Going Deep on 'The Vietnam War' With Ken Burns


I had a chance to talk with Ken Burns early this summer about The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn NovickWe ended up having a wide-ranging and relatively intense conversation about why they made the film and how they decided what to include and what to leave out.

If you've made it through more than a couple of episodes of the series so far, you realize that there's nothing easy about watching it and the experience of spending a decade making The Vietnam War had to be an almost unimaginable challenge.

There's a determination in this film to give a voice to the men and women who participated in this war, no matter their loyalties or political persuasions. Check that: everyone who participated has a willingness to engage points-of-view that may not align with their own and it's that hunt for perspective that makes this series so important.

The Vietnam War showed me things I never knew or understood, changed my mind and frustrated me at the same time.  Burns talks about his philosophy in this interview. "The only way you have a conversation is not to make the other [person] wrong."

If you haven't watched much of the show, we get into specifics about some of the interview subjects. Several of them have life-changing experiences during the course of the war. Burns and Novick don't reveal those changes until the moment in the timeline when they actually happen, so some of our conversation may qualify as spoilers if you worry about that kind of thing. As I promised Ken, I don't ruin the final moment of the film.

Ken Burns. Credit: Tim Llewellyn Photography

Even though I was born in the Sixties, the Vietnam War seems like most significant event in my lifetime. It affected people in my generation, especially, how we approached everything: from school to military service to finding our careers. A lot of Vietnam era people would consider my group too young to be a part of all that, but the war was this shadow over everything in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  It was overwhelming for me to see things that I vaguely remembered or didn’t really know firsthand at the time because I was 6, 7, 8 years old.

Well, I was born in 1953.  It was very much a part of my life.  But my co-director, Lynn Novick, was born in '62 and she describes Vietnam as just being exactly that.  As soon as she became aware of the world around her, beyond her family, she knew there was this bad thing going on.  Well, the shadow, you said.

I come from a family with generations of people who served in the military but there was absolutely no question of whether I should consider it or be allowed to join. I didn’t serve because that’s not what we did coming out of high school in the 80's. What was your personal experience?  You're in the demographic. The draft was an issue in your life. What was it like for you?

It was scary and I lived in a college town, the son of a college professor. A lot of it was very much about the opposition to the war.  And yet I was torn inside myself.

I think a lot of people talk about Vietnam as being this thing we buried and didn’t want to deal with.  As you know in the opening, Karl Marlantes says it's like having an alcoholic father.  “Shhh, we don’t talk about that.”  And we haven't talked about that.  When we do, it causes divisions between us.  But it's also revealing, it seems to me, of divisions within us.

I saw the deaths, the body counts at the end of the week on the nightly news and I was so relieved that we were killing more of them than us.  And so I was psychologically torn.

But none of that was relevant in making the film.  It was just stuff you had to shed because everything everyone knows about Vietnam is off in some way. You’ve got to realize that there's been all this new scholarship on the war. We've opened up, we've triangulated with the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong and the South Vietnamese civilians and military alike and got to know what actually happened from the top down, from all of the decisions that Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations were making.  To me, it was our responsibility to try to find out as much as we can exactly what the facts were and then try to process 80 people's memories of it.

You seem to have concentrated on finding people who had served in the war who later wrote about it.

No, we actually found a few people who had written about it, like Karl Marlantes, like Bao Ninh, like Tim O'Brien.  But mostly we were looking for ordinary folks.  And as you know, we don’t tell anybody what they had done until the very, very end of the film, if at all.  I assume you’ve seen the whole film.

Yes. Sometimes I felt like I had cheated myself because I have read their books and knew what was going to come out.  But that’s my problem, not yours.

Yeah, that’s exactly right.  And it's not anybody else's problem because we knew who Tim O’Brien was, but we put him on the same level as Vincent Okamoto who didn’t write a book about it.  And what's the difference between hearing Tim O'Brien talk about how difficult it was not to go and how difficult it was to put his feet in front of each other?  Or Okamoto running from one down to APC to another, firing until the machine gun ran out, and becoming one of the highly decorated Japanese Americans in it and talking movingly about how America produces such young people as that, people who didn’t have other options and understood military service like the weather?  And that to me is as poetic as anything.

At the end, even high school kids who probably have been asked to read The Things They Carry couldn’t probably tell you who the author was.  So the fact that you're looking at some Army guy from Minnesota named Tim O'Brien doesn’t mean anything to 99.99% of the people.

And, as you see, there are very few people who are known interviewed in the film.  We didn’t interview John McCain, we didn’t interview John Kerry, we didn’t interview Henry Kissinger. We've got a couple of journalists, we've got some policy wonks from the Pentagon that somebody might know.  You see Max Cleland, who is a triple amputee and the former United States Senator.  But we don’t even get into his triple amputee-ness.  We just let him speak when he was cogent. For us, everyone is equal.

That’s the problem in our country.  We had an American Revolution 200-and-however many years ago.  It was a war to throw off the boldface names, the royalties, the aristocracy.  Now we've replaced it in our media culture with boldfaced names, people who were supposedly known. We think they're somehow above. So we don’t do that.  We don’t believe there's any such thing as an ordinary person. And war points that out in spades.

8/22/1966 "This was our last official act as civilians. The very last!" Musgrave (striped sweater) and Jay VanVelzen at the MYF surprise going-away, before they left for Marines August 30th.

John Musgrave tells a powerful story in your film.

And how many of his books have you read?

None.  But it's his processing of his experience and the war, which sort of seems like the thread throughout the entire film.

You're absolutely right.  If you'll go back and look at the introduction again and we say the Vietnam War called everything into question. In the first spoken narration, towards the end of it, we say the Vietnam War called everything into question: the value of honor and gallantry , the qualities of cruelty and mercy, the candor of the United States government, et cetera, et cetera.  And then we say, and what it means to be a patriot. We’re looking first at a fresh face soldier in a floppy hat, obviously in some barrack camp someplace, maybe Basic Training, maybe in country.  And then it dissolves to a long-haired, curly haired, hippy with a military fatigue jacket and a bullhorn. Those are both John Musgrave.

When you reveal him later, episode 8, at the end where you pull back on that shot of him as a protestor, that’s one of the most devastating -- 

Powerful moments, yeah.  Isn't it?

It is.  It's beautiful.

Jim, you're making me so happy.  I'm so thrilled that you got it and understand what we were trying to do.  We try to also make room for everybody. We're not making anybody wrong. We know that particularly in war it's possible for more than one truth to be present.  We're saying everybody's truth.  If somebody thinks we should still be there fighting the commies, there's room for them in our film.  If you think you knew from the very, very beginning that this was a mistake, there's room for you in the film.  And all the shades in-between.

That's the problem.  We live in a media culture, a computer culture, which is binary.  You're either blue state or you're red state, you're either young or you're old, you're rich or you're poor, you're male or you're female, you're gay or you're straight, you're black or you're white.  We always make these kind of binary distinctions when in fact, as I said at the beginning, a good deal of the divisions in Vietnam occur within people.

(L-R:) Gen. William Westmoreland, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

And yet, what isn't in the film is a cogent defense of the General Westmoreland worldview. At this point, maybe there is no defense to be made.

There are a lot of people who defend it in the beginning. Then you realize that he himself had doubts. What is to defend in a person who himself knew and expressed to his own president and kept hidden from the rest of the public his own doubts? What is his worldview?  If he says it's this way, but he actually felt the opposite of that, what is that worldview?

Philip Gioia

Okay, but this is the difficult thing about having any conversation like this in modern America. There are people who still insist that the act of questioning things the way that you and I would both question them is unpatriotic and immoral.  There are people who insist that if we had just stayed there or we'd given the generals everything they needed, we would have won the war.  

Yep.  And Lewis Sorley is there to represent that point of view in the film and several of the other people, James Willbanks and Philip Gioia and others hold that down incredibly honorably.

Two nights ago, I screened about an hour and five minutes of this film for a number of high-ranking brass.  You know secretaries and four star generals and chief of staff's of a service branch, like the Air Force, and a cabinet secretary.

They were stunned, they were blown away, they loved it. We didn’t soft-pedal it. They thought it was fantastic and said, “This is going to save lives.  It's going to start an important conversation.”  And that was our intention: to have a conversation and make all of those views heard.

And I would disagree with you, that you think some of the folks that you write for would not see that.  I think they will.  There's always going to be the folks who look at my Civil War film and don’t like the way it came out and blame the messenger.  But --

Lewis Sorley

I know people who think that Lewis Sorley is soft on the war.  


Right?  So there will be this fierce reaction to this film when some people see it because you present things in a coherent way that they’ve never managed to process.  

Yep, I agree. Hopefully, they’ll be able to rise above the situation and permit themselves to see other people's points of view, which is how human beings get along.  When they don’t, they go to war.

Battle of Ap Bac January, 1963 Captured VC POW

One of the most revealing parts of the whole film is the number of North and South Vietnamese people you interviewed.  Those are some perspectives that very few people have any concept of at all.

Nobody has ever done that. It's the great arrogance, not just of Americans, but of human nature, that when you're at war you only talk about yourself.  And it's hugely important to understand the war, to understand what the other side and our erstwhile allies were thinking about too. We have civilians and military people and diplomats and protesters in South Vietnam and we have North Vietnamese soldiers who are now willing to cop to participation or at least awareness of massacres on a mass scale.

That’s an important viewpoint and we certainly don’t hesitate from criticizing the communists for land reform, for brutal purges, for inconsistencies, for their willingness to waste ten of their own lives to kill one of us, knowing that eventually we'd tire of that.

We brought in all of these people that you're talking about into our editing room as we were working on it and they'd say, “That scene pissed me off.”  Willbanks even says that in the film about seeing somebody raise an NVA flag or a Viet Cong flag at a protest when the NVA killed one of his best friends. But he understood how important it was for us to tell the complete story and now he's had a complete turnaround.

James Willbanks

James Willbanks was a guy who was saying, “Look, I don’t think I want to be involved with this.”  And we said, “No, no, no, on the contrary.  Not only do we want you to be involved with it, not just as an advisor, we want to film you.”  So we filmed him twice and he's fantastic. He says the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was “just like grandma's nightshirt, it covers everything.”  Right?  I mean just folksy and direct and to the point and unafraid to say, this is madness, what was going on here.

The moment that’s going to shock a lot of viewers is John Musgrave talking about Jane Fonda. For people like me who are younger, to actually see those words come out of her mouth is overwhelming. I’ve always joked about the old guys and their Jane Fonda obsession and now I get it for the first time.

You got it.  That's exactly right.  I had somebody look at this film, all 18 hours, and call me up.  And he said, I think two of these things, two scenes -- I mean he said it's magnificent, the best documentary I've ever -- all this sort of stuff. He grew up on military bases, but he was never in the military.  He's in the feature film business and just thought it was great.

He thought two scenes are just gonna kind of explode in the American consciousness: The Jane Fonda scene and the John McCain scene.  Because here you have a president who has just denigrated the heroism of John McCain, who talked to a reporter after he had his arms and broken legs set without so much as an aspirin.  And then he was beaten after that for not being sufficiently grateful to his captors.

Again, how you deployed the images of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush was particularly powerful.

Without putting a thumb on the scale, right? We were completely balanced in this film, completely.  I defy you to find that we've got some agenda, because we don’t.  We were just trying to tell the whole complicated mess.  In a mess, there’s some stuff you don’t want people to hear about and sometimes they do.  Right now, we live in a media culture where everybody gets only the news they want to hear.

Another moment in the film that really spoke to what I experienced growing up was your interview with Jan Howard.

I'm making a film on country music right now and so that came from that production and we just migrated it over to there, which speaks to the kind of dissonance we feel today.

Vietnam is the place where the seeds of this division between us come from. Somebody the other day that said the enemy of my country are Democrats, right?  And then a few days later a guy professes to be a supporter of Bernie Sanders goes and tries to kill Republicans.  That’s madness.  You have to check those binary feelings at the door if you want to have a republic to even argue about.

Marines marching in Danang. March 15, 1965. (Associated Press)

At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned Karl Marlantes and his alcoholic father metaphor, that we don’t talk about the war.  It's almost as if you couldn’t arrive at a better moment.

No, it's the most important moment.  Yeah, I know it's been 50 years since the sort of beginning of the height of the division: '67, '68, '69, '70.  And it's all repeating itself.  We've got mass demonstrations in cities all across the country, we got a White House obsessed with leaks, we've got big document drops, we have asymmetrical warfare, we have accusations of a political campaign leaking out to a foreign power in the time of an election cycle.  I just named five things from the film and I could name you 25 things that are exactly the same then and now.  And this is a project we began ten years ago.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.  I've spent my entire life listening to those rhymes of history. The late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said that we suffer today from too much pluribus and not enough unum.

I've been in the business of unum.  It's really easy, the easy route, the path of least resistance, is to choose pluribus.  “They're my enemy, you're wrong, I'm right.”  Unum requires the genius of democracy and a civil society, which is discourse.  And that’s the path we took.  Much harder, which is why it took ten years to make the film.  But if you're willing to put aside the knee-jerk reactions, you’ve got the opportunity for change and growth within yourself, within your community, and between the people that you think you don’t agree with.

Look at Musgrave himself.  He throws away his medals, right?  His father is a true believer and cannot believe what he's done. Then John comes home and all of the sudden people are now up in arms about this. And his father gets mad at them saying, “You earned the medals, you can do what you want with them. Let's go out in the front end of the driveway and fight them ourselves.”

That means that you can find in opposition, unity.  That’s the whole idea of the United States of America. Anything less is a failure of that promise.  E pluribus unum, out of many, one.  Out of many people, one people.  Out of many ideas, one idea.  Out of many perspectives and disagreements, one thing.

The amazing thing about the Vietnamese men and women you interview is how much conflict there was within their culture. 

On both sides.  And to this day. Nobody realizes that because we're so obsessed with our own navels and whether my neighbor agrees with me or not and whether he's therefore a bad person or a good person. We've forgotten to look over there and say, they’ve got the same problems.  They unified their country geographically, but it ain't unified.  Those people who are the remnants of the south feel like second class citizens.  They themselves are questioning their strategy.  Their overriding strategy is one of attrition.  “We will not count the cost,” Le Duan said. So they sent an entire generation to their death while we grew tired of losing the one soldier.  And they lost the 10 or the 20 or the 40 while we lost the one.

In the film, we've got familiar people, like the Crocker family, a Gold Star Family.  The mother, Jean-Marie, and the sister, Carol.  You’ve got the Harrison family, an upright military family, and the oldest, Chip, goes off and performs magnificently and the younger son, Robin or Bob, sort of decides to try the Marines and then quits and goes AWOL and the war destroys him.  And then you’ve got families that are torn apart.

Mai Elliott

They also meet Duong Van Mai Elliott, who is really the only person who is in every single episode. She starts off the daughter of a French Mandarin in Hanoi.  After Dien Bien Phu, they have to get the hell out of dodge and they go into Saigon.  Her sister stays because her sister has already joined the Viet Minh and then later the communist party.  They then are forced to flee the country at the fall of Saigon or just before it.

This is the story of three countries until there were only two.  There's a tape from the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, saying, “I’m playing a much bigger game.  I'm playing a Russia game, I'm playing a China game, I'm playing a reelection game.”  Meaning that Vietnam has no meaning to us anymore.  That’s pretty stunning material, particularly for people who are trying to hang on to the idea that we could have done it, that we should have won the war.  No you couldn’t have because the strategy was not to keep the real estate.  The strategy was to take that hill and then come down and have to take it again.  And as John Musgrave said, “No one likes being wounded in the same place twice.”

AP Photo/Oliver Noonan American soldiers listening to a radio broadcast in Vietnam during the war in 1966.

Let's talk about the music. It's fantastic that you posted the episode playlists online.

Yeah, how great is that?

If you had shown me a list of all the songs you were going to use before I saw the film I would have said, “Yeah, those are really obvious choices.”  And, yet, how you used them and where they're placed and in the context it's really dynamite.

You know, the missionary position can provide the greatest satisfaction.

I don’t know if it was on purpose, but when Kennedy is giving his inauguration speech and Miles Davis’ “So What” is playing, it just knocks me out.

It's a great piece of music.  Its title is secondary because we only expect a small percentage to know what the title is. We're not choosing it because we're mocking Kennedy.  We're choosing it because it's cool jazz and we have a very, very cool president.

There’s an acoustic version of the “Sound of Silence” that sounds like a cover and then there’s the hit record version.

We used the “Sound of Silence” and then we used an acoustic version that we did.

It appears through the episode and it creates this tension.  You're waiting for the band to kick in and then it doesn’t kick in until the credits roll.

Yep. And we have Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross providing us with hours of unbelievable music. The great genius of Reznor and Ross are that they produce this music that is anxiety producing, difficult, tough, dissonant, and at the same time it somehow resolves melodically and emotionally.

Then you have Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.  And I don’t have to say anything more.  We're using some of that Asian sounding stuff in American scenes too because it's so universal.

And then we have 120 music cuts. In any other circumstance, I'd be able to afford maybe six, but maybe ten of them, right? We went together and I need to tell you right now, I have to salute those artists or their estates, their publishers, their record labels, for permitting us to have all these tunes, understanding that we would cherish them, use them in context, never play a song before that song was released, and tie it to the time in which it was written so that the artists feel like we were honoring it.

To have the cooperation of the Beatles, the living ones and the estates of the two that are not, and to have the cooperation of Bob Dylan, allowed us to go to everybody else and everyone else said, of course. We are beyond grateful because music is the fastest art form: two notes, and they got you.

For me, who lived through this, I heard most of that music the first time it was released, right?  I'd say that for 90 percent of our sound music tracks, I was there when it came out.  And I can, even now, having seen the film hundreds of times, it reminded me of exactly who I was and what I was feeling and what I was wearing and what I was smelling and where I was at that moment.  And most important, what I felt. I'm grateful for this soundtrack because it connected me even more precisely to my own individual complicated path. I hope it works the same for other people.

If you're looking at the playlist, Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” is obvious, right? That opens one of our episodes.  But to put “Kashmir” in, which is like the epitome, no one would have thought it.  And I turned to the editor of that particular section of the film and I said, “How did you know to put that in?”  It's so fabulous, it's so perfect, and the North Vietnamese are beginning to overrun the South and things are just going south.  And “Kashmir” is the perfect, perfect answer.

Or when you find the news about Mogie Crocker hearing “One Too Many Mornings” by Bob Dylan. I can't look at that without sobbing.

Please, please, please do not give away the last song of this film.

I won't.

[STUDIO REDACTED] cut it specifically for us, to our length.  They said, “What length do you want?  We'll cut it.  Don’t you cut it.  We'll cut it.” And they did. I’ve had people of your generation, my book editor at Knopf saying, “It's one of my favorite songs and I will now never be able to hear it again without the spirit of reconciliation in which you did it.”

Robert Rheault makes some great contributions to the film. I was waiting for the rest of his story to come out in the film and you never get into that. 

So we actually tried and it never worked.  It felt pasted on and, quite frankly, it was pasted on.  It seemed only like a nod to the people like you that know it. Every time we either did it in episode two or we did it later on chronologically correct and not going forward, it just seemed like, “Okay, we're just sort of proving we know everything.”  Or John Paul Vann’s problems or thousands of other things that I could tell you about. No story is complete.  The person you're closest to, they remain inscrutable to you; am I correct?

If you’ve seen the movie Amadeus, it’s like you have to go too many notes.  So every time we try to give the full Bob Rheault story, it looked like we were pasting it on and it just felt so awkward and disjointed that we finally just said, “You know what, he said these amazing things, the things that he said are important, and all of us have a back story.”

Were we obligated to say that the wife that John McCain near tears is sending his love to is the wife he would divorce?

Vietnam POW Hal Kushner

Well, I didn’t know anything about Hal Kushner, but I sort of saw his situation coming because his wife never appeared on camera. 

You meet Hal Kushner, our main POW. We thought he was the greatest story, and then, in digging, we stumbled across his ex-wife and her radicalization. Then we knew we had to say their marriage didn’t last.

I can't even imagine the conversations they had when he came home. But again, you set up something for people to think about.

And talk about and have a courageous conversation.  You want to have a courageous snit?  There's no such thing.  You want to have a courageous outrage?  There's no such thing.  Do you want to have a courageous conversation?  It's just like what happened in Vietnam.  I have to suddenly look at my long-haired hippie son and go, “I still really love him.  I disagree with him and I know he disagrees with me, but he's still my son and I really love him.”

If you're a “my way or the highway” type, then you end up essentially alone.  And we're trying to make a film that’s about unum, how you find your way back to embracing multiple truths.  That’s not moral relativism.  I know what moral relativism is and this isn't that.

Truths are that John Musgrave is right and his father is right and Bao Ninh is right.  Right?  And Duong Van Mai Elliott  is right and so is her sister Thang. They're all right and you're right and I'm right.  And that’s fine.  And the only way you have a conversation is not to make the other wrong.  But we live in a political dynamic now that’s so dialectically preoccupied.  It’s so structured on the binary that you can suddenly believe the most outrageous facts because they're coming from the people you get your supposed facts from.

1968: South Vietnam Mike attached to the command Personal Carrier Seven me(n) attached to it.Lt. Garafino - 1st pl on phone, (L) George, (R) Dave Hadley with Paul. Mike Holmes is in the center.

I hope your film is the start of a process and that this is the year that we talk about Vietnam.

Let's put it to bed, let's put it behind, let's open this up.  It's been more than 50 years.  Let's open it up, let's have courageous conversations, let's teach our kids what really happened, our grandkids what's really happened.  Let's share the stories that we've buried within ourselves.  Let's bury instead the animosity that we have created in order to "supposedly" protect ourselves and then let's move forward as a country with civil discourse and with the idea that we only accomplish great things when we do things together.  The shared sacrifice of the depression, the shared sacrifice of World War II, and not the deep divisions of Vietnam in this moment.

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