The recent success of The Vietnam War, a television documentary co-directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, shows the enduring legacy of the conflict in popular memory. Broadcast as a ten-hour series in the UK on BBC Four and originally aired with an even longer running time on PBS, the series is ambitious in its detail and scope. That such an in-depth history can still prove gripping, accessible and popular shows how the Vietnam War continues to loom large in the psyche.
The films span a 150-year period from French colonialism to the present day. They encompass not only military strategy and high politics, but also the experiences of soldiers and civilians on all sides, the US domestic context and the war’s cultural legacy. The simplicity of the cinematography is striking and immersive. Typical of Burns’ style, the films are full of photographs, footage and music from the time, interspersed with interviews of those with first-hand experience of the war. Occasionally, an unseen narrator sets this in a broader context. Weaving memory with the images and sounds of war, each film is an artistic masterpiece as well as a compelling history.
Watching the series made me reflect on two issues involved in writing history. First, the stories we tell about the past are not just found in the narratives we form to try to make sense of our sources, but are inseparable from the sources themselves. Moreover, the histories we write are always connected to the present.
The Vietnam War deliberately omits the voice of the historical ‘expert’. First-hand accounts tell most of the story. Interviews with South Vietnamese, Viet Cong and US veterans, civilians, journalists, anti-war protestors and policy-makers add a level of detail and human connection that historical narrative alone could never bring. But this privileging of ‘authentic’ lived experience is not unproblematic. As with all oral history, certain voices are chosen over others and memory distorts accounts of ‘what actually happened’.
Similarly, the narration cannot claim to be entirely objective. The historical interpretation is not laboured, but it is still there. Parallels are drawn between American imperialism and French colonialism. As a result, the ultimate failure of US military intervention seems inevitable. Also underpinning the series is an interpretation focused on the irreconcilable tension between the humanity of the individual and the mistakes and deceit of those in power. The Vietnam War reminds us that, rather than ‘speaking for themselves’, historical sources become part of a wider story. How we select, prioritise and present our evidence shapes the histories we write.
The question of interpretation is particularly valid when considering how The Vietnam War reflects its present-day context. The films track the growth of the US anti-war movement in the 1960s and 70s. The focus on anti-war sentiment, and relative silence on ongoing support for the war, chimes with contemporary western anti-interventionism. Racial, class and party-political tensions which shaped and were exacerbated by Vietnam speak to an increasingly divided US society. The narrative of increasing distrust of political and military experts, epitomised by the leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, has its echoes in today’s ‘post-truth’ era.
That The Vietnam War prompted me to think about my own history writing is a testament to its ground-breaking approach. There is a risk that by taking the historian out of the picture, the films’ interpretation could be mistaken for fact. However, for a public history on a controversial war to which many people still have a personal connection, a democratic narrative, rather than an authoritative, ‘expert’ one, is effective. The series is sure to become a classic and must be admired for its bravery in tackling a still divisive subject. Historians have much to learn from Burns and Novick in how to write histories for a public audience which address national failure, division and even shame. As a British historian, I cannot help but imagine how a similar approach might open up public debate on the history of the British Empire.
Image: Conversation with Ken Burns at LBJ Presidential Library, April 2017 (photo by Jay Godwin, public domain, https://www.flickr.com/photos/lbjlibrarynow/33486716134)