Watching The Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has been difficult. Witnessing the horrors of the fighting and the bombing, hearing again the lies and propaganda that sustained the insanity, reliving the agonizing choices our generation faced in being forced to confront an unjust war. It’s a painful experience.
It is made worse by Burns and Novick falling prey to the core deceptions of the war. From the outset, they claim it was a struggle fought with good intentions. They accept the logic of militarism and anti-communism that led to the war. They omit or distort many important historical facts. Throughout the film they cloak those who served in the war in a mantle of honor and patriotism, falsely implying that those of us who were part of the war machine at the time were somehow helping our country, as if anything good could come of such wanton destruction and deception.
Despite the many flaws, however, I see two important and valuable insights in the documentary.
It is unmistakably clear that the presidents, policy advisers, and military leaders who initiated the war grossly misread history and consciously deceived themselves and the American people. Kennedy, Johnson, and McNamara knew the war was unwinnable but they kept it going out of political self-interest and moral cowardice. Nixon and Kissinger cynically engineered the gradual end of the ground war, propelled by the antiwar opposition and the collapse of the military, but they unleashed a monstrous air war that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam and Cambodia. Responsibility for the debacle of Vietnam rests squarely on the shoulders of our country’s political and military leaders.
The other key point for me is that we were right to protest and resist the war. Peace movement voices are few in the 18 hours of footage from Burns and Novick, but they speak with clarity and moral conviction. The most sympathetic treatment is reserved for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which emerged as a significant political force especially in 1971. There is too much focus on extremist tendencies within the movement and not enough attention to the overwhelming majority of nonviolent protesters, but it is clear that political opposition to the war profoundly influenced decision-making at the White House and was a decisive factor in constraining escalation and driving the withdrawal of American troops.
Burns and Novick do not address the moral and political lessons of the war and their relevance for today. Militarism is a disease that infects and warps American politics. It led to disaster and defeat in Vietnam and continues today in the endless and unwinnable wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.
Will we ever learn?