Burns sees Vietnam War as virus, documentary as vaccination

HANOVER, N.H. — Filmmaker Ken Burns views the Vietnam War as a virus that infected Americans with an array of chronic illnesses — alienation, a lack of civil discourse, mistrust of government and each other. And he hopes his new documentary can be part of a cure.

“What if the film was just an attempt at some sort of vaccination, a little bit more of the disease to get you immune to the disunion that it has sponsored?” Burns said in a recent interview. “It’s important for us to begin to have creative but courageous conversations about what took place.”

Burns and co-director Lynn Novick had just finished work on their World War II documentary a decade ago when he turned to her and said, “We have to do Vietnam.” The result is their 10-part, 18-hour series that will air beginning Sept. 17 on PBS.

“For me, it was the sense that Vietnam was the most important event for Americans in the second half of the 20th century, yet we had done almost everything we could in the intervening years to avoid understanding it,” Burns said. “As horrible as they are, wars are incredibly valuable moments to study, and I thought what Vietnam lacked was a willingness to engage in that.”

The film brings together the latest scholarly research on the war and features nearly 80 interviews, including Americans who fought in the war and those who opposed it, Vietnamese civilians and soldiers from both sides. Burns and Novick have been showing excerpts of the film around the country in recent months, most recently at Dartmouth College on Thursday night.

“I think this will be for a general American audience a kind of revelation, a cascade of new facts and new figures, and I don’t mean numeral figures, but biographical figures that will stagger their view of what was, and hopefully get everybody, regardless of political perspective to let go of the baggage of the superficial and the conventional,” Burns said.

Having been blamed for the war itself, many Vietnam War soldiers were understandably reluctant to share their stories, the co-directors said. But compared to his earlier series on World War II and the Civil War, Burns said there was one challenge he didn’t face.

“One of the great tasks for us as filmmakers — amateur historians if you will — was how to cut through all the nostalgia and sentimentality that had attached itself to the Civil War and World War II,” he said. “There’s no such problem with Vietnam.”

After watching the hour-long preview, U.S. Army veteran David Hagerman, of Lyme Center, said he can’t wait to watch the entire series.

“It was powerful,” said Hagerman, who spent his nine months in Vietnam running a treatment centre for soldiers addicted to heroin. While strangers now approach him and thank him for his service, he said coming home in 1972 was traumatic.

“I walked into the Seattle airport, and I was in my Army outfit,” he said. “The reception I received was so negative and so powerful that I walked into the nearest men’s room, took my uniform off, threw it in the trash, and put on a T-shirt and a pair of pants.”

Burns said while he doesn’t buy into the notion that history repeats itself, it’s clear that human nature doesn’t change. And he acknowledges that many of the themes his series explores are uncannily relevant to the present.

“If I backed up this conversation and said, ‘OK, I’ve spent the last year working a film about a White House in disarray obsessed with leaks, about a huge document drops into the public of classified information … about a deeply polarized country, about a political campaign accused of reaching out to a foreign power during an election, about mass demonstrations across the country,’ you’d say, ‘Gee, Ken, you stopped doing history, you’re doing the present moment,’” he said.

At Dartmouth, Novick and Burns were joined by U.S. Army veteran Mike Heaney, of Hartland, Vermont, who is shown in the film describing losing fellow platoon members in a 1966 ambush and spending the night paranoid that a dead Viet Cong soldier lying next to him was just faking it and would rise up to kill him.

After the screening, he told the audience about returning to Vietnam in 2008, where he compared war wounds with former enemies turned fellow “grandpas.” He said he’s been able to cope thanks to the support of his family, as well as both Americans and the Vietnamese people.

“I don’t expect to ever get closure on this kind of experience that I had,” he said. “And that’s OK.”


This story has been corrected to show that the co-director’s last name is Novick, not Novak.

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