The Failures of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

I’m happy to see this new website, still a work in progress, as a powerful counterpoint to the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick The Vietnam War series. It is a labor of love for the individual(s) who created it. (I assume their contact information will appear in the final version.)

Here’s an overview:

There are three parts to this website: the overview addresses thematically the aspects of the war that Ken Burns consistently misrepresents to achieve his aims of meaning and reconciliation; the second part consists of a time coded commentary on all ten episodes, identifying exactly where the film presents a false, misleading or materially incomplete picture of events; the third part, headed “Continuities”, sketches the various ways in which the Vietnam War is entirely typical of US foreign policy.

Full disclosure: I did not watch the entire series but did read a lot of reviews and heard from veterans whose opinion I respect. My impression was that it was better than what came before but fell short in providing a comprehensive and accurate account of the atrocity that was the US War in Viet Nam. This was likely the result of two factors: 1) the world view and limited knowledge of the creators; and 2) corporate sponsorship constraints. (Two of the main sponsors were Bank of America and David H. Koch.) Regarding the latter, there are always strings attached when money is involved.

One US veteran had this to say about the film in a Facebook comment: “I made it about 15 or 20 seconds. I don’t like Burns’s documentaries, anyway… But when I heard, and I paraphrase, ‘The Vietnam War was begun by good people with good intentions,’ or some such drivel, I was done. With a bold-faced lie like that, there’s nothing more to hear; or, I should say, I have better things to do with my time — like stare at my navel, or watch the grass grow.”

Note: I touch on one interview from the 9th episode in this 2019 article Coming to Terms with the Past by Honoring Historical Truth: The Case of Fulbright University Vietnam.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

2 thoughts on “The Failures of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

  1. OCTOBER 10, 2017
    The Tragic Failure of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

    “There is so much to love about this series. The uncompromising scenes of combat, the voices of both Americans and Vietnamese, the historical context, the exposure of the utter incompetence of our military leaders, the terrific music that is frequently exactly where it should be, the slowly revealed powerful still images and Peter Coyotes’ wonderful narrative voice. Its tragic failure is its inability to hold anyone responsible for their actions.”

    • Kock’sarticle makes the same point that I do, namely that Burns’ coverage of the peace movement is atrocious. Peace campaigners regularly speak but, with one partial exception I think, they never get to say why they oppose the war. At the same time Burns regularly finds ways to denigrate the movement.

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