MHM Editor Neil Faulkner reviews Ken Burns’ new 18-hour blockbuster The Vietnam War, and compares it to three other great TV war documentaries of the last half-century.

A pro-Vietnam War demonstration in the US. Credit: PBS

What was most shocking about Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War ? It wasn’t the atrocities. It wasn’t the Vietcong prisoner murdered in cold blood on the streets of Saigon. It wasn’t Phan Thi Kim Phúc running naked down the road from her village covered in napalm burns. It wasn’t the psychotic close-range killing of babies at My Lai. It wasn’t the bleeding corpse on the tarmac at Kent State.

I knew about those things. I was still gripped by the retelling of these events – by the way they were narrated – and indeed by the way the whole story from start to finish was retold. I had been a bit daunted by the length of the documentary. Could they really sustain it through ten feature-film-length episodes? So let me tell you now – assuming you haven’t seen it already – there isn’t a dull moment. It never flags, not once in 18 hours, and if you don’t watch it all, fascinated and horrified, you must have lost interest in life itself.

One of the episodes is called The History of the World, and that is what Vietnam was: a cameo, a précis, an exemplar of the whole, terrible, tragic history of humanity from the dawn of time. Everything is in the mix: imperialism, dictatorship, aerial bombing, mass murder, guerrilla warfare, torture, concentration camps, machine warfare, exploitation, abuse of prisoners, chemical warfare, institutionalised lying, fake news… you name it, it happened in the Vietnam War, and it is here in this outstanding documentary series.

Credit: PBS

A CORRUPT ELITE
The way the whole thing was woven into a single story was absolutely compelling. I guess I knew a lot of the story already, but I learned a lot I didn’t know – and one of the things I didn’t know was the date when the most intelligent sections of the American political elite realised the war could not be won.

I thought perhaps it was 1968. Perhaps they really had believed their own propaganda up to that point – that by pouring the petrol of foreign military occupation onto an embedded nationalist insurgency you could somehow prop up a client dictatorship. But I was wrong. They knew in 1965 – the very year the first combat troops were committed, when the total US involvement was just 5% of what it would have become by 1968.

I was stunned by the bottomless cynicism of America’s rulers, by their withering contempt for their own people, to whom they lied and lied and lied about the war. Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, in office through all the critical years from 1961 to 1968, was penning top-secret reports from 1965 onwards to the effect that, despite killing Vietnamese at the rate of ten to one, the war was unwinnable.

Yet they kept escalating. And the reasons are spelt out in tape recordings of conversations between Johnson and McNamara, and between Nixon and Kissinger, conversations that reveal political leaders devoid of any shred of moral integrity, utterly heedless of the lives of American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, intent only on safeguarding their own tawdry careers.

They pumped in troops and hardware because they feared defeat, loss of prestige, a fall from office; they escalated because they were desperate for some sort of negotiated way out that would allow them to pretend they had ‘peace with honour’. They carried on killing until two million were dead to save face.

THE POLITICS OF WAR
No less compelling is the focus on the anti-war movement in the States. If America’s rulers are cast as Old Corruption, the American people emerge as the standard bearers of a Noble Cause.

The war in Vietnam was unwinnable for either side. As long as half a million US soldiers were in the country, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army could do no more than hold their ground. Central to the whole second half of the series is the way in which the war was ended, not in the jungles of the Mekong Delta and the mountains of the Central Highlands, but on the streets of New York, Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco.

This is a story of mass radicalisation, and it is told through personal stories and first-hand testimony that is heart-rending. There is, for example, John Musgrave, who served as a marine in Vietnam.

He appears many times to tell different parts of his story. Early on we hear of his kids growing up wanting to know why Daddy was allowed to keep a light on at night. And we watch in awe as he describes the roots of his grown-up night terrors: manning a sentry-post on a marine perimeter and hearing the whispered voices of the enemy in the darkness.

John Musgrave (left) and a friend, about to enter the US Marine Corps, 30 August 1966.

As the series unfolds, we are privy to his radicalisation. His growing doubt, his eventual disgust at a war of ‘kill ratios’ and ‘body counts’, his horror when National Guardsmen gun down American kids on a university campus (‘My God, we’re killing our own people – we’ve gone mad’), and finally his commitment to the anti-war movement as we cut to a still of the former marine on a demo with long hair and denim jacket giving the clenched fist salute (‘And boy, did it feel good’).

Musgrave took part in the famous medals protest. The Nixon regime had erected wire barricades against a Vietnam Veterans Against the War protest – 2,000-strong, in the event – and the vets ended up hurling their medals over the fence. It got international TV news coverage.

What was happening among veterans at home was, by the early 1970s, mirrored by the situation at the front. Morale had collapsed. US conscripts sat around in their camps taking drugs, painting CND symbols on their helmets, and ignoring their officers. An estimated 800 gung-ho junior officers were ‘fragged’ by men determined not to risk their lives going on patrol. ‘I need to get this army home to save it,’ said the new American commander in Vietnam, Creighton Abrams.

Photographic still from the BBC’s ‘The Great War’.

RAISING THE BENCHMARK
It is this understanding of the politics of the war that sets a new standard for war documentaries. Roll back to the first of its kind, the BBC’s landmark The Great War, made to mark the half-centenary of the First World War. It went out in 26 half-hour episodes, broadcast on BBC2, starting on 30 May 1964.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest achievements of Britain’s public broadcaster up to that time, it created the template, a combination of archive footage, contemporary stills, participant interviews, and background narration. Researched and written by a cohort of leading military historians, including Corelli Barnett, Barrie Pitt, and John Terraine, it represented cutting-edge analysis reduced to pithy sound-bites laced with visceral contemporary images and first-hand testimonies.

The success of The Great War lent urgency to the attempt to do the same for the Second World War. The critical thing was the veteran interviews. The longer the delay, the fewer of them there would be, especially among those who had held senior office or command during the war.

But in the event, it was Thames Television that finally agreed to back Jeremy Isaacs’ hugely ambitious project to create a documentary series of 26 one-hour episodes, making it twice the length of The Great War.

The World at War was three years in the making, with a staff of 50, and the cost was £900,000, a huge amount at the time. But Thames TV’s gamble paid off : the series attracted audiences of ten million and won a plethora of awards. It broke new ground. It focused on the ordinary people, soldiers and civilians, caught up in the war, and it represented it as a global catastrophe. It presented the full horror of the Holocaust on television for the first time.

It opened with a pan over the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane and a narration that, when it eventually went out, had been rewritten countless times, honed and honed until writer Neal Ascherson and producer Jeremy Isaacs were fully satisfied.

It is worth quoting, for it is a masterpiece of journalistic writing and it encapsulates the underlying philosophy of the whole series:

Down this road on a summer day in 1944 the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, a community which had lived for a thousand years was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane in France.

The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns. The women and children were led down this road and they were driven into this church. Here they heard firing as their men were shot. Then they were killed too.

A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms – in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a world at war.

Then it cuts to the sudden boom of the musical theme and the succession of faces outlined in flames against a black backdrop that was the series title sequence. The faces – the haggard, anguished, suffering victims of the war – look across time into the living rooms of the present as if accusing those who sit in comfort now. That sequence, once seen, is unforgettable.

Photographic still from ‘The Civil War’.

AMERICA’S MOST TERRIBLE WAR
Ken Burns is perhaps America’s greatest documentary-maker. His work includes a history of the Second World War from the US perspective (The War, 2007, nine episodes, running time 14 hours), but prior to Vietnam he was probably best known for The Civil War (1990, seven episodes, running time 11 hours 30 minutes).

The Civil War earned universal plaudits when it appeared. Without either contemporary moving images or surviving participant interviews as options, the film-makers were forced to substitute contemporary prints and photos, to draw on the rich archival sources for the war (with quotations read by famous actors), and to use interviews with experts (among whom the late Shelby Foote excelled).

What makes watching the series an overwhelmingly emotional experience is not just the almost poetic language of the script and the heart-stopping pathos of the Civil War melodies that play in the background, but the film’s unequivocal understanding that the war was both tragic and unavoidable: that it was the war that abolished slavery, and by doing so redeemed what it meant to be American.

But it does this – unveils the essential truth about the war, its inner meaning for America – without violating the integrity of participants on both sides. It concedes nothing to neo-Confederate revisionism, yet it allows us to understand why men like Robert E Lee and women like the Charleston diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut went with the South.

It leaves us with a sense of tragedy born of an irreconcilable conflict in which men and women struggled to make sense of the issues, to get their bearings, to work out where they stood.

Vietnamese civilians traumatised during the Vietnam War. Credit: PBS

THE TRAGEDY
The politics of war. The tragedy of war. The unbearable human cost. The cross-currents and contradictions. These inform all the great war documentaries. They are never simply about generals and strategy, soldiers and battlefields. They are always about the total experience of war – war understood holistically, as Clausewitz taught us it must be.

The Vietnam War perhaps takes us a step further. For, before our very eyes, we see human beings changing through the experience of war. Above all, we see Americans rejecting the ‘patriotism’ of their rulers to create a new definition of who they can be.

The testimony of one African-American tunnel rat sticks in my memory:

I beat and strangled someone to death in the darkness of a tunnel. And that wasn’t the only casualty. There was also the civilised version of me.

Millions of Americans found themselves searching for the civilised version of themselves. Marine John Musgrave was one. About his role in the war he said:

I was first and foremost a citizen of the United States. I served my country as honourably when I was in Vietnam Veterans Against the War as when I served in Vietnam.

And then there were the Vietnamese, the people whose country was violated, the peasant people fighting for national independence against the world’s greatest superpower. Twenty of them died for every one American, some serving in the ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam), some in the NVA (the North Vietnamese Army), some in the Viet Cong (the South Vietnamese Communists), but most just ordinary civilians.

Let me end with one of many striking cameos of asymmetrical warfare from the series. ‘American firepower, Vietnamese flesh and blood’ was how one NVA veteran summed up the war. Many spoke in particular of the trauma of aerial bombing. Consider the critical battle fought around the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the key supply-line from north to south that ran through neighbouring Cambodia.

More bombs were dropped on it than on the whole of Germany and Japan during the Second World War. Giant B-52 heavy bombers were deployed day after day to smash the roadway. But down below, night after night, thousands of barefoot teenage girls laboured to repair it. And somehow they kept it open.

Firepower against flesh and blood. Machines against people. And this time, at least, it was the people that won – on the battlefields of Southeast Asia and on the streets of the United States.

I doubt this film of the war will ever be surpassed. This is the definitive television history of the war in Vietnam.