Burnss new 10-part, 18-hour epic film covers the conflict from all sides, and hopes to shape more courageous conversations about what took place
James Rogers and Renan Reyes, veterans of the Vietnam war, each made a trip to Washington on Wednesday to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the first time.
Very impressive, said Rogers, who is from Madison, Alabama, as a river of parents and children flowed past in bright sunshine.
It looks like a black mark, said Reyes, from near Charlotte, North Carolina, disapprovingly.
Divergent opinions over the polished black granite memorial which lists, chronologically, the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in the war, from John H Anderson Jr to Jessie C Alba are peculiarly apt for the Vietnam war itself, a politically and socially polarising episode that shattered the myth of American invincibility.
The war in south-east Asia is now the subject of an epic 10-part, 18-hour series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Burns is Americas premier documentary film-maker, renowned for his 1990 masterpiece on the civil war as well as series on jazz, baseball, the Roosevelts and the second world war. Ten years and millions of dollars in the making, covering the conflict from all sides, The Vietnam War could be the closest thing yet to a definitive account of what Burns believes is the most important event in American history in the second half of the 20th century.
The time for a conversation about a war we have consciously ignored has come, Burns, 63, told the National Press Club in Washington earlier this month. We have said: We dont want to talk about it. Were not gonna teach it, we think its about this, or my own personal politics at this moment has actually determined what I should say about Vietnam regardless of what I felt when it was taking place. We have this dissonance going on.
We hope that the film will contribute in some way, shape or form to more courageous conversations about what took place, because let us also be very clear that the divisions that we face today, the lack of civil discourse, the inability to talk with each other but only at each other, had their seeds planted in the Vietnam war, so if we understand it then we also understand our present moment.
The origins of the conflict are now somewhat foggy in collective memory. A 1954 ceasefire agreement partitioned Vietnam into a communist north and anti-communist south. Trapped in the logic of the cold war, the US backed a series of corrupt regimes against the communist-led Vietcong in the south and their allies in the north who sought to reunite the country.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sent in thousands of air and ground forces in what was initially a popular move. But as the draft expanded and casualties mounted, public opinion turned against him and anti-war protests erupted against a backdrop of social unrest, racial discord and assassinations.
Bill Zimmerman, an anti-war activist, tells the documentary: People who supported the war were fond of saying, My country, right or wrong, [but protesters didnt] want to live in a country that were going to support whether its right or wrong. So we began an era where two groups of Americans, both thinking that they were acting patriotically, went to war with each other.
In the early 1970s, under President Richard Nixon, the war expanded into Cambodia and Laos, but in 1973 US forces quit Vietnam, and in 1975 South Vietnam fell to the communists.
The Vietnam war has gripped popular consciousness with images of Huey transports (helicopters) taking thousands of US troops into battle in thick jungles, river deltas, fields of elephant grass and hamlets of rice paddies and thatched-roof huts. It spawned a genre of movies including Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon.
But Burns and co-director Novick, who made several trips to Vietnam, aim to strip away US-centric narratives and give a rounded portrait with 80 interviews from both sides. Gen Lo Khac Tam of the North Vietnamese army tells them: The war was so horribly brutal. I dont have words to describe it. How can we ever explain to the younger generation the price paid?