The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary film series on the Vietnam War (which aired in September on PBS) was a cathartic event for the Sixties Generation. Many of my friends could not watch the entire series—it was too emotional, too visceral, too heart-rending—even five decades later. There has been a lot of discussion of the film series. And much dissension about its historical perspective.
At a panel discussion last week on the 50th anniversary of the October 1967 “Stop The Draft Week” that shut down the Oakland Induction Center, I asked Frank Bardacke (one of the key organizers in the Anti-War Movement) what he thought of the film series. Here’s his answer:
“Ken Burns is extremely good at what he does. He knows how to take a still photo and combine it with music, combine it with a narrative. He knows how to take individual people and make you identify with them. He’s very good at it.
“There is a truth in that series and the truth is that war is hell for the participants. That series does a very good job at telling that truth. But that is only one truth about the war in Vietnam. And there’s lots of other stuff … he had so many hours and so much time. There’s a lot of other stuff that is terribly left out. And then also misrepresented.
“The biggest misrepresentation as far as I’m concerned is the presentation of the war in Vietnam as a civil war. My understanding of it is that it was a war of national liberation. It wasn’t a civil war. The South Vietnamese were completely propped up by the United States. They could not have existed without the United States. It was a war of national liberation like in that period wars of national liberation throughout the world. And we opposed it.
“The second thing that was very upsetting to me about the series was that there are a lot of very good Left histories of the war in Vietnam. Every single expert that was interviewed was from the CIA, the Army, or the Pentagon. They did not have one single historian of the war talk about the war. It got so ridiculous that the person at the end who was the “objective” person talking about the dilemmas of the military is John Negroponte??!! John Negroponte, who is probably implicated in the death of Che Guevara … this is a bad man. And he is presented there as an objective commentator on the war.
“I don’t know. It showed that war is hell. You know at the very beginning, there are two things from the very first one, it says ‘in wars nobody wins, nobody loses’ that’s what the guy says. Well, that’s not true. War is hell, it’s terrible for the people who fight it. I totally agree with that. And he does a good job of saying that. But you know what? Some people win wars and some people lose them. Thank goodness the North won the the Civil War. Thank goodness the Allies won the Second World War. And as far as I’m concerned thank god the Vietnamese won the Vietnamese War. And they won it.
“And so I don’t know, it’s so well done and yet so misrepresents what happened. Except for the idea that the war was really, really hard on the people who fought it. Well, that’s true of all wars. And it’s good to say that. It’s good to say that. But you don’t have to say that in eighteen hours, time after time. Every single one that I saw began with the soldiers and ended with the soldiers. Every single one.
“So, anyway … I’m very glad you asked that question.”
The panel discussion was sponsored by Shaping San Francisco and they have uploaded a video of the event.