what exactly has been accomplished and what remains to be done. It can be used  as a tentative report card, a measuring stick by which the doer is willing to be judged, a way of telling, as time goes on, what is likely to be pie in the sky, what in each period is forgettable red  fodder, what is digestible blue meat, and what is hoped for as dessert. One might fantasize about a non-partisan panel of experts, political and civic leaders, and activists, meeting annually to follow through in the directions that the Green New Deal’s authors have proposed, but that would really be pie in the sky.

It is, to be a bit partisan, the mirror-perfect opposite of Donald Trump’s way of proceeding, of the way in which he and his organization have approached their responsibilities as the governing body of a great and complex nation} with no stated over-all goals, no assessing accomplishments and failures by any set of standards, no perspective on what the ultimate outcome is hoped to be. Perhaps as an alternative to the Trump, the  backers of the Green New Deal, who are after all politically progressive Democrats, with the  support of multiple  grass-roots and socially activist organizations, a diverse group  of some of the most socially concerned elements on the mainstream political stage today, including hose in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, such as Alexandra Casio-Cortez, a principal author of the Green New Deal Resolution – perhaps such a group can become the nucleus of a larger permanently organization that  can show in practice what the vision of an environmentally sound, humane, democratic vision, an alternative to Donald Trump’s chaotic non-vision night be, and what steps are needed to move towards that vision  systematically and together. [ A full list of Individuals (and Organizations) supporting the Green New Deal resolution is at NewDeal#Individuals.

Best wishes to its authors

[1] Compare it to how the Pentagon goes about laying out its horrendous Overmatch policy formulation of U.S. global objectives, in which the word “peace” hardly appears and no vision of its ultimate consequences is even attempted.  Michael Klare, “Why ‘Overmatch’ Is Overkill,’” The Nation Jan. 14, 2019.[


Rent Control and California Prop 10

submitted to LA Times October 31, 2018 Likely only of interest to Californians.

To the Editor, Los Angeles Times

Proposition 10 can be confusing. It does NOT establish rent controls anywhere. The Costa-Hawkins law, which Prop 10 repeals, is a state law that simply takes away the decision-making from local communities on whether or not there should be specific forms of rent regulation on specific types of housing units and established its prohibitions state-wide, overruling local decisions. Proposition 10 repeals that law, leaving decision-making on rent regulations in the hands of local communities, where almost all other land use decisions, e.g. zoning and land use planning regulations are now lodged.

Proposition 10 is essentially a home rule proposition. A YES vote restores local control of key housing decisions. If it passes, it will then be up to local voters to decide what kind of regulations of rents they want, if any, want, if any. They can then consider Gary Painter’s compelling arguments for adopting rent controls to spur more building (LA Times, Op-Ed, October 31), and it will be their decision.

Peter Marcuse
Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning
Columbia University
Home address:
3775 Modoc Road
Santa Barbara, Calif. 93105
Phone: 805 879 7714

Blog #119 – Roe vs. Wade, an Alternate Approach: Recusal

Blog #119 – Roe vs. Wade and Supreme Court Appointments

Trump’s promise not to appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who would hesitate to overturn Roe vs. Wade is unethical and an act which invalidates any appointee to the Court who if appointed ruled pursuant to it.  It would violate the U.S. Judicial Code and the ABA’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct. Were Kavanaugh to be appointed, he would have to recuse himself from take part in the consideration of that case, leaving the decisions on it in the hands of the remaining 8 court members. And that obligation to recuse himself would be an on gong one, as long as Trump remains in office – an obligation which might be thrust upon him by the remaining members in considerations from which he would need to recuse himself. .

Those concerned about the future of Roe vs, Wade to the next Supreme Court if Kavanaugh is on it are properly barking loudly out of concern, but up the wrong tree. The problem is one which Trump has created, not Kavanaugh, and which an attack on Trump’s involvement offers the route to the best solution: the prospect of a recusal of anyone he nominates from consideration of the case any time within his own term of office. .

for a more detailed statement of the argument, see, Blog #120 – “Roe vs Wade, An Alternate Approach: Recusal2,”



Blog #116 – Robert Mueller’s Report Song to Congress

The Robert Mueller song, as he presents his final Report to Congress.


To the Tune of the Chiquita Banana commercial:

I’m Chiquita Banana, and I’ve come to say

Bananas must ripen in a certain way….”[1]


My name is Robert Mueller and I’ve come to say,

Investigations must be undertaken in a certain way.

You can’t just claim that what so and so did was wrong

You have to have evidence that is clear and is strong.

You have to say what this man or woman did on a certain day

Violated a certain law at a certain place in a certain way.

This is what he did, and this is the person that saw him do it,

This is what he said he did, and this is why it’s obvious his story blew it.

These are the penalties that can be applied  that the law prescribes,

Only made more severe if you try to evade them with lies.


So here is my report:  I know that it’s 430 pages long

But what it describes was also very wrong wrong wrong.It’s the Congress that determines what’s wrong and what’s right.

My job is only to see how the facts fit what Congress set out, and how tight.

Now what happens, when, and to whom is up to the courts to determine

Whether those who did it were well-intentioned or were vermin.

I’ve finished the job I was hired to do,

Now it’s up to those that hired me to see the matter through.


If I can be of any more help, please do let me know,

Otherwise, I admit, I’m very happy to go.

Good bye, and best wishes.

Robert Mueller.


[1]    It was a United Fruit commerciaI. If you have trouble finding it, it’s from 1940 and the oldest a google search for Chiquita Banana commercial produces; ‘ll try to get the exact url for it shortly. It;s great on its own.

Blog #110a – Cultural Wars and a new Tribalism?

Blog 110a – Cultural Wars and a New Tribalism?

The Times Op-Ed page (on 3/2/18­­) was marvelously symbolic. On the left side, David Brooks reduces all the frightening disagreements about where our country is going, the battles over gun control , trade and tariffs, armaments, nuclear weapons, into manifestations of a “cultural war”,: in which the conservatives “have zero cultural power , but immense political power.” The big prize is not gun control. It’s “winning the cultural war, with the gun fight as the final battle.” Several days earlier (Feb 20,), he had written, “We don’t have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict…,” and the answer is, “just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off.” How? “Respect First, Then Gun Control.” If the Blues and the Reds simply respected each other, they’d settle their problems easily. His recommendation: Blues should stop shaming Reds.  Politics is not about who get what from whom and how they get it, but about how the left stupidly engages in “elite cultural intimidation , claiming “moral superiority.”

On the other side of the Op-Ed page, counter-symbolically the right side, Paul Krugman’s column is headed: “Taxpayers, You’ve Been Scammed.” It’s a straightforward contribution to a policy debate about the new tax law. It gives some facts about whom it will help, whom it will hurt, and how political and economic power are being wielded to achieve what those that possess it want, for their own benefit, at a cost to the middle class. Not a word about a “cultural wars.” It’s about who get what from whom and how they get it

And symbolically between these two column’s is Mat Glassman’s column, which explains the “larger problem” behind the White House Chaos,” blaming it on the weakness of Donald Trump as President to his inability to attract a competent staff to advise him.  It’s a management problem.

What the “culture wars” argument does, as does “lamenting the ‘roots of the problem’ in ‘management skills,’ ” is to completely side step the very real factual economic and social and political differences that divide the country. For cultural theorists, there’s no moral difference between advocating for teachers carrying guns in school and asking for a ban on assault rifles; no more weight to be given to logically grounded analysis of tax policies than to the hurt sensitivities of those that support them. Tranquility is what’s needed, above all; never mind who’s goring whose ox, whether some go homeless while others thrive in mansions using their labor. Such evenhandedness violates any effort to shape public policies that promote the values of social justice and human rights.

Indeed there are troublesome cultural differences that exacerbate the problems in our society, but the real issues aren’t differences of opinion or how they are expressed, but how the wealth that  society produces is shared. We don’t have “big tribal conflicts” because all of a sudden some “tribal instincts ” have emerged from some repressed deep identities, or because  we’ve suddenly decided to turn these instincts on, having turned them off all these years.  Focusing on the symptoms of conflicts shouldn’t obliterate recognition of their causes.

And it obliterates very specific causes: any reference to inequalities of wealth or power, or to their use in exploitation or domination, to create very hierarchical divisions not simply differences at the level of what the divisions are about, not “souls committed to the basic democratic norms–respect for truth, personal integrity, the capacity for deliberation and compromise, loyalty to nation above party or tribe,” up against other souls who believe “what matters is the survival of your nation and culture.” [David Brooks, “Worthy is The {Conor} Lamb,” New York Times, 3/17/p. A27] That something as mundane as class or race might be playing a role in the divisions that divide “us” never appears.

Blog #108 – Retirement Communities such as Vista del Monte: Planning Models for Utopias,?

Blog #108 – Retirement Communities such as Vista del Monte: Models for Utopias, or?

We have just moved to Vista del Monte, a retirement continuing care community in Santa Barbara, California. Our thus far brief but stimulating time here has raised some puzzling questions for us, starting with the question of whether it is an ideal community for its present residents, and then in its efforts to be so is it a model useful for planners and generally anyone concerned with influencing the communities in a more humane, more democratic, more equitable direction? So two questions:

  1. Is it a model of what an ideal community in a less than ideal world would be like? How so, or why not? And for whom?
  2. What is the role of such a community, outside its own bounds, for social policy and community development in general? How so, or why not? And for whom?

{This Blog #1O8 should perhaps be skimmed, and then read in conjunction with Blog #109, still in the works, which goes further into the discussion of retirement communities as possible  ideal communities with lessons for urban planning in the future.}

On a personal note, the decision to research and write up our experience at Vista had two motivations. One was, simply to understand the new situation in which we found ourselves, the better to adapt to it to understand both its potentials and limitations. to guide our own lives in our new circumstance. The other motivation was a growing professional and personal curiosity about the role of the community we were entering in the context of urban planning principles embedded in our long-time interest in social and political and economic activities contributing to the common good. And there was simple intellectual curiosity about what made the new community in which we were tick, what motivated its players, what impacted their lives, what effect it had, if any, on the world around it.

And a personal reflection about the presumptions we brought to this effort about the very concept of a retirement community. These became clearer as we proceeded. in our consideration of whether or not to move to from our sixty-year occupancy of a three-bedroom single family house in a declining industrial community of some 130,000 residents on the east coast in which we had lived as a couple for over 67 years, to move to a higher-income region on the West Coast of about the same size of which we had learned from a son living near that community.

What is a retirement community, essentially? Is it simply a realistic response to the acknowledgement that our lives have finite endings, that the effort to make a living, raise a family, achieve some level of recognition, is over, the beginning of the end of life, hoping to phase out in comfort and grace? And was the community to which we were moving, that we had freely chosen simply the result of a search by individuals of retirement age or older about  how to spend their declining years, not relevant for anyone still in their prime or  younger? Did it have lessons anyone concerns for bettering their community, perhaps with implications for our society as a whole? Was it a search for a possible model utopia, worth examining for lessons to be learned by others in the future, or was it simply, to be blunt, a selfish concern to die as painlessly and perhaps as slowly as possible? Was it, in other words, a model utopia for the living, or a smoother path out as life was fading?

The likely answer surprised us – by it apparent absence, looked at through the treatment of death among residents formally selected from the outset based on their age,. Calendars abounded on bulletin boards, and many personal life events were recorded there, but not all were celebrated. The community was considered in its literature and recognized officially as a “continuum of care community”, going from facilities for independent living to ones for assisted living, to ones for those with memory disabilities, to ones for those needing skilled care. It did not end, as might have been logical, with hospice facilities, although hospice care is available  in other units. When residents were encouraged to prepare emergency kits in case of fire or earthquake, suggestions to take include, not wills such as those concerned with a premature death might wish to take, but rather passports, looking forward to continuing life beyond  the emergency.

We quickly concluded that our interest, and the focus for this essay, was not in the treatment of death by the elderly, but rather in the lessons for living that might be drawn from their experience before and in retirement.  We believe there are lessons to be learned from the organization of communities such as Vista del Monte valuable for the living of all ages, and well deserving of further study.


[The rest of this blog #108 provides an initial dense description the structure and functioning of Vista del Monte, a medium-sized well-regarded Continuum of Care retirement community in California, looking at its Vision statement and its actual organization and functioning. Blog #109 then starts an initial attempt at hypotheses about what the evidence shows about the answers to the questions stated at the beginning.]

Vista del Monte, based on our limited experience, is a very attractive Continuum of Care retirement community in Santa Barbara, Calif, to which we have just moved. We have a two-bedroom unit there.,. It is listed as for Independent Living, and our medical conditions needed to be approved as adequate for what it offers that we want. in beautiful surroundings. It is the largest of seven  types of buildings, going from Independent Living to Assisted Living  to Memory Care to Skilled Nursing, The Skilled Nursing unit was formerly included in the project’s campus but is now provided by links to a separate development near-by, also non-profit, but the result of financial decisions by the non-profit board of Vista that caused significant controversy among residents when  it was announced.

Vista del Monte, between the mountains and the sea, is a community of some 150 units, with a wide range of facilities and activities Ours is a unit with two bedrooms, most have one bed room, and a few are studio-style units of one room. All, whatever their size, have a basic kitchen, an option for two or three meals a day at three separate smaller and one larger central dining room. We think it will be ideal for visitors. We really don’t know quite what to expect in what will be essentially a completely new life for us, but we hope that close continuing contact even if at a distance with family and friends here will make it at least endurable, and even a pleasant way to keep going as far as our abilities will let us. Even with limitations: less travel, no doubt, but forms of communication and contact are multifarious today, and we hope to make full use of them.

Apartments in the development rent around $7,000, depending on size and configuration and level of services requested. They include Independent Living, Assisted Living, Memory Dependent, and Skilled Nursing units (for now). with various financing arrangements. Our unit is a two bedroom, living room, tiny kitchen. We received a moderate discount because they had just converted it to two bedrooms by adding one room to a one-bedroom-living room unit; they haven’t put in a washer-dryer unit or replaced the bathtub with a shower stall yet. It’s on the second floor of the largest building, with a small balcony, an elevator and stairs down the hall. We’re in an “independent living” unit. There are grab bars all over, window blinds, wall-to-wall rugs, no furniture at all; we had to buy a bed, and shipped key furniture from home. Services included in the rent include 2 meals a day in the dining room in an attached building, linens, towels, housekeeping every two weeks, pets only with a surcharge, a garage and a shuttle service to downtown Santa Barbara, weekly linen service and bi-weekly housekeeping, meals delivered to apartments on request with minor fee, a basic health clinic, wifi and cable connections, maybe a mile from the beach. Very few people have cars. Personal trips, including to doctors, are available at a charge.

The development was originally built by a teachers’ retirement fund, since bought by Front Porch, inc., a non-profit development of retirement homes.[1] It receives significant gifts from patrons, but to my knowledge no public subsidies although the Community College, for instance, holds some classes on request at the development . The grounds are beautifully landscaped by a garden maintenance staff, flowers on every dining room table. There is a health clinic with limited services and hours. Some residents have cars.

Staff – estimated at150 persons, for a total resident population of about twice that. The dining room staff is largely but not exclusively Spanish speaking and bilingual, some recruited from among students at the  local community college. They seem to be well trained and are knowledgeable and friendly, addressing us by our first names after the first two weeks, and likewise known to residents by their first names, Employees arebeneficiaries of a scholarship fund, have holiday celebrations. And share in the befits from several Vist available resources. Perhaps ten or more Hispanic and African-Americans are on the administrative staff.[2] Both staff and residents include foreign -born  individuals.

Social—inter-personal—relations seem uniformly warm and friendly. The dining room has tales of 4 and 6 persons, and people are shown to empty seats where ever they may be, so mixing is general. Everybody introduces themselves if someone not known to them sits with them, and backgrounds are exchanged. Women outnumber men perhaps 2 to1 Couples are in a minority, but not rare. We have sat and conversed with engineers, teachers, just now a psychiatrist, our neighbor is a sculptress in wood, at least half a dozen are or speak German. There are Catholic communion services and Hanukkah programs around the respective holidays, some off-campus available by shuttle bus. .

Social programming is extensive. We have met, in our 5 weeks here, the Maintenance/Housekeeping Planner, the Director of Sales and Marketing. and the Marketing Manager, the Spiritual Life Program Leader, (who was interested in our Frankfurt School connection), the Director of Life Enrichment, the Director of Human Resources, the Director of Resident Services, the Director of Sales and Marketing, the Payroll Coordinator , the Executive Director, the Director of Maintenance, and the Dining Specialist. Perhaps ten of the staff with named positions are Spanish-speaking.

Both a monthly and a Weekly calendar are regularly posted and distributed, Monthly is for major scheduled events, and there is a weekly list of menus and a description of social events or cultural programs provided each day that week, ranging from current events class/discussion group run by the S.B. Community College, to singing groups, excursions by bus to the pier at the beach, to Trader Joe’s, and to any destination within a 50 mile radius on request of residents.

Programs are provided for virtually every hour of every day, from 9:00 a.m to 8:OO p.m, ranging from Chair Exercises to Music Appreciation to Mindfulness Meditation to Art with Wendy to Ping Pong Holiday Sing-fest  to Home Technology Support Insights through Literature, Yoga Our Way to Brain Fitness Games.

Organizations. Groups self-organize. One to which we were introduced meets weekly at dinner to discuss a particular newspaper or journal article chosen by a member. There is a apparently one group that meets, perhaps at dinner, to speak to each other in French, and one is talked about for German. There is apparently an agreements, implicit but observed, that neither politics nor the financial operations of the development should be discussed at casuaal meals, and we have encountered very little desire to do so. It seems quite clear to us that the majority of residents are anti-Trump and civil rights oriented, but most not in a day-to-day activist fashion.

There is a Vista Residents Association, in which all residents are automatically members. Officers are elected by the membership, committee chairs appointed by the President, It has an elaborate committee structure, with some 23 committees to which residents are encouraged to volunteer,  The President appoints committee chair persons.  Those in turn form a small sort of Leadership Committee. The Association meets bi-weekly, the Leadership weekly; all members are welcome to attend all meeting, which are publicized, and minutes distributed to all.

In practice, it all seems designed to maximize participation, but is purely advisory, with decision-making firmly in the hands of Front Porch, the non-profit company whose headquarters are in Glendale, CA..  The arrangement is, from what I have seen, widely recognized and accepted. On small matters, the committee’s’ recommendations are generally effective: decisions as to garden design, plantings, choice of programs among those made available, e.g. movies or excursions or celebrations, are democratically made, with open discussion.

That does not, however, apply to basic business decisions of the enterprise, which remain in the hands of Front Porch, itself a non-profit company owning a number of retirement communities on the West Coast and providing services to other retirement companies elsewhere..

It is not clear to me what the legal structure of  Vista del Monte, the name by which the development is generally known, is. Typically, conventional business decisions, e.g. the level of rents, what services are provided free and which have fees over and above the rent, expansion or contraction of the physical campus, growth models. evictions, etc. Front Porch is a 501.c3 corporation that owns Vista del Monte, as well a 13 other retirement communities with a total of 1588 beds, of which 1243 are Independent Living, 87 are Memory Care, and 258 Care Center units. In Vista itself, 169 are Independent Living,  19 are Memory Care, and 258 Care Center units. and provides them with services and management. [3]

Labor relations: employee wages or terms of employment, are not part of the agendas for the Vista Residents’ Association. There is an e\Employees Association. which is apparently entirely employee run, and is active in programming that affects employees, e.g. adjusting hours of meal service  for holidays or celebrations . No tipping is allowed, but there is a Vista Employees Fund, a 5O1c3 – based on the Vista Teachers Retirement Fund, that being the predecessor and original builder of the present development. Its income is entirely from voluntary contributions, which just now is collecting funds   from residents to be distributed to employees for the holidays and used to fund school scholarships and emergency help for employees under stress. The employees that operate the kitchen, wait on tables and do the maintenance, are friendly, often know the residents by their first names and vice versa. Everyone, to an outsider, seems very satisfied with the arrangements.

The one limited exception to the non-discussion of development business issues we are aware of is the decision of Front Porch, the large non-profit which owns Vista del Monte, to close its skilled nursing building, convert it to Memory Care housing, and outsource the skilled care to a nearby well-regarded non-profit facility. The issue came up at a Residents’ Committee report meeting, some questions were raised, answers weren’t available, it was pointed out that the committee’s opinions didn’t really make much difference since it was only advisory, and the meeting moved on.


So, looking at this very preliminary and sketchy case study of one retirement community, what conclusions might one explore as to possible broader implications forurban planning, my own field of work?

Blog #109 is intended to continue the discussion. Comments in advance very welcome.

[1] Front Porch describes itself as “the parent of Vista del Monte… and the largest southern California based provider of not-for-Profit retirement housing and services. It operates in California , Louisiana, and Florida.

[2] Vista is an equal opportunity housing provider under California law, with CA License #425800464  COA #196

 [3] From the auditors report for March 2016.


Blog #105 – Vietnam – The Film, Contributions and Open Questions

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.” [1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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…?

  1. Conclusion

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.





 [3] 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.